The scene of this romance is laid in the fifteenth century, when the feudal system, which had been the sinews and nerves of national defence, and the spirit of chivalry, by which, as by a vivifying soul, that system was animated, began to be innovated upon and abandoned by those grosser characters who centred their sum of happiness in procuring the personal objects on which they had fixed their own exclusive attachment. The same egotism had indeed displayed itself even in more primitive ages; but it was now for the first time openly avowed as a professed principle of action. The spirit of chivalry had in it this point of excellence, that, however overstrained and fantastic many of its doctrines may appear to us, they were all founded on generosity and self denial, of which, if the earth were deprived, it would be difficult to conceive the existence of virtue among the human race.
Among those who were the first to ridicule and abandon the self denying principles in which the young knight was instructed and to which he was so carefully trained up, Louis XI of France was the chief. That sovereign was of a character so purely selfish — so guiltless of entertaining any purpose unconnected with his ambition, covetousness, and desire of selfish enjoyment — that he almost seems an incarnation of the devil himself, permitted to do his utmost to corrupt our ideas of honour in its very source. Nor is it to be forgotten that Louis possessed to a great extent that caustic wit which can turn into ridicule all that a man does for any other person’s advantage but his own, and was, therefore, peculiarly qualified to play the part of a cold hearted and sneering fiend.
The cruelties, the perjuries, the suspicions of this prince, were rendered more detestable, rather than amended, by the gross and debasing superstition which he constantly practised. The devotion to the heavenly saints, of which he made such a parade, was upon the miserable principle of some petty deputy in office, who endeavours to hide or atone for the malversations of which he is conscious by liberal gifts to those whose duty it is to observe his conduct, and endeavours to support a system of fraud by an attempt to corrupt the incorruptible. In no other light can we regard his creating the Virgin Mary a countess and colonel of his guards, or the cunning that admitted to one or two peculiar forms of oath the force of a binding obligation which he denied to all other, strictly preserving the secret, which mode of swearing he really accounted obligatory, as one of the most valuable of state mysteries.
To a total want of scruple, or, it would appear, of any sense whatever of moral obligation, Louis XI added great natural firmness and sagacity of character, with a system of policy so highly refined, considering the times he lived in, that he sometimes overreached himself by giving way to its dictates.
Probably there is no portrait so dark as to be without its softer shades. He understood the interests of France, and faithfully pursued them so long as he could identify them with his own. He carried the country safe through the dangerous crisis of the war termed “for the public good;” in thus disuniting and dispersing this grand and dangerous alliance of the great crown vassals of France against the Sovereign, a king of a less cautious and temporizing character, and of a more bold and less crafty disposition than Louis XI, would, in all probability, have failed. Louis had also some personal accomplishments not inconsistent with his public character. He was cheerful and witty in society; and none was better able to sustain and extol the superiority of the coarse and selfish reasons by which he endeavoured to supply those nobler motives for exertion which his predecessors had derived from the high spirit of chivalry.
In fact, that system was now becoming ancient, and had, even while in its perfection, something so overstrained and fantastic in its principles, as rendered it peculiarly the object of ridicule, whenever, like other old fashions, it began to fall out of repute; and the weapons of raillery could be employed against it, without exciting the disgust and horror with which they would have been rejected at an early period, as a species of blasphemy. The principles of chivalry were cast aside, and their aid supplied by baser stimulants. Instead of the high spirit which pressed every man forward in the defence of his country, Louis XI substituted the exertions of the ever ready mercenary soldier, and persuaded his subjects, among whom the mercantile class began to make a figure, that it was better to leave to mercenaries the risks and labours of war, and to supply the Crown with the means of paying them, than to peril themselves in defence of their own substance. The merchants were easily persuaded by this reasoning. The hour did not arrive in the days of Louis XI when the landed gentry and nobles could be in like manner excluded from the ranks of war; but the wily monarch commenced that system, which, acted upon by his successors, at length threw the whole military defence of the state into the hands of the Crown.
He was equally forward in altering the principles which were wont to regulate the intercourse of the sexes. The doctrines of chivalry had established, in theory at least, a system in which Beauty was the governing and remunerating divinity — Valour, her slave, who caught his courage from her eye and gave his life for her slightest service. It is true, the system here, as in other branches, was stretched to fantastic extravagance, and cases of scandal not unfrequently arose. Still, they were generally such as those mentioned by Burke, where frailty was deprived of half its guilt, by being purified from all its grossness. In Louis XI’s practice, it was far otherwise. He was a low voluptuary, seeking pleasure without sentiment, and despising the sex from whom he desired to obtain it. . . . By selecting his favourites and ministers from among the dregs of the people, Louis showed the slight regard which he paid to eminent station and high birth; and although this might be not only excusable but meritorious, where the monarch’s fiat promoted obscure talent, or called forth modest worth, it was very different when the King made his favourite associates of such men as the chief of his police, Tristan l’Hermite. .
Nor were Louis’s sayings and actions in private or public of a kind which could redeem such gross offences against the character of a man of honour. His word, generally accounted the most sacred test of a man’s character, and the least impeachment of which is a capital offence by the code of honour, was forfeited without scruple on the slightest occasion, and often accompanied by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes . . . It is more than probable that, in thus renouncing almost openly the ties of religion, honour, and morality, by which mankind at large feel themselves influenced, Louis sought to obtain great advantages in his negotiations with parties who might esteem themselves bound, while he himself enjoyed liberty. He started from the goal, he might suppose, like the racer who has got rid of the weights with which his competitors are still encumbered, and expects to succeed of course. But Providence seems always to unite the existence of peculiar danger with some circumstance which may put those exposed to the peril upon their guard. The constant suspicion attached to any public person who becomes badly eminent for breach of faith is to him what the rattle is to the poisonous serpent: and men come at last to calculate not so much on what their antagonist says as upon that which he is likely to do; a degree of mistrust which tends to counteract the intrigues of such a character, more than his freedom from the scruples of conscientious men can afford him advantage. .
Indeed, although the reign of Louis had been as successful in a political point of view as he himself could have desired, the spectacle of his deathbed might of itself be a warning piece against the seduction of his example. Jealous of every one, but chiefly of his own son, he immured himself in his Castle of Plessis, intrusting his person exclusively to the doubtful faith of his Scottish mercenaries. He never stirred from his chamber; he admitted no one into it, and wearied heaven and every saint with prayers, not for forgiveness of his sins, but for the prolongation of his life. With a poverty of spirit totally inconsistent with his shrewd worldly sagacity, he importuned his physicians until they insulted as well as plundered him. .
It was not the least singular circumstance of this course, that bodily health and terrestrial felicity seemed to be his only object. Making any mention of his sins when talking on the state of his health, was strictly prohibited; and when at his command a priest recited a prayer to Saint Eutropius in which he recommended the King’s welfare both in body and soul, Louis caused the two last words to be omitted, saying it was not prudent to importune the blessed saint by too many requests at once. Perhaps he thought by being silent on his crimes he might suffer them to pass out of the recollection of the celestial patrons, whose aid he invoked for his body.
So great were the well merited tortures of this tyrant’s deathbed, that Philip de Comines enters into a regular comparison between them and the numerous cruelties inflicted on others by his order; and considering both, comes to express an opinion that the worldly pangs and agony suffered by Louis were such as might compensate the crimes he had committed, and that, after a reasonable quarantine in purgatory, he might in mercy he found duly qualified for the superior regions . . . The instructive but appalling scene of this tyrant’s sufferings was at length closed by death, 30th August, 1483.
The selection of this remarkable person as the principal character in the romance — for it will be easily comprehended that the little love intrigue of Quentin is only employed as the means of bringing out the story — afforded considerable facilities to the author. In Louis XI’s time, extraordinary commotions existed throughout all Europe. England’s Civil Wars were ended, rather in appearance than reality, by the short lived ascendancy of the House of York. Switzerland was asserting that freedom which was afterwards so bravely defended. In the Empire and in France, the great vassals of the crown were endeavouring to emancipate themselves from its control, while Charles of Burgundy by main force, and Louis more artfully by indirect means, laboured to subject them to subservience to their respective sovereignties. Louis, while with one hand he circumvented and subdued his own rebellious vassals, laboured secretly with the other to aid and encourage the large trading towns of Flanders to rebel against the Duke of Burgundy, to which their wealth and irritability naturally disposed them. In the more woodland districts of Flanders, the Duke of Gueldres, and William de la Marck, called from his ferocity the Wild Boar of Ardennes, were throwing off the habits of knights and gentlemen to practise the violences and brutalities of common bandits. 1
A hundred secret combinations existed in the different provinces of France and Flanders; numerous private emissaries of the restless Louis, Bohemians, pilgrims, beggars, or agents disguised as such, were everywhere spreading the discontent which it was his policy to maintain in the dominions of Burgundy.
Amidst so great an abundance of materials, it was difficult to select such as should be most intelligible and interesting to the reader: and the author had to regret, that though he made liberal use of the power of departing from the reality of history, he felt by no means confident of having brought his story into a pleasing, compact, and sufficiently intelligible form. The mainspring of the plot is that which all who know the least of the feudal system can easily understand, though the facts are absolutely fictitious. The right of a feudal superior was in nothing more universally acknowledged than in his power to interfere in the marriage of a female vassal. This may appear to exist as a contradiction both of the civil and canon laws, which declare that marriage shall be free, while the feudal or municipal jurisprudence, in case of a fief passing to a female, acknowledges an interest in the superior of the fief to dictate the choice of her companion in marriage. This is accounted for on the principle that the superior was, by his bounty, the original granter of the fief, and is still interested that the marriage of the vassal shall place no one there who may be inimical to his liege lord. On the other hand, it might be reasonably pleaded that this right of dictating to the vassal to a certain extent in the choice of a husband, is only competent to the superior from whom the fief is originally derived. There is therefore no violent improbability in a vassal of Burgundy flying to the protection of the King of France, to whom the Duke of Burgundy himself was vassal; not is it a great stretch of probability to affirm that Louis, unscrupulous as he was, should have formed the design of betraying the fugitive into some alliance which might prove inconvenient, if not dangerous, to his formidable kinsman and vassal of Burgundy. 2
1 Chapter I gives a further account of the conditions of the period which Quentin Durward portrays.
2 Some of these departures from historical accuracy, as when the death of the Bishop of Liege is antedated, are duly set forth in the notes. It should be mentioned that Mr. J. F. Kirk, in his elaborate History of Charles the Bold, claims that in some points injustice has been done to the Duke in this romance. He says: “The faults of Charles were sufficiently glaring, and scarcely admitted of exaggeration; but his breeding had been that of a prince, his education had been better than that of other princes of his time, his tastes and habits were more, not less, refined than theirs, and the restraint he imposed upon his sensual appetites was as conspicuous a trait as his sternness and violence.”
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