12.10.01, Mölk, Les débuts d'une théorie littéraire en France

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Valerie M. Wilhite

The Medieval Review 12.10.01

Mölk, Ulrich. Les débuts d'une théorie littéraire en France: Anthologie critique. Textes Littéraires du Moyen Âge. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2011. Pp. 213. ISBN: 978-2-8124-0305-7.

Reviewed by:
Valerie M. Wilhite
University of Oregon

Les Débuts d'une théorie littéraire en France: Anthologie critique is an updated French version of an anthology of short excerpts of French texts published by Ulrich Mölk in 1969 under the title Französische Literarästhetik. [1] The consciousness that was dubbed a literarästhetik in 1969 has been rebranded as théorie littéraire. The collection provides 105 excerpts from vernacular texts in which the author or scribe reveals various ideas about the nature of literature, literary production, the responsibilities of the author, and the role of the audience. Each text comes with citations of previous editions and any studies in which it is examined. With this new iteration of the previous anthology Mölk has sought to produce a more complete tool to help medievalist's determine how medieval French authors would answer the question "What is Literature?" To the anthology of 1969 a practical guide has been added in the form of an introduction, which closes with an outline of hypothetical future projects and more extensive back matter which includes three indices and an updated bibliography.

The two hundred and thirteen pages of this brief book include an introduction in which Mölk explains the utility of compiling excerpts "d'intérêt poétologique;" the inspiration for his project; and the topics relevant to the subject. The twenty-seven pages of the introduction are divided into a number of sections:

Théorie littéraire, critique littéraire, conscience littéraire:

Artes Poeticae/Artes Rhetoricae et literature française medieval

Conscience littéraire et subjectivité littéraire

Le Je-Narrateur

Le nom propre de l'auteur

Théorie littéraire-critique littéraire-poétique

Critique littéraire explicite et critique littéraire implicite:

Deux parodies

Deux disputes littéraires

Deux épilogues

Trois prologues réexaminés:

Le prologue du poème d'Alberic

Le prologue du Roman de Thèbes

Le prologue du Roman de Cligès

État de la Recherche et Suggestions

While Mölk's introduction is thematically organized, the pieces themselves are arranged chronologically within divisions determined by genre. Mölk has chosen to concentrate on narrative and didactic works which are divided in the following groups: Chansons de geste (22 texts with one addition since the 1969 anthology); Chanson de croisade (1); Vie de Saints (10 with six new texts); Récit Biblique (1); Épopées antiques (2); Romans antiques (2); Romans Bretons (14); Romans courtois non Bretons (15); Chantefable (1); Récits brefs (15 with 9 new texts); Roman de Renart (2); Littérature didactique et allégorique (9 with an addition from Robert de Ho and the removal of Robert de Blois' Enseignement des princes); Littérature historique (10 with 7 new texts and the removal of Pierre: Histoire de Charlemagne); Rhétorique (1). Generic specificity highlights the breadth of works that speak a literary self-awareness. The texts selected tend to come at the beginning of texts, which is not unexpected as prologues are the most natural place to describe the work that is to come and the role of the author in its creation. The excerpts that make up the anthology are not treatises on literary theory in the style of Eustache Deschamp's L'art de dictier but lines that refer to the nature of text, authorship, or literature. The first 140 lines of the Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure is the longest selection while the shortest excerpt is only five lines long.

In the introduction to the anthology Mölk launches into a defense of his supposition that a literary aesthetic or theory can be gleaned from medieval vernacular texts rather than beginning with a more basic explanation of the purpose of such an anthology. Already in his first paragraph he explains that his work was published with the term Literarästhetik placing an emphasis on the aesthetic, an idea roundly rejected by Per Nykrog in a review that came out over four decades ago. This is the footing which directs his introduction. If the introduction is in part a response to his critics, his defense is comprised of three main parts: a historiography of medievalists discussing literary theory in the Middle Ages; where to find explicit references to an author's literary theory; that there can be "éléments d'une théorie poétique."

To clarify, and in so doing justify, his thesis Mölk gives an account of medieval scholarship that builds the foundation for the acknowledgment of a medieval literary theory and its study. He does this in three different places in the introduction, each focusing on a different moment in medieval studies. In his first page he notes that Edgar de Bruyne's Études d'esthétique médiévale ensured that medievalists who followed held no fears about referring to medieval aesthetics. Mölk admits that it may be more precise to speak of a literary theory as opposed to literarästhetik a renaming that calls to mind Medieval Literary theory and Criticism edited by Alastair Minnis and A.B. Scott or Walter Haug's Literaturtheorie im deutschen Mittelalter or the anthologies of (predominantly) Latin texts by O. B. Hardison or Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter in 2010. [2] None of these are mentioned in Les Débuts d'une théorie littéraire. Instead Mölk's discussion of previous scholarship on anything that might be subsumed under the category of literary theory depends heavily on E.R. Curtius' 1956 European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages but does cite Rosario Assunto and Umberto Eco while also mentioning Erich Köhler's foray into the vernacular territory of the issue. Mölk closes this first section noting that Curtius' declaration that literary criticism and literary theory "s'intrepénètrent souvent" does not extend far enough since "toute critique poétique presuppose une théorie poétique (au moins implicite) qui la guide" (12).

Before moving into a next generation of medievalists he takes a couple of pages to indicate that the medieval discussion of different language arts can come from three different areas. The Rhetorica vetus, the Rhetorica vetus and finally the artes poeticae including grammatical treatises and artes dictaminis may be areas of discussion but not theories of literature, "Tous ces traités étaient des manuels pédagogiques, pour ainsi dire, c'est-à-dire des manuels contenant les règles et les moyens techniques qu'il faillait employer pour composer un texte, et non une théorie de la littérature [emphasis added]" (13). Mölk further claims that aside from the domains of elocution and meter, these learned texts hold little sway over the literature produced in the same language, the same region, and the same period as themselves. Rather than building an argument using textual evidence as one might in a book-length study or longer article, Mölk refers the reader to the index of terms:

"...il n'y a, sur le plan terminologique que très peu d'emprunts [from Latin into French]. Il suffit ici de faire remarquer que la laisse naturellement absente des traités latins, et pour laquelle il a fallu forger un terme technique français (voir les attestations dans l'Index terminologique)..."(13).

He repeats this structure asking the reader to go through the index or refer to one of the texts in the anthology (13, 14, 21-23, 27, 29, 30, 32-34). It is clear that the indices are intended to function as a tool in themselves for scholars seasoned enough to recognize the significance of terms and the number of entries they have.

In the subheading "Conscience littéraire et subjectivité littéraire" Mölk relies heavily on Michel Zink's publication, La subjectivité littéraire with its concepts of literary subjectivity, literary awareness (conscience littéraire), and the je-narrateur. In the discussion of Zink's work Mölk sets forth his thesis in its most profound formulations:

La mention des trois terms 'prologue', 'ouvrages antérieurs', et 'dédicataire' nous ramène à notre sujet principal (genèse et evolution d'une théorie littéraire en France) et nous invite à examiner s'il n'est pas possible d'aller au delà du milieu du XIIe siècle pour savoir s'il y a, dans les vieux poems, des indices qui préparent dans un certain sens la nouvelle conception que les auteurs courtois experiment, surtout, dans les prologues, de leur propre activité (18).

Mölk then opens the section on the je-narrateur, in which he explores where the medievalist can look for clues as to an author's literary theory. The first is the prologue, the dedication, and then any references to himself or herself, what he calls the "gestes autoréférentiels." These might be found in acrostyche in which the scribe or author dares the reader to find the creator of the text. The je-narrateur can be found beyond the prologue in the "topos de l'ineffable" (ne vus sais dire)" (19) or in those instances when the author-narrator-I says it is time to return to the thread of a story they have been weaving together. These explicit references to the role of the author or narrator in the form of "I" are critical to the medievalist searching for traces of a medieval literary theory.

The next section entitled "Théorie littéraire-Critique littéraire-Poétique" takes up the chronology of medieval studies. Again, Mölk chooses to lean on his predecessors in order to get a foothold as he moves into a corollary of his thesis: if there is a literary theory in the vernacular Middle Ages we must recognize it when implied rather than hoping for it to be explicitly presented. This section picks up with the 1960s and a formula Mölk derives from Curtius:

théorie littéraire (=théorie explicite de l'auteur), critique littéraire (=critique explicite soit d'un auteur soit de quelqu'un d'autre), et poétique (=traité des règles à observer pour composer un texte) (23).

Mölk then moves on to the seventies when, he says in reference to Paul Zumthor, Hans Robert Jauss and Eugène Vinaver, "le terme de poétique n'est plus utilisé avec le sens de Curtius" (23). There is, however, no consensus amongst the medievalists of the seventies. He summarizes saying that for Zumthor la poétique is always nominalist and only related to the study of narrativity indirectly. Jauss speaks of a "poétique imminente" suggesting just as Zumthor had, that medieval poetics are neither placed explicitly at the center of medieval texts nor are they limited to texts without relation to historical context. For Vinaver a poetics exists and it is the task of the scholar to reconstruct the theory that prescribes the text and accounts for its distinctive features. Mölk closes this summary of previous scholarship by mentioning that Alain Michel edited the proceedings of a conference with the title Rhétorique et Poétique au Moyen Âge, a title that Mölk proposes conflates two terms quoting Michel: "La rhétorique medieval [...] paraît se réduire à une esthétique [...] et a tendence à se confondre avec la poiétique [ποητικη] dans ses démarches generals" to say "est certes exact" but that "Quant à nous-même, nous ne suivons pas cet usage, au moins pas dans le livre present" (25). This may have been a good place to define his terms as he will use them and nuancing the distinction between Michel and the others he has cited. Instead he says that he will "faire un petit detour" into the relationship between the implicit and explicit.

Throughout the previous pages Mölk had hinted at the significance of searching for the implications of certain statements or practices in the literary arts. It is perhaps for this reason that he does not summarize at the beginning of his section "Critique littéraire explicite et critique littéraire implicite" the relationship between the two but instead jumps into his first subsection, "Deux parodies." The premise is simple and undeniable: to create a parody is to accept that there is a standard form and material for the genre or work being parodied. Perhaps because this is not an article or because the premise so readily apparent Mölk spends less than two pages on this site of implied literary theory. He is equally cursory with his section on literary debates and epilogues.

In a last subsection he proposes to reconsider the prologues of the Alexandre by Alberic, the Roman de Thèbes, and the Roman de Cligès. It is not his purpose to write an analysis founded on his theory of literature as presented in his introduction and the texts he has collected. For this reason he briefly summarizes that for the author of the Roman de Thèbes there must be a distinction of narrative genres defined by class because he does not wish to speak of or for vilains.

In closing the introduction to the volume Mölk returns to tracing the evolution of scholarship on medieval literary theory but now narrows his focus on the study of the prologue, "Dès les premières etudes sérieuses sur des ouvranges narratifs français du Moyen Âge, les prologues avaient attiré l'attention des chercheurs..." (34). He seems to have closed in on only one of his "elements d'une théorie poétique" and given in to the temptation to stay with the explicit rather than discuss the implicit for he refers only to recent studies of prologues rather than the broader topic of medieval literary theory. The bibliography at the end of the anthology reveals the tight focus on the prologue that governs the book.

The small book, Les Débuts d'une théorie littéraire is best suited for scholars already somewhat familiar with medieval French literature. The brevity of the passages and the tight focus make it a valuable reference for researchers who want to quickly find references to medieval French definitions of literature and authorship in vernacular texts. The slender volume also provides a fine introduction to this topic for someone who simply wants to thumb through it at their leisure.



1. Französische Literarästhetik des 12. Un 13. Jahrhunderts. Sammlung romanischer Übungstexte 54. (Tübingen: Niemeyer) 1969.

2. Medieval Literary theory and Criticism ed. Alastair Minnis, A.B. Scott. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). Revised, paperback edition published 1991, rpt. 2001.; Haug, Walter. Literaturtheorie im deutschen Mittelalter.(Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche. Buchgesellschaft, 1985); Medieval Literary Criticism: Translations and Interpretations. Ed. O.B. Hardison, Alex Preminger, Kevin Kerrane, and Leon Golden. (New York: Frederick Ungar Pub.) 1985; Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: The Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300 to 1475. Ed. Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter. (Oxford: Oxford UP) 2009.

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Author Biography

Valerie M. Wilhite

University of Oregon