Daisy Delogu

title.none: Altmann and Palmer, eds., Love Debate Poetry (Daisy Delogu)

identifier.other: baj9928.0705.009 07.05.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daisy Delogu, University of Chicago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Altmann, Barbara K. and R. Barton Palmer, eds. An Anthology of Medeval Love Debate Poetry. Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006. Pp. xii, 397. $39.95 (hb) ISBN-10: 0813029074, ISBN-13: 9780813029078 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.05.09

Altmann, Barbara K. and R. Barton Palmer, eds. An Anthology of Medeval Love Debate Poetry. Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006. Pp. xii, 397. $39.95 (hb) ISBN-10: 0813029074, ISBN-13: 9780813029078 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Daisy Delogu
University of Chicago

Barbara Altmann and R. Barton Palmer's Anthology of Medieval Love Debate Poetry will be warmly welcomed by those who teach or work on late medieval French and English literature, as well as those interested in gender, literary debates, real-life literary quarrels, or questions related to poetic production and literary patronage. This volume contains full-text modern English translations of five texts: Guillaume de Machaut's Judgment of the King of Bohemia and Judgment of the King of Navarre, Geoffrey Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, Christine de Pizan's Debate of Two Lovers, and Alain Chartier's Book of the Four Ladies. The creation of an anthology always requires the editors to make a series of difficult decisions: what texts to include, whether to include full-texts only or extracts, whether to provide the original text or translations only. In my view this anthology has been extremely successful in its choices. The texts included are temporally and culturally proximate, such that they may be suggestively and productively placed into dialogue, and they offer a broad view of the possibilities open to the debate genre. While I lament the absence of the original texts, I recognize that space constraints would not have allowed the editors to include all five of their chosen texts in facing page translation. Moreover, the two Machaut poems already appear in facing page edition/translations.

In their prologue the editors state that their text is aimed at both undergraduate and graduate audiences, as well as specialists of late medieval literature. I see their text primarily as a teaching tool, one well-suited, as Altmann and Palmer claim, to a range of student audiences. Indeed, while reading their anthology I found myself mentally planning the course I'd like to teach on debate literature and literary debates, a course that could be built around Altmann and Palmer's book. As a research aid, I think this anthology provides a very good introduction to an important group of texts and to the topic of debate literature. Specialists in late medieval French or English literature will want to consult the texts in their original language. The scholarly apparatus--introductions, notes, and bibliography--is excellent for the student or for the researcher working outside of his or her period or national literature, but offers little new information or insight for the specialist. The footnotes are, for the most part, judiciously placed and informative, although here and there a note appears which seems only to mark the movement of the plot in a way that restates material provided in the introduction, and that would be clear enough to an attentive reader.

Altmann and Palmer provide a very good general introduction to debate literature, which discusses its avatars, the general form of the genre, as well as the relationship between textual debates and real-life literary quarrels, such as those surrounding the Roman de la Rose or the Belle Dame sans merci. I found the bibliographic references located at the end of the general introduction to be somewhat sparse. It's true that many of the works they discuss--the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, the Roman de la Rose--have produced enormous bibliographies that the editors could not possibly reproduce, but the choices they did make in the references provided did not always strike me as the most obvious. The bibliography provided at the end of the volume, which includes a section on each author as well as a general section, is likewise on the short side.

In addition to the general introduction, Palmer and Altmann provide introductions to each author and text, in which they briefly trace the career of the author and the general movement of the text, and highlight key interpretive points in order to orient and direct the reader's attention. It is not easy to provide a short overview of such important literary figures and such rich texts in just a few pages, but the editors were very successful in this endeavor. Not surprisingly, certain textual features are significant to more than one poem, such as the relationship of the first person narrator to the author, the ambiguous role of the narrator, who is frequently depicted both as a clerk and a lover, the thematization of literary patronage, and the nature of love as well as the relationship between the sexes. Of course one cannot discuss everything, but I would have liked to have seen greater mention of the relationship of the love debate to late medieval notions of chivalry, and the inscription of certain of these texts into concrete historical contexts. The editors note the historical specificity of the opening of the Judgment of the King of Navarre for instance, but without elaborating on the relationship of this unconventional introduction--which describes in some detail the plague and other woes suffered by mid-century France--to the theoretical love debate that follows. The editors also discuss the presence of historical figures in Christine de Pizan's Debate of Two Lovers. They convincingly explain that by situating her text in a contemporary context Christine actualizes the debate, instead of allowing it to remain on a purely abstract level, thereby rendering it more interesting to her audience, including potential patrons. However they do not observe that Christine cites examples of good lovers on the basis of their loyal knightly service. The knights she praises must be good lovers, because they are good knights. This parallel between chivalric and amorous service, between loyalty to one's lord and to one's lady, will be further developed in Chartier's Book of the Four Ladies, and it permits readers to access these texts through a completely different optic. Love debate poems are not only about love and the relationship between the sexes; they also contain important commentary on political situations and on knighthood more generally, and can provide insight into the much-discussed late medieval decline of chivalry.

One aspect of the Chaucer introduction did give me pause. The editors point out the ways in which the Legend of Good Women constitutes a kind of continuation or rewriting of Machaut's Judgment of the King of Navarre. In both texts the poet-narrator is condemned for his literary treatment of women and is made to perform a textual penance. However they go on to state that "Chaucer's engagement with the joys and discontents of authorship is deeper and more complex" than Machaut's, that "Chaucer's protagonist has a more difficult task set before him," and that Chaucer's Legend is "arguably a substantial improvement on Machaut's original conception" (181). Such value judgments do not contribute to readers' appreciation or understanding of the texts in question. More interesting and informative would have been a discussion of the ways in which the Legend can be said to constitute a debate, since, of the five texts presented here, this aspect of the Legend is perhaps the least obvious. In their general introduction the editors had characterized a love debate as a text which features a discussion between two or more characters, often in the presence of a narrator, who turns the debate over to a patron for adjudication. The Legend, though clearly influenced by Machaut's debate poems, does not exhibit these characteristics. If the Legend is a debate--and I am not affirming that it cannot be read as one--then how does it function as such?

I found Altmann and Palmer's translations to be excellent. They read smoothly, and they maintain a consistent tone that respects and conveys the tenor of the original texts. There are two main options open to translators of poetry. They can provide an extremely literal textual translation that does not attempt to reproduce the meter or rhyme scheme of the original, or they can attempt a literary translation that conveys the general sense of the original while adhering to the demands of versification. While the latter may more effectively convey the beauty and joy of poetry, and may provide more reading pleasure for a general audience, for the purposes of literary analysis I find the former method to be the best option, and this is the one chosen by Altmann and Palmer. The translations are very faithful to the original, such that they could be very profitably consulted by students and scholars who are trying to make their way through the difficult language of the original texts, but whose linguistic capacities do not permit them to grasp and appreciate all of their subtleties. In each of the short introductions the editors discuss the versification of the text in question, and comment on the relationship of the form chosen by the author to the content of the poem. In this way, readers are at least aware of the versification, even if it is not reproduced by the translation. In a very few spots the editors' concern for exactitude led them to some awkward renderings, such as "if to me you reveal your trouble" (Judgment Bohemia, v. 90) or "Right away this servant went to the queen/And took her it, told all the circumstance" (Legend, vv. 2371-2). I also noted, likewise on rare occasions, the presence of somewhat colloquial words and expressions, including "gist," "upshot," and "killing time." The only reason these stood out at all is because they did not conform to the tone that was otherwise very well maintained throughout the translations.

Overall, this volume is extremely well-executed, presenting a set of works that have been carefully chosen, presented, and translated. Altmann and Palmer have performed a valuable service for both scholars and students of late medieval literature, who will find this anthology to be a useful addition to their library. They have made accessible a group of important--and in some cases lesser known--texts by some of the most prominent late medieval authors, and have provided a point of entry into a field of inquiry that is ripe for further study.