The History of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy


By JOHN FOSTER KIRK. Two Volumes. 8vo. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co.
THERE is probably no period of European history which has been so thoroughly explored and so richly illustrated as the sixteenth century, — that century of great men, lofty ideas, and gigantic enterprise, of intellectual activity, and of tremendous political and religious struggles. The numerous scholars of Continental Europe who have made this era the subject of their researches have generally been content to dig that others might plant and reap, sending forth in abundance the raw material of history to be woven into forms adapted to popular appreciation. In England, also, hut only within a very recent period, much solid labor of the same kind has been performed. But the Anglo Saxon mind, on some sides comparatively deficient in plastic and inventive power, as well as in that of abstract thought, seems to possess in a peculiar degree the faculty of comprehending, representing, and idealizing the varied phases and incessant motion of human life and character. In science it excels less in the discovery than in the application of laws. In what may be termed “pure art,” music, sculpture, painting, except where the representation of the Beautiful is subservient to that of the Real, lyrical and idyllic poetry, and all departments of literature in which fancy predominates over reason, it must yield the palm to the genius of Italy, of Germany, of Spain. But in the drama, in the novel, in history, and in works partaking more or less of the character of those, its supremacy is established. Shakspeare and Chaucer are at once the greatest and the most characteristic of English poets ; Hogarth and Wilkie, of English painters ; Fielding,’ Scott, Miss Austen, Thackeray, and others whose names will at once suggest themselves, of English writers of fiction ; Gibbon, Macaulay, and Hallam, of English historians. The drama, in its highest forms, belongs to the past, and that past which was at once too earnest in its spirit and too narrow in its development to allow of a less vivid or a more expansive delineation. Fiction, to judge from a multitude of recent specimens, seems at present on the decline, with some threatenings of a precipitate descent into the inane. History, on the other hand, is only at the outset of its career. Its highest achievements are in all probability reserved for a still distant future, when loftier points of view shall have been attained, and the haze that now hangs over even the nearest and most conspicuous objects in some measure dissipated. Its endeavors hitherto have only shown how much is still to be accomplished, — how little, indeed, comparatively speaking, it will ever be possible to accomplish. Not the less, on this account, are the laborers deserving of the honors bestowed upon them, Every fresh contribution is a permanent gain. Even in the same field the results of one exploration do not interfere with or supersede those of another. Robertson has, in many respects, been surpassed, but he has not been supplanted, by Prescott; Froude and Motley may traverse the same ground without impairing our interest in the researches of either.
These four distinguished writers have all devoted their efforts to the illustration of the period of which we have before spoken, — the grand and fruitful sixteenth century. With the men and with the events of that age we have thus become singularly familiar. We have been made acquainted, not only with the deeds, but with the thoughts, of Charles V., Philip II., Elizabeth Tudor, Cortes, Alva, Farnese, William the Silent, and a host of other actors in some of the most striking scenes of history. But we have also been tempted into forgetting that those were not isolated scenes, that they belonged to a drama which had long been in progress, and that the very energy they displayed, the power put forth, the conquests won, were indicative of previous struggles and a long accumulation of resources. Of what are called the Middle Ages the general notion might, perhaps, be comprised in the statement that they were ages of barbarism and ignorance, of picturesque customs and aimless adventure. “ I desire to know nothing of those who knew nothing,” was the saying, in reference to them, of the French philosophe. “Classical antiquity is nearer to us than the intervening darkness,” said Hazlitt. And Hume and Robertson both consider that the interest of European history begins with the revival of letters, the invention of printing, the colonization of America, and the great contests between consolidated monarchies and between antagonistic principles and creeds.
It must bo admitted that the greater portion of mediaeval history, whatever its true character, is shrouded in an obscurity which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate. But the same cannot be said of the close of that period, — the transitional era that preceded what we are accustomed to consider as the dawn of modern civilization. For Continental Europe, at least, the fifteenth century is hardly less susceptible of a thorough revelation than the sixteenth. The chroniclers and memoir-writers are more communicative than those of the succeeding age. The documentary evidence, if still deficient, is rapidly accumulating. The conspicuous personages of the time are daily becoming more palpable and familiar to us. Joan of Arc has glided from the luminous haze of legend and romance into the clearer light of history. Philippe de Comines has a higher fame than any eye-witness and narrator of later events. Louis XI. discloses to posterity those features which he would fain have concealed from his contemporaries. And confronting Louis stands another figure, not less prominent in their own day, not less striking when viewed from our day, — that of Charles the Bold, of Burgundy.
The career of this latter prince has generally been regarded as merely a romantic episode in European history. Scott has painted it in vivid colors in two of his most brilliant fictions, — "Quentin Durward,” and “Anne of Geierstein,” But, perhaps from this very notion in regard to its lack of historical importance, the reality has never been depicted in fulness or with detail, except in M. de Barante’s elegant rifacimento of the French chroniclers of the fifteenth century. That the subject was, however, one of a very different character has been apparent to the scholars in France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, who during the last twenty years have made it a special object of their researches. A stronger light has been thrown upon every part of it, and an entirely new light upon many portions. Charles has assumed his rightful position, as the “Napoleon of the Middle Ages,” whose ambition and whose fall exercised a powerful influence on the destinies of the principal European states.
But the labors through which this has been accomplished are as yet unknown to the general mass of readers. The results lie scattered in quarters difficult of access, and in forms that repel rather than attract the glance. Chronicles written in tough French and tougher German have been published in provincial towns, and have scarcely found their way beyond those localities. Various learned societies and commissions have edited documents which would be nearly unintelligible without a wide comparison and complete elucidation. Single, isolated points have been treated and discussed by those who took for granted a familiarity on the part of the reader with the general facts of the case. To combine this mass of evidence, to sift and establish it, and to weave it into a symmetrical narrative, is the aim of the work before us. The idea was conceived while the author was engaged in assisting the late Mr. Prescott in cognate branches of study. That great and generous writer entered heartily into the project, and made use of the ample facilities which he is well known to have possessed for the collection of the necessary materials. The correspondence which he opened for this purpose led to the belief that he had himself undertaken the task; and great satisfaction was expressed by the eminent Belgian archivist, M. Gachard, that a pen which had already given so much delight and instruction to the world was about to he engaged on so attractive a theme. But Prescott was not more ardent in the prosecution of his own inquiries than in furthering those of others; and he displayed in this, as in many like instances, the same noble spirit which, since his death, has been so gracefully acknowledged by Mr. Motley.
Of the manner in which the work is executed it would be, perhaps, premature to speak. We have no hesitation, however, in assigning to Mr. Kirk’s most fascinating narrative a place with the great achievements of genius in the department he has chosen to fill. His advent among the historians will he welcomed the world over. A glance at the copy placed in our hands has enabled us to indicate its nature. The two volumes about to appear bring the story down to the crisis of Charles’s fate, the moment when he became involved in a war with the Swiss. A third volume, now in course of preparation, will complete the eventful tale.
We think it not unlikely that to the American reader the first half of the history will seem, at the present time, to possess a peculiar interest. For tills part of the work contains the last great struggle between the French crown and the feudal princes, —a struggle involving the question whether France was to form one nation or to be divided into a number of petty states. Such a struggle is now going on in our own country. The question we are debating is whether the nation is to be disintegrated or consolidated. The theory of "State sovereignty” is nothing more than the old theory of feudal independence. “I love France so well ” said Charles of Burgundy, " that I would fain see it ruled over by six kings instead of one.” " I love the republic founded by our fathers so well,” says Jefferson Davis, "that I would fain see it split up into several hostile confederacies.” When we see that France, under the direction of a Louis XI., came out of that struggle triumphant, we shall not despair of our own future, trusting rather to the guidance of that Providence which is working out its own great designs than to instruments little cognizant of its plans and too often unconscious of its influence.