Valenciennes was during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries the principal town of the county of Hainaut, a province of the Empire. Hainaut was held, along with the counties of Holland and Zeeland and the lordship of Friesland, by the Avesnes counts before passing in the 1350s to the dukes of Bavaria – a transition marked by civil strife, dynastic infighting and lordly madness – and via them to the dukes of Burgundy.
In the second quarter of the fourteenth century Valenciennes hosted one of the most dazzling courts of Europe, under Count William ‘the Good’. William’s marriage alliances with France, the Empire, the Low Countries and England exported his court’s passion for chivalry and for tournaments as well as cementing his domain’s political importance. William’s court’s influence and complex situation are illustrated by works written in the international language of French. The mighty prose romance of Perceforest, written for William in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, supports English claims to sovereignty over the island of Britain through the adventures of Alexander’s knights well before Arthur’s day (thus joining the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century debates over inter-British sovereignty conducted via the Brut tradition, including Albine and Scota). The English connection is emphasized in the lament written shortly after William’s death in 1337 by Jean de Le Mote and addressed to William’s third daughter, Edward III’s queen Philippa (herself probably born in Valenciennes). This was quickly countered when Simon de Lille, Parisian-based goldsmith to nobility and royalty, commissioned Le Mote in 1340 to write the Parfait du Paon, in which the adventures of the Perceforest are forestalled and its proto-English heroes pre-emptively killed off. Revising their presentation in Perceforest, these characters are presented as treacherous oath-breakers in an implicit rebuke to both Edward and the Low Countries for their recent actions against Philip VI of France, actions that would set off the Hundred Years’ War.
The career of Jean Froissart (c.1337-c.1405), poet, chronicler and undoubtedly Valenciennes’ most famous son, is both individual and representative of the town’s and court’s situation in Europe. Attached in his youth to Philippa’s entourage in England, influenced by Machaut and in literary exchange with Chaucer, Froissart after Philippa’s death found patrons in the Low Countries and in Picardy. His travels further afield – to Scotland, Ireland, Milan, Orthez and Avignon, among other places – trace the further reaches of these circles of patronage, and his monumental Chroniques detail their roles in the great War. Froissart’s political sympathies are often held to shift in the course of his writings and rewritings, but throughout his work he prefers chivalric, ethical explanations to dynastic or territorial ones. His poetic dits reflect in a different vein on questions of memory and representation, on power, patronage and affect. Méliador, his long Arthurian verse romance (at a time when such were no longer written) enclosing the lyric poems of his protector Wenceslas of Brabant, sets its action in the same geography as the British sections of the Chroniques, and carries his characteristic themes in further directions.
The town beyond the court was a typically prosperous textile producer and marketplace of the Escaut basin. Noted for its commercial liveliness and inventiveness, Valenciennes also enjoyed substantial and unusual legal privileges independently of the count of Hainaut, including the right to burn down the houses in the surrounding countryside of nobles who had the misfortune to commit a crime against a bourgeois, and the otherwise royal privilege of executing criminals. Literary activity was typical of the northern towns: there were two confraternities (one older than that of Arras) which held puys, with some winning poems surviving; there is evidence too of a lively popular tradition of theatre. Church influence is represented by the Franciscan Jacques de Guise (1337-1399), author of the Annales Hannoniae which traces Hainaut’s Trojan origins and asserts its historic independence from either France or the Empire. The town was not, however, a noted centre of learning – at least according to de Guise’s rather sour comment.
At the end of our period, the orientation of Valenciennes and of Hainaut changes. From the broadly west-east