The Medieval Review 12.03.26

Stahuljak, Zrinka, Virginie Greene, Sarah Kay, Sharon Kinoshita, and Peggy McCracken. Thinking Through Chrétien de Troyes. Gallica. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. 202. $90. ISBN 978-1-84384-254-5. . .

Reviewed by:

Karen Sullivan
Bard College

In Thinking Through Chrétien de Troyes, Zrinka Stahuljak, Virginie Greene, Sarah Kay, Sharon Kinoshita, and Peggy McCracken take on a series of commonplaces about perhaps the most canonical figure of medieval French literature. Chrétien is typically understood to have been a historical figure who lived in the vicinity of Troyes in the second half of the twelfth century and who received the patronage of Marie, the countess of Champagne, and, perhaps, of Philip, the count of Flanders. Given his evident learning, he is often assumed to have been a cleric and perhaps one disapproving of the "courtly love" whose cult he was nevertheless so central in developing. If he left his account of Lancelot and Guinevere unfinished, it is often hypothesized, it was because he felt distaste for the adulterous theme Marie had instructed him to explore in this work. A historical figure, Chrétien is also typically understood to have been the author of five romances, namely, Erec et Enide, Cligès, Le Chevalier au lion, Le Chevalier de la charrete, and Le Conte du Graal, between the 1170s and the 1190s. As the product of one author, these romances are thought to constitute a unified, coherent corpus of works, each of which manifests a satisfying narrative progression and resolution and each of which, in doing so, reflects the style distinctive to their creator. Just as Chrétien becomes comprehensible once one knows he has written these romances, the romances become comprehensible once one knows that they have been written by the matre champenois. If Chrétien's romances are important, it has often been thought, it is, not only because they represent the origin of Arthurian romance as we know it, but also because they express and, perhaps, help bring about the "birth of the individual" for which the twelfth century has been so celebrated. Even as his romance heroes undertake chivalric adventures in the world, they allow themselves moments of introspection in their own minds, and these moments of introspection allow them to develop, as characters, in a way that had not been possible for their epic predecessors. As obvious as these statements have seemed to be for generations of readers, the authors of this book set out successfully to disprove each one. In doing so, they present, not only a significant new reading of Chrétien's oeuvre, but a significant methodological intervention in medieval literary studies. The death of the author was announced almost fifty years ago by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, but its implications have seldom been pursued in medieval studies as rigorously and consistently as in this work.

For the five authors of this study, Chrétien de Troyes is, not a historical figure, but, instead, "Chrétien de Troyes," the name to which a body of texts has been attributed. Instead of assuming that "Chrétien" was a cleric, they propose that he may have been a knight, a courtier, a trader, or even multiple people. They observe that only two of the over forty manuscripts containing his famous romances include all five of these works and, hence, that the manuscript tradition does not clearly indicate the existence of a unique compositor. Even if one were to presuppose the existence of a historical figure by the name of "Chrétien de Troyes," these authors contend, the works this figure wrote reflect, not just the consciousness of a single individual, but the consciousness of a milieu, namely, the vicinity of Troyes, where thinkers like John of Salisbury, Peter of Celle, and Peter Comestor were active at this time and where recent intellectual discoveries were being translated and vulgarized. Instead of aspiring to "think about Chrétien de Troyes," these authors aspire to "think through him," both in the sense that they use the thought processes evident in these texts as tools with which to interpret the texts and in the sense that they aim to give us access to that milieu. The works identified with "Chrétien de Troyes" are, as these authors see it, not the expressions of a single and singular individual, but, rather, "nodes in a network of poetic and courtly/ chivalric ideas" (163). Instead of engaging in the "circular logic" (1) that deduces the nature of the author from that of the works he wrote and then deduces the nature of these works from that of the author who wrote them, these authors read these works without any presuppositions about the individual--if it was one individual--who brought them about. A surmise like the one that "Chrétien de Troyes" failed to finish Le Chevalier de la charrete because he personally disapproved of courtly love and that we know that he personally disapproved of courtly love because he failed to complete this romance has no place in this study. The works attributed to "Chrétien de Troyes" are not, as these authors see it, the product of one individual, let alone an individual about whom we possess any actual information, but, rather, the product of a certain champenois intellectual culture.

As Chrétien de Troyes is not a historical figure, these authors argue, the works which have been attributed to his name do not constitute a unified, coherent corpus. These authors emphasize the variety among these writings. In addition to the five famous romances, they recall, Chrétien has been said (not without dispute) to have composed Guillaume d'Angleterre, Philomela, and the lyric poems "Amors tenon et bataille" and "D'Amors, qui m'a tolu a moi." Far from subordinating the lyric poems to the romances, as critics have tended to do, these authors subordinate the romances to the lyric poems. Readers have often been so caught up in the progression of the romances' narratives, they propose, that they have overlooked the static quality of these works' poetics. Even as the plot directs our intention forward in the text, as we seek to learn what will happen to the characters, the meter, rhyme, and wordplay direct our attention backward, as we delight in the language of the text. By reading the romances through the lyric poems, these authors suggest that we discover in the romances a kind of "thinking on the spot," where one thinks without advancing. In addition to the variety among Chrétien's writings, these authors emphasize the variety within each individual text. They dwell upon the multiple manuscripts that transmit these works to us and upon the multiple versions of the works that these manuscripts provide. If these authors emphasize the mouvance and variance in Chrétien's works, it is, not only on account of their scholarly assiduity, but also on account of a certain theoretical stance: the complexities of the manuscript tradition reflect, as they see it, "a way of thinking" (164) distinctive to these texts. These authors are interested, not in the singular, definite version of a work, typically provided by a critical edition, but in the multiple possible versions this work can take. They are interested in what they call "poetic spectrality," that is, "the potential for echoes of various kinds, and their capacity to summon up other versions of the text" (39). They are interested in the literary work, not as an autonomous entity unto itself, but as a site of references to other works, both inside and outside Chrétien's corpus. By attending to the variety between and within Chrétien's writings, these authors stress, not that which seems singular, centered, and definitive about these texts, but, as they put it, that which seems "plural,...decentered, and...speculative" (2). They prefer "an incoherent Chrétien" (163) to a coherent one and the "seemingly arbitrary...narrative choices" and "incompleteness and/ or inconclusiveness" (13) of his writings to the "elegant composition, beautiful conjunctions, and coherence" customarily imputed to them. As the marker, not only of the author of a body of material, but of the body of material itself, "Chrétien de Troyes" becomes open and unbounded.

Even as these authors into question the existence of "Chrétien de Troyes" as an individual and the writings attributed to "Chrétien de Troyes" as the productions of this individual, they call into question the birth of the individual said to occur during the so-called renaissance of the twelfth century. They argue that the characters of these romances engage, not in introspection, but in what they call "situational thinking." When confronted with an adventure, the knights in these romances ask themselves, not "What is happening?" but "What should I do?" They aspire, not to an abstract understanding of what is occurring to them, but merely to a concrete grasp of how they should act in response to these events: " not universalize from their experience" (100). At the same time as philosophers were struggling to explain how human beings move from sensory knowledge of particular entities to intellectual knowledge of universal categories, these knights make no effort to translate sensory into intellectual perceptions. Because these characters are transfixed within each individual adventure, they never learn anything that might stand to help them with the next situation they face. Whenever they acquire knowledge, it is, not the result of their own reflection about their experiences and, hence, of introspection, but the result of the instruction they receive from someone else (usually a hermit, a woman, or a dwarf). Far from developing, as is often thought, these knights remain as they always were. Though Perceval's journey from the rustic existence of the Waste Forest to the chivalric life of Arthur's court might seem to indicate that he, if anyone, is learning and progressing, Le Conte du Graal ends up emphasizing the degree to which its hero has forgotten the instructions given to him by his mother and his tutor and, hence, the degree to which he has regressed from where once was. Instead of coming to any conclusion, Perceval never amends his failure to ask about the Holy Grail and the bleeding lance and, as a result, never heals the Wounded King. In the absence of "a progression, evolution, or rehabilitation of the subject," these authors conclude, "we can therefore dispense with the interpretation of Arthurian chivalric ethics as one of personal perfection" (108). Without introspection, without education, without transformation, these characters do not function as individuals as we normally conceive of them.

At the same time as Thinking Through Chrétien de Troyes argues in theory against the notion of the author as a single, autonomous individual, it puts this theory into practice through its own multiple genesis. Sarah Kay composed Chapter One, "The 'Changeful Pen': Paradox, Logical Time, and Poetic Spectrality in the Poems Attributed to Chrétien de Troyes"; Virginie Greene, Chapter Two, "Imagination"; Zrinka Stahuljak Chapter Three, "Adventures in Wonderland: Between Experience and Knowledge"; Sharon Kinoshita Chapter Four, "Feudal Agency and Female Subjectivity"; and Peggy McCracken Chapter Five, "Forgetting to Conclude." While these individual authors' names are mentioned in the introduction, they are not repeated in the chapters themselves. So frequently do the authors allude to the book's overall argument and to the points made by their colleagues that the transitions from one chapter to another are virtually seamless. The authors write, "In much the same way as the move from 'Chrétien's style' to a 'Troyes style' implies multiplicity, in which very different texts nonetheless share common features, our own voices have come together in dialogue, but not in unison, in collectivity, not identity" (14). Just as these authors found in "Chrétien's" writings a plural authorship, they develop in their own book a plural authorship and, in doing so, "offer this volume as a contribution to emerging models of collaboration in the humanities" (165). While these authors succeed in dismantling a certain notion of "Chrétien de Troyes," as the guarantor of the unified and stable meaning of the body of texts associated with this name, one wonders what effects the death of this author might have upon our notion of his reader. Medieval audiences may have read these works as these modern scholars do and may have taken the same pleasure that they do in their multiple possibilities, but it would have been interesting to hear if these authors in fact imagine that this was the case. Thinking Through Chrétien de Troyes is a challenging and thought-provoking work which asks us to reexamine the assumptions we make in reading Chrétien de Troyes and, indeed, other such canonical but insubstantial figures.