Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners (c. 14671533)
[John Bourchier, or Bouchier, afterwards Lord Berners, was descended from a family of great distinction, which could claim kinship with the Plantagenets, and which had already furnished a long list of men high in Church and State. The Bourchiers had at first been supporters of the Lancastrian House: but had afterwards joined the Yorkist party, on whose behalf our authors grandfather, Lord Berners (whom he succeeded), fought at St. Albans, while his father, Humphrey Bourchier, fell at Barnet fighting on the same side. John Bourchier was born about 1467, and succeeded to the title in 1474. Even as a child he seems to have lived at the Court, and was knighted in 1477; but, according to the growing custom of the day which no longer countenanced the complete separation of arms from letters, he was sent to Oxford, where, according to Anthony Wood, he belonged to Balliol College. After his stay at the University he travelled abroad, returning to England when the Earl of Richmond became Henry VII., with the Bourchier family amongst his chief supporters. It was a member of that family, Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, who placed the crown on Henrys head. In the following years Lord Berners distinguished himself in military service, and he continued as high in favour with Henry VIII. as with his father. He served under Lord Surrey in Scotland, and was employed on embassies of high importance. About 1520 he seems to have been appointed Governor of Calais, and there he spent his last years, employed at Henrys command, upon the translation of Froissarts Chronicles from the French. He died in 1532.]
BY birth, by education, by association and employment; as the head of a great family, from his youth a courtier; as the companion in arms as well as in letters of his kinsman, Surrey; as conversant not only with the learning of Oxford, but with the active life of the counsellor and the soldier; as acquainted not only with the languages but with the rulers of all the leading European statesLord Berners was one on whose head all that was choicest in the England of his day seemed to unite, so as to make him in truth one of the most typical figures in an age when the chivalry of the past was linked, as it were, with the intellectual activity of the future. His work has precisely the qualities which such a training and such opportunities were likely to give: and it is perhaps not too much to say that there is no one who, without producing a work of original genius or research, has laid English literature under such a heavy debt of obligation, as Lord Berners by his translation of Froissart. From the abundance of French and Spanish romances he translated a few specimens: and he also made a translation from a French version of the Spaniard Guevaras work entitled the Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius, or El Relox de Principles. As Guevaras work was not published until 1529, and as no French version is known to have appeared in Berners time, some doubt may be felt as to the genesis of the book. But these works have long been forgotten: his chief achievement, and that by which his name must live, is his reproduction of the French Chronicle in a translation, which, by the rarest of literary gifts, has all the energy and verve of an original work.
Berners work is an advance no less upon the laboured ponderousness of works which produced, in an English dress, the old chroniclers, than upon the more ornate, but fantastic and shadowy translations of the romances. He had the good fortune in following a royal order (which is enough of itself to prove a rare literary sagacity in Henry VIII.), to find an author between whom and himselfthough separated by a century of timethere was a close sympathy of thought and interest. This was the first condition of success; but that success was made still more sure by the union of a romantic fancy with experience of active life, and of the pomp and pageantry that surround the great. Nor was Berners simply the laureate of chivalry. Faithful as he is to his original, we can yet trace his own feeling through his choice of words, and he is able to give us an impression of earnest sympathy with every phase of the amazingly varied scene through which the Chronicle leads us.
We have seen how even in Fabyans Concordance of Histories, with all its roughness and coldness, the interest grows, and the force of the narrative increases as he comes nearer to the events of his own days, and more especially when he tells of that Government of London, in which he had himself borne a part. But in Berners we have got many strides further away from the monkish chronicler, to whom it never even remotely occurred that any words that fell from his pen should recall scenes of real lifeof a life, heard in his cloister only as a confused and distant babble of noise. It is the very opposite of the mood of the monkish chronicler which gives to Berners translation those qualities that make it a model of style, simple, direct, and unaffected, and yet with a force and intensity of feeling which the most elaborate affectations of more laboured ingenuity would seek in vain to reproduce.
The translation undoubtedly marks the highest point to which English narrative prose had as yet reached. It attains its effect by no straining after a purity of Saxon diction, which some are pleased to consider the distinctive mark of excellence. Like all the early masters of English prose, Berners was bold in his appropriation of foreign words. Occasionally he reminds us even of the perfect English of the book of Common Prayer in his harmonious variations between words of Teutonic and of Romance origin. But his style was far too flexible and mobile to be confined to the narrow range, within which are to be found the meagre currents that go to feed the beginnings of our language, and to which the pedantry of the Teutonic purist would confine the ideal of English prose.
Lord Berners is a master of English style, then, partly because he found in his author one with whose subjects and whose methods he was in complete sympathy: partly because by the teaching of the university, the training of the Court, and the discipline of experience, he had learned to realise what he described, and thus to impart to it a force which no laboured art could improve: and partly because his intimate acquaintance with the Romance languages opened to him a wide range of words which he made no scruple of appropriating at his need. We are perhaps apt to persuade ourselves, in reading these early authors, that the harmonious charm of their style comes in great measure from their almost childish simplicity. The persuasion is more flattering to ourselves than true. Artistic skill like that of Berners is rarely unconscious: that it conceals itself does not rob it of the character of art. And the particular instance of Berners suggests a contrast that is not soothing to our self-respect. Froissart has been twice translated into English; by Berners, and again in the early days of this century by Mr. Johnes, a Welsh squire and member of Parliament, of literary tastes and most creditable industry. The work of Mr. Johnes obtained much favour from our grandfathers; but a comparison with that of Berners shews us at least to what a bathos English prose can fall. Let us take a few sentences at random, from Berners and from Johnes.
Wherefore he came on a night and declared all this to the queen, and advised her of the peril that she was in. Then the queen was greatly abashed, and required him, all weeping, of his good counsel. Then he said, Madame, I counsel you that ye depart and go in to the Empire, where as there be many great lords who may right well aid you, and specially the Earl William of Hainault, and Sir John of Hainault, his brother. These two are great lords and wise men, true, dread, and redoubted of their enemies.
He therefore came in the middle of the night to inform the queen of the peril she was in. She was thunderstruck at the information, to which he added, I recommend you to set out for the Empire, where there are many noble lords who may greatly assist you, particularly William, Earl of Hainault, and his brother, who are both great lords, and wise and loyal men, and much dreaded by their enemies.
Let us next compare a few sentences (taken from one of the extracts which follow) with their counterparts in Johnes. This is from the scene at Bruces death-bed, as given by Lord Berners.
Then he called to him the gentle knight, Sir James Douglas, and said before all the lords, Sir James, my dear friend, ye know well that I have had much ado in my days to uphold and sustain the right of this realm: and when I had most ado, I made a solemn vow, the which as yet I have not accomplished, whereof I am right sorry: the which was, if I might achieve and make an end of all my wars, so that I might once have brought this realm in rest and peace, then I promised in my mind to have gone and warred on Christs enemies, adversaries to our holy Christian faith . Then all the lords that heard these words wept for pity. And when this knight, Sir James Douglas, might speak for weeping, he said, Ah, gentle and noble King, an hundred times I thank your grace of the great honour that ye do to me, sith of so noble and great treasure ye give me in charge: and, sir, I shall do with a glad heart all that ye have commanded me, to the best of my true power: howbeit, I am not worthy nor sufficient to achieve such a noble enterprise. Then the King said, Ah, gentle knight, I thank you, so ye will promise to do it. Sir, said the knight, I shall do it undoubtedly, by the faith that I owe to God, and to the order of knighthood.
He after that called to him the gallant lord James Douglas, and said to him in presence of the others: My dear friend, lord James Douglas, you know that I have had much to do, and have suffered many troubles during the time I have lived, to support the rights of my crown: at the time that I was most occupied I made a vow, the non-accomplishment of which gives me much uneasinessI vowed that if I could finish my wars in such a manner that I might have quiet to govern peaceably, I would go and make war against the enemies of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the adversaries of the Christian faith . All those present began bewailing bitterly, and when the lord James could speak, he said, Gallant and noble King, I return you a hundred thousand thanks for the high honour you do me, and for the valuable and dear treasure with which you entrust me, and I will willingly do all that you command me with the utmost loyalty in my power: never doubt it, however I may feel myself unworthy of such a high distinction. The King replied, Gallant knight, I thank youyou promise it me then? Certainly, Sir, most willingly, answered the knight. He then gave his promise upon his knighthood.
If we wish to measure the decadence of English prose in the course of three centuries, no description can help half so much as the comparison of these few paragraphs, sentence by sentence and word by word. The same lesson might be drawn from any page taken at random of the old and the new translation. Yet in 1812 the editor of Berners actually offers an apology for reproducing the venerable production, now that the elegant modern translation by Mr. Johnes has made the contents generally familiar! Perhaps we have recovered somewhat from the style of Johnes,it is so much gained that we know that it is not elegant, but execrably bad,but the grace of Lord Berners is something that we can never by any possibility recover. An affected archaicism will not bring us one hairs-breadth nearer to it.