15.04.02, Jones, An Introduction to the Chansons de Geste

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Luke Sunderland

The Medieval Review 15.04.02

Jones, Catherine. An Introduction to the Chansons de Geste. New Perspectives on Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. Pp. 256. ISBN: 9780813049892 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Luke Sunderland
Durham University

This guide to the epic is shaped throughout by the aim of helping those who are new to teaching or studying the chanson de geste. Catherine Jones should be congratulated on achieving a comfortable balance between providing materials useful to those reading the most commonly-taught texts and gently nudging medievalists away from old favourites, through a very broad and fair-minded account of the genre that avoids the negative value-judgments so often passed on later chansons in particular. The book is not as detailed as François Suard’s recent Guide de la chanson de geste et de sa posterité littéraire (2011), but it is considerably neater and more concise. The first section, on the "Historical and Poetic Context," offers definitions of the genre, relating it to epic and heroic modes. Jones summarizes critical debates on the origins of the songs, providing a succinct account of the "individualist" and "traditionalist" positions, and gathering what can be known of the medieval reception of the genre. Sources and relationship to history are also glossed, as are form and style (verse structure, laisse techniques, formulae and parataxis), before a brief taxonomy of plot patterns is given. This section achieves its goal of providing an open and flexible way of thinking about the genre that allows for all the extant texts to be placed on the same footing. The second section, "The Texts--An Overview," relies on the familiar division of the chansons into three gestes. This classification, though a useful point of departure, has been somewhat overused by critics, and can often lead to a reductive view of the politics of the poems, which are slotted into categories such as pro- or anti-royal. Jones manages to use it as a way of handling, without simplifying, the diversity of the tradition, including separate consideration of the Lorraine Cycle, the Crusade Cycle, other chansons of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and Occitan epics. Throughout the book, Jones avoids passing judgment on critical approaches, presenting them impartially. At times, this unfortunately means that older and more conservative positions are given the final say, such as when William Calin’s work of 1962 is cited as the verdict on the political message of the rebel baron epics. The debate about these poems has, of course, moved on rather since that point.

The third section, "Selected Works," provides summaries of the plots of, and scholarship on, six of the most popular chansons: La Chanson de Roland comes first, with a handy survey of the lengthy critical arguments about the hero and his culpability or otherwise in the disaster, the figure of Charlemagne, the traitor Ganelon and his trial, and the female characters. The medieval and modern legacy of the poem is also glossed; again Jones rightly encourages us to look beyond the canonical version. The Charroi de Nîmes and the Prise d’Orange are up next, allowing for an account of the comic vein in epics. Raoul de Cambrai follows, with Jones furnishing a compact version of debates about its composition. The discussion of the text is here a little too character-driven, and it would have been useful to have some coverage of the work by historians such as Steve White and Richard Kaeuper, who have looked at this poem for evidence of practices of conflict and conflict resolution. Ami et Amile is read in terms of its links to a wider textual tradition, and its thematics of friendship and ethics, women, and leprosy. Finally, Huon de Bordeaux, a welcome inclusion, provides a useful example of the thirteenth-century evolution of the genre and of its vitality as it adapted to signify new problems of justice and hierarchy.

The final section, "Epilogue: The Legacy of the Chansons de Geste," covers mises en prose and chronicle renderings. Jones gives a useful example of the change in style that takes place when chansons are rendered into prose. Translations of epic material into languages other than French are covered, as are modern medievalisms. The boundaries of the modern nation-state of France appear to have been reified here: there is a section on epics outside France, which implies that the majority of songs were produced inside, and yet many of them show hostility to French royal power and desire for independence. The division into inside and outside is particularly unfortunate where the Franco-Italian epics are concerned. They developed at a time when chansons de geste in French were still being written, and they shared many features with their epic contemporaries; it is therefore rather misleading to present them as a later and separate development. The use of the term "feudal" throughout also posed problems: a highly problematic notion, it seems to have been apprehended rather uncritically here, which will exacerbate the tendency of students and critics alike to wield it as an umbrella term, explaining virtually everything that occurs in the tradition. It also appears at times to have been confused with the concept and practice of feuding. However, the work, which includes a list of chansons and dates and a brief glossary and bibliography, remains a highly useful introduction to one of the most important medieval genres, not least because of its pithy account of the "vast and complex intertextual network spanning ten centuries and multiple language traditions" (148) to which the chansons gave birth.

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Luke Sunderland

Durham University