Thomas Pettitt

title.none: Birge Vitz, Regalado, Lawrence, eds., Performing Medieval Narrative (Thomas Pettitt)

identifier.other: baj9928.0611.012 06.11.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas Pettitt, University of Southern Denmark at Odense,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Birge Vitz, Evelyn, Nancy Freeman Regalado and Marilyn Lawrence, eds. Performing Medieval Narrative. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2005. Pp. xvi, 280. $80.00 (hb) ISBN-10 1843840391 ISBN-13 9781843840398. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.11.12

Birge Vitz, Evelyn, Nancy Freeman Regalado and Marilyn Lawrence, eds. Performing Medieval Narrative. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2005. Pp. xvi, 280. $80.00 (hb) ISBN-10 1843840391 ISBN-13 9781843840398. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Thomas Pettitt
University of Southern Denmark at Odense

Most medieval narrative was not "literature" as we have conceived of it since the opening of the Gutenberg parenthesis, but part of what might be termed performance culture, and as the editors of Performing Medieval Narrative rightly point out, "Just as we may keep performance potential in mind when reading Shakespeare's plays, we should do so when reading medieval stories. Analysis of performance is essential for understanding and appreciating medieval narratives because they are intended for performance" (5, emphasis in original). But this insistence on the performance of narrative is complicated here by an almost equal focus on the performance of narrative in narrative: those occasions when a narrative describes, relates or reproduces the performance of a narrative by one of its protagonists.

The two are equally interesting, equally legitimate topics, but that their relationship can be problematic is signalled by some awkwardness related to the keynote instance the Introduction takes as its point of departure, Calogrenant's account of his adventure at the fountain in Brocéliande at the beginning of Chrétien's Le chevalier au lion. Although Chrétien (ll. 59; 61) refers to it as a conte, Calogrenant's account is not so much "a courtly entertainment performed ... by one member of an elegant group of knights and ladies" (1) as a personal experience narrative, a memorat, closely embedded in informal conversation among a small group of knights clustered at the king's chamber door, not an entirely appropriate analogue to the highly wrought and formally performed narratives discussed in the collection. There is a more local awkwardness in the appeal to manuscript illustrations to make the valid point that conventional criticism is wrong to think it can achieve direct access to a medieval narrative and ignore the performance aspect. The Introduction refers to a manuscript of Le chevalier au lion whose miniatures ignore the introductory scene of Calogrenant narrating his story, and start with the first major incident in his story, his combat with Esclados, and so "show not the telling, but the tale" (1). This rather invites a glance at the illustration on the facing page, which is however from a quite different manuscript which does depict Calogrenant telling his tale --or may do: the catalogue of illustrations in Les Manuscrits de Chrétien de Troyes (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993, vol. II, 279), co-edited by one of the contributors to this collection, identifies the standing figure as Keu, who is taunting a seated Calogrenant. And strictly speaking (Les Manuscrits, vol. II, 272 and 502, fig. 309), the fight between Calogrenant and Esclados is not the first illustration in the other manuscript referred to, as there is a large illuminated initial at the beginning of the text depicting a lone knight on horseback. The catalogue is uncertain whether he is Calogrenant or Yvain, since the the adventure the former relates of himself is the same as and provokes the adventure Chrétien narrates of the latter--a reminder that performance in narrative also contributes significantly to the meta-narrative sophistication of its host.

This by way of heralding a collection of studies which, although they all have significant contributions to make, treat their shared topics of performance and narrative in a variety of reciprocal relationship, and are consequently best presented, however cursorily, one by one.

Sioned Davies' essay opening the first section on narrative representations of performance, "'He was the best teller of tales in the world': Performing Medieval Welsh Narrative," after a brief invocation of two passages from the Mabinogi that give "a tantalising glimpse of the performance of medieval Welsh narrative" (15), actually engages in a sustained examination of the internal evidence the tales of the Mabinogi provide for their own mode of performance. And that "best teller of tales" is only indirectly relevant, since as we have them they are manifestly designed to be appreciated on the basis of written texts, and "performance" is consequently invoked in two different ways. While the written tales were themselves read aloud from a written text, they had roots in oral performance tradition, and both leave their mark in the text.

Joyce Coleman's "The Complaint of the Maker: Wynnere and Wastoure and the "Misperformance Topos" in Medieval England," sticks more closely to performance in narrative, but to a very different end: while some works may reflect themselves in their depictions of narrative performance this one distances itself, castigating the popularity of vulgar entertainments at the expense of more serious poetry. Paradoxically however, Coleman's convincing reading of the unamended text effectively takes this essay out of the collection's performance orbit: the complaint is not, as often asserted, about the way written narrative is superseding a live performance tradition, but more a matter of a regretted decline in taste: the essay's achievement is more an enhanced historical appreciation of Wynnere and Wastoure than a better knowledge of medieval performance.

Despite a valuable opening review of oral performance in medieval Italy, based on illuminating evidence which will be unfamiliar to many, John Ahern's "Dioneo's Repertory: Performance and Writing in Boccaccio's Decameron" is a further step away from engagement with the performance of the host work. The topic here is emphatically the significance of narration in the Decameron: of Boccaccian meta-narrative, or even meta-meta-narrative: Boccaccio tells the tale of the group of young gentlefolk whose pass the time telling tales, in some of which the protagonists tell tales. The external performance of the tales of the Decameron is however briefly invoked in at the end, and to another end: perhaps as a result, paradoxically, of being read aloud, the tales tended to detach themselves from Boccaccio's framing narrative, reducing his meta-narrative to mere narrative.

The relationship between text and performance is confronted directly in the collection's second section, nowhere more concretely than in Keith Busby's "Mise en texte as Indicator of Oral Performance in Old French Verse Narrative." Busby's detailed but readable study mulls over the simple fact that in some manuscripts of French narrative works, at a time when it was normal to separate words with gaps, there are frequently groups of words which are not so separated. The conclusion is frustratingly balanced: there are considerations indicating that the joining up of words was indeed to facilitate the reading aloud of these texts, but the considerations are hedged with qualifications, and a final paragraph of caveats leaves the issue very much in doubt. The uncertainty is enhanced by references (67; 70) to an ensuing elaboration on the question of punctuation which does not appear.

Evelyn Birge Vitz, whose Orality and Performance in Early French Romance (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999) massively qualifies her to speak authoritatively on the performance of medieval narrative, offers rather a contribution, "Erotic Reading in the Middle Ages: Performance and Re-performance of Romance," exclusively devoted to performance in medieval narrative, and of a very specific kind, the reading of erotic narratives by young couples, who are thereby aroused to engage in ostensive erotic activity themselves. Concluding remarks may herald a more substantial exploration of the "social and cultural importance" of erotic reading, but in sticking to fictional examples (Floris et Liriopé; Dante's Inferno; Floire et Blanchefleur; Flamenca; Froissart's Espinette amoureuse; Chrétien's Le chevalier au lion), this is effectively an essay on the literary topos of erotic reading.

Marilyn Lawrence's "Oral Performance of Written Narrative in the Medieval French Romance Ysaÿe le Triste" is equally reluctant to venture beyond the book's pages, but the amount of narrative performance within them is extensive and varied. One of the romance's female protagonists spends fifteen years (80 pages of narrative) disguised as a professional minstrel, first male, then female, performing (from memory) the works of others, but also composing semi-autobiographical narratives which are performed by others or herself (but not with her minstrel persona). The insights provided into medieval performance culture are considerable, and while there is a token gesture in the direction of extra-textual performance in the observations (97) that the performances in the text may be evidence for the performance of the text itself, the romance, with due caution in the light of its status as fiction, is effectively offered as an extraordinarily informative ethnographic source.

Nancy Freeman Regalado's "Performing Romance: Arthurian Interludes in Sarrasin's Le roman du Hem (1278)" deals with another relatively obscure work with some equally unfamiliar but certainly useful accounts of performances. One difference is that here the work actually claims documentary status, in describing a historical tournament, another, perhaps more decisive, is that the performances concerned are not narrative but dramatic: spectacles and interludes performed in direct connection with the jousts or during the banquets which followed. Uniquely, therefore, this contribution comments on fully mimetic features of performance (such as how a lion was represented). Technically, by the same token it is only to the extent that drama has a plot that it concerns performing medieval narrative, except that this particular drama contains significant narrative segments.

Three of the essays in the collection's third part, "Performability and medieval narrative genres," examine internal features of narratives which suggest that they were indeed "designed for performance." Encouraged by the fact that some French fabliaux, in the guise of sermon exempla, were quite certainly performed, Brian Levy's "Performing fabliaux," focuses on symptoms of "performability" such as prologues and epilogues, specification of the location of action (which might be changed to suit different venues), opportunities for modulation of voice, gestures, and interaction with the audience. Adrian P.Tudor in "Preaching, Storytelling and Performance" does the same with pious tales such as miracles of the Virgin, only the here the relationship with sermons is the reverse: the tales were apparently not performed as a part of sermons, but the presence of sermons within the tales makes it more likely, it is alleged, that the stories were performed.

Kenneth Varty's "Reading, reciting, and performing the Renart," apart from one, late, fictional account of the performance of Renart narratives, also relies on internal evidence of performability, places in the text where performance of the text is apparently envisaged (calls for silence; admonitions to listen), places where there are references to the text being performed (past or future) elsewhere, and meta-narrative: places where the text narrates the narrating of other stories. But it also seriously undermines this approach in referring to an evidently thorough and persuasive study by Jean R. Scheidegger of the work's admonitions to "listen," and which concludes that such performance symptoms, while doubtless originating in a performance tradition, are now, in the work concerned, purely stylistic and rhetorical devices (160-161). The moment is illustrative of a discrepancy between English and French studies of medieval narrative performance which it is surprising the collection does not bring into greater prominence. Taking internal symptoms of performability as significant evidence for performance (represented in several of the essays here) characterized the study of English medieval romances several decades ago, but was succeeded precisely by the more guarded view that these features are designed to give the impression of performance, to create a virtual performance, in works which were actually designed for reading in a rather modern way. Linda Marie Zaerr's contribution notes that the pendulum may now be swinging back in favour of the performance of Middle English romances, if as a result of fresh external impulses and attention to other textual features (194-195).

Zaerr's own essay, "The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell: Performance and Intertextuality in Middle English Popular Romance" belongs to the concluding cluster which is in many ways this collection's distinctive feature (and most conformable to the title), discussing living performance of medieval narrative (an aspect which is supplemented, as explained in the volume's "Afterword," by an associated website). Zaerr's stands out as the most self-consciously scholarly: anxious to understand the processes involved in, and the textual results of, the memorization of narrative and performance from memory, she has learnt by heart a popular Arthurian verse romance, performed it to a listening audience, and analyzed a recording of the performance. (Zaerr had previously been involved in a similar experiment involving The Tournament of Tottenham). The results are reported and discussed in an intense, thoughtful analysis, which offers exciting insights. Zaerr reports that compared to the text she memorized the text she performed showed variants analogous to those between different manuscript texts of some medieval romances, suggesting that the latter too had been subjected to memorial and performance re-shaping: I can report that there are also parallels, for example the generation of verbal repetitions through internal contamination, to what I have observed when juxtaposing with the text of a narrative broadside ballad its folksong derivatives, recorded after decades or centuries of oral transmission and performance.

The other two articles in the final section are contributions by professionals who have specialized in performing medieval narratives. Anna Azéma's "Une aventure vous dirai: Performing Medieval Narrative" reports her work with medieval French narratives, both before live audiences and for commercial recordings. The intense preoccupation with the relationship between the verbal and musical aspects of performance is highly illuminating, but in the context of a scholarly collection her experience has limited relevance, since Azéma is quite legitimately working to her own agenda, which for example involves substantial compromises with the realities of modern conditions such as reducing a narrative from 872 lines to ca 100, or conglomerating two versions of a narrative to make a more viable performance text.

Benjamin Bagby complements Azéma with a contribution emphatically oriented towards northern Europe: "Beowulf, the Edda, and the Performance of Medieval Epic: Notes from the Workshop of a Reconstructed 'Singer of Tales'". This reconstruction--of both the verbal performance and the accompanying musical instruments--is based on extensive research, both in the historical records and by listening to recordings of folk performers (typically Scandinavian), but the direction of the exercise is acknowledged to be the reverse of that of the scholars: the historical investigations are auxiliary to the pursuit of an "authentic" performance. Unlike Zaerr's the performance is not designed to better understand the historical accounts, although it may do so in passing.

It would have been a serious drawback if the study had not supplemented these artificial reconstructions with a study of an authentic living tradition sufficiently analogous to medieval European traditions to offer relevant insights, and luckily the choice fell on the uniquely qualified Karl Reichl, who from a point of departure in the study of Middle English narrative has conducted extensive fieldwork in Turkic-speaking regions. His "Turkic bard and medieval entertainer: What a living epic tradition can tell us about oral performance of narrative in the Middle Ages" is central to the declared concerns of this collection.