19.11.04 Tether, Publishing the Grail in Medieval and Renaissance France

Main Article Content

Carol J. Chase

The Medieval Review 19.11.04

Tether, Leah. Publishing the Grail in Medieval and Renaissance France. Arthurian Studies. Woodbridge : D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. xii, 202. ISBN: 978-1-84384-426-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Carol J. Chase
Knox College

With this book, Leah Tether offers a lively, remarkable study of how Grail romances were presented to the public during the period from 1200 to 1530. The corpus begins with the earliest surviving manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes's Conte du Graal (early thirteenth century) and extends to early sixteenth-century printed editions of these works. Taking a decidedly modern approach, Tether applies the concept of publishing to medieval texts in manuscript form as well as to early printed volumes. She argues convincingly that current-day notions about marketing and packaging can help us understand how Grail literature was formatted. She analyzes the evolution of these practices over time, finding trends such as the tendency to group romances in cycles starting in the late thirteenth century. Her corpus of texts is set forth in the Introduction and listed by manuscript in a table. Based on manuscripts and books produced in France, a geographic area she uses "with a little fluidity" since the borders often shifted (p. 8, n. 42), it features the following works: Chrétien's Conte du Graal and its Continuations and prequels, the verse and prose Joseph d'Arimathie, the Perlesvaus, two romances from the Vulgate or Lancelot-Grail Cycle--the Estoire del Saint Graal and the Queste del Saint Graal--and printed editions of some of these texts. Also treated, less extensively, are the Didot-Perceval and the Post-Vulgate Cycle. In order to provide a comprehensive view, Tether has chosen to use a "large and wide-ranging body of material artefacts," though she limits the number of manuscripts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle to "a large sample, providing a representative...spread of examples from across the entire chronology" (8-9). The table lists some forty-odd witnesses: twelve containing the Estoire versus twenty-five of the Queste, and five with both texts, four of which actually contain the entire Lancelot-Grail Cycle.

Each chapter is devoted to an aspect of publication. After defining the concept of publishing in the age of manuscripts and outlining the reasons why this notion can be applied to medieval texts in chapter 1, Tether focuses in the following chapters on blurbs (chapter 2), authorial disclosure (chapter 3), compilation or (re-)packaging (chapter 4), and patrons (chapter 5). In each of these chapters Tether first outlines research related to the topic, then treats the romances under study chronologically. This well-organized format is coherent and easy to follow. Though the focus of each chapter on separate aspects of publishing sometimes leads to a piecemeal approach to individual manuscripts, Tether combats this tendency by cross-referencing. She also carefully defines her terms and leads the reader through her argument.

Thus, the first chapter presents existing research on the concept of publishing and identifies the moment of publication in the age of manuscripts as the time when the text was presented to the patron, who agreed to disseminate it. Tether opens chapter 2 by defining the marketing principle called the blurb. She points out that in manuscripts and early printed books, blurbs are often found in prologues, epilogues, and colophons. For example, in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 794, the well-known manuscript containing all of Chrétien's works as well as other romances, the scribe Guiot advertises his whereabouts in the colophon to Yvain, which may originally have been the last romance in this anthology. Tether suggests this is a promotional device similar to that found in printed books such as the 1530 Perceval li Gallois, which states on the title page where the book is sold. The trend noted in this chapter is from a presentation of earlier Grail texts as mysterious, then more spiritual, and finally oriented towards chivalric motifs.

Chapter 3 shows how the naming of an author, whether real or not, can be used to authenticate a text and works as a "branding exercise" in order to entice readers. Using Gérard Genette's categories and terminology, Tether examines the presentation (or omission) of the author's name, be it onymous (a single name), anonymous, or pseudonymous. This is a complex issue, since some attributions are thought to be spurious, such as Walter Map as the author of parts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Tether takes into consideration illuminations and woodcuts depicting the presentation of the finished book to a patron as well as indications in prologues, epilogues, and colophons. Among the manuscripts studied here are those of the Joseph d'Arimathie and the attribution to Robert de Boron, which certain witnesses omit. A tendency to omit Chrétien's name is found in later artefacts.

Moving to the book as a whole, chapter 4 considers the way Grail texts were packaged or re-packaged, as individual romances or as part of an anthology or a cycle. Tether first shows how a modern publisher, Penguin, presents the same book differently in two series or collections. She then outlines the research that has been done in the domain, pointing out that whereas the organizing principle of some medieval codices may not be immediately discernable to a modern reader, the planner or the patron undoubtedly had a reason to bring together certain texts in a single volume. She therefore suggests that the term "anthology" be used instead of "miscellany" for this type of codex. Several manuscripts are considered in depth, such as Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal 5218, which contains the Queste as well as church annals. Her analysis of the quire structure leads her to suggest that perhaps the scribe, Pierart dou Tielt, intended to pen the Mort Artu after the Queste (122-123).

As mentioned earlier, this chapter outlines trends in publishing Grail texts: manuscripts with a single work tended to be prepared in the early thirteenth century ("the Independent Trend"), whereas anthologies appeared during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ("the Anthology Trend"), thus overlapping with unicums; starting in the late thirteenth century there is a marked shift towards cycles ("the Cycle Trend"). In the discussion of this material, Tether cites six manuscripts that bring together the Estoire and the Queste(115). Five of these witnesses include the entire Lancelot-Grail Cycle (all dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries); since Tether sets the beginning of the Cycle Trend in the late thirteenth century, her conclusions would have been more convincing if at least one of the cyclic manuscripts from this period had been included in the corpus (for example, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de Frrance, fr. 110 or 344).

The final chapter, on patrons, brings together much of the material from the preceding chapters, for as Tether points out, the patron plays a key role in the entire publishing venture. She identifies three types of patrons, distinguishing between two in the age of manuscripts and one that appears in the age of print, creating terminology to name them. Thus, the person commissioning the original work is called the "escriptoire-patron," while the person who commissions a copy of that work is dubbed the "livre-patron." Finally, in the age of print there appears a new type of patron, the dedicatee, who is labeled the "promotion-patron." In forging these terms, Tether considers the role played by each type of patron and the definition of "livre" and "escript" in Old French.

This chapter provides a great deal of information about who commissioned and owned manuscripts and printed books. Since little is known, the material is perforce focused on renowned patrons, such as Philip of Flanders, who commissioned Chrétien's Grail romance, but Tether sheds new light by examining how his name is used in manuscripts and in the prologue to the 1530 printed version. She points out trends such as the fact that, starting in the fourteenth century, owners began to mark their books with coats of arms, ex libris, etc. Here again, Tether focuses on certain manuscripts, returning for example, to further examination of Arsenal 5218 in order to consider who the patron was. The fact that it was probably an ecclesiastic (Gilles le Muisit, Abbot of St.-Martin, p. 160) shows that Grail manuscripts were owned by a wide variety of people, including religious. Among wealthy, aristocratic patrons she cites Jacques d'Armagnac, Duke of Nemours. A correction should be made in this regard: Tether states that Jacques d'Armagnac commissioned three manuscripts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle (161); while it is true that he owned three copies of this work, he inherited one of them, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 117-120, from his great-grandfather, Jean de Berry; Jacques had some of the illuminations in this manuscript overpainted, thus personalizing them. The two manuscripts Jacques commissioned are Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 112 and fr. 113-116. [1]

This book is an important contribution to the study of publishing practices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The approach emphasizes the commercial aspects of the endeavor, underlining economic issues but also questions of power and prestige. The discussions of individual manuscripts are fascinating, bringing together a great deal of expertise. This book will appeal to a wide audience, including literary scholars and those interested in the history of the book and materiality.



1. See Susan Blackman, "A Pictorial Synopsis of Arthurian Episodes for Jacques d'Armagnac, Duke of Nemours," in Word and Image in Arthurian Literature, ed. Keith Busby (NY and London: Garland, 1996), 3-57, which Tether cites. A similar correction should be made on p. 115.

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