Zo, Gaston, traïtour”: Froissart and the Menace of Occitan

Andrew Taylor
University of Ottawa 

In Book III of his Chroniques, Froissart describes his week-long journey to Orthez, home of Gaston, Count of Foix, and the two months that he then spent there under the warm patronage of this ruler, “so perfect that one could not praise him highly enough,” whose court resounded with minstrelsy and chivalric conversation. For Froissart, the court’s liminal position on the edges of French, Spanish, and English lands, along with its celebration of chivalric deeds, made it the best location in all the world to gather information for his chronicles. But this admiration did not extent to court’s main language. The count, who as a young man won the laureate at the poetic competition in Toulouse, was a major patron of Occitan culture. Froissart never alludes to Gaston’s own literary efforts, however, or to the translations into Occitan that he sponsored, or to the contents of his library, or the to competition between his minstrel and that of the king of Aragon, which occurred the same year, 1388.Froissart even omits the count’s Occitan nom-de-guerre, Fébus. In all of Froissart’s account, there is only one word in Occitan, the expletive “Zo” and the word occurs in the most sinister of contexts, an account of how Gaston inadvertently murdered his only legitimate heir when he was revealed to be carrying poison. In Froissart’s account, Occitan language and culture are almost entirely absent. 

Critics such as Peter Ainsworth, Michel Zinc, and George Diller have helped us appreciate the rich self-referential symbolic structure of Book III, a book about its own author, a chronicler who is also a poet, who is carrying a book (his Méliador) to read at a court whose strange doings may perhaps be explained by reference to yet another book, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These readings, however, accept Froissart’s texts as largely self-sufficient or part of a literary intertext, thus reducing his key interlocutors to literary fictions, constructed by Froissart’s writing to display Froissart’s writing. In contrast, the historian Madeleine Pailhès has recently stressed that the informants Froissart describes were real people working for an intimidating lord and that they would not have passed on information unless Fébus so desired. Following her lead, we might see Book III as part of a cultural struggle, although one of which Froissart was only partially aware. Froissart’s guide, Sir Espan de Lyon, one of the count’s most trusted knights, directed Froissart’s attention (and possibly even his travels) to spots that marked the count’s success as a military and political leader, protecting his people by terrorizing his enemies. If Gaston emerges as a sinister figure, this is because that is how he wanted his agents to depict him. More tentatively, I will consider the relation between the numerous other Occitan voices at Orthez in 1388 and Froissart’s account. Was Froissart simply oblivious to the rich Occitan literary activity in Orthez or did its very strength actually drive his efforts to depict the southerners and their language as barbaric?