16.02.14, Duys et al., eds.,Telling the Story in the Middle Ages

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Eva Von Contzen

The Medieval Review 16.02.14

Duys, Kathryn A., Elizabeth Emery and Laurie Postlewate, eds. Telling the Story in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honor of Evelyn Birge Vitz. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015. pp. 282. ISBN: 9781843843917 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Eva Von Contzen
University of Freiburg

This is a fine edited collection in honour of Evelyn Birge Vitz, who is most prominently known for her work on medieval narrative and performance. But Vitz has also published on a wide range of medieval French literature beyond questions of performance and oral traditions, including hagiography, romance, fable, as well as influences of the Bible and the liturgy, and not least been influential in opening up medieval studies to the digital humanities (see her projects "Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase" at and "Arthurian Legend in Performance" at ). The articles in the collection cover the different though always interrelated aspects of Vitz's research. The book is divided into three parts: "Speaking of Stories," "Inscribing Stories," and "Moving Stories." All three are linked to Vitz's key concern, the idea that medieval narratives are "voiced," dynamic, and what Vitz calls "amphibian": they are adaptable to the specifics of a performance situation, comfortable both in telling/performing and in writing. In the introduction, Kathryn A. Duys, Elizabeth Emery, and Laurie Postlewate provide a succinct overview of Vitz's oeuvre, stressing that "Vitz has played a prominent role in breaking medieval storytelling out of strict confines." (2) Vitz has put great emphasis on the storyteller who may be the author, or distinct from the author, and/or a performer at the same time. In each of these constellations, which, needless to say, can overlap, the category of "voice" is crucial, just as the material conditions that surround a storytelling occasion.

The four essays assembled in the first part, "Speaking of Stories," all focus on voice and its manifestations in quite different contexts. The first essay "'Of Aunters They Began to Tell': Informal Story in Medieval England and Modern America" (13-30) by Linda Marie Zaerr is a very personal one: Zaerr uses experimental archaeology to describe her experience and suggests that "storytelling can be characterized in terms of a series of continuums that can all intersect one another at any point" (16). Zaerr scrutinises passages from medieval romances in which impromptu dancing and singing, sometimes including the playing of instruments, is mentioned. The examples show that such performances took place in formal contexts (at feasts), but also in informal ones, in which playfulness and the desire for musical accompaniment, irrespective of the performer's gender, find their expression. Zaerr compares the evidence from medieval texts with her own informal storytelling contexts and concedes that they are likewise characterised by the lack of a clear dividing line between formal vs. informal / professionals vs. amateurs. Based on the findings from her own practices, Zaerr argues that medieval storytellers, in informal situations, may have been prone to fuse story and song, and to vary their patterns, that is, to extend or abridge a narrative song. A second essay from the first section takes a very similar approach: Simonetta Cochis's "Plusurs en ai oïz conter: Performance and the Dramatic Poetics of Voice in the lais of Marie de France" (47-60). Like Zaerr, Cochis takes her own performances as the starting point of her analysis, in her case of Marie de France's lais. She concentrates on the employment and functions of voice in the lais. In actual performances, voice proves to be highly dynamic and thus makes the stories so engaging. In addition, ethical evaluations of a character may be invited to a much greater extent than in silent reading. A performed reading of Chaitivel, for instance, can make the lady appear more humanised. Zaerr's and Cochis's are two thought-provoking essays that invite us to approach medieval performance through our modern experiences with storytelling.

Marilyn Lawrence, in her contribution "The Storyteller's Verbal jonglerie in 'Renart jongleur'" (31-46), discusses the tale of "Renart jongleur" in which Renart features as an incompetent minstrel and thereby affirms his role as master storyteller. In his disguise as the Breton minstrel "Galopin," Renart pretends to be unaware of the stories about Renart and ultimately achieves what the author of the tale was likely to achieve, too: to make the audience laugh. Lawrence makes a compelling case for reading the tale in terms of the negotiations of verbal prowess and the role of the storyteller / narrator in medieval narratives. Nancy Freeman Regalado turns to "voice" and first-person accounts in Villon ("Who Tells the Stories of Poetry? Villon and his Readers," 61-74). Regalado shows that Villon's poetic speaker is a prop that serves to tell the story but that does not provide a narrative setting. On the contrary, Villon's poetry is strikingly fragmentary and forces us to fill the "gaps" (in Wolfgang Iser's terminology) between the bits and pieces in order to create a coherent account. The audience, then, is propelled to make the stories themselves; we become, in effect, our own storytellers. Regalado thus further complicates the notion of the storyteller, who can be the performer of a tale in the real world, a figure in the narrative, a character in the narrative who takes on the role of a storyteller (Renart), as well as the audience who comply with the text in its sense-making.

The second part, entitled "Inscribing Stories," comprises five articles, all of which are concerned with the figure of the storyteller in different manuscript contexts. Kathryn A. Duys, in "The Audience in the Story: Novices Respond to History in Gautier de Coinci's Chastée as nonains" (77-92), considers Gautier de Coinci's depiction of Ingeborg of Denmark in his Miracles de Nostre Dame, as well as his sermon-commentary to the miracles. Duys shows how various genres are enmeshed in Gautier's texts and that narrative fiction and the reality of the nuns of Notre Dame de Soissons, the dedicatees of Gautier's Miracles, form a complex whole that allows Gautier to voice his criticism against the king.

Christian Bratu, in the ensuing essay, focuses on references to speaking and writing in twelfth- and thirteenth-century historiography ("Effet de parlé and effet d'écrit: The Authorial Strategies of Medieval French Historians," 93-110). Reminding us of the fact that evocations of the spoken word formed part of medieval authors' literary strategies, Bratu argues that these references, like those to the written word, functioned as signals for the audience and helped positioning the author. Drawing on a wide range of medieval chronicles and histories, Bratu makes the point that "there is not always a direct ontological correlation between oral phrases and speech, and correspondingly between written terms and actual writing" (98; emphasis in the original) and that, rather, historians sought to create an oral, or a written, effect (effet de parlé; effet d'écrit) and, in stressing their double role as historians and storytellers, to establish authority.

Kathleen Loysen's contribution, "Or, entendez! Jacques Tahureau and the Strategies of the Storytelling Scene in Early Modern France" (111-121), leads us on to the sixteenth century and Tahureau's Dialogues. She shows that even in the early modern context, "the storyteller's voice remained as audible as ever" (112). Thus Tahureau makes use of framing structures, inscribes both a teller and an audience on the page, and orchestrates multiple speaking voices, which ultimately promote authorial authority. How religious narratives and performance are intertwined is the topic of Maureen Boulton's essay "Telling the Story of the Christ Child: Text and Image in Two Fourteenth-Century Manuscripts" (123-140). Boulton discusses instances of infancy miracles--the Anglo-Norman Enfaunces Jesu Crist and a fragmentary Occitan infancy poem--and their illustrations. The texts, she argues, are examples of "narrative theology" (125). Through narrative means, theological doctrines are rendered concrete and thus relatable for the audience. The illustrations of the Enfaunces suggest two audiences and reading contexts, one dramatic and performed; the other as visualisations. The miniatures that accompany the Occitan text, by contrast, punctuate the narrative to a larger extent and pay special attention to movements and moments of speech.

The second part closes with another piece on manuscript illuminations. In "Authorizing the Story: Guillaume de Machaut as Doctor of Love" (141-154), Joyce Coleman scrutinises different realisations of the iconographic tradition of a magister lecturing a group of students. She demonstrates that Perrin Remiet, who created the images of Guillaume de Machaut lecturing, in fact creatively responded to the author's "hybridization of lesson and story" (150) and argues that Remiet's work is characterised by a creative crossover reinterpretation of the academic imagery that makes Remiet appear much more original than he has been credited for.

Part III, entitled "Moving Stories," takes recourse to Paul Zumthor's concept of mouvance and the idea that medieval texts are never fixed but move across traditions, audiences, writers, languages, and time and space. E. Gordon Whatley analyses the dream of Helenus in the legend of Eugenia of Rome, one of the so-called "transvestite" or "cross-dressing" saints ("Retelling the Story: Intertextuality, Sacred and Profane, in the Late Roman Legend of St Eugenia," 157-170). Comparing the episode in the two main (Latin) versions of the legend, Whatley traces the strategies of rewriting that are indebted to Ancient Greek traditions of beauty and divinity, of which the Greek novels bear ample witness. The overall effect is one of a striking "artistic syncretism" (170).

The second essay in this part is also devoted to a Latin text: In "Ruodlieb and Romance in Latin: Audience and Authorship" (171-186), Elizabeth Archibald traces the influences of the Historia Apollonii on the twelfth-century romance Ruodlieb, which has German roots, and discusses the possible target audience of the text (imperial court, monastic audience). Archibald urges us not to forget the Latin tradition of secular narratives that are too often marginalised in our discussions, not least because they are crucial in understanding how Latin and vernacular traditions overlapped and influenced each other.

Laurie Postlewate's essay "Turner a pru: Conversion and Translation in the Vie de seint Clement" (187-203) features another saint's legend. In the thirteenth-century Vie de seint Clement, religious conversion and textual translation are paralleled in their bringing about benefit (pru). Both word and deed are central, as the long passages of verbal exchange demonstrate, and the poet practices translation as creation or rewriting--he "converts" the text, which is transformed yet remains essentially the same, just like the soul in spiritual conversion. Mark Cruse's essay, "Stories for the King: Narration and Authority in the 'Crusade Compilation' of Philippe VI of France (London, British Library, MS Royal 19.D.i)" (205-218), returns to the theme of first-person narrative. In the compilation that was intended to provide as much information as possible about the foreign lands Philippe VI intended to travel through and fight in, the first person singular features prominently and thus sheds light on the status of literary subjectivity. The accounts by Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone, and John of Plano Carpini, as well as the anonymous Directorium, put great emphasis on personal experience. Miniatures establish links between the accounts and crusades, and direct addresses to the king further seek to draw him into the accounts and thus to influence him directly as parts of a strategy of advising.

The final essay, Elizabeth Emery's "Le Berceau de la littérature française: Medieval Literature as Storytelling in Nineteenth-Century France" (219-235) makes a huge temporal jump to the nineteenth century, in which oral storytelling had lost its importance and was, in France and elsewhere, stigmatised as 'primitive' and only deemed suitable for children's education. In this trajectory, medieval texts were praised, because of their content, as the roots of medieval French literature, yet at the same time disqualified in terms of their style and form, notably their oral roots. Emery closes her essay with Walter Benjamin's prediction of the death of the storyteller, which nowadays, in view of the wide distribution of stories from all over the world and their performances, being preserved and readily available online, seems archaic indeed. The volume is rounded off by the section "Storytelling Tribute. An Ode to Friendship," which features one final essay, Samuel N. Rosenberg's "Retelling the Old Story" (239-244). Rosenberg muses about the pleasures of "good stories" and retellings of the Arthurian cycle--the "old story" of his title--, and closes with a beautiful summary adaptation of the "Book of Galehaut," based on a passage in Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles.

As someone who is interested in medieval narrative and narrative theory, and much influenced by Vitz's highly recommendable study Medieval Narrative and Modern Narratology: Subjects and Objects of Desire (New York, 1989), I was delighted to see that many, if not all, of the essays in this collection discuss aspects that are central to what constitutes medieval narrative: voice, story, the links between form, performance, and story. Yet there was surprisingly little engagement with parameters of narrative theory, even though many of the findings assembled here could easily challenge what modern narratology often claims to be core elements of narrative, most prominently the author/narrator dichotomy. Also, the figure of the storyteller is not something that features in modern narrative theory, but which would certainly be a stimulating addition. I was once again struck by the fact that medievalists and narrative theory still seem to look at one another with suspicion (undeservedly so). Overall, the many voices and stories that feature here provide insightful and stimulating perspectives on rewriting and retelling, performance, and storytelling/the storyteller in medieval narrative and beyond.

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