Although we medievalists know that there is no failsafe way for extricating our scholarly readings of a medieval artifact from its manifold layers of reception, all the way into our own present, most of us still focus on an artifact's immediate medieval contexts to present to our colleagues and students with a slice of the "real" Middle Ages. For some, this is an epistemological decision, a conscious preference for maintaining scholarly distance between one's subject of investigation and the investigating subject. For others, it may simply be a matter of realism. After all, researching and writing about a truly comprehensive reception through time demands decades of research, and the results cannot be contained in the single volume academic publishers are usually willing to print and promote. Jan Ziolkowski's six volume magnum opus demonstrates that such comprehensive scholarship is not only possible, but yields the kind of intellectual harvest to which we should all aspire.
At first glance, it may seem completely incommensurate to dedicate about 2800 pages of scholarly prose and paratexts to the examination of a single medieval narrative, commonly referred to as Our Lady's Tumbler, that has come down to us in a thirteenth-century Franco-Picardian poem of 684 lines in 342 rhyming couplets and a later no-frills Latin prose version. However, Ziolkowski's objective goes much beyond the poem: he wants to offer a readable and accessible description of the reception of medievalia in postmedieval times, including the professional medievalist's craft, all based on the case study of this single tale with which he has fallen in love. These six scholarly tomes, which I will review in installments of two at a time over the coming months, tell this amazing "love story" (I, 8) between scholar and subject. He intends "to resuscitate the narrative, while also applying it as a fulcrum for understanding the reception of the medieval era in general" (I, 14).
In a first step, Ziolkowski invites his readers to join him in the process of revealing all that can possibly be known about genre, manuscripts, regional origins, authorship, and the one miniature that illustrates one of the manuscript versions. I offer a description of the miniature as an example of how he manages to comment not only on the alterity and modernity of medieval artifacts, but also on the influence of academic disciplinarity on our understanding of these artifacts, topics that are on his mind throughout the study:
Medieval literature plays out first and foremost, textually, artistically,
musically, and otherwise in the manuscripts that transmit the texts. The
codices are often the sole equivalents we possess from the Middle Ages
to printed books, audio-recordings, live performances, musical notation,
illustrations, or most of the other media we take so much for granted
nowadays. When those handwritten works contain artwork, it should
be vetted with the greatest care. In addition to its inherent value and
importance, it holds importance for its relationship to the text. Literary
critics may use the written word to achieve interpretative liftoff ... Art
historians may do the opposite. To a degree, both are right. The two
sets of experts contribute essential perspectives to an understanding and
appreciation of what the codices furnish us. In some cases, medieval
art and written work may be meticulously aligned. Often, but now always,
the interpretation of the words dictates the pictures that are applied. In
other instances, the art leads a life of its own--text and image are on the
same page literally but not metaphorically. That is the situation with the
miniature accompanying our poem from the early thirteenth century
In a similar vein, Ziolkowski constructs concise and highly informative comparative cultural histories of the tumbler, the jongleur, and the holy fool, each time offering medieval and postmedieval European examples as well as examples from other cultures. He concatenates these overviews with a history of the Cistercian order, especially its lay brothers, since one central aspect of the medieval poem is the tension between the rule-based devotion of the educated choir monks, and the personal irregular devotion of the illiterate tumbler/jongleur. The final sections of the first volume explain the disappearance of Our Lady's Tumbler during the Reformation, when Protestants equated "modernizing" with "de-Madonna-izing" (I, p. 182); the various Marian revivals and apparitions of the nineteenth century; and a vast array of the poem's sources and analogues, including the narrative traditions surrounding King David's dancing, the Widow's mites, the Jongleur of Rocamadour, the Holy Candle of Arras, pious sweat, and the holy face of Christ.
It is difficult to do justice to the encyclopedic wealth of information Ziolkowski shares. I could easily imagine giving the volume to a student who contemplates becoming a medievalist, or to an educated non-specialist, who would like to understand what it means, at its best, to work in the public humanities. Always the humanist, Ziolkowski deplores that "[o]bjects have become the preferred subjects" of scholarship in the humanities, and he sees in his own deep focus on humanity a welcome "counterweight" to our preoccupation with materiality and materialism (I, 14). His desire to render his human-centered scholarship widely accessible is palpable everywhere, as when he refers to the tumbler's ritual performance as "leggy liturgy" (I, 90), relates the medieval biographies of the desert fathers to twentieth century "desert island books" (I, 71), and describes twelfth-century Cistercianism's fretfulness with its own secular success as a form of "mission creep" (I, 118). The endnotes (in OpenBook Publishers' online version conveniently linked for readers) supply the paratextual depth the scholarly narrative cannot possible supply. Only in a few cases does Ziolkowski overestimate what his readers already know (for example: "protreptic," I, 18; "teratologists," I, 46). The numerous illustrations, from medieval illuminations to postmedieval paintings, photography, and posters, are another attractive feature (even if there was no real need for the illustration of Columbus' Santa Maria (I, 76); and I am not sure we needed two depictions each of Gottfried Keller, I, 214, and Katherine Lee Bates, II, 122-23).
In volume II, Medieval Meets Medievalism, Ziolkowski moves into the final third of the nineteenth century, when the putatively trivial story of the tumbler reenters the public sphere to become known to a wider audience. The rich reception history of the poem is shaped by Europe-wide developments such as the rise of philology at the modern university (Wendelin [or Wilhelm] Foerster; Gaston Paris; Paul Meyer), but also by national desires: In France, following the traumatic defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, studying and publishing about the medieval prehistory of the modern nation state is French scholars' way of assisting the nation in rebuilding its identity. One of these philological mandarins, whom Ziolkowski quite fittingly compares to today's "public intellectuals" (II, 94), is the Sorbonne's Gaston Paris, whose summary of the medieval poem explains the attraction it exerted over modern readers:
The story (perhaps the masterpiece of the genre, thanks to its delightful and
childlike simplicity) of Our Lady's Tumbler, of the poor jongleur who, having
become a monk, and not knowing how to serve the Virgin like his fellow
monks, performed before her, in secret, leaps that had earned him the
greatest success; some witnesses who, surprised at his absences, had
hidden themselves in the chapel saw, after his exercises, the mother of
God herself come to dab the sweat-drenched forehead of her tumbler
Just like the Song of Roland, Our Lady's Tumbler felt to Paris and many of his contemporaries like the attractive "other" of modernity, industry, and technology, a representative of more naïve, primitive, child-like, but at the same time exotically ingenuous world. And, in addition to being associated with other popular nostalgic reflexes of literature, art, and architecture, it could be used to provide aesthetically beautiful evidence of the glorious moment when the French nation came about.
Ziolkowski then offers chapters that illustrate how the poem's openness to multiple interpretations helped it find enthusiastic readers on both sides of the heated battle in France between church and state; how it was Anglicized and found fans as much in the American Gilded Age and the English late Victorian period as in the French belle époque (one of the English versions was even retranslated into Esperanto); and how a few versions of the poem produced by a regional historian (Félix Brun), a poetaster (Raymond de Borrelli), and a Hungarian adapter (Dezsö Malonyay) led up to Anatole France's short story version, "The Jongleur of Notre Dame: Story for the Month of May," published in 1890 on the cover of the French daily, Le Gaulois. This first release of the narrative as well as its republication in a 1892 short story collection, L'étui de nacre (The Little Box of Mother-of-Pearl), by one of the luminaries of European literature (he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921), triggered the widespread national and international revival of the tale.
Of course, Anatole France's prose adaptation was substantially different from the original poem: He displayed a flourish of his own learning by references to mystery plays and manuscripts; he reworked it from a miracle tale into a kind of fantasy (which is why famed American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein thought of it as his favorite short story); he situated it in Compiègne (Ziolkowski muses that this is because readers would have connected the city with Joan of Arc's capture there in 1430); he named the previously unidentified juggler/tumbler "Barnabé" (in Christian art, St. Barnabas sometimes appears near the Virgin); and he adapted the occupation of the protagonist in the medieval French poem to go along with the predominant nineteenth-century meaning of "jongleur", narrowing the vague medieval semantics of a tumbler/jongleur/minstrel into that of a juggler.
Anatole France's own "juggling" with the elements of the medieval poem opened the door to numerous future variations, both direct and indirect, far and wide, and Ziolkowski is convinced that this "multiplication" of France's short story in various media and cultural contexts "was all to the good of the tale. The success that derived from France's short story alone might have been transitory, since his writings faded fast. Despite the Nobel Prize to come nearly two decades later, he already looked old-school in comparison with the symbolists" (II, 217). As soon as France had done his part, so Ziolkowski, the simplicity and malleability of the tale were the features that enticed others to want to adapt it to their specific purposes: for example, American author Edwin Markham, in his 1907 narrative poem "The Juggler of Touraine," reworked it into something far beyond France's associations or intentions, namely a celebration of working class happiness.
I would like to end this review of the first two tomes of The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity with some preliminary general observations on the impressive value of his study:
1. While revealing the deep imbrication of scholarly and popular medievalisms in nineteenth-century nationalism, Ziolkowski also offers illustrative examples into the interconnectedness of the reception of the Middle Ages across modern(ist) Europe and beyond. While France is for now necessarily at the center of his investigation (he dedicates vol. II to Elizabeth Emery, a world expert on nineteenth-century French medievalisms), he constantly hints at the various transnational networks of reception--scholarly, popular, artistic, religious--that have filtered and recontextualized the medieval poem as well as its modernist recreations.
2. Ziolkowski reveals how multiple layers of reception through the centuries augment and compete with each other, creating the veritable palimpsests of impressions we associate with any medieval person, tale, or artifact we encounter today. Any who would claim to own the one exclusive (past or contemporary) key to unlocking the meaning of a historical text will do well to understand how their own vantage point builds upon centuries of continually re-inscribed meanings. Researching a historical text's reception is a humbling epistemological experience and an excellent caveat against succumbing to simplistic ideological readings.
3. Ziolkowski's open acknowledgement of the deep affective foundation for his research subject should serve as an encouraging sign to all those who still hesitate to admit that, in much of our work, we are always "amateurs" and "specialists" at the same time. His obvious enthusiasm for the subject proves in praxi what Carolyn Dinshaw explained to us in How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (2012).
4. In Medievalism: A Critical History (2015), David Matthews concludes that, after a period of modernity during which medievalism appeared in the central cultural practices in the western world, the medievalist excitement visible in canonical texts, architecture, and the arts diminished and concentrated around the institutionalized forms of inquiry of medievalia at the modern university. Medievalism was, thus, displaced from the central cultural position it held during Britain's Victorian or the United States' pre- and post-Civil War periods to a marginal one. Matthews declares that this move to the margin ironically rendered these residual medievalisms almost omnipresent, although in smaller doses and with lesser consequence. Ziolkowski's case study confirms Matthews' findings for belle époque France.
5. The current political climate and the related outrage culture in social media often silence nuanced voices and elide the emergence of stories that focus on benign forms of medievalism. In addition, most scholars prefer the study of more straightforwardly readable (political) medievalisms and avoid investigating the influential omnipresent residual medievalist continuities related to religion and secularized religious beliefs. Ziolkowski's study is a welcome exception to these current tendencies, engaging with a subject that demonstrates the complex modern web of layers of reception in which religion continues to play a powerful role.