In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philippe De Commynes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies and Biographical Studies
  • Commynes’s Historical and Political Philosophy
  • The Memoir as Genre
  • Reception
  • Betrayal as a Defining Theme
  • Influence on Machiavelli and Montaigne
  • The Vision of Jean Dufournet
  • Commynes as Patron
  • Language and Style
  • Editions of the Mémoires
  • English Translations
  • Commynes’s Letters
  • Published Archival Sources

Renaissance and Reformation Philippe De Commynes
Irit Ruth Kleiman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0343


Franco-Burgundian diplomat Philippe de Commynes (b. c. 1445/1447–d. October 1511) is best remembered for his Mémoires, which both inaugurated the genre and gave it a name. Commynes’s narrative portrays events and personalities from England, France, Burgundy, and both the Italian and German states, providing what is arguably the single most important narrative source for the second half of the 15th century. Commynes entered Burgundian court service as a teenager and rose to visibility as a cherished favorite of Charles the Bold, son of Philip the Good and the last duke of Burgundy. However, in 1472 Commynes fled Burgundy and joined the royal court of French king Louis XI, “the Spider King.” There he once more became a privileged favorite, this time at the head of Louis XI’s intelligence operations against the same Charles the Bold (d. January 1477). The second half of Commynes’s career played out largely in the Italian peninsula, especially in relation to the city states of Milan, Ferrara, Florence, and Venice. Commynes suffered a period of political disgrace after Louis XI’s death in 1483; he appears to have begun writing his Mémoires of Louis’s reign while under house arrest during the late 1480s, as a result of his part in conspiracies against the regency which shaped the first years of Charles VIII’s reign. The First Italian War provided a trampoline for Commynes to return to diplomatic relevance: Charles VIII selected Commynes to serve as an ambassador in Venice, on a largely futile mission to obstruct formation of the Italic League. Commynes’s second period of historiographic activity records the ascendancy and death of the Florentine preacher Savanarola and the unraveling of French military and political ambitions in Italy. Books 1–6 of the Mémoires (those written in the later 1480s, recalling the rivalry between Charles and Louis XI from 1464 to 1483) were first published in 1524. Books 7–8 (written during the 1490s, close in time and source material to the events recorded) were first published in 1528. Although there are numerous, significant distinctions to be made between these two periods of activity in terms of content, historiographic technique, and publication history, the ensemble is nearly always treated as if it were one work. The unrivaled influence exerted by Commynes’s narrative—less chronicle than didactic insider scoop—is reflected in the Mémoires’ explosive success during the 16th-century, and their distinction, unique to French language texts, of never having been out of print.

General Overviews

These studies of Commynes reflect attempts to provide complete introductions to the author, his historical context, and his narrative. They largely reflect the extent to which discourses about Commynes tend to channel the anxieties of a political Zeitgeist, amplifying broader shifts in the study of historical sources and their authors. Perhaps reflective of the Cold War context in which it was written, Dufournet 1966 cast a durable shadow over post–World War II readings of Commynes with its assertion that betrayal was a secret cancer that gnawed at a Commynes haunted by his past as a traitor-spy. The chapter on Commynes in Archambault 1974 offers a softer view, both speculative and philosophical, and has the advantage of painting a portrait of Commynes brought into relief against a line-up of the usual suspects (Joinville, Froissart, etc.). Blanchard 1996, written at the moment when the European Union was redefining citizenship, presents a markedly sociological perspective. Blanchard 2012 gathers together a range of specialists on the diverse historical contexts in which Commynes operated and where his text was received. Kleiman 2013 examines Books 1–6 of the Mémoires (the reign of Louis XI), Commynes’s diplomatic correspondence, and a range of juridical and archival materials, offering a revised perspective on Dufournet 1966, and shedding light on the links between political and literary history. One further note: Readers approaching Commynes’s intimately scaled narrative for the first time are likely to find useful a broader sense of 15th-century France and Burgundy. To that end, Huizinga 1996 remains a defining work in historiography, however outdated his perspective may be within contemporary scholarship. Kendall 1971 presents English speakers with a tantalizing portrait of a notorious French king. Allmand 2000 offers a different kind of initiation, at once more dispersed and more scholarly.

  • Allmand, Christopher, ed. War, Government, and Power in Late Medieval France. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

    Twelve essays by pre-eminent historians. Topics include studies of Commynes, Froissart, or Chartier within their courtly contexts; discussions of war and diplomacy; examinations of the concepts of “center” and “margin” in what is now northern France; and investigations of law and justice ranging from feudalism and clientele to parliamentary procedure.

  • Archambault, Paul. “Commynes: History as Lost Innocence.” In Witnesses to History: Seven French Chroniclers. By Paul Archambault, 101–115. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1974.

    Compares questions of style and historical causality in Commynes’s writing to works by Tacitus, Augustine, and Machiavelli. Argues that Commynes was not a “destroyer of courtly, feudal myths” (per Dufournet 1966), but rather the nostalgic observer of their death.

  • Blanchard, Joël. Commynes l’Européen: l’invention du politique. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1996.

    Emphasizes the role of Italy in shaping Commynes’s views of writing and politics. Shifted discussion of the Mémoires away from comparison with medieval courtly chronicles and toward a vision defined by early modern modes of diplomatic action motivated by pragmatism and profit.

  • Blanchard, Joël, ed. 15112011: Philippe de Commynes. Droit, écriture: deux piliers de la souveraineté. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 2012.

    Contains eighteen invited essays divided into four sections, covering “approaches to writing and the written,” “politics and pragmatism,” “European perspectives,” and “later readers, relays and inheritors,” followed by one study of Commynes’s business ventures.

  • Dufournet, Jean. La Destruction des mythes dans les Mémoires de Philippe de Commynes. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1966.

    A meticulous comparison of Commynes’s narrative with other contemporary narrative sources. Contends that Commynes wrote his Mémoires to justify an act of treason that overshadowed the rest of his life, so that he wanted to prove everyone around him corrupt, foolish, or both.

  • Huizinga, Johan. The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    Poetic, passionate, and on a par with Burckhardt for its influence on our ideas of an age. First edition Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (Haarlem, 1919); long known in English as The Waning of the Middle Ages. The edition given provides a substantially revised and corrected translation.

  • Kendall, Paul Murray. Louis XI: The Universal Spider. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

    Justly celebrated for decades, this work remains the best-known English-language biography of one of France’s most controversial, charismatic rulers. Intended for the general public. Kendall provides a fascinating page-turner, but some readers may wish to treat his analyses of both Louis XI and Commynes with caution.

  • Kleiman, Irit Ruth. Philippe de Commynes: Memory, Betrayal, Text. Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442663237

    Connects the impact and legacy of Commynes’s work to narratives of modernity. Argues for the emergence of the political memoir as a genre of resistance, tied to shifts in emergent political subjectivity.

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