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16.12.13, Uhlig and Foehr-Janssens, eds., D'Orient en Occident

The Medieval Review

16.12.13, Uhlig and Foehr-Janssens, eds., D'Orient en Occident

Consisting of twenty-one essays plus the editors' introduction (handily presented in facing French and English versions), this hefty and well-produced volume addresses the nature, transmission and purpose of collections of embedded tales, that is, sets of stories embedded within a narrative frame, where the setting for the story-telling drives the choice and arrangement of the tales that follow. Although an eastern tradition, the popularity of embedded tales was manifested in the medieval West by such works as The Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio's Decameron. The conference on which this volume is based sought to explore how and why this came to be the case, but it focused its attention on less well-known examples of the genre. The works selected for scrutiny may not immediately be familiar to a non-specialist, and whilst they clearly offer rich possibilities for exploring intercultural dialogues, the editors might have reflected a little more in the introduction on the rationale for their choices. The common purpose of such works, however, is relatively clear: they were set up to instruct, sometimes as mirrors for princes, and the format might consist of a master educating a pupil, or a father his son. Whilst not all of the voices were male, authority in these texts is definitely vested in the masculine.

The essays themselves, predominantly in French but with others in English, Spanish and German, are arranged in five sections: "The Question of Transmission," or how this form and some of the content travelled westwards; "The Western Tradition," or how tales and collections originated, were adopted, translated and reworked; "The Fables and their Metamorphoses," detailed readings of particular elements and often quite startling adaptations; "Manuscripts and Embedding," exploring the physical remains of the tales, including their illustrations; and "At the Dawn of the Thousand and One Nights," tracing the post-medieval history of the embedded tales, including their print diffusion, before the orientalist Antoine Galland's translation of that work appeared at the very start of the eighteenth- century Enlightenment. The index in English, whilst not extensive, offers sufficient navigation to specific works and themes.

The challenge of these tales for literary scholars, as the editors note, is the need to offer a double reading--of the frame, but then of the embedded content (9). These elements present different challenges. Barry Taylor emphasises, however, that whilst individual fables might circulate independently, the transmission of a frame had to be a conscious, written act, that is, the reader/transmitter had to be adept at reading the frame in its original language in order to transmit and translate it (35). Yet frames themselves were not fixed: Calila and Dimna had three introductions, setting up the tales that followed, not just one, and whilst it clearly served as a model for theDisciplina Clericalis of Peter Alfonsi, his work did not reproduce the dramatic narrative of these frames, as Aboubakr Chraïbi points out (55). Frames themselves might circulate independently of tales, if they had a sufficiently instructive form and purpose. The innate flexibility of the genre, however, lent itself to transmissions across languages, regions and cultures: Joseph Sadan (231-235) uses Barlaam and Josephat to demonstrate different levels of reception, ranging from simple translation from Arabic to Hebrew, to adaptations between Jewish languages, to elaborations and changes that effectively created an apparently original work. Elsa Legittimo explores the same collection's fable of the man who fell down the well in both Christian and Indian and Chinese Buddhic traditions (259-279), whilst Marion Uhlig's examination of Gui de Cambrai's thirteenth-century French version of the same collection presents it as a "voyage en orient" (352), that is, a text with eastern origins could now be reworked as part of a trend in western Europe towards explorations of eastern cultures. Complicating matters still further, the cross-disciplinary ambitions of the volume are underlined by its inclusion of Hugo Bizzarri's study of the illustrations in the fifteenth-century Catalan translation of Calila and Dimna, which he explores as an integral part of the text's reception by the reader. The images themselves are "embedded," providing another layer of narrative, and this was a characteristic of the textual history of this work (313).

Many of the chapters are close literary or philological readings of individual manuscripts or tales. The conference on which the volume is based must have produced some stimulating discussion and comparisons across time, language and region of the "infinite mutability" (15) of the embedded tale genre. These intersections emerge within the individual essays, but perhaps not so much across them, and it should be noted that a lot of the work of cross-referencing the arguments is left to the reader. I found each element of the book challenging and stimulating, but was left ultimately still wondering about the broader processes of transmission D'Orient en Occident.