Amé de Montgesoie, Le Pas de la Mort and other verse, in French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [northern France (probably Rouen), c.1500]
1. Commissioned for a young noblewoman of the family of Valhé de Montenoy of Lorraine, who is shown kneeling before the Virgin and Child on fol.26v: her family's arms of trois fers de faux d'argent sur vert there in the bas-de-page and on fol.1r and 16v, those at the end of volume within a ribbon bearing the motto "PANSES A LA FIN". The supplementary poems on fols.205-245 suggest that the manuscript was intended for use by a child
2. J. Fagniere: eighteenth-century inscription on flyleaf.
3. Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872); his MS.12294, acquired from Payne and Foss in 1848, no.38 among the collection of 55 manuscripts formerly in the Biblioteca Sessoriana in Rome, many of which had previously been at Nonantola.
4. Frederick Fermor-Hesketh, 2nd Baron Hesketh (1916-55); acquired from Robinson cat.81 (1950), no.33; and by descent to the present owner.
Poetry is the bedrock of French literature. It is among the earliest surviving literary expressions of that culture, and remained a vibrant artform from the first extant chansons (such as the eleventh-century Song of Roland) through to the compositions of the acclaimed authoress and poet, Christine de Pizan (1365-1434). Amé de Montgesoie, who was a near-contemporary of Christine de Pizan, held office at the Burgundian court in the service of Isabelle de Bourbon (1436-65), the second wife of Charles the Bold (1433-77; count of Charolais and after 1465 the duke of Burgundy), as her valet de chambre, and after her death in 1465 as ensuite valet de chambre et huisser d'armes to her daughter, Mary of Burgundy (1457-82). This text was composed during his service to Isabelle, and is dedicated to her as "charloy dame et contesse" (fol.16r). It was popular in the late Middle Ages, and is described by the Burgundian courtier Olivier de La Marche (1425-1502) in his poem, Le Chevalier Délibéré, as "plus riche que d'or ne de soye". It was edited most recently by T. Walton, 'Les poèmes d'Amé de Montgesoie', Medium Aevum II (1933), without access to this manuscript.
This is a dark work, which blends black humour with moral exhortation. The central character is Lady Death, who will lead us all out of this world into the next. She is aided in her task by her two assistants, the knights Lentique (old age and decrepitude) and Accident (death by some mishap or cause), who throughout history have contested to end men's lives. Her embrace is inevitable, "Tout vient de terre et y retourne / Terre est mort et mere a la vie" (fol.6v), and will come to kings and peasants alike, who despite their wealth and power in this life "es sepulchres dormir ensembles" (fol.6r). These grim themes are found throughout late medieval memento mori but seem sharpened here, perhaps reflecting the experiences of a patron whose life was filled with death and loss. The bloodshed of the Hundred Years' War and the horrors of the perennial waves of Black Death after the arrival of the disease in 1348, have left their mark, but Isabelle also witnessed the death of all of her brother's children and the subsequent loss of the lordship of Auvergne, and the death of her infant godson in 1459 (the child of the dauphin, later Louis XI, and Charlotte of Savoy). She too died at the young age of twenty-nine.
This manuscript also contains some devotional verses in French: a poem on the Passion opening "Juifz lont prins quant malcus eut sane..." (fols.18r-19v); a dictie in verse opening "Mon createur redempteur et vraye pere..." (19v-20r; cf. J. Sonet, Répertoire d'incipit de prières, 1956, p.210, no.1163, recording its use in the Grandes Heures of Vérard, printed c.1490); a poem 'Ce qui est en ce petit liure', opening "Mon enfant tout premierement..." (20r-23v) ; a balade on the same theme, opening "Mon enfant soyes deuocieulx..." (23v-24r); and Aultre belle protestacion a la glorieuse vierge marie opening "Ici ung cueur silent..." (24r-26v).
Five other manuscripts of Le Pas de la Mort are recorded by Walton and by C.W.Carroll, Olivier de la Marche, 1999, pp.16 and 24. Three are fifteenth-century: Lille, b.m., ms 401 (on paper, 3 miniatures); BnF ms fr.2797 (on paper, 4 miniatures); and BnF ms fr.15216 (on vellum, one miniature). Two others are sixteenth-century: Vienna, ÖNB. Cod.2654 (on vellum) and Oxford, Bodleian MS. Douce 168 (on paper).
The miniatures are the work of a skilled artist within the circle of the Rouen illuminator Robert Boyvin (fl.1487-1536). This prolific artist came from a family established in the Rouen book trade since the early fifteenth century, and by 1503 when he illuminated a manuscript of Seneca's Epîtres for Archbishop Georges d'Amboise of Rouen, he held a commanding position within the city's artistic community. See I. Delauney, 'Le manuscrit enluminé à Rouen au temps du cardinal Georges d'Amboise: l'oeuvre de Robert Boyvin et de Jean Serpin', Annales de Normandie, 3 (1995), pp.211-44, and E. König in Tenschert, Leuchtendes Mittelalter, IV, 1992, esp. pp.523-35.
The miniatures comprise: (1) folio 1r, three-quarter page, 103mm. high, the Traveller in a wide brimmed hat holding a staff, walking through a woody landscape; arms in bas-de-page. (2) folio 2r, 72mm. by 90mm., the Traveller perched on a rocky outcrop, gesturing to Lady Death asleep in a tent on the plain behind; to the left a leafless tree with the shields of Lentique and Accident. (3) folio 3r, three-quarter page, 101mm. high, Lady Death ('la dame' picked out in silver at her knees) standing beside Lentique (his name in silver above his head) and Maladie as a corpse seated in a coffin, facing Accident astride a fantastical and terrifying horse, which has loaded crossbows as antlers, knives as a mane and spears for its front legs, as they all crush men underfoot. (4) folio 3v, 85mm. by 70mm., Lady Death between the knights Accident and Lentique. (5) folio 4v, 85mm. by 73mm., same figures as previous standing among fallen nobles in finery and golden armour. (6) folio 8r, three-quarter page, 100 mm. high, Lady Death striking at kings and nobles despite their offers to her of money pouches and crowns; in the foreground her servant Excess as a large man with a bulging stomach. (7) folio 10r, 90mm. by 76mm., Accident and Lentique riding fearsome mythical animals towards men with drawn bows. (8) folio 12r, three-quarter page, 95mm. high, Lady Death standing behind an abbess (named 'Symony' in silver) and a young woman (named 'Loy' in black ink), gesturing for them to leave. (9) folio 14r, three-quarter page, 93mm. high, the Last Judgement with Christ seated on a rainbow as the dead rise up; in the foreground Lady Death hands over her contract to Excess and holds out her hand for payment for her work. (10) folio 15v, three-quarter page, 98mm. high, Lady Death with her contract, the Traveller and Excess. (11) folio 16v, three-quarter page, 95mm. high, the Crucifixion with the Traveller kneeling; arms in bas-de-page. (12) folio 26v, three-quarter page, 88mm. high, a young woman kneeling before the Virgin and Child in a mandorla on a gold background; arms in bas-de-page on a ribbon with inscription "PANSES A LA FIN".