17.02.19, Sargent-Baur, ed., The Romance of Tristan by Beroul and Beroul II

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Miranda Griffin

The Medieval Review 17.02.19

Sargent-Baur, Barbara N., ed. The Romance of Tristan by Beroul and Beroul II: A Diplomatic Edition and a Critical Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press , 2015. pp. xxi, 335. ISBN: 9781442649873 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Miranda Griffin

For a tale which has so influenced and captivated Western readers and authors since the Middle Ages, the French manifestations of story of Tristan were not well served by the twelfth century. The tale survives in a small number of fragments of twelfth-century French and Anglo-Norman, preserved (albeit only just) in thirteenth-century manuscripts. Scholars have long been tantalised by these incomplete versions, enticed into attempts to reconstruct the entirety of the story by referring to later translations and adaptations, and frustrated by the necessary impossibility of achieving satisfactory complete reconstruction. One of these incomplete manuscripts is fonds français 2171 of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. It transmits a number of episodes of the tale, related in a pacey, not to say racy, way, and is the product of a scribe who, while he deserves our gratitude for recording the text at all, never wins any plaudits from modern scholars for his care or attention.

Tucked into the manuscript is a note, dated 8 October 1855, by Walter Sneyd, who announces that he also possesses "another fragment of the Metrical Romance of Tristan in the old Norman French." This is now manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library MS D 16, one of a few manuscripts that transmit fragments of the romance of Tristan attributed to Thomas d'Angleterre. BnF Fr. 2171, on the other hand, transmits part of the romance of Tristan whose author seems to name himself as Beroul (lines 1268 and 1790). Sneyd's note does not make any distinction between the author of the text of his manuscript and the one he read in Paris in October 1855, but scholars since then have classified the two versions as quite separate, with Thomas's version characterised by much more introspective meditations on the sufferings induced by love, while the version relayed in BnF Fr. 2171 is much more action-packed, with a less refined, more earthy sensibility (and a few moments of comedy). It is this contrast which has led to the Beroul version being known as the version commune and the Thomas one as the version courtoise--although this distinction is nuanced and questioned by several scholars.

The account of the authorship of the twelfth-century Tristan romances does not end there, however, as is evident from the title of Barbara Sargent-Baur's meticulous new edition of BnF Fr. 2171. Complications are, she reminds us, evident in a very early edition of this text by Ernest Muret, whose first edition in 1903 was entitled Le Roman de Tristan par Béroul et un anonyme (The Romance of Tristan by Beroul and an anonymous author), although later editions suppressed any mention of the anonyme. Sargent-Baur joins those scholars who read the differences, inconsistencies and discrepancies between the first 2752 lines of the surviving text and the rest of it as too great for the whole of it to have been composed by a sole author. In a succinct, lucid preface, Sargent-Baur outlines the scholarly debate on the authorship of the text, and outlines her own position in it. Based on the evidence of one rather scrappy, scruffy manuscript, it is impossible to reach further conclusions about the exact relation between the two proposed authors, but various questions are raised by the dual-author theory and Sargent-Baur's careful presentation of it: is one continuing the other's work at the instigator's request? Is the continuator attempting some kind of moral or stylistic correction to the first? Were the two authors composing independently in the twelfth century, and their work collated in a rather clumsy compilation later? As Sargent-Baur also acknowledges in her preface, medieval literary authorship should in any case be conceived of as a plural enterprise: a scribe and an author may often practically have the same function, and of course an authorial name can shed very little light on any historical individual who may have been responsible for the composition of a text. In other words, while "Beroul II" may be a very unsatisfactory name, and is conferred by Sargent-Baur on the author of the latter part of the text in the absence of any self-naming in this section, calling the author of the first part "Beroul" does not tell us much more about the person who composed it. It is worth noting, in addition, that the mentions of the name "Beroul" are made at moments when the narrator stakes claims for his own superior knowledge of the Tristan story, in contrast to other authors who are allegedly less able to relay it accurately. In this way, the first reference (l. 1268) argues that Beroul better understands Tristan's courtly character ("Trop ert Tristran preuz et cortois" [Tristan was too noble and courtly]); while the second insists on Beroul having seen the written account of the tale ("La ou Berous le vit escrit" [Where Beroul saw it written]). Therefore, the authorial assertions of the version commune rest on its claim to a superior understanding of courtliness; and while this version is generally understood as a text with very clear roots in oral performance, its author insists on its origins in written tradition.

Sargent-Baur has worked on and with the Tristan throughout her long and varied academic career, and her conclusion about the dual authorship of the text is clearly one which has been reached after much painstaking work. This work is apparent in the organisation of this volume, which comprises a diplomatic transcription followed by a critical edition. The notes to the critical edition are a further testament to Sargent-Baur's deep engagement with the Tristan: if the scribe of BnF Fr. 2171 did the text a disservice in his slapdash rendering, then in Sargent-Baur the text finds a scholar able to give it the attention and analysis it deserves. Clear and careful explanations are given of each difficult reading, as well as frank acknowledgement, where appropriate, that a neat resolution is not possible. The practical approach to the action of the text familiar from Sargent-Baur's earlier work on the Tristan is also apparent: Sargent-Baur's pithy clarifications of her understanding what exactly is going on in some of the busier or less clear sections are very welcome, enabling the reader to picture the situations in which the characters find themselves. An index of proper names and a select bibliography are included, as is a map of Cornwall, showing the places mentioned in the Tristan, down to the village of Constantine.

This volume is aimed at students and those who instruct them, and is a companion to the Student Edition, which gives a translation of Sargent-Baur's edition: the Student Edition is available as a much more affordable paperback as well as, according to Amazon.com, a Kindle edition. To purchase both the edition and the translation may well be beyond the resources of many students, although both volumes are bound to be consulted in university and college libraries. The diplomatic transcription is given, according to the prefatory material, to aid students who may not be able to consult the manuscript in Paris, or have access to the online digital reproduction of the manuscript. It might be objected that students with access to the internet may in fact find it much easier (and less costly) to consult the online digitisation than to obtain this edition; in any case, more discussion of the online resource in the edition would have been welcome. A wonderfully clear full-colour reproduction of BnF Fr. 2171 can be found on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, at . Perusal of this website shows exactly how challenging the work of transcribing the manuscript is: the opening folios are badly damaged, and the episode of the tryst in the tree is, frustratingly, only partly legible. It is as if, like Marc, modern readers have to strain in order to hear the clever words of the lovers as they declare their love for one another while appearing, for the benefit of the eavesdropping king, to be denying it. Rather than consulting the diplomatic transcription alone, I suggest that students (at all stages of their careers) may find it instructive to read it alongside the digitised manuscript.

A last debate about the authorship of this text which this edition seems not to have resolved is whether to spell Beroul with an accent aigu on the 'e', as is the norm in francophone scholarship. Throughout the text of her prefatory material and notes, Sargent-Baur refers to the authors as "Béroul" and "Béroul II," but the title and running headers of the edition do not give the accent. This incidental detail--one which should have been picked up by the publisher--is all the more egregious in what is otherwise a methodically and attractively presented work.

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