The Medieval Review 14.06.10


Montoya, Alicia C. Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Medievalism. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. Pp. viii, 248. $85.00. ISBN: 9781843843429.



Reviewed by:


Rori Bloom
University of Florida
ribloom.ufl.edu

With the second volume in the Medievalism series, Alicia Montoya takes up her editors' mandate to examine "the influence and appearance of 'the medieval' in the society and culture of later ages" and to communicate "the continuing relevance and presence of 'the medieval' in the contemporary world." In her title Medievalist Enlightenment, Montoya presents a paradox to be unpacked: the persistent influence of the so-called Dark Ages on the Age of Light. While the Enlightenment is often considered a forward-looking era on its way to a revolutionary break with the past, Montoya shows that the Enlightenment also looks back, considering itself against other ages in order to define its own modernity while at the same time creating new ways to understand the relationship between past, present, and future.

In her Introduction, Montoya rejects a strictly chronological definition of the Middle Ages in order to treat the period as an idea reimagined by various ages in various ways. While the nineteenth century has long been seen as the major moment of renewed interest in the medieval in France, Montoya argues that there was already an important return to the medieval at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. Citing the importance of Nathan Edelman's Attitudes of Seventeenth-Century France toward the Middle Ages (New York: King's Crown Press, 1946) and Lionel Gossman's Medievalism and the Ideologies of Enlightenment (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), Montoya nonetheless sees an important gap in the study of medievalism in the period from 1680 to 1750.

In her book's first chapter, "A Sense of the Past," Montoya presents a compelling methodology for her study of medievalism that has intriguing implications for literary history in general. She begins by establishing that our modern view of history as a diachronic movement has in fact been historically determined by the historist writings of nineteenth-century German scholars and proceeds to argue for a cyclical view of history that would allow the past to coexist with the present. The tension between these two views of history crystallizes in Montoya's explanation of the word "revolution" as she sets aside its modern meaning of a definitive break with the past to return to its original sense of a movement of cyclical return. In her study of Enlightenment medievalism, Montoya rejects a view of the past as radically divorced from the present to argue that "[t]exts are read, forgotten, and then reread again, intervening cyclically in this history at the various moments when they (re)capture readers' imaginations"(18). To begin to investigate the understanding of the Middle Ages in the late classical period, Montoya identifies the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns as a debate about history that opposes nostalgic and progressivist attitudes. Although Charles Perrault celebrates his own century as the apogee of historical progress in the Siècle de Louis le grand, Montoya also notes his treatment of the medieval in Le Parallèle des anciens et des modernes to show that this Modern saw the Middle Ages as an important milestone in the movement of history from Antiquity to Modernity.

In her second chapter, Montoya argues that the Enlightenment displaces the opposition between Antiquity and Modernity to define itself rhetorically through the new antithesis of the Dark Ages to the Age of Light. Despite this general hostility of the Enlightenment to the medieval, Montoya points to two prominent figures of the period who view the Middle Ages more favorably. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1750 Discours sur les sciences et les arts, Montoya identifies a voice of dissent in the chorus of Enlightenment paeans to progress. In Jean Chapelain's 1647 text Sur la lecture des vieux romans, Montoya explores a lesser-known example of late Classical medievalism in which an important figure of the Quarrel reveals his affection for the medieval story of Lancelot. In a memorable passage, Montoya relates Chapelain's description of being "caught in the act" (49) of reading Lancelot. Confronted by his friend Ménage who see the medieval as inferior to the ancient, Chapelain's defense of his guilty pleasure reading evolves into a defense of the medieval itself. In La lecture, Chapelain characterizes the Middle Ages as a period of moral purity, but he also affirms the importance of medieval texts as a means for understanding the history of the French language and French society.

In Chapter 3, Montoya reiterates the importance of the roman genre for early Enlightenment medievalism, proving its popularity both negatively and positively. Although Boileau and others expressed disdain for medieval romances, seventeenth and eighteenth-century libraries often contained romans albeit in Renaissance printed editions or in chapbook form. Montoya notes that Mme de Pompadour's library contained many chivalric novels, identifying such texts as the purview of both private and female reading. In order the examine in greater depth a seventeenth-century reader's relation to these texts, Montoya turns to the correspondence of Mme de Sévigné who often references chivalric fictions, particularly the works of Tasso and Ariosto as well as Heberay des Essarts's adaptation of Amadis de Gaule. Montoya characterizes Sévigné's treatment of these texts as a form of commonplacing, a practice of informally integrating references to Classical texts into vernacular prose, in order to argue that Sévigné's citation of these medievalist works casts them as modern classics. Moreover, in tracing her own genealogy to medieval nobility, Sévigné sees herself as deeply connected to the medieval, identifying the period not as a past divorced from her present but rather as an era in dialogue with her writing and her life.

In Chapter 4, Montoya modifies the concept of continuity between historical periods to develop the concept of contiguity, or, as she terms it, a "touch across time" (108). In much of this book, Montoya's treatment of medievalism is not only an intellectual but also an emotional one, exploring our feelings about the past and understanding them as a form of desire. Citing Barthes' description of Michelet's view of history as "a body to be embraced" (112), Montoya explores the Enlightenment's effort to embody the Middle Ages through two performative practices: opera and fairy tales. Quinault and Lully's Amadis, Roland, and Armide were followed by a number of other medievalist operas, a genre that appealed to all the senses, allowing seventeenth and eighteenth-century audiences to experience the medieval through its performance. In addition, the practice of the medieval was continued outside of the opera house with the composition of medievalist songs as well as through the salon practice of galanterie inspired by medieval chivalry. At the same time, fairy tales constituted a different sort of performance of the medieval through the inscribed orality in these texts, allowing the reader to hear voices from the past. Medievalist music was also integrated into some fairy tales particularly through Mlle Lhéritier's transcription of three authentic medieval songs in La Tour ténébreuse. In her documentation of these performances of the medieval in the late classical and early Enlightenment periods, Montoya documents the presence of the past not just through textual transmission but through sensory experience.

In representing the medieval as an object of desire, Montoya develops a detailed discussion of the medieval text that Denis de Rougement sees as the foundational representation of love in the western world: the letters of Héloïse and Abélard. Montoya notes the importance of a seventeenth-century translation of the first few letters by Mme de Sévigné's cousin, Bussy-Rabutin, but takes issue with his characterization of Héloïse as an Ovidian heroine, a Dido or Sapho bemoaning the loss of her lover. Montoya finds a more complete understanding of love in the letters in two modern adaptations of Héloïse's story: Sévigné's correspondence with her daughter and Rousseau's novel, La Nouvelle Héloïse. In looking at the depiction of love in all three works, maternal love in particular, Montoya recognizes an evolution from the language of eros as passionate bodily desire to that of agape as a disembodied, divine form of love. She concludes her study of love in Sévigné and Rousseau by characterizing the passions they portrayed as "a uniquely modern, lived form of medievalist Christianity" (181).

In a final chapter, Montoya designates the early eighteenth century as a foundational moment in the field of medieval studies, centered around the institutional practices of the Académie royale des inscriptions as well as the individual efforts of one of its members: Jean-Baptiste La Curne de Sainte-Palaye. Montoya presents Sainte-Palaye's treatment of medieval texts as a source of social and political history and identifies his scholarly practice as a form of professionalization in which research is a kind of bourgeois work. She contrasts this approach with that of Sainte-Palaye's contemporary, the comte de Caylus, a connoisseur of antiquities and an amateur author of medievalist tales, whose interest in the medieval is aesthetic and whose attitude aristocratic. Montoya finds a synthesis of these approaches in Montesquieu's study of the Middle Ages in the last books of L'esprit des lois. Despite Montesquieu's use of medieval texts as a source of social history, his attitude to them is not the distant objectivity of a professional scholar but the engagement of an individual personally connected to the past, who believes that the study of the past is essential to understanding the present.

In assessing the various ways in which the early Enlightenment reimagined the medieval, Alicia Montoya embraces the approach of medievalists such as Sévigné and Caylus, in their personal, affective, embodied efforts to reach back in time, to make quasi-physical contact with history, to live both in past and present and thus to bring history back to life. Although she appreciates the exacting and exhaustive scholarship of medievalists such as Sainte-Palaye, Montoya questions "[the] Cartesian paradigm of rationalist idealism, analytic separation between the fields and between the observing subject and the world that was the object of his observation"(221). In so doing, her own writing gains in emotional impact and allows the creation of an intimacy with the past, especially in her sensitive treatment of Sévigné's letters. However, in rejecting a rationalist approach and opting quite explicitly for a more cyclical organization of her argument, Montoya may frustrate some readers. One of the more noticeable repetitions in her book is the quotation of a line from Mme Deshoulières's medievalist ballad "On n'aime plus comme on aimait jadis." While the constant return to this line creates a certain redundancy, these words serve at the same time as a refrain that with each repetition accrues more meaning, allowing us to recognize the use of the ballad as a modern adaptation of a medieval form, the practice of salon galanterie as an echo of medieval chivalry, as well as the important role of women in bringing the medieval back into the French cultural field. Overall, Montoya's idiosyncratic organization as well as her obvious feeling for her material enhance her efforts to convey the complex cultural memory of the Middle Ages in Enlightenment France.



Copyright (c) 2014 Rori Bloom



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