15.04.18, Taylor, Rewriting Arthurian Romance in Renaissance France

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Carol J. Chase

The Medieval Review 15.04.18

Taylor, Jane H. M.. Rewriting Arthurian Romance in Renaissance France: From Manuscript to Printed Book. Gallica. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2014. Pp. xiv, 278. ISBN: 9781843843658 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Carol J. Chase
Knox College

With this book, Jane Taylor offers us a remarkable, sophisticated study of how Arthurian materials were treated in the age of print. Stretching from late fifteenth-century printed editions up to Benoît Rigaud's 1591 Lancelot, this volume spans a century in which important social and cultural changes occurred. However, as the introduction points out, "this book is not a history of Arthurian romance" in the Renaissance. Rather, the focus is on "the work and techniques employed by publishers and their workshops to renew Arthurian romance for a new readership"; the author's intent is to examine the ways the texts were rewritten to fit into a new cultural context, allowing insights into "socio-cultural and ideological patterns in the receiving culture" and questions of literary taste (5). Taylor thus builds on her earlier work in which she studied, for example, how two of Chrétien de Troyes's romances were adapted for a fifteenth-century audience. [1]

In each chapter Taylor treats two or three important texts, covering the early printed editions of the prose Lancelot, Merlin, etc., but also lesser-known romances such as the 1530 Perceval. Her approach relies on close reading, but she draws on critical theory on translation and reading; she attends to codicology and the commercial marketing of books, to the processes of mise en page and mise en texte. The end result is an analysis that is both thoughtful and rigorous. Her style is eminently readable, not overly academic yet elegant, as if she were giving a series of informal lectures to advanced students and colleagues, rendering the material much less daunting than it might be otherwise.

This book contains several useful appendices: Appendix 1 features an outline of the chronology of the production of printed texts, listing not only Arthurian materials but also other selected romances. In Appendix 2 we find a table comparing the rubrics in two printed versions of the Queste del Saint Graal; it also outlines changes in content. Finally, Appendix 3 provides a list of the rubrics in Giglan, an unpublished romance studied in chapter 5.

The introduction sets out the focus of the study, pointing out that, despite the large number of manuscripts and printed works, adaptations and rewritings, Arthurian romance in the Renaissance has been viewed as marginal. Indeed, "there is so far no overall study of what happens to Arthur in the age of print" (5). Taylor's goal is thus to fill this void.

The opening chapter is devoted to Pierre Sala's adaptations of Chrétien de Troyes's Chevalier au lion or Yvain (1522), and of the anonymous Tristan (around 1527). Taylor places this chapter at the beginning of her study because of Sala's conservatism: his works are copied uniquely in manuscript form, despite the fact that he lived in Lyon, an important printing center in the Renaissance; his Yvain is even in verse. Taylor suggests that Sala's stance as a translator who assimilates his text in order to interpret it and reinvent it for a new audience is shared with those who revised and prepared material for a new audience in the early stages of printing, up to the mid-sixteenth century (13). She considers him to be an "official interpreter" and a "poacher," terms and concepts she adopts from Michel de Certeau, explaining that active "readers 'poach' (braconner) from existing texts by 'insinuating their inventiveness into the cracks in a cultural orthodoxy'" (14). With this in mind, Taylor analyzes several passages in the two romances under consideration in order to show the processes involved in ré-écriture or rewriting. For example, in Yvain, she demonstrates how Sala transforms the soliloquy in which Laudine convinces herself that she should marry the hero, turning it into indirect discourse and abbreviating it radically, omitting Chrétien's irony and ambiguities, thus making the text his own (14-17). Sala's remodeling of the Tristan story emphasizes the friendship between Tristan and Lancelot, thus highlighting chivalry and playing down the subversive aspects of the legend.

In chapter 2 Taylor prepares the focus of the rest of the book on printed texts by turning to the commercial techniques used by the marchands-libraires, a term she uses to refer to the publisher-booksellers who played a very wide role in the preparation of printed books. She concentrates as well on the printers and largely anonymous editors, correctors, compositors, etc., who performed an extensive number of tasks, correcting spelling and punctuation, revising the texts, and preparing rubrics and other paratextual materials. This chapter is a wonderfully complete overview of printing practices and the role of the new technology.

The ensuing chapters (3 through 5) address the use of this technology in particular cases. Chapter 3 focuses on Antoine Vérard, the well-known publisher of early printed versions of the prose Lancelot (1488 and 1494)--the title is misleading, since the book includes the Queste del Saint Graal and the Mort le roi Artu--and the prose Tristan (1489, 1496? and 1497?). Vérard's role has been treated in an excellent book-length study by Mary Beth Winn. [2] Taylor cites the work frequently, but attends to aspects not examined by Winn, concentrating on layout and rewriting, but also considering in depth what the prologues and other paratextual material--such as the woodcuts--can tell us about the strategies deployed by Vérard to attract the readers of his time. Taylor points out that these early books resemble manuscripts in many ways: the type, the illustrations, the two-column set-up would be reassuringly familiar to early readers. She compares the prologues appended to different editions to show changes in the stance taken regarding the text: the early prefatory material shows a certain anxiety due to the risk inherent in the venture, whereas the later liminary texts reflect greater confidence.

We do not know which manuscript of the Lancelot Vérard may have used, but we do know that his Tristan is based on a late fifteenth-century codex that is close to Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France fr. 103, which abridges considerably and has a particular version of the end of the story. In this version, the adapter seems to have returned to the twelfth-century verse to depict the lovers' deaths, rather than following that found in all the other surviving prose Tristan manuscripts--perhaps he found this closure more satisfying. As in her study of Sala's rewriting, Taylor uses close reading to compare several passages from each of the printed texts under consideration with the earlier, manuscript, versions, demonstrating how the revisers worked. In the case of the Tristan, the changes are minimal, since Vérard was able to use a codex that met his needs. The focus is therefore on the strategies used to present this romance to the public, for instance, the printing of luxury copies for royal consumption.

For the Lancelot, the differences between the 1488 printed version and the earlier manuscript version are more striking, but it is in part because Taylor relies on modern editions of the thirteenth-century prose Lancelot, those prepared by Alexandre Micha and Elspeth Kennedy, which are based on earlier manuscripts. For example, the printed text often abbreviates, sometimes considerably, summarizing long descriptions, such as that presenting the Lady of the Lake's arrival at Arthur's court with the young Lancelot (73). The language is also updated; again, several passages show the changes in vocabulary and syntax (68-71). However, a minor quibble here: since Vérard may have used a fifteenth-century manuscript, as he did with the prose Tristan, the demonstration, while interesting in terms of the overall evolution of the French language and the contrast with the thirteenth-century text, is less convincing in terms of what exactly Vérard and his bookmen may have done. (Numerous studies show how that fifteenth-century adapters worked, often abbreviating and updating. [3])

In chapter 7 Taylor would return to later versions of the texts studied in this final chapter, examining how Jean Maugin and Benoît Rigaud prepared them for an audience in the second half of the sixteenth century. Maugin's Nouveau Tristan (1554) is a rewriting in a much more florid manner; Rigaud's Lancelot (1591) is a digest of the prose Lancelot-Queste-Mort Artu, an extremely abridged outline of events.

But before reaching this point, Taylor explores first, in chapter 4, how printers "harvested" several less familiar romances, Le Roman de Meliadus, the Merlin (including the Prophéties de Merlin) and three texts centered on the Grail, all of which were less ready for the printing press than those considered in chapter 3. Thus, the process of adaptation is more far-reaching. Taylor's discussion of the adjustments made to the Prophéties de Merlin are indicative of the attention she pays to layout: this difficult, undecipherable text is divided up into short chapters, each with a rubric outlining the content. Order and coherence are thus imposed on the original. Her discussion of the Grail texts considers the intent to create a compendium uniting three very different romances in a single book: the Estoire del Saint Graal, the Perlesvaus, and an abbreviated Queste del Saint Graal.

Chapter 5 then turns to the Roman de Giglan (perhaps circa 1520), an amalgam of three romances, and the Roman de Perceval (1530), a prose rewriting of Chrétien de Troyes's Conte du Graal and three of the four Continuations. Both involve "an editorial process more elaborate and more demanding than those" considered thus far. Both also show "the publishers and their workshops 'poaching': attempting, sporadically and where necessary, to alter the configurations and hence the signification of the originals, via a series of editorial elisions, revisions and displacements" (119). Taylor points out that the decisions seem to represent a change in taste wider than a single reader's sensibility, a sort of cultural barometer (120). As in the other chapters, close reading of key passages provides insights into the types of revisions made in the printed texts.

The pivotal moment in this study is found in chapter 6, which focuses on the immensely popular, multi-volume Amadis de Gaule. These mid-century "pseudo-Arthurian" romances transformed taste; once readers sampled them, they lost interest "in the Arthurian fictions which had entertained them and their forebears for centuries" (147-149). Taylor explores the reasons for this change, suggesting that, after about 1540, the earlier texts may have seemed archaic (8). Readers began to prefer an aesthetic featuring "a love of the sensational, of cliff-hanging narrative suspensions, ornament and prodigy and disorder" (158) and an exuberant style that Taylor describes as "linguistic plenitude" (170). This "dramatic rhetorical amplification" created visual immediacy and an emotional response (176). In order to illustrate this concept, Taylor compares passages from Amadis with passages from the prose Lancelot, for example the description of the castle at the Douloureuse Guard in the earlier romance with that of the fantastic castle at the "Isle Ferme" in Book IV of Amadis (176-177). The contrast is indeed striking.

Other reasons for the change in taste may include attraction for the exotic: Amadis was initially translated from an immensely popular Spanish romance; the settings and landscapes of the Arthurian fictions may have seemed tame in this age of exploration (180). In short, the earlier Arthurian romances no longer reflected the cultural and esthetic sensibilities of the new readership.

This chapter includes an examination of the publishing history of Amadis and a study of the paratextual materials and layout, pointing out contrasts with the printed editions considered in previous chapters. The title page of the first book, for example, is in roman type, with a clean and spacious disposition (149). Also considered are the prefaces and the woodcuts that were specially designed for these books, taking into account the fact that they represent an important investment on the part of Denis Janot, the marchand-libraire who had them printed and who thus took financial risks that paid off. The plan of the "Isle Ferme" found in Book IV is exemplary of the risk but also of Janot's inventiveness and his role in forming taste: it is "what is known as an 'ichnographic plan'; that is, a view as if from a single elevated point" (179).

As mentioned above, in the final chapter, Taylor studies two attempts to revive Arthurian romance at the end of the sixteenth century. It too addresses the question of taste, which she defines in the course of chapter 6 as "a system of aesthetic and cultural preference," adapting from Pierre Bourdieu (167). In this chapter, then, Taylor explores the ways in which the change in taste outlined in the previous chapter "governs the editorial decisions" of the two men responsible for rewriting and printing the "florid" Nouveau Tristan, in 1554, at the height of the popularity of Amadis (184), and the abridged Lancelot, much later, in1591. Jean Maugin's rewriting of the prose Tristan attempts to imitate the style found in Amadis. Analysis of several passages shows how his remodeling is based on extending and embroidering on his material (186-187) but also how he gets lost in overly realistic, abundant detail. Taylor studies his prologues as well, demonstrating his aesthetic.

Benoît Rigaud's Lancelot was perhaps an experiment; had this abbreviated outline of events been a commercial success, Rigaud might have launched a further, more developed version of the romance. Here too the prefatory material is revelatory: it shows Rigaud's intent to reframe the text to reflect sixteenth-century taste (204). Close study of a passage from the romance demonstrates the brutal reduction of the text itself. Taylor shows how the title page of this book has been totally transformed, reflecting the new practices seen in Amadis. But she focuses on Rigaud's inventiveness: the title page advertises a significant innovation on Rigaud's part, a table. It is most interesting because it is not a simple list of the rubrics that introduce each chapter, as can be found elsewhere. Rather, Rigaud presents the rubrics in alphabetical order so that they form a sort of narrative index that could be consulted to locate certain adventures.

Taylor's goal in this book is not to discover which manuscripts the marchands-libraires may have used to prepare their editions but rather to show the techniques of rewriting and reinterpretation. It is nevertheless interesting to note that two late fifteenth-century manuscripts present a radically shortened version of the Lancelot-Queste-Mort Artu (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.38 and Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal MS 3350). A comparison of the text in these codices with Rigaud's Lancelot might be a fruitful enterprise for future scholars.

As the introduction points out, despite the large number of manuscripts and printed works, adaptations and rewritings, Arthurian romance in the Renaissance has been little studied. Thus, this first "overall study of what happens to Arthur in the age of print" (5) is a pioneering book. The approach should be of interest to medievalists of all stripes (not just Arthurians) as well as Renaissance scholars.



1. See her seminal article "The Significance of the Insignificant: Reading Reception in the Burgundian Erec and Cligès," Fifteenth-Century Studies 24 (1998): 183-197.

2. Anthoine Vérard: Parisian Publisher, 1485-1512: Prologues, Poems and Presentations (Geneva: Droz, 1997).

3. In addition to Taylor's own work cited in note 1, see, for example, the essays in Maria Colombo Timelli, Barbara Ferrari, and Annie Schoysman, eds., Mettre en prose aux XIVe-XVIe siècles (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).

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Carol J. Chase

Knox College