The Medieval Review 12.08.09

Victorin, Patricia. Lire les textes médiévaux aujourd'hui: historicité, actualisation, et hypertextualité. Colloques, congrès et conférences sur le Moyen Âge. Paris: Honoré Champion éditeur, 2011. Pp. 270. 71.75 EUR. 978-2-7453-2223-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Irit Kleiman
Boston University

Lire les textes médiévaux aujourd'hui: historicité, actualisation et hypertextualité asks how medievalists today read the texts and works they purport to study and teach. Editor Patricia Victorin presents a quest at once theoretical and methodological, perfectionist and pragmatic. How has the information age, and now the Internet, shaped "the New Philology"? What do we talk about when we talk about medieval literature, and how did the roman come to such curricular dominance? What is the proper place of anachronism in medieval studies? The volume's title at first appears to place the notion of textuality at the center of its concerns. The true subject addressed on these pages, however, concerns the act of reading itself, and the many layers of conscious and unconscious valuation that go into our reception of medieval works. The volume is divided into two parts--the first scrutinizes the reception of single texts or genres; the second considers the institutions and mechanisms through which canons are formed and transmitted. The volume thus unites a sometimes idiosyncratic blend of meditations on the institutional history of French philology in its university-sponsored context, and behind-the-scenes exposés on the making of canonical texts and their geologically sensitive construction.

The first chapter belongs to Jean Dufournet. Given the self-reflexive subject of this book, it does not seem amiss to remark that it was with some nostalgia that I read these pages only a few weeks after Professor Dufournet's regretted death. When one considers the late Professor Dufournet's ceaseless publication, not only of scholarly and edited volumes, but especially of popular editions and translations of medieval works, it may be justly thought that few individuals in the past century and a half have exerted quite so much influence on the precise terms through which medieval French literature now reaches its broadest readership ever. Dufournet's essay ruminates on his life's journey as a reader of François Villon, beginning with his memories of first encountering the Grand Testament as a student and onwards through decades of line-by-line scrutiny, published in numerous studies and editions. In some sense, this late backwards gaze amounts to a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the "making of" both Villon's text as we know it today, and the late master Dufournet himself.

Liliane Dulac's engaging study considers the emphatic return (or arrival?) of Christine de Pizan to the canon of medieval letters. Dulac deftly negotiates the brambles that surround the relationship between contemporary feminism and Christine's rehabilitation or exaltation. Her analysis targets the paradoxical, oscillating "proximity" and "distance" between Christine and her work, and the relationship between perceptions of this proximity or distance and present-day ideas about Christine as an author. Dulac addresses the charismatic appeal that Christine appears to hold for today's readers, the way that study of manuscripts of her work contribute to this appeal. She then glances at how the digital humanities have furthered discussion of those manuscripts. Although Dulac does not say so in so many words, it is a provocative irony that the illusion of (physical, material) contact with a historical person that drives studies of Christine's manuscripts should be now be wrapped up in the online virtualization of these same artefacts.

Jean-Marie Fritz follows the publication history that has accompanied the fabliau since the genre's first modern edition in 1756. The author identifies three kinds of censure, beginning with the scratching-out of words in the original, medieval manuscripts through which certain narratives are known, and continuing through to the often amusing efforts that modern editors have made to alleviate the scandal of talking genitalia et alia. This very useful essay succeeds in providing both a detailed record of specific, often well-known fabliaux and also a synthetic view of the genre's reception over time.

In the next chapter, Earl Jeffrey Richards takes a contrasting approach. Richards signals the fabliau as an "artificial" genre, resulting from a triage effected by Montaiglon during the 1870s-1880s; Montaiglon's act effectively severed the selected texts from their peers, neighbors, and contexts in manuscript tradition. Arguing that only a return to manuscript sources can extract the fabliau from critical impasses shared alike by formalist, post-structuralist, or feminist analyses, Richards asserts that the key to understanding the fabiliau lies in its true origins in thirteenth-century university milieux, all the while referencing Michel Houellebecq, Woody Allen, and Graham Greene. Thus the book's first half comes to a close.

Richard Trachsler initiates the volume's second act with a long, historical view of the place of Romance Philology in French and German universities. His analysis begins with and frequently returns to the linguistic encounter canonized in the Serments de Strasbourg. Trachsler establishes a provocative comparative intellectual lineage, through which it becomes clear that the history of Romance philology, in particular, traces a subtle, delicate geneaology of the French philology as a study of self and other, on both sides of the Franco-German frontier. He then tests his hypotheses against the history and polyglot context of Swiss universities.

Francis Gringras offers a gripping history of the roman's institutionalization as an object of study. In 1830, justification for the teaching of medieval French literature rested on its so-called "expressive imitation" (166); in this context, it was the chanson de geste and not the roman which first received benediction as the "forme nationale par excellence" (166). Later in the nineteenth century, the Franco-Prussian war transformed the roman from an object possessed of quaint charm into once more contested terrain. In Germany, romances were being taught in university philology courses; it was thus imperative they not be so in France. Gingras goes on to provides a fascinating overview of the "monumentalization" of the roman which followed during the first quarter of the twentieth century. He concludes by analysing the quantitative results of his own survey of what texts are currently taught in universities in France and abroad.

Fabienne Pomel also gives all those who currently read or teach medieval French literature something to think about. Like Patricia Victorin and Liliane Dulac, Pomel begins by asking how electronic editions respond to the paradigm of variance framed by Bernard Cerquiligni. Pomel sizes up both online sites where medieval literary texts are published (ranging from Garnier to Menestral and Wikisource), and traditional ink-and-paper editions produced for distinct market segments. The vectors of her analyses include such factors as paratexts, translations and/or linguistic adaptations, and the inclusion of variants. The available versions of several titles, whether digital or print, come in for comprehensive, comparative evaluations. Pomel matter-of-factly relates the handling of various details in these editions to larger concerns both theoretical and commercial.

I regretfully present other contributions more concisely: Armand Strubel studies the abundance of interpretive schemata that have sought to pin down Richard de Fournival's hybrid, enigmatic Bestiaire d'amour. Strubel reaches the conclusion that Fournival's text marks a "farewell to theological symbolism" ("un adieu au symbolisme théologique," 84). He situates this facet of the Bestiaire's rhetoric in relation to the mid-thirteenth-century reception of aristotelianism. Gilda Caiti-Russo's discussion of Raimbaut de Vaqueiras's "Domna, tant vos ai prejada," pursues the political commentary latent in what ultimately becomes a form of generic mannerism; her conclusion underscores how the poem caricatures the conventions of reading lyric verse. Elisabeth Gaucher-Remond's chapter on exemplarity and knightly biographies begins by alluding to the vogues that label some genres good and others bad. Gaucher-Remond reflects on the "ambivalence" (115) that surrounds chivalric biographies, using this diverse grouping of texts as the test of how medievalists deal with either genre theory or the status, literary or documentary, awarded to a given text. Karin Ueltschi surveys the legacy of recurrent popular motifs associated in medieval literature with orality as these are digested and rewritten in the works of eighteenth and nineteenth century authors such as Diderot and Stendhal. Sophie Albert considers the functioning of shame and vengeance in the Roman de Guiron. The chapter "De la lecture du texte à la lecture du livre" by Catherine Nicolas situates itself in the lineage of the codicological work pioneered by Keith Busby, Alison Stones and others. After considering the gradual elaboration and transformation of the iconographic cycles which characterize the Lancelot-Graal manuscript tradition, Nicolas reflects on one recurring image in particular: the cross. Her analysis leads to the conclusion that the numerous marginal images of the cross which adorn these manuscripts function as an invitation to textual exegesis, summoning the reader to seek a concealed meaning. Marie Blaise's Postface meditates on the late Paul Zumthor, "presque une légende dans le monde de la médiévistique" ("almost a legend in the world of medieval studies") (240). This leads Blaise to reflect on the ways that a tension between fiction and erudition marks the tradition of medieval studies in France, and, similarly, to contemplate the twinned legacies of medievalism and Romanticism.

As may be inevitable, the volume's coherence could at moments be better underscored. It is not always immediately apparent how a given essay answers the challenge posed by the editor's title. The editor's introduction to the volume establishes as a primary concern the theorization of the historical relations implicit and explicit in the act of reading medieval literature. It is not, I think, asking for dogmatism to wish that this theoretical reflection had been developed with greater consistency by the volume's various contributors. Several authors seem to hedge uncertainly around the question of subjectivity. Especially in book's the first half, some case studies might have benefited from a metacritical explicitness. The volume's emphasis rests heavily on French institutions; at times, critical sources that have made their mark in the teaching of medieval French literature in the United States are notably absent from the authors' notes despite the avowed concern to think beyond the boundaries of metropolitan France.

Several of the essays in this volume discuss the role of paratexts in shaping a reader's apprehension of the medieval work before him. The paratexts in this volume include a partial bibliography and three indexes, devoted to (1) medieval authors and works; (2) the names of modern critics cited; and (3) "notions."