Chapter Two - The Primary Sources
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 November 2022
RETURNING TO THE primary sources directly related to Agnès to evaluate what they suggest about the real person and her role at court is an enterprise fraught with peril. Most chroniclers had no personal access to women at court, depending instead on informants who may themselves have been biased against women. The genre of the memoir with its focus on personal relationships did not exist in the fifteenth century—although we see leanings in that direction in some chronicles—which means that we have very few close observations of individual women. Moreover, the primary sources do not offer a sustained narrative, but rather give us disconnected bits and pieces. Agnès is summoned abruptly into male-dominated episodes and then dismissed too soon for us to get much concrete information about her. Further complicating the matter, her narrative purpose is often more symbolic than realistic: she distracts the king after the manner of Phyllis and Aristotle or Bathsheba and David. Reconstructing her story means piecing snippets together, and, then, to avoid mistaking allegorical for literal meaning, checking the reconstructed story against a larger historical context to see if it seems plausible. But this creates still another problem, because this larger historical context is just another construction based on the very texts that we are trying to understand how to read. Were contemporaries genuinely disapproving of Agnès or is this an impression created by chronicles?
And yet, primary sources are all we have, unless we opt for historical nihilism. In Agnès's case, even if the primary sources demonstrate nothing else for certain, one thing is clear: relative to the Duchess of Étampes some ninety years later, Agnès flummoxed contemporaries, who did not know what to make of the king's raising an unknown young woman to such a position of luxury. Charles VII's court lacked any concept of the royal mistress as a powerful and iconic figure; the role, like that of the mignon, was discursive, in the sense that it came into existence when the king and his courtiers tacitly agreed that it did and accorded it a significance expressed symbolically. Legitimacy and authority are produced as much through symbols and ritual as force. The king could ensconce his mistress wherever he chose. But this did not automatically create a position for her that others acknowledged and accepted.
- Agnès Sorel and the French MonarchyHistory, Gallantry, and National Identity, pp. 17 - 34Publisher: Amsterdam University PressPrint publication year: 2022