12.03.24, Armstrong, Knowing Poetry

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S. N. Rosenberg

The Medieval Review 12.03.24

Armstrong, Adrian and Sarah Kay. Knowing Poetry: Verse in Medieval France from the Rose to the Rhétoriqueurs. Ithaca, NY:Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 256. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4973-4.

Reviewed by:

S. N. Rosenberg
Indiana University

This richly stimulating work stems from a five-year research project on the relationship between poetry and knowledge in France in the late(r) Middle Ages, understood here as the years between approximately 1270 and 1530. The project, well supported by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, involved a considerable number of scholars, a true "team" (ix), all of whom are identified in the Preface, most notably Sylvia Huot. Other hands might well have produced a volume of separate essays. The two authors of this book, the leaders of the project, aimed instead for a unitary presentation of the team's findings; this was clearly the better, more instructive choice, which has by and large succeeded in establishing a univocal authority in its discussion of poetry as transmitter and shaper of knowledge in the said period.

The lengthy Introduction takes as its opening given that the 13th century brought a shift in French literary primacy from verse to prose, the latter rather quickly replacing verse as the unmarked medium of written expression. With the emergence of prose as the normal vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, most strikingly at first in its historiographical (or would-be historiographical) function, verse in France "takes on a whole new life as a medium of reflection and enlightenment" (3). It is the burden of the book's two Parts--"Situating Knowledge" and "Transmitting and Shaping Knowledge," each divided into three neatly subdivided and clearly labeled chapters--to show how this enlargement developed. One may wonder, of course, to what extent such development was paralleled by the growth of vernacular prose (in considerable part to the detriment of Latin), but a sustained comparison of the two media is not part of the authors' plan. The shadow in which this leaves the evolution of prose brings to mind the immediacy of Armstrong and Kay's assumption of its rise. True, they provide references to corroborative studies, but some probative attention to such an all-important phenomenon would not have been out of place. What is one to make of a case like the two late 14th-century recountings of the same legend of Mélusine, one in verse and the other--the earlier!--in prose? A brief footnote (2, n4) seems inadequate. The subject, writ large, calls for an ongoing comparison between the two media in their various and ever-ramifying uses. Be that as it may and whatever the trajectory of prose, that of verse was dynamic, taking the medium well beyond its oral, performative achievements in the epics, romances, and lyrics of the 12th and 13th centuries into genres transmitting encyclopedic knowledge, political and historical developments, philosophy and science and more, thus broadening immeasurably its epistemic reach. Here one may ask why it was thought necessary to investigate the new life of verse in terms of the medium's transmission of knowledge rather than its formal developments, proliferating genres, and evolving functions. The choice of an epistemic grounding for the project rather than a systematic historical approach is not explained with any clarity.

It is a welcome innovation of this study to include Occitan texts along with French in the unfolding of its argument. Given the intertwined lyric backgrounds of the two idioms and then their ways not only with poetic treatises but with writers' competitions as well, this conjunction is fully justified. The Introduction goes on to consider lexicographic matters: the theoretical distinction between verse and poetrie--the authors will focus on verse--and the kinds of knowledge with which their period's texts are concerned, viz. "referential," "textual," and "ideological."

Chapter 1 asks what kinds of verse texts survive alongside the now dominant medium of prose and singles out, apart from the obvious genres of lyric and theater, the newly created prosimetric compositions and the wealth of philosophical and allegorically instructive fiction inspired by the Roman de la rose. The issue soon arises of the transmission of verse from poet to public and, in an engaging section, the practice of public reading, examined here chiefly with reference to works by Machaut, Froissart, and Deschamps. Aside from their reasonable but somewhat immaterial explanations of "prelection," our authors might have pointed to its value as entertainment (a value significant even today, in an era of multiple aural and visual delivery systems) and to the need to meet the practical challenges of relative illiteracy, rarity of books, scarcity of other communal activities, poor eyesight, poor lighting, etc. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the circumstances giving rise to the puys in northern France and the equivalent contests in the Occitan south; this is followed by a similar situating of late medieval theater.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the association of late medieval verse with history. The Roman de Perceforest and such writers of both chronicles and lyric (or lyrico-narrative) poetry as Froissart, Chastelain, Molinet, and Jean Lemaire de Belges exemplify the practice of linking politically determined patronage and the production of verse, with much attention afforded Machaut and his Prise d'Alixandre in particular. Beyond the question of commissioned verse, the authors take up the matter of the poetic persona and its relation to historical time and the generation of knowledge; this occasions a substantial examination of Deschamps's corpus, followed by an intense consideration of Froissart.

Chapter 3 treats at length three exemplars of poetry as intellectual inquiry: Jean de Meun's Roman de la rose; Ovid's Metamorphoses and its French adaptation, the Ovide moralisé; and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy in its several verse or prosimetric translations. What makes the three works crucially significant as transmitters of knowledge to following poetry is that they were thematically so interconnected as to "converge into a single poetico-reflective matrix"--a very "Rose-Moralisé- Consolation trio," according to our two authors (71). This convergence would explain their unusually broad appeal to writers of all stripes, and even beyond the confines of France.

Chapter 4 opens the second Part of the book, the first of three chapters tracing, in succession, the development of the "way poetry transmits and shapes a particular kind of knowledge: referential, textual, or ideological" (101). This entails a review, through seven sections, of vernacular encyclopedias--compendia of knowledge not so called until the 16th century) stemming from the great corpus of such works appearing in medieval Latin. For vernacular verse efforts, the most influential Latin models, translated into Occitan as well as French, were the 12th-century Elucidarium and Imago mundi of Honorius of Autun. As Armstrong and Kay make clear, however, the future of significant texts of encyclopedic interest lay with prose rather than verse and, in an analysis of the works of Brunetto Latini and Guilhem Molinier, they offer an explicit discussion of the role of prose as well as verse in the organizing of knowledge. The remaining sections of this chapter study the issues of universal history and cosmology and their recurrence as "'encyclopedic insertions' in the vast production of encyclopedic verse that followed in the wake of the shift from encyclopedias proper from verse to prose" (134).

Chapter 5 takes up "textual" knowledge, looking at poetry not only as a vehicle, but also as an object, of knowledge. The discussion turns mainly on the poetic practices of quotation (of works deemed to be of epistemic value), lyric insertion (into a framing narrative), and the allied technique of prosimetrum, which, grosso modo, tells a tale in functionally distinct and reciprocally illuminating stretches of prose and verse. It includes the development of the various arts of rhetoric and verse composition that were produced in both north and south; then moves on to the works--the dits, the ballades...--of Machaut and Froissart in particular; and attends to the works of Matfre Ermengaud, Adam de la Halle, and Nicole de Margival. The observation that "quotation lies at the heart of an entire late medieval lyric form, the serventois" (153) leads to some consideration of two well-known querelles as well as the inevitable Villon and his awareness of the Rose. Alain Chartier then figures, along with other poets, in the authors' treatment of lyric insertion and prosimetrum.

Verse as a source of "ideological" knowledge is the subject of the final chapter. The term is a necessarily loose one, meant to embrace political, social, and religious assumptions. Armstrong and Kay employ it to focus on the social contexts, the communities, giving rise to and receiving the knowledge-bearing products of verse. Here we find a discussion of such contextually related topics as Arras in the 13th century, the Roman de Fauvel, and the status of first- person narrators. A long section devoted to Christine de Pizan explores the poet's role in making form an important agent "in shaping knowledge and in grounding the relationship between author and public" (178). Christine receives from our authors more sustained and detailed attention than any other of the numerous poets they treat; it is a cogent demonstration of the central importance of Christine's works in the transmitting of "ideological" knowledge. Chapter 6 concludes with sections devoted to the rhétoriqueurs and to theater, both at the end of the period under study.

The Conclusion offers an extensive summing up of the book's organization, purpose, and findings. The authors recapitulate, more concisely than earlier, the determinants of the study's periodization and conclude with a glance at the poetry yet to come, when the rondeau gives way to the sonnet.

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Author Biography

S. N. Rosenberg

Indiana University