About Fernão Lopes and his Chronicles

Lopes (1380/90 - c.1460) was appointed royal chronicler in 1434 by King Duarte of Portugal (1391-1438). Prior to that, there is every reason to believe he wrote the chronicles of every Portuguese king since the foundation of the monarchy (12th cent.) by order of the then Prince Duarte. Only the three last chronicles, however, have survived complete and are unquestionably considered to form his work today. It was also Prince Duarte who appointed him as keeper of the Royal Archive in 1418.
          The chronicles of the three reigns prior to King Duarte embrace a period of West European history from 1357 to 1411 and offer a wealth of information not only on internal but also on external affairs. The content of the chronicles is of particular interest to medievalists studying this eventful period because it offers additional information and commentary to that found in the Castilian and French chronicles of Pero López de Ayala or Jean Froissart, widely held as the main primary sources for the period.
          Fernão Lopes is recognized as the father of Portuguese historiography. The magnitude of his work, his research methodology, the precision invested in registering complex events, the range of information and perspectives offered, combined with the deliberate narrative structure and techniques he adopted to fulfill his task, clearly mark him as one of the most interesting chroniclers of the late Middle Ages. Lopes even shares and discusses his concerns as an historian in the Prologue to the Crónica de D. João I, part I.
          Distinctive in Lopes’s narrative is the frequency with which he emphasizes the role of the people, reflecting their experiences, either as center-stage heroes or as a cleverly manipulated force, though always noble in intention. This identification with popular intervention in the dynastic revolution in 1383-1385, considered by Jaime Cortesão (Factores Democráticos na Fundação de Portugal, 1978) to be the first democratic heartbeat in Portugal and in feudal Western Europe is, moreover, absent in Ayala’s and Froissart’s work. The former was a courtier coming from a major aristocratic family in Castile, and the latter was a clergyman more enthralled by the spirit of chivalry than with the task of writing a chronicle representing all layers of medieval society. Lopes, however, came from a family of artisans in Lisbon. His professional training as a notary and fulfillment of duties as librarian to Prince Duarte, as well as private secretary to Prince Fernando, led to his promotion, first to keeper of the Archives and then to royal chronicler.
          Despite its peripheral location in the south-western corner of Europe, Portugal had a more significant role in the continent than is generally acknowledged. Peter Russell, who used Lopes’s chronicles in his volume analyzing the presence of the English in the Iberian Peninsula, endorses this point (The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the time of Edward III and Richard II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955). Russell points out the importance of Fernão Lopes’s views to improve our perception of the events in the region at this time.
          Through Lopes’s account, the modern reader learns of stratagems used in secret diplomatic missions, like receiving foreign emissaries in the queen’s chambers, which offered more closely guarded privacy. This detail and Queen Leonor Teles’s struggle for power offers opportunities for research in Women and Social Studies. Lopes is acquainted with John of Gaunt’s daughter Philippa, the negotiations for her marriage to João I of Portugal, her religious influence, and the care invested into her learning of the language and affairs of her new country. Philippa was one of the best educated women in Europe. References to public health and epidemics, especially during the three-month-long siege of Lisbon, and to military theory, strategy and tactics will also interest the medieval scholar. The contribution to military studies goes beyond the usual description of armor and combats. It focuses upon the battle ground chosen or forced upon the enemy, battle formation, and logistics, including health concerns for the well-being and better performance of a strong and fit army. King João I’s ironic reference to the heroes of the Round Table in order to criticize the poor performance of his followers at the siege of Coria bears witness to the popularity of Arthurian literature in Portugal. On the other hand, the gruesome account of the execution of Inês de Castro’s murderers at the hands of King Pedro, followed by the criticism directed at him and the King of Castile “by all noblemen who heard of it” and considered it an act of great infamy, explains the impact it had upon people’s imagination inside and outside Portugal. It has inspired authors as geographically and chronologically distanced from the event as Victor Hugo in the nineteenth century and even the American composer Thomas Pastieri whose opera Ines de Castro premiered in 1976 with the Baltimore Opera.
            In fact, it is difficult to find an aspect of medieval life not represented in Lopes’s chronicles. He had access to a vast number of documents collected inside and outside Portugal, including Ayala’s chronicles of the kings of Castile, which he criticizes for being excessively biased, and to several Portuguese narratives now lost, apart from letters and other official writings. Lopes combined these sources with personal details gathered from interviews with witnesses of many events, to compose what he presents as a truthful image of the age. 

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