William Burgwinkle

title.none: Kinoshita, Medieval Boundaries (William Burgwinkle)

identifier.other: baj9928.0711.010 07.11.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Burgwinkle, King's College, University of Cambridge,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Kinoshita, Sharon. Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. 320. $59.95 0-8122-3919-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.11.10

Kinoshita, Sharon. Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. 320. $59.95 0-8122-3919-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

William Burgwinkle
King's College, University of Cambridge

In the conclusion to Medieval Boundaries, Sharon Kinoshita makes a couple of radical claims that could reorganize and recontextualize our approaches to medieval French literature. What we have been reading, digesting, and categorizing all these years is essentially just an invention of the nineteenth century, with a bitter twist of twentieth-century master narratives (à la "clash of civilizations") to add some bite. Only by rereading the twelfth- and thirteenth-century canon from an intercultural perspective, free from the restrictions of generic, nationalistic, and religious gate-keeping, will we be able to appreciate what they actually tell us about history, about the formation of culture, even about the use of political allegory and the growth of French monarchical hegemony at a moment of prime epistemic change. Removing the overlay of ideological categories that have allowed this material to be presented as a clear harbinger of French identity, modern subjectivity, linguistic, religious and ethnic harmony, is just another way of allowing its prickly strangeness--both stylistic and thematic--to work as a "symptom" in Lacan's terms, a sign of deeper riches to come. Those riches, in Kinoshita's terms, include a view of the Mediterranean as a loosely configured cultural unit, in which peaceful accommodation, commercial, artistic and religious trade went on during, and in spite of, the era's incessant warfare and rhetoric of difference. Admittedly going against the grain of "much recent criticism" (most notably what she calls "an unreflective strain of late twentieth-century postcolonial medievalism" [236]), Kinoshita argues forcefully for what she calls "transgressional flows" (237)--culture developing as a result of transmission, contact, accommodation, borrowing and friction rather than the policing of any one cultural or religious orthodoxy. The Middle Ages thus fall into what might be seen as a much longer period, one in which the multicultural and multiconfessional Mediterranean, especially Norman Sicily and Al-Andaluz, play a far greater role than the Northern capitals of the latter-day nations of the West. This cultural mix shines through the texts that Kinoshita discusses in delightful and unexpected ways that warrant the rewriting of medieval literary history that she offers. We are led inevitably to question the genealogy of Western Christian identity, fraught and fragile as it is, rather than assume a coherent, medieval canon of linguistic and cultural purity that points, however embryonically, toward some enlightened state of classless, democratic capitalism.

She sets out her project in a short and cogent introduction. This is a book that concentrates on periodization (i.e. the long twelfth century leading into the disruptions of the thirteenth), geography (increased consideration of the Mediterranean and the trade routes), and vernacularization (where and when "Medieval French literature" was produced). Though the emphasis on the epistemic shift leading into the thirteenth century is not necessarily new, Kinoshita deploys it to original ends without claiming that the temporal cut occurred simply as a matter of time passing or the inevitable march of "progress." The ruptures of the thirteenth century had their effects at different times in different places and often for different reasons; and literary texts played their part in examining these ruptures but also in effecting them. Flanders is key to this discussion, as the home of both prose narrative and some of the best-known medieval vernacular texts but also as a site of active resistance to French domination and the defense of local, feudal interests. Where Kinoshita really excels is in her emphasis on genealogy and on reading texts through the screen of patronage--who read what and, most importantly, how these patrons were related, often in unexpected ways, to what might at first seem alien or enemy cultures.

The book is organized into three sections. The first of these, entitled "Epic Revisions" establishes one of the books' central points--that medieval concepts of alterity were far more flexible and much less firmly fixed than has often been admitted. In the first chapter, ("Pagans are wrong and Christians are Right"), Kinoshita treats the text that usually serves as foundational for those who argue that the function of vernacular, medieval literature was to found and name a "proto-national" identity, consistent with a "proto-Orientalist" discourse. The work in question here is, of course, the Chanson de Roland, and while it reappears at key points in Kinoshita's other chapters, the purpose of these interventions is usually to deflect discussion from difference--as in religious traditions or the infamous "clash of civilizations"--by examining the question of what she calls "cultural accommodationism" (16). According to Kinoshita, the Roland opens with a perfect example of the Iberian custom of parias, i.e., the practice of settling conflict through the exchange of payments and lavish gifts. While the Franks had always participated quite willingly in this tradition, usually beneficial to both parties, Roland refuses what he thinks of as the lax accommodationism of Ganelon and Charlemagne and opts instead for a politics of "feudal intransigence" (16), an absolutism that is then misread as the founding moment of a collective French, and Christian, identity. The second chapter ("The Politics of Courtly Love") follows on from the discussion of epic and gender at the end of the first. Here Kinoshita treats the theme of the Saracen woman who becomes the ultimate prize of the French hero--the idealized, feminized Other. Unfailingly described as more beautiful, even whiter than any woman known, the Saracen queen is a "site of excess that effaces the opposition between" (53) the Christian and Muslim forces. Guillaume, hero of the Prise d'Orange, is similarly cast as a shape shifter--easily and convincingly disguised, he can pass as Christian and pagan, noble and merchant. This interchangeability bolsters the argument that such identities and identifications as race, ethnicity and confession were much more malleable in the Middle Ages than has often been assumed. Aucassin et Nicolette serves as an effective witness throughout the argument, with its reversals of values and identities that gently mock Christian stereotypes of religious, gendered and ethnic identity.

Section two ("Romances of Assimilation") consists of two chapters, one dealing with the wonderful Floire et Blancheflor and the other with the Lais of Marie de France. The project here is to look at non-epic texts that perform the same kinds of cultural intermixing toward different ends. In Floire and Blancheflor, the ethnic and religious codes are so skewed from the start that it is difficult even to keep in mind to which group or confession the characters are said to belong. This breeds an air of indeterminacy that defies simple categorizations. Kinoshita calls this text "polysemous," capable of "delivering different messages to different audiences" (104), at least until the somewhat unexpected conclusion when our cuddly Floire becomes himself a Christian brute. Along the way, however, the text has upset all the familiar adages about pagans vs. Christians. It claims that the mother of Charlemagne was born of the union of our look-alike lovers, a Muslim convert and his kidnapped Christian bride, and demonstrates that culture and learning travel just as easily from West to East as East to West. Kinoshita sees Marie de France's Lais (in chapter 4, "Colonial Possessions") as taking place in a "contact zone" (106), in which protagonists from different cultural and geographical zones interact. Key to the discussion is adultery and the birth of illegitimate children, a phenomenon almost unheard of elsewhere in romance, that acts here as an indelible mark of this intercourse. A close reading of two the lais, "Yonec" and "Milun," reveals just how complicated the power relations in post-conquest Wales were and argues that these lais demonstrate convincingly that the cultural intermixing of the Middle Ages was not just limited to the clash of Christianity and Islam, or the modern sense of "Europe" and just about everything else. Kinoshita argues that "Europe" was largely an effect of Norman expansion and the transfer of Carolingian religious, monetary, legal and educational customs and practices onto a wider geographical area. These customs then came to serve as the basis of a shared Christian culture that continued to grow and bind people of different cultures, ethnicities and languages within what can only be called an imagined identity. The various hints in the lais that the tales have actual historical referents--names of places, language equivalents, echoes of traditional practices--are shown to be important thematically rather than serving as simple vestiges of local color or evidence of authorial whim. The lady of Yonec's prayer for the return of ancient customs brings in its wake what Kinoshita calls "the return of the (autochthonous) repressed" (123) in both the political and erotic spheres; and in "Milun," the young son's role in effecting the marriage of his parents twenty years after his birth is read as a sign of welcome change, a new Cambro-Norman meritocracy that will gradually replace the genealogical grip of the kin group.

The third section, on change and crisis in the thirteenth century, again highlights history as an essential element of interpretation. The establishment of the "Latin Empire" of Constantinople in 1204, the English loss of Normandy in the same year, the battles of Bouvines (1214) and Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), the Albigensian crusade (1209), the fourth Lateran Council (1215) all coincide with the rise of prose historiography and the rich generic experimentation issuing from Arras, Picardy, and Flanders. Three of these texts--La Conquête de Constantinople (Conquête), La Fille du Comte de Pontieu, and the Chanson de la croisade albigeoise (Canso) are the topics of the section's chapters. Kinoshita reads the first of these, Robert de Clari's Conquête, in a chapter called "Brave New Worlds." Clari's text, while not as analytical or programmatic as Villehardouin's account, is more quirky and personal, proof of "the way the lived experience of the crusade would reshuffle the conventional categories of medieval society" (143). Working out of and through genealogy, especially of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, she demonstrates just how messy medieval genealogy could be and how alliances and fidelities that seem at first incomprehensible can often be explained through blood relations and expedient political marriages. As categories fall apart ("Christian," for example, especially as concerns political affiliations and military organization) and familiar values (rank, status, worship, family allegiance) are defamiliarized, we witness Robert reaching for a new and more personal style, one in which he and his brother figure as heroes in the text. Kinoshita uses the Conquête to argue against Said's thesis about the Western invention of the Orient as a discourse. Clari's text establishes almost the opposite as it testifies to the fracturing of Western discourses on identity and legitimization following the traumatic capture of Constantinople. The second chapter, "The Romance of MiscegeNation" is dedicated to the mysterious Fille du Comte de Pontieu. Too little read, this text is finally given the attention it deserves in Kinoshita's discussion of an imagined, utopian Andalucía and a very dysfunctional Picardy, in which calcified genealogical and religious categories reveal their cracks. This is a tale of a young woman who is raped, exiled, almost murdered by her father and then rises, through commerce, the open-mindedness of an emir, and her own ability to think on her feet, to a unique position of intercultural understanding. It rewrites the tale of intransigence spread by the Chanson de Roland and overturns the very bases of phallocentric, genealogical, and religious solidarity. It is in this essay that Kinoshita most effectively argues for the role women played in disrupting discourses of authority based on lineage and how their active roles deconstruct some of the most tenacious fictions of the twelfth century. Starting again from genealogy and an intense interest in the intersection of fiction and history, Kinoshita succeeds in portraying a Flemish aristocracy in crisis and a new world in which Christians are forced to open their discourse to the unexpected in order to account for defeat in their sacred wars. The way they choose to do this is through--what else--genealogy: the Islamic hero, Saladin, is the descendent of a Christian mother, the daughter of the fille du Comte de Pontieu.

In her final chapter, it is the Albigensian crusade that draws our attention. Another superbly evocative text (and a tribute, once again, to Kinoshita's critical tastes), the Canso is something of a mystery--yet another unique text, preserved in only one manuscript, it gives the best account of the complexities of the crusade available, and from two diverse points of view. Kinoshita traces the complicated line of allegiances and religious convictions (real and pseudo) that prompted Pope Innocent III to rule from both sides of his mouth on the feudal rights of the Counts of Toulouse and thus allow the massacres to continue. The loss of traditional values (paratge) are mourned appropriately but the embers of a new, imagined community are briefly fanned in the second part of the text as community solidarity and women's participation in the defense of Toulouse give way to a new social identity before the virtual annexation of Occitania into an insatiable French state. Kinoshita cleverly ends this chapter with another brief meditation on Aucassin et Nicolette, speculating that a parallel reading of the two texts might indicate its source or inspiration in an area within, or touched by, the ravaging of the Crusade. Her conclusion returns to the Introduction's discussion of objects--artistic (the Eleanor vase) and practical (the Cluny olifant) to establish that there was a shared culture of objects in the Mediterranean basin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and that this culture facilitated as well the transfer and absorption of religious, literary, and cultural norms. The Islamic world might have been the producers of many of these goods and the purveyors of a level of sophistication then unknown in the West; yet for a brief period that world became the mimetic target of a Christian gaze that subsequently left its own traces deep in the Middle East.

It should be clear from this summary of the book, however sketchy, that this is a deeply impressive work, a book that clearly represents years of painstaking thought and research. The most original parts of the argument--that lineage and feudal tradition provide only a part of the puzzle of cultural transfer and epistemological consistency--are backed up with reference to unusual and not often read texts. This book could serve as a textbook for a new curriculum in Medieval French literature, introducing students to both a rich and quirky choice of primary reading while integrating historical and genealogical work that explicates the interconnections between history and literature in new and convincing ways. Kinoshita's technique of laying out the argument in an introductory section and returning to that first exposition in a concluding section makes for student-friendly reading and adds clarity and force to her exposition. It is not, on the other hand, always easy reading, especially in some of the more densely genealogical sections (on the Conquête de Constantinople, for example). I might have like a bit more on what she calls the "culture of the crusade," a couple of chapters on how crusading is echoed and may even have given rise to some of the texts she discusses, but there is nothing I can see that could have been cut to provide the space for such a discussion. I highly recommend this timely study as one of the most innovative, cohesive, and ambitious I have read--one that is capable of reinvigorating medieval literary studies in the Romance languages at the undergraduate and graduate level and will be a de rigueur citation in any future bibliography of the period.