Anne Berthelot

title.none: Girbea, La Couronne (Anne Berthelot)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.025 08.10.25

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Berthelot, University of Connecticut,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Girbea, Catalina. La couronne ou l'auréole. Royauté terrestre et chavalerie célestielle dans la légende arthurienne (XIIe-XIIIe siècles). Culture et societe medievales, v. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. 603. ISBN: $96 978-2-503-52531-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.25

Girbea, Catalina. La couronne ou l'auréole. Royauté terrestre et chavalerie célestielle dans la légende arthurienne (XIIe-XIIIe siècles). Culture et societe medievales, v. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. 603. ISBN: $96 978-2-503-52531-0.

Reviewed by:

Anne Berthelot
University of Connecticut

Catalina Girbea is to be commended for producing such a remarkable book, that may both be considered as the summary of previous speculations regarding the articulation between "chevalerie tieriene" et "chevalerie célestielle," and as an original prolongation of this research, that reaches a few interesting conclusions. As Professor Martin Aurell remarks in his preface, the two axes of the study are really "la royauté" that "relève du séculier" and the so-called heavenly knighthood, "[qui relève] du spirituel." Without ever loosing sight of the Arthurian texts that constitute her corpus, Girbea is able to pursue an in-depth train of thought about the nature of power as it is perceived during the 12th and 13th centuries, and from there to address the vexing questions of the birth of individual conscience vs state during the Middle Ages.

The first chapter cautiously presents the--sometimes conflicting--representations of "God's knights" as they appear in various texts far removed from the Arthurian world. Girbea's focusing on works that one tends to dismiss casually because they are not strictly literary, such as the De laude novae militiae and the Ordene de Chevalerie pay rich dividends, since these texts are at the root of the transformation undergone by the originally mundane knights of King Arthur.

Girbea then addresses more directly the issue of God's grace in Arthurian texts, through the filter of lineage and miracles. Instead of taking for granted some assumptions, such as the "fall of grace" of Gauvain, Arthur's nephew and probable heir, she demonstrates how subtly the authors distribute grace among the knights of the Round Table, according to delicately balanced equations between personal virtues and inherited gifts. Her analysis of the fundamental ambiguity of the Grail, as both a blessing and a curse, depending on the recipient of its wonderful power, is especially enlightening.

From there, the analysis shifts to the figure of Fortune, in her two incarnations of Fate and of Randomness; the link between Arthur and Fortune has often been studied, but rarely with such elegance and subtlety. While this section is naturally focused on Arthur, the "rois aventureus" who may be defined through his relationship to Fortuna, Girbea has the original idea of submitting various knights, including those who have traditionally been linked to divine Grace, to the filter of Fortune, with surprising results.

The second part of the study, "Lieux publics et lieux de senefiance," may be the least convincing in the book. While Girbea is deftly using recent studies on public and private space, such as those by Aurell and Baldwin, her conclusions are not strikingly original, and in some cases (the various tombs of the Lancelot, the "nef de Salomon") somewhat contrived.

To some extent, the third and last part of the book seems to drift away of its avowed purpose, a comparison between earthly and spiritual kingship. However, Girbea is not only considering, through the lenses of such an important text as the Polycraticus, the contradictions of kingly power or the trajectory of an idealized Arthurian kingship evolving toward a more pragmatic pattern of political power. She addresses the vexing question of the bonds between language and power, and her conclusions throw a new light on episodes or characters that have usually been regarded in a more casual light. She shows, in particular, how the gradual development of l'écriture et la lecture dans les romans corresponds to a deep ideological shift and has lasting consequences on the power games as represented in Arthurian romances. After such engaging analyses, the last chapter, L'émergence de la conscience individuelle, is somewhat disappointing, since Girbea does not produce any revolutionary insights on this topic; her assertion that a few (minor) romances try to reconcile the two systems (kingship and spiritual knighthood) is more like wishful thinking than based on real, solid argumentation. Her tantalizing suggestion that the prose Tristan is in fact the stage for such an attempt would, however, have deserved more than two pages.

However, one cannot reproach Girbea for setting limits to her study. At more than 600 pages, her book succeeds in offering a wide panorama of French Arthurian literature in the 12th and 13th century, from very well-known romances, such as those by Chrétien de Troyes, to true enigmas of literature, such as the complex and bloody Perlesvaus. Catalina Girbea never takes anything for granted and is constantly working to reassess the works she incorporates in her study. One might wish for an opening on other literatures as well: the author demonstrates strong familiarity with the German romances, but ignores those of England or Italy (one may argue, of course, that such late romances are outside the chronological frame of her study; they might nevertheless provide her with a useful complement of information).

The book is completed by a very rich Bibliography--unfortunately, according to recent bibliographical fashion, distributed in several specialized sub-sections. The end result, from this reviewer's point of view, is that one may look long and hard for some references if one does not share the general bibliographical conception of the author. The index is no help in this area: interestingly enough, it only contains names of places and persons (both fictitious and real), but no titles.

This is indeed an important book in its own right, as well as a valuable contribution to the important Brepols series directed by Edina Bozoky, Culture et Société Médiévales, which is one of the first successful European attempts to apply the methods and ideology of Cultural Studies to medieval texts.