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07.03.13, Lechat, Dire par fiction

07.03.13, Lechat, Dire par fiction

Didier Lechat's ambitious study is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship concerned with the dit and its development in the later Middle Ages. Taking his cue from the work of Jacqueline Cerquglini-Toulet, Lechat draws attention to the dit as a form whose characteristic tendency to represent a first-person perspective evolves into the ostensibly autobiographical "I" which emerges in the work of Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart and Christine de Pizan. As Lechat argues, this concern with subjectivity is also reflected in another aspect of the dit, the interpolation of micronarratives (micro-récits) stemming from history, the Bible and, especially, from the mythological tradition shaped by the Ovide moralisé. Amongst the various medieval terms used to describe such narratives, including "exemple," "fable," and "glose," Lechat highlights the term "fiction," considering its emergence and development during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the mark of a new conception of poetic activity and the role of the author. As Lechat contends, in this context, interpolated narratives become a means to authorial self-construction, as poets cite and revise examples which refine a conception of poetic art, or which reimagine their own relationship to a patron.

The book is subdivided into four chapters, with the first offering an analysis of how far this practice of fictive writing is theorised within medieval rhetorical treatises, with special attention given to the uses of the term "fiction." Lechat begins with Machaut's Prologue, concluding that although the word "fiction" never appears, the verb "faire" serves as its precursor within this text, where the poet takes centre stage as a gifted maker whose art requires intellect and subtlety. Eustache Deschamp's Art de Dictier, Jacques Legrand's L'Archiloge Sophie, and Les Règles de la Seconde Rhétorique, are also explored, and the chapter concludes with a brief examination of the influence of the Roman de la Rose on the development of a poetics of fiction. Addressing the relationship between the "I" of the Roman de la Rose and that of pseudo-autobiography (to use Lawrence de Looze's term), Lechat draws attention to the role of the myths of Narcissus, Orpheus and Pygmalion as a precedent for the use of interpolated narrative as a means of commenting on poetic creation.

Chapter two focuses on Machaut's four final dits, chosen because they are representative of the shifting status of the "I" in Machaut's poetry, and because they incorporate a number of fictions: Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, Le Confort d'ami, La Fontaine amoureuse and Le Livre dou Voir Dit. In particular, the reading of the Confort is insightful, arguing that the poem's treatment of contemporary experience, mythology and biblical exempla systematizes and secularises a reading practice which resembles scriptural exegesis. The analysis of the Voir Dit is also notable for its attention to the way in which the poem brings Guillaume's personal experience into relation with similar cases drawn from myth.

Chapter three is concerned with Froissart's longer dits, L'Espinette amoureuse, La Prison amoureuse, and Le Joli Buisson de Jonece. As Lechat argues, Froissart serves as a bridging point between the work of Machaut and that of Christine de Pizan not only in chronological terms, but also in the way these authors represent themselves as readers. While Machaut rarely depicts himself in the act of reading, Froissart prepares the way for Christine, for whom representations of reading and compilation take on a vital importance. Lechat places this development in the context of a growing concern with the role of the vernacular author. The "I" of Froissart's dits evokes an illusion of autobiography which more closely resembles the modern conception of the form than does that of Machaut. Interpolated narratives drawn from mythology proliferate, and their treatment foregrounds a movement which replaces love with a commitment to artistic representation. The discussions of L'Espinette amoureuse and Le Joli Buisson de Jonece are especially valuable, complementing the more familiar reading of the myth of Pynoteüs and Neptisphelé in foregrounding the extent to which Froissart's treatment of myths like those of Achilles and Polyxena, Narcissus and Echo, also serves to refine a concept of art.

Chapter four addresses the work of Christine de Pizan, focussing principally on Le Dit de la Pastoure, L'Epistre Othea and La Cité des Dames. Lechat draws attention to the conspicuous absence within Christine's love poetry of the dream form as setting, a technique which is otherwise prevalent in the dit, and to her limited use of mythological exempla. By contrast, the historical, moral and political works composed after 1402-1405 reflect a more developed use of myth and dream vision. Lechat argues persuasively that, for Christine, these strategies take on particular significance as a means of legitimising her own authorship: the dream vision offers an arena in which Christine can begin to offer a response to the question of how a woman can exercise literary authority while, alongside scripture and history, amended versions of myth offer a source of precedents for Christine's conception of womanhood and literary practice. Lechat's interpretation of La Cité des Dames is also distinguished by its treatment of the sequence of seventeen or eighteen chapters (12/13-30) as a distinctive sequence of responses to anti-matrimonial satire.

Lechat's study is a rich and interesting analysis of authorial subjectivity in the dit, and I have few criticisms to make. Nonetheless, an examination of the Remede de Fortune might have offered a valuable complement to the critical readings of Machaut's dits; although it is treated briefly in the section on the Voir Dit, it is not otherwise explored, and no reason is given for its exclusion. Occasionally, the relationship between the treatment of the myths, artistic representation and authorship might have been underlined for greater clarity, as it sometimes seemed to edge towards a more general examination of the myths in themselves. On a more technical note, the bibliography is subdivided into a number of sections, with monographs, comparative works and surveys treated separately and by author, which can make it rather more difficult to find a particular reference than in a standard bibliography. However, despite these criticisms, Lechat offers a stimulating reading of the role of fiction in the emergence of vernacular literary culture, and as such is well worthy of attention.