Anthony Allen

title.none: Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Reading Myth (Allen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9810.009 98.10.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anthony Allen, Ohio State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. Reading Myth: Classical Mythology and Its Interpretations in Medieval French Literature. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 314. $49.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-804-72810-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.10.09

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. Reading Myth: Classical Mythology and Its Interpretations in Medieval French Literature. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 314. $49.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-804-72810-0.

Reviewed by:

Anthony Allen
Ohio State University

In Reading Myth, Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski (BK) examines the reception and representation of classical mythology in French vernacular literature. As is well-known, numerous medieval vernacular texts are characterized by the integration of (and often, commentary on) mythological subject matter derived from the Latin tradition. An important model for this "acculturation" of Latin classics (Ovid, Virgil, Statius, and others) is the Christian mythographic tradition, which saw pagan myth as philosophically and doctrinally useful provided it was expounded allegorically. Hence, "allegoresis" ("the interpretation of any and every text in light of Christian doctrine") forms a major hermeneutical basis for the medieval poets' approach of myth. However, as BK shows, vernacular texts often perform a reading and rewriting of myth that displaces, parodies, or simply owes little to mythography. The specific ways in which vernacular readings of myth reflect and problematize issues of authorial subjectivity, poetics, or hermeneutics, thus form the focus of this book.

BK's approach to Reading Myth is a sophisticated blend of textual criticism, reception theory, and structuralist narratology. Throughout the book, she performs close textual analyses with a trained eye for narrative structure, intertextual practices and poetic mises en abyme. Her readings of myth reception frequently engage with Jauss's notion of "remythicisation" (the desacralization of myth and its transformation into literature) and Lévi-Strauss's "bricolage" (here to be understood as a form of intertextuality). Her hypotheses are systematically backed up by a meticulous survey of the mythographic tradition (Fulgentius, Lactantius, the three Vatican mythographers, Arnulf of Orléans, John of Garland, et al.) and an impressive mastery of modern scholarship on the texts examined. This critical scrupulousness allows BK to formulate arguments that are incisive, nuanced, and wholly convincing.

A counterweight to the book's analytic scrutiny, in my opinion, is its lesser emphasis on the contextual aspects of myth reception. BK does occasionally gesture towards historical, political, or cultural developments that might have affected medieval literature's shifting use of myth but, on the whole, maintains a strict focus on the literary mechanics of integration and commentary. The book deftly demonstrates how each particular text "reads" myth, and how that "reading" has poetic and hermeneutic implications; but it does not consider the broader currents which shaped that "reading." Using a wider angle, the discussion might have included cultural factors such as, for instance, the role of the various textual communities involved in the appropriation of myth from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. Likewise, additional (if lesser-known) documents might have complemented the picture. I am thinking, for example, of the conflicting representations of Ovid in clerical and fictional discourse -- up to a pseudo-Ovidian autobiography entitled De Vetula -- which, while perhaps not strictly about myth, have much to tell about the "translation" of pagan textuality. To be sure, some kind of selection is a necessity of wide-ranging studies; but without a historicized perspective, readers may be left with a blurred sense of what (beyond each individual text) is at stake in the vernacular deployment of myth, and whether these stakes are changing or not. (In the Introduction, BK does present her texts as following a global historical evolution, namely "a kind of curve that sometimes approaches the mythographic tradition and sometimes moves away from it" (10), but this formulation appears tentative and somewhat artificial, and she only rarely refers to it in the rest of the book). In any event, these minor criticisms do not diminish the value of this study's findings, which all remain entirely persuasive -- contextual framing may only be this reader's anxious need for a bird's eye view.

Chapter 1 examines the vernacularization of the pagan subject matter of Thebes, Troy, and the Aeneid in three texts collectively known as "the romances of antiquity." Here, BK focuses on the various transformations (suppressions, additions, re-orientations) of mythological material in the new medieval context, an analysis aimed at illuminating both "the political mission of these texts" (17) and a number of "paradigms for the integration and interpretation of ancient myth that remained influential throughout the middle ages" (16). The first section discusses the Roman de Thèbes's rewriting of Statius's Thebaid and its borrowings from Ovidian material. What emerges is that the author's modifications of his Latin source both encode a political message (they serve to warn against the threat of civil war) and provide a model for integrating myth and making it relevant to medieval audiences. In the second section, an interesting analysis of the Roman d'Eneas (RE), BK demonstrates how Venus, traditionally associated with lascivious love, is rehabilitated and rewritten as "maternal and protective" (36) in the medieval text. This evolution is significant in terms of the romance's valorization of normative sexuality, marriage, and the family. Indeed, underscoring marriage as "a major constructive theme in the RE" (38), BK shows how this romance integrates Ovidian stories (absent from the Virgilian model) that function as threats of subversion. Thus, the stories of Scylla, Myrrha and Byblis, evoking the threats of parricide and incest, are both deployed and corrected by the romance's central female character Lavine in order to show that "legitimate love and marriage provide the answers" (41-2). Similarly, BK's reading of Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie (RTr) centers on its use of Ovidian myth (in this case, Narcissus and Leander) to uncover a "struggle for heterosexual love in the RTr" (46). This insightful reading of Ovidian myth as allowing medieval authors to articulate threats to the political/moral order is one that resurfaces throughout the book.

At first glance, Chapter 2 (on "The Myths of the Roman de la Rose") will not afford students and scholars of the Rose many surprises: BK focuses here on well-known mythological references that have attracted a considerable amount of critical attention (such as the fountain of Narcissus and Genius's rewriting of it, the myth of Pygmalion as thematizing the creative process, or the status of truth and language in Raison's discourse). However, the ability and ease with which she navigates, and makes use of, the existing scholarship, as well as her new spins on the Rose's use of myth will command attention. Basing her overall argument on Jauss's "remythicisation," BK contends that, in the Rose, "myth is revealed as fiction" (60), and that, as fictional literary text, it stands to be interpreted, transformed, and tendentiously rewritten by the narrators and characters of the romance. The ways in which the various retellings of mythological stories often suppress the mythographic interpretations traditionally attached to them are most revealing. For instance, BK closely examines La Vieille's retelling of the Venus and Mars story (their entrapment in a net made by Vulcan). Through her digressive tactics, La Vieille slyly eliminates the signification of 'valour corrupted by lust' traditionally associated with the story, and replaces it with a new gloss, informed by her own agenda: "women will always pursue free love." By thus aping the mythographers -- by performing, in Katherine Heinrichs' perfect phrase, a "perverse mythographic exegesis" --, the narrators and characters illustrate the malleability of myth in the Rose and enact a surreptitious type of "myth criticism" that displaces the previous interpretive traditions. [1]

Chapter 3 centers on the Ovide Moralisé (OM), a fourteenth-century translation of the Metamorphoses that also provides a Christian allegorical reading of each of the fables. This chapter is arguably the centerpiece of the book, for two reasons. First, because the dissuadingly long (over 72,000 lines) and perplexing OM has not been so far the object of a systematic study (the works of Rita Copeland and Paule Demats being the few anchoring points of modern criticism on this text). Second, because the OM is of considerable importance in the history of myth reception. As BK explains, the OM not only introduced authoritative interpretive vocabulary in the French vernacular, but also replaced Ovid as a source for subsequent vernacular writers.

As it turns out, the hubris of this fascinating text calls for a methodical procedure. Consequently, BK's perspective here approaches the philological and narratological at their most acute level: she rightly deplores the lack of critical work on "[the text's] interpretive vocabulary, its structure, its interpretive choices and mechanisms" (90), which she proceeds to investigate. Many pages are thus devoted to circumscribing the meaning of words like "allegorie," "fable," "estoire," or "mistere": at what level of gloss are they used? do they exceed or match their scriptural (Latin) equivalents? in what way can the underlying typological model be recovered from the author's use of these words? Similarly, in a section on "The Mechanics of Interpretation", BK meticulously reviews the author's glossing strategies: what elements are selected for interpretation? how are different interpretations of the same fable hierarchized? can interpretations occasionally grow out of previous interpretations? are there identifiable intertexts for the interpretations?

Nestled in this dizzying technical survey, however, are findings so interesting one almost wishes they had been treated in a separate section. In particular, BK makes the fascinating observation that "instances of problematic sexuality frequently seem to generate a moment of hermeneutic reflection in the OM" (120). Indeed, a peculiar aspect of this poet's approach to the Ovidian text is his sometimes astonishing de-eroticization of the pagan fable, an interpretive option which he often characterizes as "mieudre et plus saine" (better and healthier), or "plus noble et de meillor sentence" (nobler and a better teaching) -- the expressions vary but carry the same valuation. Thus, in the OM, the incestuous Myrrha is glossed as none other than the Virgin Mary (with Adonis, her son, standing for Christ). The transgressive erotic scene where Actaeon glimpses the naked goddess Diana bathing is similarly defused: they both stand for Christ (the "uncovered" son of God, who is also a serf/cerf...). And, in one of the boldest moves of this text, Ganymede's homosexuality is equated with the Incarnation: both are, after all "contre nature" (a "rather startling equation" in BK's words [112])!

This surprising scheme of interpretation can at least partly be traced back to Augustine's exhortation (in De doctrina christiana) to read the Old Testament's "shameful" things figuratively (as BK notes). Yet, it clearly exceeds Augustine's recommendations, and seems to engulf even the most threatening aspects of pagan myth in a delirium of Christian "homonymisation" (to use A. Leupin's term for the process by which "identical nouns now designate different ideas and things in a new [Christian] conceptual order").[2] The OM's treatment of myth thus poses many questions, some yet unanswerable, some outside the scope of this book: what were the author's motivations? Was he rehabilitating the Ovidian text? Was he "cleaning it out"? How were his interpretations received (do they find an echo in Pierre Bersuire's roughly contemporary Ovidius Moralizatus, for example)? Speculative though they may be, these questions might have been fruitfully posed. Regardless, this pioneering chapter will prove an invaluable tool for further studies of the text.

Guillaume de Machaut's treatment of mythology (with a short postlude on Froissart) forms the main focus of Chapter 4. BK situates Machaut's early use of myth (principally in the Jugement dou roy de Navarre) within a "crisis of poetic subject matter and method" (143), where the relevance and validity of classical mythology is questioned. Machaut will, however, progressively recuperate myth as a powerful device for the self-definition and validation of the poet. The argument here is similar to that made in the Rose chapter: namely that Machaut's use of myths underscores their status as fictional constructs encoding various vectors of the poetic text, and displaces their previous treatment as fodder for allegory.

As shown in Chapter 1 (on the romans antiques) and in the preceding chapter, Ovidian fables may also serve to articulate, as well as contain, various threats to ideology and/or poetic subjectivity within the text. BK returns to this hypothesis in her deft reading of Machaut's Voir-Dit, in which she links the gradual suppression of the female authorial voice with the erotic threats posed by the lady and figured in the myths of Circe and Medusa. This critical angle enables BK to engage with, and build on, the important analyses of the Voir- Dit provided by K. Brownlee and J. Cerquiglini. A brief look at Froissart's Prison amoureuse confirms the overall arguments (traditional mythography is displaced; the meanings of, and relationship between, myth and gloss, are reshaped).

The final chapter traces Christine de Pizan's shifting use of myth, from deeply resonant evocations of bereavement to lessons pertaining to the political reality of her time. Besides a "personal" use of mythological stories centered around the theme of widowhood (BK shows how a "personal voice" pierces through mythographic conventions in Christine's lyrical corpus), Christine repeatedly explored the theme of metamorphosis in stories derived from Ovid (Circe, Tiresias, Iphis) to foreground her own gender mutacion, a focal point of her imagined autobiography. Evidently not as unconcerned with mythography as her predecessors (as examined in the previous chapter), Christine is shown confronting the clerical tradition and creating, with the Epistre d'Othéa, her own original mythography. The question whether Christine rewrites mythography from a female perspective or not, much debated in recent appraisals of the Othéa, finds a nuanced answer here: although Christine's reliance on the biblical and philosophical tradition might suggest a "rather orthodox mythographic approach," Christine in fact performs "[an] usurpation of the methodological bases of mythography" (193) by presenting herself as the author of each layer of her work (unlike the author of the OM, for instance) and anchoring the authorial voice around the created (non-mythological) figure of Othéa, the goddess of Prudence.

The analysis then turns to Christine's growing engagement with pressing contemporary concerns. In the Chemin de long estude, for example, Christine enlists myth as a didactic tool for an analysis and critique of contemporary political and cultural conflicts. Finally, "Myths of Feminine Achievement" are explored in a section on Le Livre de la cité des dames. Here, Christine is viewed as a "mythmaker" in her own right. Not only did she refute the preceding interpretive traditions (which assigned a mostly negative meaning to female mythological figures), but she also entirely rewrote myths to illuminate women's achievements in founding civilisation. Although other aspects of the Cité might have better fitted the definition of "mythmaking" (such as the chapters on historical and contemporary women), BK contends that mythological characters "best represent Christine's methods of rewriting and reinterpreting the misogynistic tradition" (207) because of their long interpretive history. Indeed, BK's analysis of Christine's chapter on Minerva -- a chapter almost entirely derived from Boccaccio -- demonstrates how Christine's sly autocitation at the beginning of the chapter ("si que toy meismes en a ailleurs escript") aligns her with the auctores and contributes in making the interpretive tradition her own.

BK's book is inaugural in treating medieval transformations of mythological subject matter as a whole, rather than examining the transmission of a particular myth. It is wide-ranging in scope, lucidly written, and opens up stimulating avenues to be explored in its wake. Reading Myth will no doubt shape future research on the subject.


[1] Katherine Heinrichs, The Myths of Love: Classical Lovers in Medieval Literature (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1990): 114. Quoted by Blumenfeld-Kosinski, 76.

[2] Alexandre Leupin, Fiction et incarnation: Littérature et théologie au Moyen Age (Paris: Flammarion, 1993): 10.