Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/Mahout, Countess of Artois


It has been well said that "out of things unlikely and remote may be won romance and beauty." Perhaps the truth of this reflection has never been more signally exemplified than in the case of Mahaut, Countess of Artois and Burgundy, the record of whose life, in the absence of any contemporary biographer, has been ably deciphered from such commonplace material as the household accounts of her stewards.[1] This great lady, one of the greatest patrons of art of her time, lived at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century. She was a great-niece of St. Louis. No poet has sung of her. It is merely through the prose of daily expenditure that she is made known to us. She stands before us, not the ideal creation of the mediæval romancer, but a real woman, with her virtues and failings, her joys and sorrows, real by very reason of this union of contrasts, a woman trying to grapple with difficulties forced upon her by her position, and by an age when intrigue and cunning were as freely resorted to, and as deftly handled, as the sword and the lance.

Mahaut was the daughter of Robert the Second, Count of Artois, a valiant and chivalrous man, and of Amicie de Courtenay, of whom it was said that she was esteemed whilst she lived, and mourned of all when she died. Her brother, Philip, predeceased his father, leaving one son, Robert. In accordance with local custom, Mahaut, on the death of her father, inherited Artois, but her nephew, Robert, on attaining his majority at the age of fourteen, set up a counter-claim. This family feud was a constant source of trouble and vexation to her, since Robert again and again returned to the attack, not only appealing to the king to consider his cause, and fabricating spurious documents as a means of gaining his end, but also employing unscrupulous agents to spread false charges against her. He further took advantage of the growing discontent amongst the nobles, who were gradually realising that their power was waning, to attach them to his cause, and to induce them to join him in harassing Mahaut by making raids upon her lands and her castles. She, however, through her extraordinary personality, was able to triumph over all this opposition, which, far from marring, only seemed to add lustre to the work she had set herself to do.

Mahaut was religious, artistic, and literary. All these characteristics, together with the circumstance of wealth, she inherited, and right well did she make use of her inheritance.

Being religious, and living in an age when the frenzy for crusading had subsided and when architecture was the ruling passion, she expended her zeal in building religious houses and hospitals.

Being artistic, she made her favourite castle at Hesdin, and the town around its walls, a centre of art life. Here, seemingly, she favoured all the arts, including to a certain extent music, then still in its infancy, for although she apparently had no regular minstrel or minstrels in her employ as was customary in the houses of the noblesse, she seems to have engaged them for Church festivals and sundry fêtes, and we know that on one occasion she hired a minstrel to soothe her sick child with the sweet soft music of the harp, thus suggesting that she herself had felt the power of music to minister to both body and soul.

Being literary, Mahaut collected what MSS. and books she could, and the list of them serves to show what might be found in a library of the early fourteenth century. Her religious books included a Bible in French,[2] a Psalter, a Gradual, various Books of Hours for private devotion, Lives of the Saints and of the Fathers, and the Miracles of Our Lady. Philosophy was represented by a French translation of Boëthius (probably a copy of a translation made by order of King Philip le Bel, by Jean de Meun, the writer of the second portion of The Romance of the Rose), Law by a verse translation of the laws of Normandy, History by the Chronicles of the Kings of France, and Travel by The Romance of the Great Kan, known to us as The Travels of Marco Polo. But by far the largest category consisted of Romances, such as that of Oger le Danois from the national Epic, and another of Tancred, a hero of the first Crusade, the Romance of Troy, Percival le Gallois, Tristan, Renart, and the Violet, the story which forms the chief episode in the play of Cymbeline. Of course there was no great choice, but that Mahaut read them and loved them we may be certain, since we know that she took some with her on her journeyings, and to preserve them from the wear and tear of travel, had leather wallets made to protect them. Mahaut was, in truth, the first wealthy individual of the age to spend her substance with the express purpose of surrounding herself with beauty of every kind. The foremost thought of a man in a like case would probably have been to add to his power. Her thought was of beauty, a quality much more far-reaching and less transient, and one which, even like Time itself, triumphs over the changes of fame and fortune.

Though Mahaut did not live the allotted three score years and ten, she lived long enough to see seven kings on the throne of France, two of whom—Philip the Fifth and Charles the Fourth—were her sons-in-law. She was a mere child when her great-uncle, King Louis, died in 1270. In 1285, the year in which Philip the Fourth, surnamed le Bel, ascended the throne, she wedded Otho, Count Palatine of Burgundy, a widower of forty-five, a companion in arms of her father, and a brave and generous man, who died fighting for his country, but one absolutely incapable in administration, and, as a consequence, always in debt and in the clutches of the usurer. There are few documents to throw any light on her life until after Otho's death in 1303. This may be due partly to the fact that she only came into her great possessions on her father's death in 1302, and partly to the circumstance that the careless and luxurious expenditure of her husband in no small degree dissipated her resources, and naturally prevented, for the time, any material encouragement of art. Doubtless also much of her time was spent in superintending the education of her children—two daughters who were destined to marry kings of France, and a son who was born a peer of the realm, and inheritor of one of its richest territories. But adverse fate, by the disgrace of one of her daughters, and the death of her son, intervened to darken these brilliant prospects, and forms a grey background to her otherwise wonderful and glorious career.

The more the life of this remarkable woman is studied, the more apparent it becomes that what gives it its peculiar charm and worth is the sense she possessed of the value of all human endeavour, whether in great things or in simple. To her the humblest matters of home life, and the affairs connected with the administration of her domains, had each their particular significance. The ordering of a small grooved tablet on which her little boy could arrange the letters of the alphabet claimed her attention equally with the founding and arranging of a hospital. In her capacity as ruler we see the same wide and reasonable outlook on life, for whilst strict as an administrator, in personal relations she was charitable and sympathetic. Sometimes a rebellious baron was deprived of his fief and banished, or was condemned to expiate his misdeed by making a pilgrimage to sundry shrines. But Mahaut was practical withal, and recognised human frailty, and as the pilgrimage was for correction, no pardon was granted unless the offender brought from each of the sanctuaries a certificate that his vow had been fulfilled. On the other hand, if any were sick or in trouble, she was solicitous for their relief, and even aided them personally where possible. She thus put into practice the charge of her saintly kinsman, King Louis the Ninth, who always counselled those about him to have compassion on all mental or physical suffering, since the heart may be stricken as well as the body.

As Mahaut had no biographer, and contemporary history merely treats her as if she were one of many pawns on a chessboard, her stewards' entries furnish the only materials from which we can weave some outline of her life, an outline, nevertheless, which enables us to reason somewhat concerning her inner life, the pattern, as it were, that is not wrought for the world.

When, in 1302, Mahaut took over the reins of government in Artois, Paris was the great centre of art and literature as well as of the science of the day, a condition largely due to the genius of Philip Augustus, and fostered by succeeding kings. Thither, from far and near, flocked scholars, poets, and artists alike. Some of these took up their abode permanently within its walls. Others passed to and fro, thus creating that constant interchange of thought which is essential to vitality, so that it was said that "the goddess of Wisdom, after having dwelt in Athens and Rome, had taken up her abode in Paris." There, at least twice a year, came Mahaut to her sumptuous dwelling, the Hôtel d'Artois, situated near the Temple, and extending with its gardens and its outbuildings to the walls built by Philip Augustus. Here all who loved the arts and learning were made welcome, and it is interesting to think it possible, nay even probable, that during one of her many sojourns there she may have met and talked with Dante.

Amongst the special treasures to be found there, mention is made of four figure-pictures, one of which is said to have been of Roman workmanship, and round in form—certainly, as far as is known, a rarity at that time. We also find a record of finely wrought embroideries and tapestries on the walls, and of windows painted either with armorial bearings and figures, or with simple foliage like the delicate ivy and hawthorn to be seen enriching the pages of Books of Hours of the fourteenth century. Special mention is made of a window, evidently over the altar in the private Chapel, in which was represented the Crucifixion. In the large hall were tables on trestles, easily removed before the dance began or minstrels or jugglers displayed their skill, dressers to hold the gold and silver plate and from which to serve the banquet, and settles with footboards so necessary when the rushes were only renewed at lengthy intervals. But if the hall was somewhat sparsely furnished, its ceiling and walls (the latter on occasions hung with embroideries carried from castle to castle as the Countess journeyed) were made bright with colour, and beautiful with design. How bright, and how beautiful, we can infer almost with certainty from examples in the Castle of Chillon of thirteenth and fourteenth century decoration lately rescued from under a coat of whitewash,[3] and from the comparison made by Brunette Latini (1230-1294), in his Tesoro, of the Italian with the French feudal castle, in which he says of the one that it is only built for war, with ditches, palisades, and high towers and walls, and of the other that it lies in the midst of meadows and gardens, with large painted chambers.

Mahaut's cousin, the cold and impersonal Philip le Bel, was on the throne. For the most part war had ceased in the land, but still there was war in high places, for Philip, avaricious by nature, and finding himself a king under altering conditions—the Papacy fallen into disregard, the Nobility weakened, and the Nation growing, but without any adequate provision made to meet the needs of this growth—left no stone unturned to supply this want and gratify his greed. On the question of the subsidies of the clergy and the relation between things spiritual and temporal, he quarrelled with the Pope, Boniface the Eighth, and brought about the removal of the Holy See from Rome to Avignon. He robbed and ruined the Templars, and despoiled the Jews and Lombards, the financiers of the day. With him no trickery was too base, no cruelty too cold-blooded. Gold was his God. Dante, who was his contemporary, refers (Purg. vii. 109) to "his wicked and foul life" (la vita sua viziata e lorda), and (Par. xix. 118) to his "debasement of the coinage" (falseggiando la moneta), as well as to his self-seeking greed. Such, with the added glamour of art and learning, was the courtly atmosphere of the Time. The bourgeoisie, encouraged by the king who sought to aggrandise the monarchy at the expense of the nobles, was growing rich, and politically gaining in power, and Philip ere long discovered that he had helped merely to change the centre of power, and not to crush it.

But Paris does not seem to have attracted Mahaut as did her castle at Hesdin. Here she was in the midst of her own domains, surrounded by her liegemen and retainers, and able to be in constant touch with her artificers and workers, whatever their art or industry. By the thirteenth century the dwelling of the Noble was no longer a grim castle, suggestive only of a place of defence, with narrow slits in the walls for the admission of air and light and for the discharge of arrows, but was more like a fortified country-house. The encompassing walls enclosed a wide area, within which was sheltered a village and everything necessary to the growth and development of a community.

From Hesdin Mahaut journeyed constantly through her County of Artois, visiting her castles, the towns or villages around them, and the various religious houses and hospitals she had founded, and attending in general to the well-being of her subjects. For her it was not enough that she was born to reign. She realised that, without administration, reigning through the accident of birth is mere puppet's work, and leads to naught. Her daily life was the visible expression of this belief, as she herself was an example of the woman who comprehends the just proportion between personal and public work. That her subjects responded to her sympathy, and held her in affectionate regard, is proved by their kindly and sympathetic concern if she were ill or on a journey, and by the offerings they made to her on special anniversaries and other festive occasions. We read of gifts not only of herrings, sturgeon, game, wine, dogs, peacocks, swans, pasties, and whipped cream, but also of the strangely assorted tribute of a dead bear and twelve cheeses, as well as of one which must have contrasted pleasantly with this sundry and singular good cheer—a parrakeet in a beautifully painted cage. Mahaut, as we have said, was a constant traveller, and though travelling was then no easy matter, the roads could not have been over-much beset with difficulties seeing that she journeyed in all weathers, either on horseback or in a horse-litter, or in a chariot without springs, and with no mean retinue. In truth, her following was like a glorified Canterbury pilgrimage. First came the Countess, accompanied by one or more knights, her ladies-in-waiting, her chaplain and confessor, her physician, her secretary, her treasurer and steward, and sundry petty officers of her household. Then followed the servants, the cook with his scullions, the shoemaker who could also do necessary repairs to the harness, the laundress riding astride as was the manner of serving-women, and a score of lackeys and dependants of all sorts in charge of the carts containing the necessaries of travel. These necessaries were generally packed in wooden coffers, some of which were simple chests, whilst others opened like a cupboard and were fitted with drawers. To preserve such coffers from damp and damage, they were put into osier cases covered with cow-hide. And with all this motley company and baggage, there are but few records of accidents. The accounts tell of a small occasional expenditure in consequence of the breakdown of a chariot, or the fall of a valet from his horse, or the upsetting into a river of a cart conveying the Countess's wardrobe. But such misadventures were not taken very seriously by these folk, seasoned to discomfort. Valet or chariot was mended, or the floating garments were recovered, and on went the easy-going company, singing by the way, and with horns blowing as they neared some castle or village where a halt was to be made for the night. The absence of any mention of the removal of furniture from castle to castle during these periodical wanderings, save a small bed for Mahaut's own use, leads us to infer that greater luxury then prevailed than in the days of her great-uncle, Louis the Ninth, when even Royalty itself thought it no hardship to have beds and other necessary pieces of furniture carried by beasts of burden from place to place according to the movements of the Court. This frugal and homely custom on one occasion very nearly ended in a tragedy. The devout Isabelle, Louis's sister, was praying in the early morning, as was her wont, within her curtained bed, and either lost in prayer or overcome with fatigue by the length of her orisons, did not notice the arrival of the packers, who rolled up the bed without drawing the curtains, and the praying Princess within must have been smothered had not her lady-in-waiting, Agnes de Harcourt, heard her stifled cries, and hastened to her rescue. This quaint episode so amused Louis, that he ever after recounted it when telling of the piety of his sister.

Let us now go in imagination to the Castle of Hesdin, and see something of its treasures and of the daily life of the Countess Mahaut.

Soon after her accession to Artois, her two daughters married sons of King Philip le Bel, and her little son, Robert, then became her principal care. A little boy of noble family had been chosen as his companion to share in his education and to join with him in play. It would seem that the two were treated on an absolute equality, even to having their doublets cut from the same piece of cloth, and their tunics and cloaks trimmed with the same fur. Beyond their ordinary lessons, they were early taught the games of tables and chess, both of which were considered essential to a knight's education. They also rode to the chase and attended tournaments, and at the age of fourteen themselves held the lance as part of their training in the art of war. Robert seems to have been of a most inquiring and intelligent nature, but when he had scarce passed his seventeenth year, Mahaut, with scant warning, saw this her only son stricken in death just as he was about to enter the ranks of knighthood. In the archives of Arras, the Capital of Artois, may be found a discoloured parchment containing the inventory of the equipment provided for the youthful Robert in anticipation of his initiation. What sorrow is enshrined in these faded pages! It is not sorrow for death, but the bitterer sorrow for something that has never lived, or, rather, that has lived only in the heart, like spring blossom blighted ere fruiting-time. In the Church of St. Denis, where modern restoration has but emphasised the transitoriness and vanity of human glory, there can still be seen the tomb of this youth, carved soon after his death by Pepin de Huy, and once painted, as was all such carved work. Even to the mere student it is interesting as being the only existing monument that can with certainty be attributed to this celebrated sculptor, and also as being, in Gothic art, one of the first essays in portraiture in recumbent figures of the dead, as contrasted with mere effigy. For the deeper thinker it has even greater significance. Of all the good and great works that Mahaut conceived and initiated—the churches, castles, hospitals, which she built and enriched for the glory of God and the safety and solace of mankind—all have passed away. This simple tomb alone remains. But its very simplicity is eloquent, for around it there seems to hover that never-dying spirit of love and goodness and beauty to which, throughout her life, Mahaut contributed in such large measure, and which was her real and lasting gift to the world.

Life as mirrored in the Castle records gives little else than a pleasing picture of Mahaut's relations with all her dependants, as well as with those with whom she was connected, whether by ties of friendship, of politics, or of the common courtesies of life. Her immediate household was naturally her first care. Twice a year, at Easter and All Saints, a distribution was made of cloth and furs. Some of these, fine and costly, were for those in personal attendance on the Countess, whilst others were in the nature of liveries. Others, again, of still coarser make, such as Irish serge, with sheep or rabbit skin for warmth in winter, were given to those of lowly service or who had specially rough work to perform. Her ladies-in-waiting, of whom there were always two or three, appear to have received for their services no money payment, but, over and above the cloth and fur already alluded to, gifts, on special occasions, of girdles and satchels (very often jewelled), gold chaplets, and gold and silver braid, jewelled, and used for twining in the hair. In addition to this, presents of jewels and silver cups were made to them by the noble ladies who came to stay with the Countess, just as she, on her part, presented similar gifts to those who accompanied her guests. How well we can picture to ourselves these maidens (for such is all they were), decking themselves in their girdles and jewelled braid, comparing their gifts, and perhaps even standing on some oaken bench the better to get a view of their finery, for the mirrors were small, and the girdles were long, and could not otherwise be seen in all their glory. When they married, the Countess made gifts to them without stint, not only of the beautiful and the needful for their wardrobes, but also of household goods, and sometimes, when she knew their parents or kinsmen to be too poor to provide the usual dowry, even of a sum of money. To the retainers also we find the same kind and helping hand held out. If any were sick they were taken care of, and, if needs be, sent to some place where they could the better be cured, as we read of one who, suffering from gout, was sent to take healing waters. To another retainer was given the necessary money to pay for his son on entering a monastery, another receiving the wherewithal to go to his native village to attend his mother's burial. Old servants, past work, were cared for in the monasteries or hospitals, or given some post suitable to their years. To a poor knight was given money to enable him to buy a good horse and armour, for poverty of purse was no disgrace in the thirteenth century. At the beginning of winter a distribution, organised by the clergy and stewards of the rural communities in Artois, but superintended by the Countess herself, was made to the poor of blankets, garments, and shoes, and so arranged that the same person did not receive the like gift two years in succession. In truth, no details seemed too small, none too onerous, for Mahaut's untiring solicitude. She had heart and brain for everything. It is these intimate touches which make the time so living and present to us, and which seem, as it were, to place this wonderful woman in a charmed and tranquil circle, in spite of the trouble and turmoil incidental to her life and her position.

Of Six Mediaeval Women face099.jpg

Amongst Mahaut's many good works was the keeping in repair of existing religious houses, hospitals, and lazar-houses, and the building and maintenance of new ones. Of all the religious houses which she founded, her special care was for the Dominican convent of La Thieuloye, near Arras, the equipment of which, as set out in the accounts, may well serve as an example of that of the others. The items for the furnishing and instalment of the house and chapel include everything needful for the community, from gold and silver vessels, silver-gilt images of St. Louis, the Trinity, and St. John, for the sanctuary, and samite and velvet for chasubles, down to the bowls and platters for the nuns, the woollen material for their garments, and all the simple necessaries of everyday life. In the chapel of this nunnery was preserved a kneeling statue of Mahaut, representing her as foundress, in the habit of the Order strewn with the arms of Artois. Jean Aloul, of Tournai, has been suggested as the sculptor, since it is known from the accounts that he was working for the Countess at Arras in 1323. This statue (known to us through a drawing, now at Brussels, made in 1602) is of interest to-day because, judging from the character expressed in the face, it seems probable that it was a portrait, and not simply imagery. This conjecture seems all the more likely when we compare the statue with a miniature painted more than a hundred years later by Jean Fouquet in Les Grandes Chroniques de France (Bib. Nat.), portraying the marriage of King Charles the Fourth with his second wife, Marie de Luxembourg. In this picture a lady, heavily coiffed, and with features suggestive of those of the statue, but with anguish written upon them, turns away from the ceremony as if it were all too painful. If this unwilling guest represents Mahaut, her woeful look is intelligible when we recall the sad story connected with Charles's first wife, Mahaut's daughter Blanche, married when she was but fifteen, and whose beauty was so dazzling that Froissart records that "she was one of the most beautiful women in the world." Accused of an intrigue with a gentleman of the Court, she was imprisoned in the Château-Gaillard, where she remained, with shorn head, until, shortly after Charles ascended the throne, the Pope declared the marriage null. Then, whilst the, king wedded another, the sad Blanche exchanged her castle prison-house for a convent one, where she died a year after she had taken the vows. There is no reason for supposing that Mahaut was at the wedding of Blanche's successor save in the imagination of the artist; but for him the inclusion of such a tragic figure would add a dramatic touch to the representation of an otherwise conventional ceremony.

Mariage de Charles IV le Bel et de Marie de Luxembourg.jpg


Grandes Chrons. de France, Bib. Nat.

To face page 100.

It almost takes us aback to read that in Mahaut's domain of Artois there were at least eighty hospitals and thirty lazar-houses, without counting those attached to the monasteries. But these numbers will not surprise us so much when we remember that almost every small community had its little hospital, used not only for the sick and as a lying-in hospital, but also as a shelter for the poor and the pilgrim. In the towns they were often built and supported by the Corporations or by rich merchants. Evidently some were in the nature of hospitals for incurables, for there were special clauses in the deeds of gift providing that a certain specified number of beds were to be kept for the sick until they were either cured or released by death. Besides building two hospitals in the County of Burgundy in fulfilment of the dying wishes of her husband, Mahaut built and maintained two in her own County of Artois. The one at Hesdin was the more important, and we can get some idea of it from the documents of the time. The deed relating to it tells that over the large entrance gate there was carved in stone a figure of St. John, the patron of hospitals and of the needy generally, with a poor man and woman on either side of him. The principal ward was 160 feet long and 34 feet wide, with walls 16 feet high ending in a gabled roof, with two windows in each gable, and this, coupled with the fact that the sick were sometimes laid on cushions by the open windows, goes to show that what we pride ourselves on as a special discovery in modern hygiene—the benefit of fresh air—was known and applied even in what we are wont to consider a very benighted age in such matters.

Whilst touching upon such a subject as this, it may be a surprise to some to learn that in large towns baths were provided for those who could not afford to have them in their own homes, and that there were also professional women hair-washers.

But to return to the hospital. On one side of the ward were ten windows, each four feet square, and on the opposite side was a large door leading into the cloister with its garden, where the convalescents and the old people, whilst sheltered, could enjoy the sunshine and see the flowers and the birds. In addition to this there was a smaller ward for women, a chapel, a kitchen, and a room for the matron, as well as accommodation for the resident doctor, Maître Robert, and the serving-women. It is some consolation to think that these poor suffering folk of centuries ago were even thus well tended, but when we look at contemporary representations of the surgery of the day,[4] we tremble at the mere thought of the heroic methods adopted. Besides the actual necessaries which she provided for the hospital at Hesdin, Mahaut constantly sent gifts of fish, game, and wine. Similar gifts she likewise made to the hospitals in Artois generally, as well as to those in Paris, and, on fête-days, to the poorer religious houses.

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Sloane MS. 1977.

To face page 103.

From her beneficence to the sick and sorry, the aged and the poor, we turn to her hospitality to her relations and friends, and to all those in spiritual or temporal authority in the towns or villages of Artois. The Castle of Hesdin, destroyed in the sixteenth century—only a few stones remaining to mark the site,—was situated a few miles from the present modern town of Hesdin. It must have been not only a scene of constant festivity and social intercourse, and a treasure-house withal, but also a veritable hive of industry, with workers and workshops within the Castle enclosure as well as in the town nestling beneath its walls. Here might be found artists and craftsmen of all sorts and degrees—sculptors and workers in stone, ivory-workers, wood-carvers, carpenters, artificers in silver and precious stones as well as in copper, forgers of iron, painters of wall-decoration, stonework, saddle-bows, and even masquerading-masks, illuminators of MSS., workers and painters of glass, harness-makers, armourers, tailors, and embroiderers—the whole forming a rare and remarkable centre of activity for a woman to have developed and ruled and made into a living force.

It is a fête-day within the Castle. The horns have sounded. The feast is ready. To the great hall repair the knights and the ladies, the esquires and the damsels, two and two, according to their rank, dipping their hands, as they pass in, into silver basins of rose-water. They are gorgeously apparelled in silken garments and cloth of gold and silver, upon which are embroidered their coats of arms, for by the end of the thirteenth century armorial bearings, which by then had become attached to families, were used as a sign of nobility and rank. Mahaut, as hostess, takes her seat last. Adown the table are specimens of silver-plate, some the work of her own craftsmen, others the offerings of friendship or of courtesy. They are fashioned variously, and used for sweetmeats of all kinds, spices, almonds, and dainties made of orange and pomegranate. A favourite form is that of a ship, such as may be seen in Les Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duc de Berri, at Chantilly, in a representation of a feast given by the Duke. There are, besides, salt-cellars and sauce-boats, flagons and drinking-cups, and a bowl between every two guests, from which they eat, handing

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MS. Romance of Alexander, 14th century, Bodleian, Oxford.

To face page 104.

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Photo. Macbeth.

Harl. MS. 4425, Brit. Mus.

To face page 105.

each other dainty morsels. Such, with a knife and a spoon for each, is their equipment for the meal, for none, save the carver, has both knife and fork. In a corner of the hall is a basket for the broken-meats destined for the poor, a leathern sack being also provided for foods with gravy or sauce. Neither at festivals nor in daily life would a meal have been considered complete if the poor were not remembered. Perhaps a messenger arrives during the feast with the news of a birth or a marriage in Mahaut's circle of relations or friends, and he is rewarded with a gift of money, and possibly receives a silver cup to carry back to the nurse, or a jewelled chaplet to take to the bride. Meanwhile the music of trumpets, drums, viols, and flutes resounds from the minstrels' gallery. Later, when the feast is ended, and before the company disperses to walk in the garden if it is spring or summer, or to look at the beautiful things in the castle, or to dance or sing or play chess if it be winter, some one perchance chants a plaintive ditty to the music of the regal, or some knight tunes his harp and sings of valiant deeds, or, may be, of some peerless lady.

But let us look at the rooms of the Castle and their beautiful contents—the paintings and embroideries on the walls, the ivories, and the illuminated Psalters and MSS. And let us go first into the Countess's own room, which doubtless was near the chapel. We can form some idea of its decoration and contents from the accounts, and of its probable arrangement from contemporary plans, illuminated MSS., and pictures. Its walls were adorned with a frieze composed of heads of the kings of France, moulded in plaster and surmounted by crowns of gilded or lacquered tin, below which, on a coloured ground, were fastened fleurs-de-lis, likewise of tin similarly treated. At the end of the room was a bed, a large wooden structure surrounded by a footboard and laced across with cords on which were laid mattresses, a feather bed (sometimes, if we may judge from miniatures, used during the day as a seat on the floor), many cushions, linen or silk sheets, and a fur-lined coverlet. From rods on the ceiling hung curtains which completely enclosed it at night, but which were drawn back and looped up during the day, when the bed was used as a divan. At night a small oil lamp with a floating wick was hung within the curtains, and near the bed was a bénitier. At the side, separated by a narrow space, there were fixed seats for the accommodation of those who interviewed the Countess before she rose. There was a large open fireplace with a bench in front of it which had a movable back, so that the occupant could sit either facing the fire or with his back to it. Close by were wickerwork firescreens, capable of being raised or lowered at will. Against the walls there were carved chests, enriched with colour, and chairs with leather seats and wickerwork backs, as well as three-legged and folding stools, were placed about the room. At one side of the room was a large oak chair of state with a cushioned seat, and possibly canopied, and close to it a lectern, with hinged candle-brackets, from which Mahaut could the more easily read her MSS., which were often rolled, and difficult to manipulate. In front of this seat was a table, at which any messengers or retainers stood when they sought an interview, or the Countess demanded one. Here also she transacted with her stewards and other agents the business connected with her various castles and her many philanthropic undertakings. Other rooms were painted in plain colour, and hung on special occasions with embroideries and tapestries. Others, again, were decorated with set designs, square or zigzag, in imitation of brickwork, such as may be seen in the Chapel of St. Faith, Westminster Abbey, or with subjects or colour after which they were named. Thus we find mention of the "Parrakeet" room, from the birds painted on the walls, the "Blue" room, from its colour, the rooms of "Roses," of "Vines," and of "Fleurs-de-lis," the room of "Shields," from its frieze of armorial bearings, and that of "Song," from verses traced on the walls, taken from the favourite pastoral of "Robin and Marion," and probably associated with little scenes from the same idyll. The ceilings, with beams and joists painted red, were coloured either green or blue, and strewn with tin stars coated with yellow or white varnish to simulate gold or silver. The lower portions of the walls were often painted in imitation of short curtains, sometimes of but one colour, sometimes gorgeously decorated, but in either case reminiscent of the real draperies hung on festal days. Immediately above there might have been, as in other examples, a border painted with coats of arms, or with a foliated design interspersed with mottoes.

During Mahaut's lifetime this decorative work seems to have been undertaken principally by one special family or community of artists from Boulogne, of which a certain "Jacques" was the leading spirit. In those days artist and craftsman were one and the same. It was the quality, and not the particular subject, of the work that mattered, and thus we find that the painting of a parrot's cage, or of the shafts of a litter, was not considered derogatory for even the most skilled to undertake. From the accounts it would seem that linseed oil was used to mix with the colours, cherry gum or white of egg being added to make them dry more quickly. Payment for work was made three times a year—at Candlemas, Ascension-tide, and All-Saints—or by the day or piece, the last being the form preferred by the business-like Mahaut. Besides such payment, presents were occasionally given for specially fine work, and, if a man was married, a gift to his wife of a gown, or of a cloak with fur, was sometimes added. One of this company of Boulogne artists later on became Court-painter to the Dukes of Burgundy, and took with him not only his trained apprentices from the towns and villages of Artois, and from those bordering on Flanders, but also, doubtless, certain traditions. It is such early migrations of artists, when schools were forming, that have helped to create the difficult problems which confront the student of all early schools of art.

Of embroidery there was such profusion that it is indeed no exaggeration to say that the needle vied with the sword. There were not only wall and bed hangings, embroidered with flowers to brighten winter days, cloaks, gowns, and tunics patterned with gold thread and coloured silks, and beaver hats wrought with gold lace and pearls and sometimes precious stones, but also girdles, satchels, purses, and pennons resplendent with heraldic device, and caparison and harness for the horses. From the East were brought velvets, silks, and stuffs interwoven with gold and silver thread, and used not only for personal adornment, but also for vestments, Church-hangings, and the coverings of litters. As regards tapestry as we understand it—i.e. woven in a high warp loom—there is apparently no definite mention of its being made at Arras before 1313, so that the numerous allusions to tapestry must refer to stuffs woven in the low warp loom. These stuffs would seem to have been of two kinds, the one woven with some simple pattern, the other with heraldic designs of animals or other conventional forms copied from Oriental models. Hence the term "Saracenic" applied to both the workers and their handiwork.

In order to realise the Ivories which were probably to be seen in the Castle of Hesdin, we must go to the Louvre or the British Museum, where may be found a few rare examples of the work of the period, such as caskets carved with scenes from the life of Christ or the Virgin if they were to hold some sacred treasure, or with scenes from some Romance or from daily life if to contain jewels or other mundane objects. In addition to such caskets, often painted, Mahaut had, to hang from her girdle, as was customary with all ladies in the Middle Ages, a daintily wrought ivory writing-tablet, and a small mirror in an ivory case. These mirror-cases were generally carved with a scene from some love-story, such as two lovers playing chess, or going a-hawking, or some detail from the favourite romance of Tristan and Isolde. Possibly amongst these treasures was a saddle-bow, with a wondrous wealth of carving, or chess-men finely modelled, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, or a triptych with scenes from the Passion, represented under Gothic arches of most superb and delicate workmanship. But it is perhaps in the Chapel that we must seek the finest work, for here both Mahaut and her father, Count Robert, were lavish with unsparing hand. One Jean le Scelleur, of Paris, a carver of combs and toilet articles as well as of crucifixes and Virgins, is named as her principal craftsman. Mention is made of a Cross carved by him in cedar-wood with an ivory figure of the Christ, and of two ivory figures of the Virgin, one under a canopy, and the other with the Holy Child poised upon the hip, that sublime motive belonging more especially to the thirteenth century. The chapel itself was beautified with carved work in stone. Over the Altar, and in front of it, were painted panels, enriched with gold, and translucent enamel over colour. If we could picture to ourselves the manner of the sculptor's work we may recall the "Vine-Capital" in Rheims Cathedral, where the very stone itself seems to have been metamorphosed into tender foliage by the unknown artist.

Of wood-carving, the accounts tell of Choir-stalls, presses for vestments and various vessels and ornaments, and also of Angels, gilded and painted and bearing the emblems of the Passion, for standing round the High Altar. These are described as being raised on slender columns, connected by a bar on which were laced fringed silk curtains, thus forming a recess for the Altar. We can get some idea of the simple beauty of this arrangement from a drawing, still preserved in the sacristy of Arras Cathedral, of the High Altar in the old Cathedral, and fortunately made before the latter, with all its contents, was destroyed in the sixteenth century. It accords in every detail with the inventory record of the Chapel of Hesdin. We may also compare a picture (No. 783, "The Exhumation of St. Hubert") in the Flemish room in the National Gallery, where a somewhat similar scheme is shown.

Of the MSS. and Illuminations only brief mention can be made. Surviving examples, and the records of the time, testify to the splendour and the sum of them. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the French miniature was influenced in no small degree, both in technique and in colour, by glass painting. Towards the end of the century this influence yielded to the prevailing enthusiasm for architecture and sculpture, and in Bibles and Psalters alike there appear scenes with figures as in bas-relief, with architectural backgrounds and decorative details. The same spirit that evolved tender foliage out of the hard stone of cathedral and church evolved also the delicate hawthorn-leaf enriching the initial letter of the MS. It mattered little whether the material worked on was stone or parchment. Each was but a means for giving expression to a newly discovered scheme of beauty—the beauty of Nature. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a renewed impetus had been given to the arts of writing and illumination. This was partly because a demand had arisen for a secular literature to supersede the tiresome and time-worn recitations of minstrels, and partly because, in the fourteenth century, Books of Hours, instead of the Psalter alone as had hitherto been customary, came into general use in private devotion. This created a fresh want, and at the same time supplied a number of new subjects in which the artist could reveal his skill. Arras was one of the chief centres of this new movement, a movement which Mahaut continued and stimulated. She employed artists to illuminate both sacred and secular works for her own use as well as for gifts—gifts counted beyond compare and beside which even precious stones were deemed of less worth. To Mahaut this desire for beauty was a very lode-star. To glance at a list of the gold- and silver-smiths' work—the jewelled and enamelled chaplets of gold, the jewelled girdles, and buckles, and braids for the hair, and the cups, some of silver with crystal covers or wrought with enamel and precious stones, and others of jasper mounted with silver work—reads like a fantasy of hidden treasure in some fairy tale. Even her chess-boards—and she was a devotee of the game—were of silver or ivory, and one, we read, was of jasper and chalcedony mounted with silver and gems, the chess-men being of jasper and crystal.

For the younger folk about her there was tennis, and also games of hazard with forfeits of girdles and coifs to the ladies. In the Castle garden were certain mechanical contrivances which, by their sudden and unexpected action, were supposed to amuse the unwary guests. One sprinkled them with water, another with black or white powder, as they passed by, and yet another, in the form of a monkey, struck them with a stick, whilst in a bower might be seen a mirror wherein all who looked saw only the distorted semblance of themselves. These unwelcome pleasantries were a part of the miscellaneous borrowings from the East. But for the easily amused folk of the Middle Ages, time passed merrily enough in the midst of such pastimes, and only the shadow on the dial seemed to mark its flight.

But Mahaut, amid the manifold claims on her time and talent, had seen the shadow lengthening. From time to time she had been attacked by illness, to which blood-letting and other remedies of the day had brought relief. But on the 25th November 1329, when in Paris, she was seized with a sudden sickness, so sudden that sinister rumours were noised abroad. Human aid was of no avail. Two days later there was general lamentation. The shadow had lengthened into the night. Mahaut was dead. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at the foot of her father's grave in the Abbey of Maubuisson, near Paris, her heart being placed in the Church of the Franciscans in Paris, beside the remains of her son, whose tomb there was afterwards removed to St. Denis. Her possession of Artois, for which she had laboured devotedly, became annexed to the Duchy of Burgundy through the marriage of her granddaughter with its Duke.

Here, though only a tithe has been told, we must take leave of this cultivated woman of the fourteenth century, a type of the time and for all time. Her aim was the aim of all culture—the attainment of as complete a life as possible. To this she aspired, and to this in large measure she attained. What more can be said of even those we count the greatest?

  1. Richard (Jules Marie), Une Petite Nièce de S. Louis: Mahaut, Comtesse d'Artois.

    Dehaisnes (M. le Chanoine), L'Histoire de l'art dans la Flandre, l'Artois, et le Hainaut avant le XVᵐᵉ siecle.

  2. The Bible was first translated into French, and reduced in size so that it could be carried in the hand, between 1200 and 1250.
  3. Chillon, Albert Naef, Geneve, 1908.
  4. Sec Roger of Parma, Treatise on Surgery. French thirteenth century. Brit. Mus., Sloane MS., 1977.