09.12.06, Smith, Medieval French Pastourelle Tradition

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Brooke Findley

The Medieval Review 09.12.06

Smith, Geri L.. The Medieval French Pastourelle Tradition: Poetic Motivations and Generic Transformations. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009. Pp. 336. ISBN: 978-0-8130-3336-5.

Reviewed by:
Brooke Findley
Pennsylvania State Altoona

Not every study of a single literary genre can boast a range that includes lyric, theater, narrative, and political writing. The medieval French pastourelle, however, is not just any genre. This book examines the transformations of the pastourelle over a period of approximately two hundred years, from around 1200 to 1403. Beginning with the genre's heyday in 13th century lyric, it continues by focusing on three authors who reshape the pastourelle for their own ends: Adam de la Halle, Jean Froissart, and Christine de Pizan. By grounding readings of these authors' very diverse pastourelles in the context of the tradition from which they spring, Smith illuminates their individual agendas, seeking to uncover "that which is distinctive, in the context of that which is expected." The result is an interesting and wide-ranging work of scholarship, with implications for several critical discussions within medieval literary studies.

Although Smith identifies genre and authorship as the two main poles of her study, she might easily have cited gender as a third. The typical pastourelle scenario, in which an aristocratic knight propositions and sometimes rapes a lower-class shepherdess, provides an occasion for these texts to confront the dynamics of gender, class and power. The shepherdess's beautiful body is eroticized and often degraded as she plays the role of "sexual stunt-double"--as Smith aptly puts it--to the courtly lady. Nonetheless, Smith shows that in many cases the shepherdess's first-person voice can also be read as a site of feminine resistance within texts otherwise dominated by a masculine perspective. Through her voice, the shepherdess may shape and subvert the discourse of the poem, sometimes even attaining the status of poet figure in her own right. Smith's analyses of the shepherdess's role constitute an important addition to our understanding of the pastourelle, and suggest provocative commonalities with other scholarship on representations of medieval women.

After an introduction that deftly treats the thorny issue of genre as it applies to the particularly tricky case of the pastourelle, the first chapter provides an overview of the 13th century lyric manifestations of the type. What this diverse group of poems has in common is the central figure of the knight as poet-protagonist, and his first-person voice as a filter for the account. Smith examines the idealized topoi of rustic life, gives a clear-eyed assessment of the role of violence and rape, and demonstrates that the overall effect of these texts is to create a nostalgic world based on simplified power structures. Nonetheless, as she correctly observes, the pastourelle's seeming affirmation of aristocratic and masculine superiority is complicated by its portrayal of the knight as often inconsistent and duplicitous. The shepherdess, for her part, is first of all a self-consciously literary construct: the words for shepherdess and poem (pastourelle) are the same, and the knight's action of "finding" one merges with his "composing" of the other through the double meaning of the verb trouver. Yet her voice may still discredit the knight and express an alternate perspective, ultimately casting doubt on the chevalier-pote's powerful perspective.

Chapter two discusses Adam de la Halle's Jeu de Robin et Marion, a work whose innovation is to bring the pastourelle to the stage. Displaced from the lyric to the theater, the knight loses his power as controlling narrator, while the shepherdess becomes more autonomous, in part because the audience hears her words issuing directly from the mouth of a female speaker, unfiltered by any other character. Smith argues convincingly that Adam's Marion is the figure around whom the play revolves, and that her song and narration guide it throughout; it is the knight who appropriates her words rather than vice versa. Shepherd life as Adam depicts it is imbued with realistic details, further upsetting the pastourelle illusion. Ultimately, Smith demonstrates, Adam's play dismantles the typical power structures of the lyric pastourelle, and "exposes the fragility of the pastourelle fantasy by revealing its constructedness."

Chapter three examines Froissart, for whom the pastourelle was largely a vehicle for political commentary. The bawdiness and violence of earlier manifestations of the genre here give way to nostalgia and refinement, as Froissart's pastourelles paint shepherd life as a realm of idealized innocence. Smith reconsiders the apparent utopianism of these works in a section on Froissart as social critic, and in readings of his autobiographical Barn pastourelles. Nonetheless, the ideological chasm that exists between Froissart and earlier pastourelles seems at times to call for more analysis. One especially strange shift involves the fact that Froissart's pastourelles appear to betray very little concern for the gender dynamics so important in the other texts discussed. This is apparently a silence in the poems rather than an oversight by Smith, who does point out the rare occasions on which Froissart briefly allows a shepherdess to speak. Yet the omission is still striking, given the strongly gendered nature of the genre, along with Froissart's documented interest in female characters and women's voices in his dits; it might have merited further discussion.

The fourth and final chapter reads Christine de Pizan's Dit de la pastoure, showing how Christine uses the shepherdess's voice to assert the value of women's experience and develop a critique of love conventions as harmful to women. Christine's shepherdess recounts her love of and abandonment by a knight; although here the relationship is desexualized, the result is nonetheless negative for the woman. The dit privileges the poetic voices of Christine, the shepherdess Marote, and the shepherdess's friend and confidante Lorete; its carefully crafted debunking of the myths surrounding love is bolstered with Classical references that mark the shepherdess and her friend as unusually learned, but that also place Christine firmly within a humanist tradition. Like Christine herself, the shepherdess is unhappy in love but ultimately successful in poetic creation. Smith's analysis is especially strong in this chapter because it allows us to understand Christine as a reader of earlier pastourelles, able to recognize and redeploy the resistant potential of the shepherdess's inscribed voice. It is clear that here, as elsewhere, Christine envisioned her work as involving re-readings as well as rewritings of previous traditions, as she sought to identify positive models for women within a largely misogynistic literary heritage.

This study contributes to discussions of medieval authorship through its examination of three authors who develop distinct voices in response to particular traditions; to discussions of genre through its look at a particularly thorny specimen and its constant permutations; and to discussions of representations of women in medieval texts through its apt handling of both inscribed female characters and a female author's rewriting of them. Scholars with an interest in any of these areas will find this book essential and engaging reading.

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Author Biography

Brooke Findley

Pennsylvania State Altoona