The Medieval Review 11.07.04

Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Marie-Geneviève Grossel and Samuel N. Rosenberg. "Sottes chansons contre Amours": parodie et burlesque au Moyen Âge. Essais sur le Moyen Âge 46. Paris: Honoré Champion éditeur, 2010. Pp. 240. 50 EUR. 978-2-7453-1996-8. . .

Reviewed by:

Christopher Callahan
Illinois Wesleyan University

This edition of little-known lyric compositions from two early fourteenth-century French manuscripts--one a chansonnier, the other a diverse compilation--constitutes an important "first" on a number of fronts. As the first complete presentation of sottes chansons since Arthur Långfors' edition of 1945, it offers a sophisticated analysis of the genre, deftly navigating among studies of Old French satire and fatrasie to accord the sotte chanson a niche distinctly its own. Through its review of the growing corpus of research on satiric and parodic verse, moreover, as well as on the urbanized performative contexts for lyric at the dawn of the Ars Nova, "Sottes chansons contre Amours" features a significantly expanded and updated bibliography of its subject. Its rigorous philological apparatus and scrupulous translations, finally, complete a volume whose substance and precision have become the trademarks of this team of scholars.

"Sottes chansons contre Amours" is in fact Doss-Quinby and Rosenberg's second monograph devoted to selected lyric genres from Oxford, Bodleian, Douce 308 (trouvère ms. I). [1] Twenty-two of the extant songs bearing this rubric are found on fols. 239-243v of ms. I, while six more come from a section of eighteen lyric pieces (fols. 303r-310v, all unica) in Paris, BnF, fr. 24432, a variegated anthology of prose and verse works of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In addition, Doss-Quinby, Grossel, and Rosenberg initiate their presentation with a poem not edited by Långfors. This piece, by the early thirteenth-century trouvère Robert de Reims, known as la Chièvre, has the merit of being the oldest known sotte chanson, thus pushing back the origins of the genre by several decades while bringing the total number of identified sottes chansons to twenty-nine. It must be understood that none of the lyric compositions in either codex is notated for music, a lacuna which prompts a brief but well-reasoned argument for including them among the littera cum musica.

The volume is divided nearly evenly between introductory remarks (9-118) and texts and translations (119-235). The introduction's ten sections are devoted to the following topics:

1. The corpus

2. Defining the sotte chanson

3. Stylistic analysis of the techniques of parody

4. Lexicographic analysis, including syntax, rhyme scheme and the construction of the burlesque

5. The Puys and contexts for public performance

6. Posterity of the genre

7. Poetic technique

8. Linguistic analysis of the manuscripts

9. Editorial principles

10. Tables

While Långfors' discussion of the sotte chanson securely established it as a form of parody and insightfully explored its lexical choices and rhetorical strategies as comedic techniques, his successors have contributed considerable nuance to the debate. For while Långfors insisted on the "infinite distance" which separated the foolish (sotte) from the courtly chanson, Doss-Quinby, Grossel, and Rosenberg assert the integral connection between the parodic palimpsest and its hypotext, aware that the same trouvères must have composed both classic and farcical love songs. Since each generation of scholars, moreover, must view the past through its own prism, the repugnance expressed for these songs by their mid-twentieth-century editor, who termed them "an offense to modesty," is replaced in his twenty-first century descendants, by a fascination with the interplay between the conventional and the parodic, the sacred and the secular, the refined and the vulgar/obscene.

It is indeed scholarship since Långfors which, having sought to conflate sotte chanson with satire and fatrasie, prompted this team to engage in such a punctilious search for the genre's identity. Their carefully developed argument has led to a definition which permits us to classify the sotte chanson as a genre in its own right, with its own rhetorical purposes and strategies, while avoiding rejection of alternative interpretations: "The sotte chanson could therefore be defined as a lyric counter-text whose parodic-comedic features allow for the simultaneous subversion and celebration of courtly love song." [2] This is the volume's greatest advance, for it views the sotte chanson as an ongoing dialogue, in a living performance tradition, with its source genre.

Indeed, the six songs in Paris, BnF, fr. 24432 are recorded from poetic competitions (puys) held in a single place--Valenciennes (Nord-Pas de Calais)--in the late thirteenth century. All of these songs are designated as prize-winning compositions (chansons couronnées) and four are attributed to a Jehan Baillehaut, whose residence in the city is attested in 1274. The discussion of the place of these songs in the puys and of their posterity in the fourteenth century is innovative and every bit as nuanced as that concerning the definition of the genre. In particular, the latter argument permits the authors to challenge the accepted dating of BnF, fr. 24432, thereby nuancing in every aspect of their analysis the conventional wisdom which has allowed many of Långfors' suggestions to become certitudes over the decades.

The section on "Poetic Technique," by its sophisticated and detailed analysis of meter and rhyme, addresses a crucial question: this exemplary philological examination reveals the sotte chanson poets to have been masters of versification whose rhyme schemes are notably original. Thus while the genre's formal ties with the grand chant and to a lesser extent with the pastourelle and the jeu-parti are indisputable, only one of the twenty-nine songs is an actual contrafact of a courtly chanson. If contrafacture there is, and the authors leave no doubt as to its agency, it is contrafacture of the spirit of courtly lyric in general rather than of an individual composition. This negative evocation of courtly themes, discourse and lexicon was very much a product of the thirteenth century, but one which, considering the presence of Robert de Reims among its practitioners, had by no means arisen in response to the urban poetic competitions which gave it such prominence.

The texts are accompanied by an impeccable critical apparatus featuring versification, manuscripts, extant editions, rejected readings, and remarks. The modern French translations remain quite close to the original yet avoid sounding awkward or archaic. Rather they capture quite effectively the astonishment and often titillating delight that medieval audiences must having experienced at hearing their expectations, set up by a conventional first half of a couplet, completely dashed by a decidedly anti-courtly second half.

The merits of this study are many, not the least of which are its ongoing fascination with late trouvère codex compilation, its sophisticated analysis of genre, language, and society, and its valorization of lyric performance. Its greatest asset, in the end, is simply the access it provides to this unusual and fascinating genre, with its facing-page layout of text and translation and its detailed, informative notes. While not likely to become part of the undergraduate curriculum, this work is accessible to graduate students and researchers alike, and considerably increases our understanding of trouvère lyrics in the last decades of the Ars Antiqua.



1. Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Samuel N. Rosenberg, and Elizabeth Aubrey. The Old French Ballette: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308. Publications Romanes et Françaises 239. Genève: Droz, 2006.

2. "La sotte chanson pourrait donc se définir comme un contre-texte lyrique dont le comique parodique permet de subvertir le Grand Chant tout en le célébrant."