12.01.01, Gaffney, Constructions of Childhood and Youth in Old French Narrative

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James A. Schultz

The Medieval Review 12.01.01

Gaffney, Phyllis. Constructions of Childhood and Youth in Old French Narrative. Burlington, VT:Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. 236. ISBN: 9780-7546-6920-3.

Reviewed by:

James A. Schultz

The first chapter of Phyllis Gaffney's Constructions of Childhood and Youth in Old French Narrative begins with a brief review of the historical and literary-historical scholarship on medieval childhood, along with the obligatory discussion of the theories of Philippe Ariès (3-12). Then Gaffney distinguishes her own project: "unlike previous approaches to the topic, this book will foreground considerations of genre" (11). She believes that changes in the representation of children in French texts over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have "to do with the emergence of the romance genre" (11). Gaffney defines genres in conventional terms. While the epic "reflects a warrior world" in which the protagonist's "acts are a means of serving some public end" that is "accepted without question," romance shifts the emphasis "towards inner, personal values [and] the analysis of intimate feelings" (16). While the epic "hero's actions and essence are identical," romance "brings a more dynamic view of the protagonist" who "as an individual must discover his identity" (18). These preliminary definitions are important, since they provide the terms on which Gaffney relies to make her argument about childhood and genre.

Before turning to that argument, however, Gaffney describes, in chapter two, a "repertoire of traditional images" on which "medieval poets and their audiences" could draw in "their constructions of childhood and youth" (23). Recognizing the difficulty of limiting medieval childhood to a "fixed span of years" (26) or of making clear divisions within childhood, Gaffney takes "childhood, adolescence and youth...as one unbroken web" (30). After surveying the various schemes for the "ages of man" (31-34), she moves on to the traditional "attributes of childhood" (34-37)--like children's lack of speech or understanding--and then to the traditional "attributes of youth" (37- 34)--such as their susceptibility to sensual pleasure and lack of balance. Common medieval ideas about the education of children follow, including the function of punishment and the relation between nature and nurture (43-48). Finally Gaffney surveys "stock figures" and "narrative archetypes" (49-56)--the prodigious birth, the secret upbringing, the child wise beyond his years. Although this chapter contains little that will surprise medievalists, especially those familiar with the scholarship on medieval childhood, it nevertheless makes an important point: the Old French texts to which Gaffney turns next were written in a world where these ideas were common currency, and the texts must be understood in relation to them.

The first of the two core chapters in Gaffney's study, chapter three presents "changing models of childhood and youth in the chanson de geste." The chanson de geste is treated before romance because, even though it is not the most likely genre in which to find children, it comes first chronologically, and the real goal of the project is "to see how the narrative portrayal of the young evolves" (59, my emphasis). In the first part of the chapter, Gaffney presents a "threefold typology" (62) of epic youth. The first type is the "unheroic" or "normal dependent child," who adds "realistic detail to the idealized epic world" (62). Some texts portray "dependent children from lower social strata" (63), others child kings whose "weakness" and "vulnerability" leave them unable to defend the lands they have inherited (65-66). The second type of epic child is the "exemplary victim" (62), represented by Vivien. Over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, "the figure of Vivien...seems to grow more immature and more juvenile...as the later chansons de geste give prominence to childish traits absent in earlier songs" (67). I am not convinced, however, that the later versions imply a criticism of Vivien's youthful démesure (71) and "lack of reasonable restraint" (73). The negative judgments all come from modern scholars, while the quotations from the medieval texts express nothing but awe for the precocious heroism that drives Vivien to his death. Vivien's younger brother Gui exemplifies the third type of epic youth, the puer senex or youth wise beyond his years (75). Here too Gaffney can chart "changes in epic taste that...increasingly emphasize youth as a time of unconscious inexperience" (74). She is able to do this because she sees Rainouart as Gui's "replacement" (78) in the later installments of the Guillaume cycle, and Rainouart is, of course, famously inexperienced. The second section of the chapter, which is devoted to "complex family plots" (82-93), illustrates one of the less attractive features of this study. Gaffney works through five epics, one after the other, summarizing a good deal of the plot of each and commenting on the parents and children she encounters. These summaries take up a lot of space but yield no general conclusions about epic childhood. The final section of the chapter begins by reviewing what has already been said about "the epic view of the child" (94). It concludes by considering three "innovations" in the content of the epics that may indicate "the influence of romance poetry" (99): the increased prominence of young females (99-102); the way a hero's "past history begins to be connected with his identity" (102); and the heightened attention given the theme of youthful "ignorance and inexperience" (103).

The second of Gaffney's core chapters, chapter four, is devoted to "childhood and youth in romance" (105). Once again, the first section establishes a threefold typology, this time of romance children. The first type comprises "youthful victims of war" (107) from the romans antiques, like Atys or Camilla. Although these romances send their young protagonists off to war, just like the epics discussed in the previous chapter, Gaffney finds in them an increased "emphasis on personal experience and sentiment" (109). Love, of course, is one of the principal themes of romance, and "love's youthful casualties" (110) constitute Gaffney's second category. Child lovers, like Lavinia, differ from adult lovers not so much in their childishness but in the obstacle that "parental opposition" presents to their love (114). Floire and Blancheflor represent the third type of romance child, the "survivors of love stories" (115). The second section of the chapter, called "states of becoming," is a grab bag. It begins with "birth, infancy, and infant care" (120): in contrast to the chanson de geste, romance shifts the focus from genealogy to "accounts of individual births" (121), from the dangers children face from "age-old human enmities" to those that arise from "aleatoric misadventure" (121). Next Gaffney considers "the gendering of childhood and youth" (126): although romance poems "predictably reflect contemporary attitudes in their treatment of young girls" (130), one does see in the case of "prudent young women" that "the young female tends to be more formed and more sage than her male counterpart" (129). Then we turn to "separated families and enigmas of nature" (133): romance stresses the "drama of growing up and acquiring knowledge about identity" as opposed to the "almost brash certainty of the epic youth" (140). The third section of the chapter treats the "lessons of nurture," beginning with Chrétien's Perceval (141-48) and then moving on to other examples of "ignorance and the need for learning" (148-57). Here again there is a great deal of plot summary and very little to show for it. Concluding the section, Gaffney is content to repeat what has become obvious, that "the education theme" is "part of the romance ethos" (155). Having established the presence of this theme, she feels no need to offer any broader insight into the nature of romance education, its meaning, or its relation to the historical education of young nobles. The fourth section of the chapter summarizes "the romance view of the child" (157-58). It turns out that "well-established features of the genre--the quest for adventure, the elucidation of mysteries, the notion of self-proving by initiation--all contribute to the romance construction of youth" (157). It should not be surprising, then, that "love and learning...are the characteristic experiences of young characters in twelfth-century romance" (157).

Chapter five, "Childhood and Youth in Enfances Poems," focuses on a group of texts that is difficult to define as a genre. Still, isolating poems "entirely...or uniquely preoccupied with the story of the hero's youth," Gaffney believes they do "offer a useful test case for the arguments previously advanced about the difference between 'epic' and 'romance' children" (162). Not surprisingly, the arguments are found to pass the test: the enfances, Gaffney concludes, confirm "the impression of a different treatment of the child in epic and romance" (175). They don't. Although, according to Gaffney, "the vast majority of enfances poems...are cast in epic mode" (193), they nevertheless place "emphasis...on the hero's personal experience, and his childhood is depicted as a formative, dynamic phase of life. This is in keeping with the romance view of the young" (176). How, if most enfances are in the "epic mode" but nevertheless present the hero's childhood according to "the romance view," can enfances be said to confirm the "different treatment of the child in epic and romance"?

Gaffney draws her argument together in a concluding chapter, "A Slow Conversion of Sensibility." She finds that "romance, far more than chanson de geste, succeeds in conveying something of the state of childhood, through its emphasis on the themes of growth and learning. As a genre, it is, by and large, more inherently 'youth- friendly'" (185). And yet, over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries she detects "shifts in epic models of youth [that] can be ascribed to the romance ethos" (182-83). Epic too becomes more "youth-friendly." Gaffney then looks to "the wider historical arena," where "there is evidence to suggest a similar shift...from a static to a dynamic view of childhood" (185). She points to the increased social importance of women, a growing concern with the moral and intellectual upbringing of children, and the humanizing of the infant Jesus (185-90). The historical evidence, Gaffney claims, supports "the proposition that there are real signs, not only of an underlying sensitivity and awareness of youth but of a shift in collective attitudes towards the young during the twelfth and subsequent centuries" (190-91). If that is true, if the historical evidence supports the proposition that there was a collective shift in attitudes, then it will necessarily undermine the proposition that Gaffney advances at the outset. She sets out to show that changes in the representation of children in French texts over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have "to do with the emergence of the romance genre" (11). Changes over time in the representation of children in the chanson de geste she attributes to "the influence of romance poetry" (99). If, however, there was a general cultural change in attitudes towards children during this period, then there is no reason to attribute any special efficacy to romance. Isn't it more likely that epic and romance both participate in the "shift in collective attitudes" that Gaffney identifies? If so, then romance is not an agent but a symptom of this shift. So too are the changes Gaffney sees in the chanson de geste. If so, then there is no reason to believe either the "emergence" (11) or the "influence" (99) of romance poetry bears any responsibility for changes in the construction of childhood and youth in Old French narrative.

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James A. Schultz