The Medieval Review 10.09.17

Haines, John. Satire in the Songs of Renart le Nouvel. Publications Romanes et Franaises, 247. Geneva: Droz, 2010. Pp. 364. . $95 ISBN 978-2-600-01324-6.

Reviewed by:

Judith Peraino
Cornell University

Global warming, corrupt governments, isolating technology, the constant threat of nuclear or terrorist attack--Haines begins this book by revealing signs of our own apocalyptic times. It is a brilliant entrée to this study of the late thirteenth-century romance Renart le nouvel, in which the wicked Renart deceives, murders, rapes, pillages, and wages war to emerge triumphantly enthroned atop the Wheel of Fortune. That this vision stems from a medieval worry over the End Times is not difficult to accept. Yet the romance, in all four sources, interpolates seventy-one refrains--sung courtly aphorisms--into the narrative (see p. 52). Furthermore, three of the sources preserve the music for the refrains, thus making the romance a musical compendium of sorts, and for musicologists a wellspring of words and melodies that appear in an intertextual network of musical genres. Haines's study of the entire romance and its historical, literary, and even scholarly contexts grew out of an initially more modest project, namely to make a critical edition of the refrain melodies. This edition forms the second part of the book (pp. 229-331), and it is sure to become an indispensible resource for musicologists who concern themselves with the curious repertory of the medieval refrain. Haines orders these according to their placement in the narrative, and for each refrain "moment" he provides the entries of all three manuscripts (including marginal additions), diplomatic reproductions of the original notation, transcription into modern notation, and a list of concordances in songs, motets, and other narratives. This allows the reader to compare textual variants and alternate refrains--in sum, to assess the sound world of each source, and perhaps the musical imagination the author(s) as well.

But let's back up for a moment. Songs--especially popular refrains--suggest a degree of frivolity, as do the animal characters who sing them. So what are little songs doing in a gloomy apocalyptic animal narrative? In the six chapters that precede the edition of refrains, Haines sets out to answer just that question, tracing, through meticulous archival and bibliographic research, the history and meaning of singing animals, especially in the many branches of Renart the fox tales (collectively called Roman de Renart) and several related later stories, especially the Couronnement de Renart, which shares with Renart le nouvel an explicit tie to Flanders among other things. Earlier scholars divined a political satire at work in Renart le nouvel, helped along by heavy-handed clues left by the authors. Haines convincingly fills in the specifics (see especially pp. 153-80): the cunning Renart represents France, and the much beleaguered lion Noble represents Flanders during the years of increasing French aggression and civil strife (roughly from 1214-1291). The key historical reference points are the tumultuous rule of Countess Margaret of Flanders (1244-1278), the conflict between her two sons born of different fathers (William II of Dampierre and John II of Avesnes), and the meddling of Charles of Anjou and the Archbishop of Reims. Haines links these and other historical figures to the romance's animal characters, thus making some sense out of their ghastly behavior and the twists of the narrative. In turn, the animal characters--especially the deceptive fox and the satanic ass, (the archbishop Timer)--comment on the senselessness of world events.

Haines also argues for a separation of the two books of the romance in time as well as authorship, based largely on a striking difference in tone and content. Book one retains the flavor of the older Renart tradition but with regional markers; in Haines's words, it betrays "a certain care-free pessimism" in which the corruption of the political figures is presented in laughable satire (223; see also 31). In contrast, the tone of book two becomes more grim, the figures more allegorical, and the narrative more interrupted--by a prose letter, a long description of Renart's ship of vices (in which the author attacks priests, clerks, and mendicants), and by over sixty refrains.

That the more apocalyptic book contains the bulk of the refrains may seem incongruous, yet Haines sees these songs as part of the biting satire in that they parody the trouvère tradition, for which the region of Artois and Flanders was a major center of production. Professions of love and devotion from these animal mouths cannot possibly be sincere. This begs the question, however, of whether the trouvères were ever read or heard as sincere; their lyrics are filled with games of contradiction and self-referencing. The emergence of the refrain, which is often cued as a song within a song or reported speech, is an extension of these literary games, playing the line between a collective and an individual voice.

Do refrains refer to trouvère songs? Haines writes "When, for example, the lioness Orgueilleuse sings 'Amors mi font brisier mon mariage' (R12b), it is a play on such songs as Moniot d'Arras' 'Amors mi fait renvoisier' (RS 810). Love may make Moniot sick with happiness, but, in the case of the lioness, it has the opposite effect, as it is breaking up her marriage." (90). Alas, Haines does not say more about this linking, leaving the reader to wonder if all refrains that start with "Amors" refer to songs that start with "Amors". Upon following a footnote reference, I see that the song "Amors mi fait renvoisier" is in fact a chanson de femme with its own refrain, "Quant pluz me bat et destraint li jalous, tan tai je pluz en amours ma pensee' (The more my jealous husband beats and hounds me, the more my mind is fixed on love."). Thus the refrain of the lioness, while it does not refer to this song directly, does refer to this song generically (and I might add that this is not a typical trouvère song, or even in Moniot's voice). Why Haines did not follow through to make this connection is a bit of a mystery, since the tie in theme and voice would have strengthened his argument that the refrains in the romance refer to song types, though perhaps not always as parodies.

Indeed, although "satire in the songs" would seem to be the main topic of Haines' study according to the book's title, the operation of musical satire in this romance actually receives little attention. His most sustained discussion of the relationship between refrains and trouvère songs (pp. 90-110) gets sidetracked by the history of the production and circulation of manuscripts containing music in the region of Flanders. The chapter is titled "The Literary Context," but I would describe it more as "The Literacy Context"--which is indeed a fascinating topic, and Haines knows much about it. There is a wealth of good information in this chapter, but the literary work of the refrain in this particular romance gets lost. Yet despite the lack of more detailed analysis of any one scene of singing, I do buy Haines' larger point: the final banquet scene in which the animals sing over forty refrains to each other presents an apocalyptic, topsy-turvy world which implies a bitter end to the trouvères' literary ethic of love service (see his clear statement of this thesis on pp. 38-9).

Haines does make a bold argument about the status of five refrains that are introduced as "motets" in the narrative (181-200). "Motet" has many different medieval referents, including polyphonic and monophonic songs, as well as refrains. Haines reveals that that in some branches of the Roman de Renart, Renart is depicted as singing polyphony (see esp. 192-6; though the word "motet" was not used). More importantly, Renart's first and last songs in Renart le nouvel are introduced as "motets," and one manuscript does indeed provide a polyphonic setting for his first refrain, which is the fourth in the whole story (187). Drawing on a wealth of other details--especially the close ties of Renart le nouvel to the later famous interpolated Roman de Fauvel where a singing demonic ass has replaced the singing demonic fox--Haines claims that in Renart le nouvel the term "motet" flags the duplicity of the characters who sing them. In other words, a particular moral value attached itself to the term "motet," and it seems that the implication of polyphony and Renart had something to do with it.

The network of connections that Haines leads us through to argue his claim about the cultural valence of the "motet" is imaginative and compelling--but not entirely convincing. The evidence that the word "motet" would necessarily conjured duplicitous polyphony in the minds of the medieval audience for Renart le nouvel is slim. Haines himself demonstrated that if medieval writers wanted to describe the fox singing polyphony, they knew how by describing the multiple voice parts as "orgue, double, and treble" (see 192). Only the one "polyphonized" refrain in the one source for Renart le nouvel suggests that "motet" was read as short-hand for polyphony. But even if we throw polyphony out of the mix, the question remains: do the five so-called "motets" in Renart le nouvel express more satanic duplicity than the other refrains? Haines believes that all five are linked by their renardie, their hypocrisy (186); but this describes the many refrains in the romance sung by the most deceitful animals. While I do not want to rule out Haines's conclusion, his argument would have benefited by a close reading of at least some of the refrains in situ, and perhaps a pursuit of their concordances in other sources and genres.

The scale of topics that preoccupy Haines is large, encompassing geopolitical events, technologies of cultural production and dissemination, symbols of the apocalypse--a weighty apparatus to accompany the edition of such miniature songs, and one that produces upon occasion the rare circumstance of missing the trees for the forest. But I would not wish it the other way around. Haines tells us many fascinating and important things about Renart le nouvel and its context and impact; moreover, he has produced an indispensible resource for future research--provided that the Apocalypse is not too near.