The Histoire ancienne recounts a large scope of ancient history from the Creation through to Julius Cesar, passing through ten sections, including Genesis, the Orient (I and II), Thebes, Greeks and Amazons, Troy, Eneas – with a detour into Assyrian kings, Rome (I and II), and Cesar’s war in Gaul. Some scholars suggest that Wauchier de Denain, author, translator, and court clerk for Roger IV, Châtelain de Lille (d. 1230), compiled this text in prose with some small bits of verse from several historical and biblical works c. 1213-1214, as some copies maintain the dedication to Roger IV. The Histoire ancienne is known in four different versions, with the book at hand representing one of sixty known copies of the first. The Faits des Romains was compiled around the same time in prose from Cesar, Lucan, Suetonius, and Salust, and covers the entirety of Julius Cesar’s life from his birth to his death (100-44 BC). The author is unknown but was likely a clerk from the Ile-de-France region. Our manuscript is one of fifty-eight known manuscripts of this text. Such histories were often read aloud to royalty and nobles during meals or other quiet moments to edify them and their courtiers.
Although we have no direct evidence of this, an extremely strong argument can be made that the chronicle at hand was created for King Charles V himself. The scribe, Raoulet d’Orléans (b. c. 1342) was one of his écrivains du roi (king’s scribes – a title that encompassed not only writing out but also overseeing the production of manuscripts for the king) and whose 35-year long career (fl. c. 1361-1390s) was defined by copying manuscripts that Charles commissioned. The illuminators, the Master of the Coronation of Charles VI (fl. c. 1380-1390) and a collaborator, are known to work almost exclusively for the King. The mis-en-page of the volumes’ tables of contents and frontispieces also imply that the volumes were intended for the royal library. The tables of contents of each volume boast the alternating gold and blue half fleurs-de-lys along the length of the text column often found in texts produced for Charles V, and the tricolour quadrilobed frames for the individual miniatures within the frontispieces are also frequently associated with the king’s books.
The history at hand is quite densely illuminated in comparison to other examples from this era, with an especially strong concentration of visual narratives dedicated to the Genesis section of the Histoire ancienne that are not found in other copies. The story of the world’s creation is revealed in the frontispiece to vol. 1, in six miniatures showing God designing the world with a compass, creating the sun and the moon, creating the fishes and fowl, blessing the animals (including a very elegant unicorn), breathing life into Adam, and finally pulling Eve from Adam’s rib. The deity’s head is always framed in a cruciform, golden halo with a curling mane of white hair and flowing white beard. His robes change colour to contrast with the changing diapered backgrounds of each compartment, and they twirl and flow around him as if dancing in the wind. The creation story continues in the historiated initial Q below, in which stand Adam and Eve on either side of the Tree of Knowledge, covering their genitals in shame and holding their throats that perhaps still contain the forbidden apples, while looking up to the female headed serpent that winds up from the central tree trunk and perches at the top of the tree’s canopy. The frontispiece to vol. 2’s Faits des Romains, offers a four-part visualisation of the life of Julius Cesar, in which he is born, performs the duties of a Roman Quaestor (a revenue official), is made a Bishop, and is crowned as Emperor. The rest of the miniatures lead the us through the exciting stories of the lives of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the Trojan War, the foundation of Rome, Alexander the Great, and many details of the battles of Julius Cesar through to his death at the hands of the Roman Senators.
The vast illumination cycle of our volumes provides an entertaining mixture of detailed narrative images with flashy battle scenes complete with elegantly rendered coats of arms, all against the shimmering, detailed, diapered backgrounds that were so in vogue at the end of the 14th century. Two artists were involved in the creation of our two volumes. The first is the Master of the Coronation of Charles VI, who is named for his elegant frontispiece to Charles V’s Grandes chroniques de France (third illumination campaign, c. 1379; BnF, ms. fr. 2813, f. 3v), in which a French king is crowned by the peers of France. Although that image is now understood to be typological, representing all French kings, it was long interpreted as the coronation of the young Charles VI, hence the sobriquet of our artist. This artist is known for his elegant, long figures with flowing draperies, sweet faces with pointed chins, and long, expressive hands. His figures are typically quite animated, interacting with one another demonstratively. This master is responsible for most of the single-column miniatures in vol. 1 and the four-part frontispiece to vol. 2. The second artist from the same workshop painted the six-part frontispiece to vol. 1 and most of the single-column miniatures in vol. 2. That artist has a more graphic approach, using dark outlines and stronger colours.
The artist who carefully replaced the top-right corner of the frontispiece to vol. 2 (f. 199), likely while the chronicle was in the possession of Jacques d’Armagnac, Duke of Nemours in the 15th century (c. 1470), was probably an artist working for that great bibliophile. This last artist, painting in the style of the group of artists working for the duke, was influenced by Jean Fouquet’s more pointillistic technique, attempts to give the illusion of a deeper ground space, and uses a green hue that is not found elsewhere in our volumes.
These dazzling historical volumes boast a superlatively distinguished provenance. As mentioned above, both the layout and style of the present volumes indicate that they were possibly made for King Charles V of France. This first provenance is further supported by the subsequent ownership of Jacques d’Armagnac, Duke of Nemours (c. 1433-1477; beheaded in 1477), who inherited books from the king’s library as well as that of John, Duke of Berry; Jacques’ coat of arms and motto FORTUNE D’AMIS are painted on the fore-edges of these volumes, with the motto’s letters arranged anagrammatically as IOAN (top), TEMS (side), and RD VF (bottom, inverted). The manuscript was bound in only one volume at the time that Jacques d’Armagnac possessed it, so the complete arms and motto can be seen by presenting the two volumes at hand together. These volumes were likely held at the duke’s library at Castres, as indicated by a partially erased inscription that reads Ce livre est au duc de Nemours conte de la Marche. Jacques. Castres (f. 347). The manuscript then travelled on to the collection of Jean IV Raguenel de Malestroit and his wife Gilette. On each frontispiece there is a lozenge-shaped escutcheon, the first bearing the couple’s arms (f. 10) and the second that of their daughter Jeanne Raguenel de Malestroit and her husband Tanneguy du Châtel, counselor and chamberlain to Louis XI (f. 199). Du Châtel was among those ordered to arrest the Duke of Nemours in 1476, but he died before the duke was condemned in July 1477. Later impressive owners include Joseph Smith (1682-1770), British consul in Venice and famous art collector, who owned it as a newly bound single volume, as well as Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), his Western ms. 74. Mrs. Beatty bought it as a present for her husband from Bernard Quaritch on 21 June 1923, as recorded in an inscription on the fourth flyleaf. By this time the brown calf single volume had been replaced, presumably by Quaritch, with the present set of two blue leather bindings. In the 20th century, the esteemed chronicle was owned by William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), his ms. 8; John A. Saks, with his bookplate; Martin Schøyen, Oslo and London, his ms. 027; and in the 21st century, the distinguished American collectors James E. and Elizabeth J. Ferrell.