Online Froissart

Reading a Frontispiece: Besançon MS 864

By Valentina Mazzei
Please cite as: Valentina Mazzei, ‘Reading a Frontispiece: Besançon MS 864’, in The Online Froissart, ed. by Peter Ainsworth and Godfried Croenen, v. 1.5 (Sheffield: HRIOnline, 2013),, first published in v. 1.0 (2010).

Besancon MS 864 frontispiece - Folio 1r
Besançon MS 864 Frontispiece - Folio 1r

The first illuminated page in a manuscript typically contains two kinds of representation: the first offers the reader a depiction of the author writing the work or presenting it as a bound volume to a recipient to whom the book is often explicitly dedicated; the other provides a summary of part or whole of the content of the work. In the case of Besançon MS 864, the frontispiece contains both a presentation scene and a visual representation of some of the events recounted in the first twenty-five chapters of the text of Book I of the Chroniques as represented in this manuscript.

Far from being unusual, the frontispiece — made up of four distinct miniatures framed within a square border divided into four parts — follows what was in the early fifteenth-century Paris book trade an established pattern of decoration that can already be found in manuscripts of historical subjects or romances, such as the Grandes Chroniques de France or manuscripts of the Lancelot-Graal cycle. In the first vignette, Jean Froissart is pictured offering a book to an English king, identified by many as Richard II.1 The other three miniatures immediately present a difficulty to the reader/viewer, who needs to understand the nature and the sequence of the events represented. The rubric (or chapter title, in red, from Latin rubeus), can often help to resolve this difficulty, since it can in most cases be read as a caption to the illustration. In the case of Besançon MS 864, however, the rubric does not supply an immediate clue as to how we might accurately interpret the images, since it announces: "Here begin the chronicles that sire Jehan Froissart made, relating the new wars of France, England, Scotland, Spain and Brittany, of which the first chapter mentions the occasion whereby they happened and the names of the nobles who took part". If the rubric had functioned as an instruction to the illuminator, the latter would probably have represented either several scenes of combat, or perhaps the countries involved in these ‘new’ wars.2 Instead, the only miniature that can be related to the chapter title is the one at the bottom right of the frame, where a small army of archers, crossbowmen and spearmen are engaged in a fierce attack upon a castle.

Nevertheless, even when the rubric does not elucidate the content of the image immediately above it, the practice of using it as a caption for the illustration is established to such a degree that it influences the viewers/readers in forming their own logical connections between rubric and image. In the absence of a scene representing the announced wars, one is left looking for a visual representation of their cause, or a portrayal of the nobles who engaged in them; thus this first logical connection may be in the readers’ minds during any subsequent interpretation of the images.

Reading the first twenty-five chapters of our manuscript may clarify the subjects illustrated. The narration begins in 1325. Froissart recounts how, after a period of political repression that culminated in the execution of several English magnates, Isabella of France, queen of England and wife of Edward II, flees from both the country and her royal husband for fear of persecution by the king’s favourite, Hugh Despenser, who has the power to dominate both king and realm. Accompanied by the earl of Kent, Mortimer and her son the future Edward III, she sails to France where she seeks the assistance of her brother, Charles IV of France, who, advised by his council, covertly lends her financial help and closes an eye to her démarches to gain allies for an intervention in England. However, with Charles’ subsequent promised support for a military campaign in England stopped short by a letter from the Pope urging him to send his sister back to her husband, Isabella turns instead to the young John of Hainault, brother of count William of Hainault, who promises in chivalrous fashion to rescue her from her misery and join in the fight against her enemies back at home. Urged on by a number of magnates that are rallying against the English king, Isabella sets sail once again for England, along with her newly found ally and his meagre retinue. After a successful siege laid to the city of Bristol and a failed escape attempt on the part of Despenser and Edward II, the latter is consigned to imprisonment and soon after deemed unfit to rule. The triumphant Isabella is duly welcomed by the people of London and her son crowned king Edward III of England.

Not all of these events leading to the accession of Edward III are illustrated in the frontispiece, but the story told in its epilogue helps us understand how the three miniatures of the frontispiece tell a story of ‘origins’ by staging three scenes involving the major players: the heirless Capetian king of France, Charles IV, whose death in December 1328 led to the accession of his cousin Philip of Valois, thus bringing about Isabella’s exclusion from the succession to the crown (on account of her being a woman) and consequently that of her son Edward, also; the fight in front of the castle at Bristol, hiding behind its grim walls a disgraced king soon to be deposed and succeeded by his son — who would before long lay a strong claim to the French crown as a more direct descendant within the Capetian line.

An illustration of the origins of the Anglo-French dynastic conflict at the core of what later came to be defined by scholars as the Hundred Years’ War, the frontispiece also offers the tale of the beginnings of Edward III’s reign, in a way reminiscent of another set of images opening (this time) the Grandes Chroniques de France, the official historiography of the kings of France, begun by the monks of Saint-Denis in the 13th century, translated and further compiled in different phases up to the events of around 1380. Many fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of this royal chronicle contain a quadripartite frontispiece illustrating the text’s account of the mythical origins of the French, from Francion, son of Hector and grandson of Priam, king of Troy, who was believed to have escaped from the ruins of Troy and ultimately to have landed in France. In spite of the variety of ways in which the phases of these mythical origins of the French and their kings are combined in the frontispiece, from the rape of Helen to the coronation of the first French king and the construction of the new capital city of Sicambria, two recurring images come to mind: the generic siege of a city identified as Troy, and the sea voyage either of Paris with the abducted Helen, or of the Greek soldiers who came to rescue her, or of Francion himself — who will eventually lay the foundations of the French kingdom. Although it represents an entirely different tale, the quadripartite frontispiece of Froissart’s Chroniques as frequently encountered in the group of manuscripts which includes Besançon MS 864, incorporating the motifs of a sea voyage and siege, constitutes almost a mirror representation of the origins of Edward III’s rule, investing it therefore with both a mythical dimension3 and with commercial viability against the backdrop of the Paris book trade, by virtue of its connection with the long-established iconography of the Grandes Chroniques de France.4

A careful examination of the frontispiece reveals how symmetry, compositional devices and careful attention to detail all contribute to the interpretation of the events represented, and to their implicit hierarchy of meaning. The four almost perfectly square vignettes are contained within a simple gold leaf border which is then subdivided into four equal quarters; each quarter has its own separate frame with rounded corners and is embellished in three of the four frames by an additional ‘loop’ at the halfway point.5 The use of individual frames for each vignette has a two-fold effect: the episodic separateness of the individual events is emphasised — in fact, each scene has its own background, and even in the scenes which echo the blue, gold and red chequered quadrillé of the background in the main outer frame, the figures still appear to exist in their own space - whilst in the scenes where the images break the frame and overlap onto a neighbouring scene, a sense of continuity of action between the events is established.

At first glance there is an overall symmetry governing the composition and also reflecting the sequence in which the four scenes should be read. The top left-hand quadrant depicting Froissart presenting his book to Richard II, king of England — an interior space qualified by the usual green and black tiled floor6 and containing a single piece of furniture, the king’s throne — is followed by the scene immediately below it in the bottom left-hand quarter of the frontispiece, an exterior depicting Queen Isabella’s arrival on the shores of France,7 spatially qualified this time by a grassy foreground, waves lapping around the boat, and a crudely foreshortened castle with turrets and a quintessentially French pan-tiled roof, which overlaps onto the scene above. The traces of surviving under-drawing are particularly interesting in this quadrant, as there seems to have been a kneeling figure on the same spot as the two figures emerging from the doorway, indicating how the final version may have diverged from an initial sketch. In spite of the touches of realistic external detail, the background in this lower quadrant is strictly decorative, however, with swirling gold organic shapes drawn over a pale pink ground. This seems initially very similar to the background in the next scene in reading order, in the upper right-hand quadrant, which again uses a flat pink ground overlaid with decorative gold — although in this instance, the organic shapes alternate with geometric forms in a more regular grid pattern. As in the first scene, this is also an interior, as indicated by the tessellated green and black floor, with some depth of space created by the use of a thin wash of darker colour over the more distant tiles, even though there is no attempt at any perspective in what is essentially a flat, patterned floor; a closer look reveals conflicting floor levels, with a discrepancy between the height of the dividing line between floor and background behind the main protagonists of the scene, Isabella of France and her brother king Charles IV of France, and the courtiers to the right, where the floor would appear to continue up and behind them. Very possibly this is an attempt to set them back a little from the main players in the scene, as if they were physically further away.

The Siege of Bristol is illustrated in the final quarter in the series, positioned in the lower right-hand corner. As in the lower left-hand quadrant, there is a castle to the right which breaks the frame and invades the space of the interior above, and a green ground with grass sketchily implied in the foreground; the castle, this time on English soil, is architecturally different from the previous castle, and has no roof or pan-tiles. The eye is led down and away from the scene above by the positioning of two archers who lean from the turrets of the castle and aim their arrows at the soldiers below. The left portion of the frontispiece, therefore, seems to mirror the right compositionally, with the two royal interior meetings facing each other, and the two exteriors with castles likewise situated opposite each other in the lower segments.

The overall balance of the composition is also further heightened by the diagonal symmetry of the matching backgrounds and the harmonious distribution of colour, which throughout the entire frontispiece makes the absolute most of a limited palette. For example, the reds, blues and pinks of the surcoats worn by the soldiers over their armour in the lower right quadrant do not signal any particular allegiance, but rather add colour to what would otherwise have been a scene at odds with the other three, lacking as it does the colourful heraldic splendour and rich fabrics worn by the royal personages and their courtiers. It is, in fact, the only scene where a monarch is not visible, with Edward II hidden (though present) in the castle. The absence of visible royal personages in the scene is compensated for, however, by the addition of careful details such as the faces, albeit in the form of stock portraits, of the soldiers wearing open-faced basinet helmets, but especially by specific attention to differences in armour. The spear carrier to the left of the scene wears chain mail over his upper body, beginning with the camail or aventail covering his neck and shoulders, followed by a haubergeon or chain mail shirt which reaches to mid thigh, with the links drawn in a series of small repetitive strokes. His legs, like those of the rest of his fellow soldiers, are fully protected in plate armour which, once again, has been drawn in some detail with cuisses covering the thighs, poleyns strapped to the knees, greaves below on the shins and calves, and sabatons enclosing the feet where the miniaturist has even painted in a number of small lines to indicate the separate lames. The soldier immediately in front of him in the pale pink surcoat with black studded belt once again wears an open-faced basinet, but this time his neck and shoulders are protected by a plate armour gorget indicated by several concentric circles, whereas the spear carrier to his right — faceless this time under a large kettle hat — is clearly wearing a fauld or skirt of several horizontal plates or lames to protect the abdomen, under his blue surcoat. The longbowman just behind the blue-clad front-line figure is also wearing a fauld with additional pointed tassets hanging below the lames; a couter to protect the elbow is visible on his outstretched left arm; he appears to be wearing finger rather than mitten gauntlets, which flare very slightly at the wrists, as does his neighbour — who is wearing what looks like a tight-fitting brigandine closed at the front by a series of straps. By comparison the longbowmen firing arrows from the castle are rather summarily drawn, thus shifting the focus onto Isabella’s supporters outside its walls. There is also an attention to the details of weaponry itself, with the bending figure in the foreground captured in a complex pose as he draws and loads his crossbow, using his feet; the bolts are held in an animal-skin or fur quiver on his hip. The archers are shown as already in the thick of the fighting, with arrows and bolts flying back and forth and with some blood shown on the grass below the army. The spearmen, on the other hand, form the rearguard or a secondary battalion and are still carrying their spears over their shoulders; none of them is as yet actively involved in the fighting.

Apart from the anonymous infantrymen who accompany Isabella in the ship, their faces hidden under kettle hats, the most simply dressed of all the figures in the frontispiece is Froissart himself, as befits his position as a priest. His white, or at least, very pale pink robes and faded canon’s aumusse or fur cape are delicately painted, yet draw the viewer’s attention to this scene first, and to the consignment of his own book to Richard II. The chronicler proffers it with both hands to the king, who has already reached out to accept it with his left hand; the king’s hand on the large and luxuriously bound book is the fulcrum, in fact, of this composition, falling as it does at almost the very centre of it. Froissart is accompanied by an assistant in a long blue gown who kneels with him before the king, holding his simple phrygian cap in his hands. Froissart is hatless, his tonsured pate precisely painted. All eyes are on the king, clearly identifiable by his crown and heavy fur-lined scarlet houppelande emblazoned with the three heraldic lions or leopards passant gardant, or of the English royal arms. Curiously, in most occurrences of the royal English arms in the Besançon MS 864 frontispiece, the lions are facing the wrong way round. The explanation for this feature is perhaps to be found in the illuminator’s concern for composition, rather than in a supposed ignorance on the part of the workshop: Richard II, Isabella and the young Edward III are all found on the left-hand side of their respective scenes, and therefore the lions or heraldic leopards face towards the centre of the action, rather than away from it, which would have been the case if the miniatures had adhered strictly to the correct heraldic representation. This is consistent with the correct positioning of the lions or leopards on King Edward’s robes bearing the arms of England quartered with those of France, on folio 46v, where the king is found right at the centre of the miniature but looks towards the visitor on his right,8 and with ff. 145v,9 172r10 and 235r11 where in each example the royal figure is located to the left of the miniature and the heraldic leopards consequently face the wrong way. Given the careful attention to the minutest detail of hairstyle, clothing, armour and headgear throughout the frontispiece, it seems unlikely that this detail would have been occasioned by mere carelessness, although there is certainly one other curious omission worth noting: the upper half of the courtier to the king’s left in the first scene, whom we may assume is his Serjeant at Arms, identifiable by what appears to be a ceremonial mace, is rendered in great detail with a red chaperon or turban with elaborate folds and a looped belt hung low over a heavy and patterned blue tunic with a fur collar; his lower body and legs, however, are entirely absent. Rather than being glaringly obvious, this adds to the overall harmony of the entire scene and leaves compositional space around the focus of the lunette, namely, Froissart’s book. Indeed, the diagonal positioning of the mace also serves as a pictorial device, helping to focus our attention on the presentation of the volume.

Clothes have been rendered in splendid detail throughout the frontispiece, and there is a considerable variety of styles. The counsellor wearing a fur bonnet and standing behind the king in the opening lunette, who appears to be leaning in a rather familiar manner on the back of the throne, is wearing a pink high-necked fur-trimmed padded tunic, with slightly puffed shoulders indicated by a series of pleats. Like the Serjeant at Arms, his belt is also worn low on the hips, but the tunic is rather short in length, revealing grey and white parti-coloured soled hose and garters, possibly with bells, just below the knees; all the non-military figures in the frontispiece are presumably wearing soled hose, as — where visible — they are pictured in stockinged feet and without shoes, and only the young Edward III is wearing plain white hose12 under his heavy red tunic with short fur-trimmed cuffs and high collar. He appears dressed in the same way in the third scene, the only difference being that he is wearing his red phrygian cap, rather than holding it in his hands (a gesture of respect to the king). Isabella of France is shown consistently in the second and third scenes with her hair neatly plaited in wire baskets under her crown, and dressed in a sideless13 fur-trimmed mi-parti surcoat bearing the dimidiated (impaled) arms of France and England, worn over a cotehardie. Her lady-in-waiting, meanwhile, is imposing in a voluminous full-length blue houppelande of heavy looking material with a repetitive gold pattern which compositionally serves to balance the figure of Charles IV on the right of the scene, who is also dressed in a full-length blue houppelande, decorated this time with the powdered gold fleur-de-lis motif and trimmed with royal ermine. The figure in the foreground behind the king is dressed comparatively simply in a distinctive knee-length, scalloped-edged tabard or huque (a feature found in at least one other manuscript of the Chroniques from this group, Toulouse BM 511, although on a different personage and over armour) with vertical stripes of gold and dark ochre, and with no heraldic insignia; he also wears a charcoal grey chaperon, although careful attention has been paid to his mi-parti white and red hose, which are decorated with gold arabesques. Compositionally, however, he has a precise role: he is the only figure who looks directly at the young Edward III and therefore helps to bring him into the scene as a secondary, yet nevertheless important, protagonist. The figure behind him, meanwhile, in a high-necked fur-trimmed green tunic is instantly noticeable because of his feathered cap. This is another compositional device which works rather as the mace does in the first scene, creating a diagonal that leads the eye to the centre of the scene and focuses our attention on the main event — the clasped hands of Isabella of France and her brother king Charles IV. The third and final courtier, dressed in a blue tunic, is hatless but has once again been rendered in detail with carefully drawn face and hair, and with what look like the beginnings of a cape attached to his shoulders; like the Serjeant at Arms in the first vignette, however, he is depicted without legs.

The events presented in the frontispiece are also underlined by eloquent hand gestures. The open palms of Charles IV, the young Edward and the magnate in the red tunic receiving Isabella on the French shore all signal acceptance; Charles IV’s hand resting on his heart expresses sincerity, whilst his hand clasped in that of his sister, a gesture often used to signify marriage, possibly gives a visual representation of their close familial tie. The importance of this interview between Isabella and Charles, and the presentation of the future king of England and nephew of the French king, is further highlighted by the lady-in-waiting’s pointing index finger, a gesture customarily used to focus the viewer’s attention on the scene indicated.


1 An iconography presumably derived from a lost manuscript of Froissart’s Chroniques which the author had destined for Richard II in 1381. See baron [J.M.B.C.] Kervyn de Lettenhove, ‘Introduction. Seconde partie: Recherches sur l’ordre et la date des diverses rédactions des Chroniques’, in Œuvres de Froissart publiées avec les variantes de divers manuscrits, ed. by baron [J.M.B.C.] Kervyn de Lettenhove, III-III (Bruxelles: Victor Devaux et Cie, 1873), pp. 1–184; [Henri Moranvillé], Manuscrit de ses chroniques destiné par Froissart à Richard II, roi d’Angleterre, (S.l., [ca. 1936]); Alberto Varvaro, ‘Il libro I delle Chroniques di Jean Froissart. Per una filologia integrata dei testi e delle immagini’, Medioevo Romanzo, 19 (1994), 3–36. A plausible reconstruction of how this lost manuscript may have been re-circulated in Paris at the beginning of the fifteenth century can be found in Godfried Croenen, Mary Rouse and Richard Rouse, ‘Pierre de Liffol and the Manuscripts of Froissart’s Chronicles’, Viator. Medieval and renaissance studies, 33 (2002), 261–93. Varvaro (op. cit.) remarks that the physical features of the king represented bear comparison with contemporary portraits of Richard II. Patrick Boucheron puts forward a divergent theory, namely that the king represented here is Edward III: Jacques Dalarun, ed., Le Moyen Âge en lumière ([Paris]: Fayard, 2002), p. 174. Also online
2 As is the case in the frontispiece of The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 72 A 25.
3 Anticipating perhaps Froissart’s preoccupation, expressed in his preface to the presumed later, revised text contained in the B manuscripts, with the translatio militiae of Dame Prouesse.
4 In particular in a manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques now kept at St Petersburg (St Petersburg, Bibl. pub. Saltykov-Schedrin, fr. F.v.iv.1) produced in Paris in the early XVth century, the style of the different artists involved is very close to that of followers of the Boethius and Rohan Masters to whom are attributed several Parisian manuscripts of Froissart’s Chroniques. I am grateful to Prof. Anne D. Hedeman for providing me with some photocopied reproductions from this codex. Harf-Lancner pointed out the similarity in composition between the miniature depicting young Edward III at Charles IV’s court and a miniature representing Louis the Pious in two other manuscripts of the Grandes Chroniques. See Laurence Harf-Lancner, ‘Image and propaganda: the illustration of Book I of Froissart’s Chroniques’, in Froissart across the genres, ed. by Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, translated by Sara Sturm-Maddox (Gainesville/Tallahassee/Tampa/Boca Raton/Pensacola/Orlando/Miami/Jacksonville: University Press of Florida, 1998), pp. 220–50.
5 This particular frame with loops, although of a different overall shape, can be found in several miniatures from a manuscript attributed to the Rohan Master’s workshop, the Heures de Buz, Harvard University Library (Cambridge, Mass.), Plates 852, 853 and 854, in Millard Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Limbourgs and Their Contemporaries, t. II. There is also a reproduction of another miniature from this codex in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 49, No.4 (Dec., 1967), pp. 311-316, fig. 11.
6 Instances of this specific floor can be found in several miniatures included in a manuscript after which the Rohan Master and his workshop were first named, the Grandes Heures de Rohan, including in a full-page miniature: ‘La présentation au temple’. Also, the faces of the Virgin, the baby Jesus and the angels in this miniature are reminiscent of faces in the Besançon MS 864 portraits.
7 In his article, Varvaro (op. cit.) discusses two possible interpretations of this image, Isabella arriving on the French shore, or coming back to English soil, favouring the second and thus a different sequence. My own reading is based on Kervyn de Lettenhove’s descriptions of this frontispiece in the manuscripts known to him, in the introduction to his edition of Froissart’s Chronicles. In fact Kervyn applied both readings, depending on which manuscript he was describing, and a closer examination reveals that he probably based himself on the corresponding portion of text being illustrated. Upon her arrival in France, so the text of Froissart’s work informs us, Isabella was immediately met by two representatives who had been informed of her landing; on their return to England, in contrast, the ships were marooned by a storm and landed in unknown territory, with no immediate visible bearings for the frightened contingent. Correspondingly, the manuscripts in which this miniature reveals a desolate shore ahead of the floating ship seemingly still at the mercy of the waves were described by Kervyn as representing Isabella’s return to England
8 Even so, the quarters are ‘wrong’, insofar as Edward assigned 1 and 4 to France ancient, 2 and 3 to England.
9 Philippa of Hainault: dimidiated arms, Battle of Neville’s Cross.
10 The Black Prince, quartered arms.
11 The return of King John to England.
12 The tips of Richard II’s stockinged feet are also white, and peep from beneath his very long houppelande.
13 With deep open sides.