12.10.13, Warren, Creole Medievalism

Main Article Content

Richard Utz

The Medieval Review 12.10.13

Warren, Michelle R. Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier's Middle Ages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Pp. xxxii, 379. ISBN: 978-0-8166-6525-9.

Reviewed by:
Richard Utz
Western Michigan University

There is a long history, replete with all the usual elements of ideological difference, of seeing certain key medievalists as changing the central paradigms governing medieval studies, and Joseph Bédier (1864-1938) has been an important part of that history. As recently as in the 1990s, the representatives of the New Medievalism--mostly North American scholars in Romance language and literature study--reminded us that Bédier was the principal agent in the resistance against the Barbarian hordes of German(ic) scholars who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, invaded the realms of French, Spanish, and English medieval texts with a narrowly scientistic and positivistic methodology termed "philology." According to Bernard Cerquiglini, Karl Lachmann and his German(ic) comitatus had developed philology into "a bourgeois, paternalist, and hygienist system of thought about the family; it cherishes filiation, tracks down adulterers, and is afraid of contamination. It is thought based on what is wrong (the variant being a form of deviant behavior)." [1] Even the great Gaston Paris had fallen prey to this Procrustean and mechanistic methodology, but Bédier, his successor at the Collège de France, pretty much single-handedly extricated French (and English) medieval studies from these foreign influences by proposing an "antimethod" to the invasive editing of medieval texts, albeit an "antimethod" that still "reduced medieval works to the stable, closed, authorized texts of modernity." [2] Because of his successful scholarly and ideological battle against his overweening transrhenian competitors (Bédier went so far as to collect and interpret German soldiers' diaries to prove the depravity of the enemy), Per Nykrog once quite fittingly branded Bédier as a "warrior scholar." [3]

While many earlier critics have acknowledged Bédier's personal history and fascinatingly migratory scholarly path, they often accept his Frenchness and the vague general Zeitgeist of a passionate anti-German revanchisme as sufficient general grounds for the specific decisions he made as a medievalist. Michelle R. Warren's meticulous and extensive study not only complicates such existing views, but provides a healthy caveat to any and all among us who would be content with monocausal explanations for the many decisions investigating scholarly subjects make when speaking of the subjects of their investigation. In fact, Warren reveals Bédier's specific form of creole medievalism as one that reflects not only a well-documented French nationalism, but also the multifaceted negotiations between France and one of its overseas colonies, the island of Réunion.

As Elizabeth Emery and Laura Morowitz established in their 2003 study of the medieval revival in fin-de-siècle France, French citizens of the Third Republic were able to encounter manifold resonances of medieval culture in their daily lives. [4] Nowhere, however, was the fascinating symbiosis between medievalism and colonialism more palpable than in the greatly popular World's Fairs, four of which took place in Paris in 1889, 1900, 1931, and 1937, all during periods of Bédier's residence in the city. In discussing all four of these fairs, Warren explains how they frequently conflated distant times and distant places. By connecting various medieval and colonial traditions, Réunionnais organizers at these public events hoped to exhibit the island's "faithfulness to the oldest and best aspects of French culture" (28). During the later expositions, the Réunionnais political elite went so far as to showcase Bédier himself as an iconic creole subject whose influential role in studying and reviving the French national medieval past would in turn reflect positively on metropolitan conceptions of Réunion. Bédier's success as the most famous living creole--he was elected to the Académie Française in 1920 and presided publicly over the celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Collège de France in 1930--conferred upon Réunion the national prestige of medievalism. "Since Réunion itself harbored no ancient histories, its elites claimed France's as their own. In the French exhibits, the Middle Ages initiated France's esprit colonisateur--first expressed in the 'epic' endeavor of the Crusades in the eleventh century" (55). Through Bédier's own engagement with aspects of popular and academic medievalism, from translations through critical editions, the metropolitan French and the French Réunionnais were enticed to think of the Middle Ages as a legitimizing precedent for France's modern empire.

After situating Bédier within the visible history of the Third Republic, Warren then follows the genesis and development of Bédier's creole medievalism through an impressive array of political, cultural, and (auto)biographical detail, identifying his coming of age during the formative years of creole republicanism, his family's immersion in the ideology of creole superiority via the preservation of France's glorious traditions, and his grounding in patriotic nationalism as major sources of inspiration for his work as a medievalist. Similar to the strongly medievalist ethos of the elites in the United States South, Bédier romanticized and idealized his own family history and the history of families of the Réunion elites as a fundamentally chivalric one. By embracing the mythographic legacies of the medieval aristocracy, he constructed his own "family romance of aristocratic lineage" which "began with colonial exile"--specifically the royal banishment of the lord of a castle in Brittany, as told by his father, Adolphe, in a book that traced the family's lineage back to the early eighteenth century (87). As a member of the creole Réunionnais elites, Bédier felt that he preserved the noblest French (medieval) heritage better than metropolitan elites themselves, and he conflated "the inheritance of class privilege with the ontology of race, a notion he later underscores when he defines himself as 'a blond Bourbonnais with blue eyes, of a race protected from any mixing'" (91). Of course, each time he moved back and forth from Paris to St. Denis, Réunion, this colonial ideal of chivalry, grounded in his pure white skin color as well as in a vague ethos of noble action, was challenged and transformed: "simultaneously exile, migrant, and native wherever he goes, Bédier uses medievalism to resolve these fragments [of his experience] into a homogeneous vision of national history" (101).

Bédier's idiosyncratic "island philology" is, according to Warren, the result of the disruptive effects of his continual migrations. This "island philology" offered him the opportunity to strengthen the nation (and his and his island's standing within the nation) by stabilizing the French language, lineage, and literary history and to confirm an idealized continuity and purity that anchored Bédier's (creole) contemporaneity within France's earliest foundational texts. Hence his determination that an immutable national essence can be found in the early French masterpieces and that the study of these masterpieces needed to be defended against foreign (German) intruders and their methodologies. "For rather different reasons but to similar ends, nationalist medievalism and creole patriotism affirm national purity, historical continuity, and the singularity of France" (125).

Bédier put his own exilic imagination to work in the service of national literary history: he isolates medieval fabliaux from any global connections and stresses their esprit galois; he rejects the (German) method of identifying the "oldest" version of a story, maintaining that two authors can independently invent the same details, thereby managing to nationalize the Tristan romance; he celebrates the epic as the founding moment in French literature, a genre not based on (popular) oral songs preserved through countless generations (which would have made all epics predate distinct French and German cultures), but originating with individual (elite) French poets along pilgrimage routes emanating from Paris; finally, his edition of the French epic par excellence, the Chanson de Roland, exemplifies how Bédier's own creole culture "qualified him more than others to attack Germanism, since creoles preserved the most vigorous roots of the French race itself" (145).

What differentiates Warren's monograph from similar studies of foundational medievalists is that she provides a truly comprehensive picture of Bédier's various subject positions. She includes the larger historical and political contexts and Bédier's own publications as much as interdisciplinary evidence from architecture, poetry, and even furniture (cf. her brilliant reading of Bédier's desk which, "cannily, if inadvertently" manages to link the medieval romance of Tristan and Iseut, the creole origins of Bédier's version [of Tristan and Iseut], and the "national import of this fusion," 140). This host of public and private signposts creates a convincing geography of Bédier's achievements, achievements Warren puts in ironic perspective with numerous observations on the scholar's posthumous reception on Réunion, where various sites of memory still (or no longer) speak of (and to) the collective identities Bédier helped shape.

This book is an outstanding contribution to medievalism studies and an impressive model for further forays into the role our precursor medievalists played in developing the paradigms we still grapple with. It is also a clin d'oeil to all of us to make sure we develop a critical self-awareness of our own place(s) in the academy and the ongoing history of our fields. So many of us are, after all, just as paradoxically "savage" and "metropolitan," "centered" and "dislocated," "modern" and "medieval" as the Joseph Bédier Michelle Warren unveils to us.



1. Bernard Cerquiglini, In Praise of the Variant: A Critical History of Philology, trans. Betsy Wing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 49.

2. Cerquiglini, 70.

3. Per Nykrog, "A Warrior Scholar at the Collège de France: Joseph Bédier," in Medievalism and the Modernist Temper, ed. R. Howard Bloch and Stephen J. Nichols (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 286-307.

4. Elizabeth Emery and Laura Morowitz, Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in Fin-de-Siècle France (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

Article Details

Author Biography

Richard Utz

Western Michigan University