Albrecht Classen

title.none: Stone, The Death of the Troubadour

identifier.other: baj9928.9407.002 94.07.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Stone, Gregory B. The Death of the Troubadour. The Late Medieval Resistance to the Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. ix + 229.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.07.02

Stone, Gregory B. The Death of the Troubadour. The Late Medieval Resistance to the Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. ix + 229.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Epochs are often discussed as cultural phenomena, but rarely can they clearly be defined as historical and cultural entities. The Renaissance thinkers made valiant efforts at distancing themselves from the past by calling the Middle Ages a 'dark age,' but modern scholarship has successfully challenged this qualification and insisted instead on a gradual process which transformed the Middle Ages into the Renaissance—if ever there was such a radical breaking point. Gregory B. Stone here offers a reading of Old-French texts in which he perceives clear voices fending off the coming of the Renaissance because the anonymity of the poetic persona was valued much higher than the individuality of the Renaissance writer or artist. The texts which he has chosen "have a presentiment of the idea of the Renaissance, and they do not like this idea" (3). This notion is based on the premise that the poetic "I" has always to be seen as "they," and as such consistently strives to be the mouthpiece of courtly audience.

Indeed, individuality was a concept which emerged to its full extent not before the Renaissance, and yet there were many traces of an interest in the individual from the early Middle Ages onward. In this sense I have problems with Stone's premises, since even the term "resistance" does not make really that much sense in literary terms. Yes, the Church resisted heretical movements, and the intellectuals resisted the moral and ethical decline of the Church; but I doubt that it is reasonable to argue that the writers foresaw new trends in literary discourse and resisted them. Also, it seems pretentious to make such sweeping statements about the differences between two corpora of literary texts representative of two more or less distinct cultural eras when the author makes no attempt either to define them a priori or to circumscribe them in historical or philosophical terms. Dante (43), for instance, belongs, according to Stone, to the Renaissance, whereas Chaucer falls into the Middle Ages (143ff.). If the historical-cultural criteria by which poetic texts are gauged are defined in such unspecific terms, then it seems difficult to understand to what extent their authors might have rallied against the rise or "naissance" of the individual. The choice of the word "mourn"— if correct in this context (12)—also would indicate that a transition has already occurred and that the late-medieval authors face a different world, the Renaissance. This would mean that either the Italian (?) Renaissance began as early as in the 12th and 13th centuries and directly impacted the writing of medieval European literature, or that some late-medieval texts were in fact written within a Renaissance context. Both scenarios are unrealistic and contradict the overall textual evidence.

Stone considers the following selection of Old-French texts: razos; vidas; troubadour poetry by Raimon Vidal, Peire Rogier, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras; the Lais d'Aristote; some fabliaux; Italian novellas; the lai Le Chaitivel by Marie de France; the anonymous text Des Deux Amans; the legend of the Eaten Heart in the vida of the troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing; the "Lai d'Ignaure" by Renaus de Beaujeu; the tale "Le Sort des Dames;" the Old-French romance "Joufroi de Poitiers" and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess. This is a wide spectrum of representative literary pieces, but none of them, perhaps only with the exception of Chaucer's poem, stand anywhere near the threshold to the Italian Renaissance—if that is the Renaissance Stone is talking about. But a study which intends to explore the struggle of late-medieval writers against the coming of a new age should pay very close, although not necessarily exclusionary, attention to those texts where the resistance or "mourning" becomes visible or audible, where the struggles against the paradigm shift were thematized, or, at least, where nostalgia might demonstrate that, indeed, definite changes were in the air against which the poets resisted. Protests are noticeable in many late-medieval texts, but these concerned, primarily, social and economic changes affecting the aristocracy, hence the audience of courtly literature.

None of these concerns are of relevance to Stone. Instead he discusses at length, and with increasing insistence, the importance which was attributed to the collective noun or pronoun, which again removed any signs of individuality and replaced it with a sense of communality far removed from the Renaissance spirit. The author believes that medieval poets strove to overcome the collectiveness of their voices, but only succeeded in copying their rivals. Stone refers to those texts in which the plurality of voices meets resistance, and argues that these are in no way inferior or corrupt just because of their themes. This thesis would actually require a detailed demonstration, but the author ignores this lack of evidence and uses unspecified scholarship as a straw puppet to claim a stake in the debate (21). But this debate is based on rather dubious interpretations which find little or no corroboration in the texts under discussion (see, for example, the examination of Chretien's "D'Amors qui m'a tolu a moi," 23-25). Attempts to garner points in favor of his thesis by means of etymological speculations mostly go askew, particularly when a description of a lady as "mot gen" is related with "many people." Stone actually believes that he may conclude: "the tongue of the song's 'I' is in fact the many tongues of the many, and in the end this generalized ego mourns its captivity in the prison-house of courtly language" (32).

Although individual interpretations bring to the fore a number of highly interesting aspects, the overall picture is astoundingly obfuscated and speculative; a corrective review would reach the length of a monograph, hence suffice the above cited example. Certainly, anonymity was a dominant form of referentiality, but there are multiple counter examples which prove that many medieval poets were highly concerned with a form of self-presentation (e. g. the Archpoet, Walther von der Vogelweide) and a form of biographical individuality, never mind how much stylized these forms appear to be today.

This is not to deny that many medieval voices can be heard which protested against or lamented the downfall of traditional courtly values. To conclude, however, that this implied "the doom of troubadour song" (49), does not convince this reader. Nevertheless, the struggle between lyric verse and prose, as it began with the composition of vidas and razos, was of considerable importance and is here fairly discussed at great length, if we ignore numerous lapses back into amazing interpretive flights leading to speculative conclusions. The discussion of Marie de France's "Le Chaitivel" (chapter 7) hinges, unfortunately, on precisely such observations, e. g.: "The tale tells nothing but the resistance of the pro-noun to its entrance into the full-fledged propriety of the noun...This nun is the negation of singularity, a n'un, a "not one," the no one who is the pro-nominal subject of courtly song (85).

In a similar fashion the subsequent chapters deal with their subjects, without ever coming to terms with the concept as laid out in the introduction and succinctly formulated in the book's title. Stone thinks that the exchange between lyric voice and prose in Joufroi de Poitiers represents a fierce battle between both modes of speech (135), but does not even consider the possibility of a balanced relationship in which one genre serves to illustrate the potentials of the other.

The final chapter demonstrates that all the previous shortcomings are repeated here again, particularly the lack of theoretical and practical logic. Stone claims: "this text demonstrates...that the apparent triumph of story over song is an illusion, that a repressed lyricism returns to assert its primacy over narrative." (143). If this is the element which defines the resistance of medieval writers against the coming of the Renaissance, then almost any criteria can be used to discuss both cultural-historical periods and its representative literature. It is rather indicative that Stone does not consider Dante's "Vita nuova" at all for his thesis, since it does not give preference of the lyric voice over prose or vice versa. Instead, Dante nicely demonstrates how both genres illustrate each other and can be used to express a wide range of themes. This tension between these modes of speech has nothing to do with the coming of the Renaissance or the medieval resistance against it, but is a literary phenomenon of the late Middle Ages. Lastly, lyric poetry, and with it the troubadour poet, did not disappear with the coming of the Renaissance, whatever it might have been in concrete cultural-historical terms.