The Medieval Review 11.11.19

Corbellari, Alain, ed. Joseph Bédier, Philologie et humanisme: Articles et préfaces inédits en volume. Recherches Littéraires Médiévales. Paris: Éditions Classiques Garnier, 2010. Pp. 490. . . 67 EUR. ISBN 978-2-8124-0205-0.

Reviewed by:

Wendy Pfeffer
University of Louisville

There is a recent trend in the Paris publishing industry to reprint or republish publications by famous scholars of earlier generations--the beginnings of a historiography of literary study in France. In this vein is the volume Moyen Age et Renaissance au Collège de France (Paris, 2009), a collection of inaugural addresses at the Collège by specialists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a 665-page tome that includes every inaugural lecture the editors, Pierre Toubert and Michel Zink, could find, from the first, presented by Jules Michelet (1838) to that offered by scholar Roland Recht in 2001. The volume under review here is of the same genre, a collection of many shorter works by the important literary scholar Joseph Bédier.

Editor Alain Corbellari offers as partial explanation for this volume the fact that Bédier was not the recipient of a Festschrift during his lifetime, nor of a volume of inédits that might have been published shortly after his death. One explanation for these lacunae may well be the reputation that Bédier had during his lifetime--not only as a scholar, but also as an individual who succeeded in popularizing medieval literature in France, in particular the story of Tristan and Iseut. Popular esteem rarely goes hand in hand with a scholarly reputation, and Bédier may well have been slighted for this reason.

Corbellari himself is not only an outstanding scholar of medieval French literature, but also an expert on Bédier, on whom he published Joseph Bédier écrivain et philologue (Geneva, 1997), and whose correspondence he, with Ursula Bähler, has edited, Gaston Paris- Joseph Bédier, Correspondance (Florence, 2009).

As for Bédier, born in 1864, he rose through the French academic ranks to become in 1903 a professor at the Collège de France, the most prestigious institution in the country. In 1921 he was elected to the Académie française; he served as president of the international organization Alliance française. His scholarship was recognized worldwide; he toured North America five times between 1909 and 1937 (16); he was also the recipient of a number of degrees honoris causa (including from the Université de Louvain, the University of Vilnius and Oxford University). It would have been useful to have given readers of this book a fuller biography (e.g., Bédier's death year of 1938 is not to be found in the volume) so as to place the essays more fully in context. What makes him memorable was his own scholarship and his efforts to bring medieval French literature to a modern public (11). Bédier's first major work was his thesis on the fabliaux (1893); he is remembered in North America for his editorial approach, so different from that of Lachmann. Corbellari invites readers to consider Bédier's introductions to medieval works such as the Song of Roland and Aucassin et Nicolette, and, of course, the Romance of Tristan. As the editor observes, "Ce que Bédier désire...c'est faire voir le Moyen Âge, l'introduire dans la sensibilité moderne, le faire ressentir et lui faire retrouver le patrimoine de l'humanité" (18).

The 26 different essays, all in French, are organized by topic: "The First Century of French Letters," "Epics," "Courtly Tales," "Lyric Poetry," "Diverse Medieval Genres," "Modern Literature," and "History of Philology and Humanism."

The first essay, "Le Moyen Age," represents part of Bédier's effort, towards the end of his life, to write a major work on twelfth-century French literature, society and art. Part of an encyclopedic effort in the 1930s (36), the essay attempts to connect the medieval period to modern day homo sapiens, homo faber and the mother of the Muses. "La Poésie en France aux jours de la Première Croisade," offers, briefly, a history of twelfth-century French literature, posited in contrast to other European languages. I find it interesting that Bédier ignores Occitan lyric, though he did invoke some other very early works in that language. It is clear that Bédier's interest was absolutely not directed to the language and literature of the south of France.

Moving to epic poetry, we have a long essay on the Fierabras, presented at a colloquium at the Collège de France. Bédier's arguments about French epics, especially their origins, were in disagreement with some leading scholars of the time (55n). Corbellari's note adds that the scholar had to rebut an attack from twenty-five years earlier; although Bédier had published much since, he invoked this article as proof of how long he had been thinking about French epics (82). "L'Esprit de nos plus anciens romans de chevalerie" is, despite its title, a synthesis of the author's thinking about epic poetry, in which Bédier saw an exploration of moral issues, leading to an "original vision of medieval narrative art" (102).

Next we turn to medieval romance with Bédier's first published article, "La Mort de Tristan et Iseut d'après le manuscrit fr. 103 de la bibliothèque nationale comparé au poème allemand d'Eilhart d'Oberg," which Bédier's professor had published in Romania (this Doktorvater, Gaston Paris, is visible in the footnotes). The Tristan legend would later be the topic of Bédier's doctoral work; this article already lays out some of his arguments, notably that elements of the legend present in prose versions must predate the verse tellings of the love story. A review article of several then- recent publications for the Revue des deux mondes (1891), a non-scientific but very serious periodical, allowed Bédier to introduce readers to much of twelfth-century French literature, with an emphasis on Marie de France. Corbellari observes that Bédier presented an interesting arc of talent with Berouls version of Tristan as the high-point (152). Marie de France was seen as a precursor to Beroul, and Chrétien de Troyes as not his equal (the three authors were rough contemporaries). In his preface to Gustave Michaut's adaptation of Aucassin et Nicolette (1901), Bédier presents the work and lauds the idea behind it--an idea whose source was Bédier's own work with the Tristan story. As Corbellari adds, Bédier had no idea how many followers he would have in the business of medieval adaptations (157). One of these would be Jacques Boulenger, to whose version of the Lancelot story the academician also wrote a preface, the purpose of which seems primarily to be to present the grand transmission story of Arthur's court, from Chrétien de Troyes to Thomas Malory in England and now back to France. Another preface, to Bédier's own edition and translation of the Châtelaine de Vergy, is a brief explanation and defence of the Bédieriste editorial method, that each manuscript has its own life. A different kind of bird is "Iseut la blonde, quelques-unes de ses métamorphoses," which the author presented as a public lecture. Here, Bédier discusses three different versions of the Tristan story, that of twelfth-century Béroul, that of nineteenth-century Wagner and lastly, his own twentieth-century reworking of the Tristan legend. Most significant in this piece is Bédier's insistence that his own work is original, rather than simply a translation of a single medieval text.

Turning to lyric, we read a review article that bears the title, "Les Fêtes de mai et les commencements de la poésie lyrique au Moyen Age," in which Bédier reviews Alfred Jeanroy's Origines de la poésie lyrique. The review is artful, offering an accurate summary of Jeanroy's work before killing it in the final sentences (215), where Bédier regrets that such a lovely theory of origins does not agree with reality (216). Written ten years later, the article "Les plus anciennes danses françaises" continues the discussion of what, in medieval lyric, is popular and what is not, a theme that continues in French scholarship to this day, though Corbellari does not include Pierre Bec's important publications on this theme in the slight bibliographic update here. Another review is "Les anciens poètes de la langue d'oc," where Bédier criticizes Joseph Anglade for not having included any original language material in his popularizing work, Les Troubadours (1908). Corbellari argues that Bédier's love for medieval texts is what drove this critique (255) and that Bédier had enormous respect for his medieval materials (256). I find somewhat curious the next entry, "Le Jasmin d'argent," a speech Bédier gave in Agen at a celebration of that city's literary competition, based on Toulouse's Jeux floraux. Agen's competition was open to French and Occitan entries--Bédier used the opportunity to develop ideas about the puy in Arras; Corbellari suggests that Bédier was continuing his thinking about poetic creation and individuality (262).

The next section pulls together articles and written pieces on diverse topics. The first essay, "Le fabliau de Richeut," shows Bédier as a young scholar, still working on the topic that would be his doctoral thesis. The essay argues that this fabliau is meritorious more for its character descriptions than for its plot, part of Bédier's effort to discount then-existing theories of an Eastern origin for these popular pieces (271). Another review article, "Les Commencements du théâtre comique en France," is really a discussion of Adam de la Halle, recognition of the importance of this author for the development of medieval French literature (302). Bédier was charged with drafting the medieval section of a large Histoire de la littérature française illustrée (1923-4). He assigned most of the articles to others, but did contribute "En relisant Villehardouin," reprinted here. Discussion of the Fourth Crusade is related to the Great War, recently ended, and Bédier's nationalist leanings can be perceived in this piece. Corbellari relates this essay to propaganda pieces that Bédier composed during the War (313-4); sadly, none of these is included in the book.

Turning to more recent topics, Bédier wrote "Sur une pensée de Pascal," demonstrating how the methodology used to understand medieval literature could be applied to modern authors as well (321). Our critic also wrote the essay "Boileau" for the Histoire de la littérature française illustrée. The Boileau piece is intriguing because Corbellari suggests that Bédier saw himself in the seventeenth-century author (343); both Bédier and Boileau took the Roman author Horace as a role model. Corbellari suggests that Bédier sought to rule French letters much as Boileau did in his day, "[Bédier] se pose en arbitre d'un goût français dont tout lui prouve la pérennité" (343). Bédier may not have liked Edmond Rostand's works (364), but the traditions of the Académie française forced Bédier to sing the praises of the dramatist, giving us the "Discours de réception à l'Académie française." Here, Bédier offered an interpretation of Rostand's plays that merits reading to this day. Only two and one-half pages long, the "Préface à Paul Quintal-Dubé, l'Education poétique" demonstrates Bédier's openness to contemporary authors outside of France (Quintal-Dubé was a Québecois author whose moment may well have passed).

The last section is entitled "Histoire de la philologie et humanisme," another collection of somewhat disparate pieces. First is an essay on "La Société des anciens textes français," first published in the Revue des deux mondes. The essay maintains the importance of original texts, original versions as well as synthesizing works of literary history and criticism. Bédier was an official representative at the celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of the University of Louvain, where he celebrated the values of the Renaissance in his pronouncement "Pour le cinquième centenaire de l'Université de Louvain." As secretary of the College de France, Bédier was even more involved in its celebrations. We have three different speeches he delivered on the occasion of "Le quatrième centenaire de la fondation du Collège de France," in which he defended the values of the Renaissance before audiences that included the president of the French republic, municipal authorities and representatives of learned societies from around the world. In celebration of another anniversary, the Académie française organized a volume of essays by its members. Bédier's contribution, "L'Académie et nos écrivains du Moyen Age" demonstrates his ability to synthesize and summarize. He counts seven predecessors who discussed medieval literature and discusses their contributions, ending with Gaston Paris, his own beloved teacher. The last essay in the volume reads like a detective story, as Bédier relates exactly how Francisque Michel was pushed to find the Oxford Chanson de Roland manuscript, "De l'édition princeps de la Chanson de Roland aux éditions les plus récentes." Sadly we have only the first half of this story, and Corbellari does not explain why part two (see 433 and 464) was not included. My conjecture is that Bédier died before he could complete it.

Each of the essays is followed by a brief notice explaining the context of each piece, but very little annotation is added; some additional bibliographic information might have been useful. Spelling has been modernized and a few typos corrected, but Bédier's errors of history have generally not been corrected. Three indices are included, using Bédier's spelling throughout: an index of historical individuals ("Personnages réels"), an index of literary characters, and an index of titles and periodicals mentioned. Last in the book are publication details for each piece included in the volume.

What conclusions can I draw? Bédier was an excellent French stylist-- his language is a pleasure to read. Alain Corbellari has devoted a tremendous amount of time to this author and scholar, with a good number of publications on the topic. Certainly some of Bédier's essays merit rereading, but I am not convinced that all of the pieces in this book are still of interest to scholars, beyond their historiographic interest. If literary historiography is a new discipline, then this volume and the other publications by Corbellari and Bähler will be important for it.