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22.01.27 Morato/Schoenaers (eds.), Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France

22.01.27 Morato/Schoenaers (eds.), Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France

Nicola Morato and Dirk Schoenaers’s edited collection brings together nineteen original essays developed under the auspices of the AHRC-funded project “Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France” (MFLCOF). (Simon Gaunt, Jane Gilbert, and Bill Burgwinkle were the principal investigators for the project.) A thorough “Introduction” by Morato and Schoenaers and a thought-provoking “Afterword” by Burgwinkle round out the volume. The editors have produced an outstanding volume worth the attention of any scholars whose teaching and research entails the use of French during the Middle Ages, including those working in Literature, Linguistics, History of the Book, History, and History of Art.

The collection’s main focus falls on the later Middle Ages, but there is ample reference to the French used in the central Middle Ages, as well. The editors divide the volume roughly along the two main axes that describe medieval French’s movement during the period: a “Northern Axis” that includes England, the Low Countries, and the Rhineland, and a “Southern Axis” that includes the Iberian Peninsula, Occitania, the Italian Peninsula, the Morea, and the Crusader East. The book’s contributors are concerned above all with the movement of texts and the elaboration of textual traditions along these axes. In the words of Bill Burgwinkle’s “Afterword,” this reorientation “allowed [the authors of the collection] to reconsider the utopian, and in many ways misleading, search for origins and singularity” and to focus instead on the “travel of text and manuscripts and this textual, linguistic, and codicological stratigraphy” (534). Such an approach reveals the many different attitudes that medieval people held about French--and how far they were from seeing it simply as an expression of a language user’s place of origin or allegiance to a particular kingdom or region. Naturally, the kaleidoscopic image of medieval French produced by the collection as a whole is difficult to reduce to a single thesis about medieval people’s concept of French. In this review I will draw attention to a select few of the essays that stood out to me for being the most successful in their pursuit of the volume’s stated concerns and for exemplifying the diverse approaches championed by MFLCOF. Nevertheless, each contribution is provocative in its own way and should inspire further reconceptualizations of the nature of language, writing, and identity in French speech-communities of the Middle Ages. The chapters amply bear out the editors’ sense of the value of bringing “different approaches, plurality of methods, schools, and research paths” together in one volume (23).

In “Middle Dutch Poets and their Francophone Sources: Respect and Reservations,” Frank Brandsma analyzes the rich but varied evidence for engagement with French literature by audiences and authors in the late medieval Low Countries. He considers the changing geographic distribution of French and Dutch manuscript production over time and offers valuable close readings of Dutch authors’ references to French sources (real or pretended) for their works. He argues that the claim that later medieval Dutch-language authors like Jacob van Maerlant had rejected French for reasons of local pride has been overstated. Brandsma contends instead that French continued to be held in esteem in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but by then, Middle Dutch authors began to emphasize the practical utility of their texts as well as their connection to religious authority. In the competition to be useful, Latin held an advantage over French, and the explicit rejection of some French sources by authors like Maerlant reflects that preference for Latin usefulness rather than incipient linguistic chauvinism. Brandsma’s study demonstrates the value of looking beyond French-language literary traditions to understand how medieval French was conceptualized by those who came into contact with it. Meanwhile, Brandsma’s emphasis on Latin as a mediator for, complement of, and competitor with French in plurilingual milieux reminds us of the limitations of simple binaries like Latin/vernacular or high-prestige/low-prestige for coping with the linguistic diversity of late medieval literature.

Marilynn Desmond also grapples with the dynamic between Latin and French as two elite transnational languages in the chapter “Magna Graecia and the Matter of Troy in the Francophone Mediterranean.” The territorial claims of the fourteenth-century royal House of Anjou encompassed much of southern Italy and Achaea as well as (in pretense) Sicily and Jerusalem. Desmond argues that the Angevins self-consciously propagated a vision of a united “Greek” empire through their patronage of French- and demotic Greek-language adaptations of Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie. Some of these texts presented the Angevins as the restorers of the ancient “Magna Graecia,” while others took an opposing view and presented the Angevins’ Byzantine rivals as the natural successors to the ancient Hellenic diaspora. Desmond’s detailed discussion of several of these adaptations along with Guido delle Colonne’s Latin Historia destructionis Troiae reveals the way that transnational French nourished the exchange of sophisticated political and historical visions across the Mediterranean. The original intentions of Benoît’s text subside beneath the sometimes subtle but always very pointed revisions of fourteenth-century translators and compilators. For the Angevins, influence from local languages like southern Italian and demotic Greek seems less important than competition between rival French- and Latin-language texts over the meaning of the Troy narrative, notwithstanding the Greek translation of the Troie.

Margriet Hoogvliet’s “Religious Reading in French and Middle Dutch in the Southern Low Countries and Northern France (c. 1400 - c. 1520)” also looks at exchanges across political and linguistic boundaries. Hoogvliet is able to consider a wider group of readers than Desmond, including merchants, lawyers, monks, and artisans. On the basis of the multilingual contents of many manuscripts as well as of the movement of books across linguistic boundaries, Hoogvliet demonstrates that French- and Dutch-speaking communities in this area shared one religious culture and belonged to the same “community of interpretation” in which neither language could claim priority over the other. Hoogvliet argues that this community, which was neither “national” nor “European” in its extent, is precisely the sort of phenomenon that modern lenses of the national and global tend to occlude. Although Hoogvliet left Latin’s supporting role in this shared community of interpretation unclarified, her study demonstrates the loose attachments between linguistic, religious, and political identities in this place and time.

Meanwhile, pieces by Fabio Zinelli and the late Charmaine Lee provide outstanding linguistic studies of the French used in the Italian peninsula. Zinelli’s “Inside/Outside Grammar: The French of Italy Between Structuralism and Trends of Exoticism” surveys the French language and literature of northern Italy during the Middle Ages. This complex corpus, in which Italian and French linguistic features mix freely in ways that can seem arbitrary, offers a challenge for both editors and linguists. Zinelli argues that the French used in northern Italy had become disassociated with France itself. Franco-Italian’s shifting appearance and diverse cultural meanings reflect the freedom with which Italian writers availed themselves of a prestigious vernacular with no particular home. In a complementary study, Lee’s “That Obscure Object of Desire: French in Southern Italy” explores the evidence for the French used in southern Italy, first by Norman invaders and then by the Angevins. While French-derived words in modern Italian dialects demonstrate that close contact occurred, the nature of medieval contact is hard to trace precisely, and Lee marshals an impressive range of evidence to argue for a largely top-down diffusion of French emanating first from small but powerful groups of Norman settlers and then, after a hiatus, from the Angevin court circle in Naples. Lee suggests that the French of southern Italy bears a closer resemblance to the French used in Outremer than to the French practiced within the northern Italian city-states, not only in its generic preference for historical texts and translations, but in its widely varying grammatical repertoire. By contrast with the deterritorialized French of northern Italy, which in Zinelli’s estimation facilitated the embrace of French by lower-status Italians, the surviving examples from the French of southern Italy emerge from the language of a settler elite emulating other elites across the French-speaking Mediterranean. The evidence for lower-status use of French in Southern Italy remains frustratingly out of reach.

As Lee notes, the situation of written French in southern Italy bears out Simon Gaunt’s arguments in Marco Polo’s “Le Devisement du Monde”: Narrative Voice, Language and Diversity (Cambridge: Boydell, 2013) that the appeal of French, in its several varieties, for late medieval elites lay in its association with many different centers of power, rather than in any connection it had to Paris. Other essays attribute French’s appeal to the particular genres with which it was associated; French’s association with particular genres ensured its success, even without its political and economic power. For Burgwinkle in his “Afterword,” the preponderance of writing about the past (romances, chansons de geste, and history) and wisdom literature in French, which could “place the present in a timeline and point towards the future,” guaranteed the rapid diffusion of written language across the Mediterranean in a period of upheaval (539). Courtney Joseph Wells’s absorbing discussion of Ramon Vidal de Besalú’s Razos de Trobar in “‘In Lingua est Diversitas’: Medieval Francophone and Occitanophone Literary Cultures in Catalonia and Italy” presents the ways the Catalan grammarian defined the Occitan and French in generic terms (vers, cansos, and sirventes for Occitan; romances and pastourelles for French [480]). Like Dante a century later, Vidal saw all the romance vernaculars as examples of a single “universal” language; unlike Dante, Vidal strove to decouple the different forms of romance from their social and political foundations. Vidal’s conceptualization of linguistic diversity is also evident in Laura Chuhan Campbell’s essay “French Literary Identity in Translation: The Roman de la Rose and its Tuscan Adaptations,” which considers the manner in which two different Italian translations of the Rose--the Fiore and the Detto d’Amore--alternatively resist or adopt metrical and generic features associated with the langue d’oïl. Although Dante remains a preferred source for medievalists to think about vernacularity and prestige during the Middle Ages, Wells and Campbell’s essays prove how the evidence of other witnesses, particularly witnesses who expressed themselves in now neglected languages like langue d’oc, can expand our knowledge of the range of medieval attitudes towards French and other languages.

This review has focused on a select set of studies that reflect the values and ambitions of the volume most clearly, but it needs to be said that the other pieces here deserve readers’ attention. These include, on the “Southern Axis,” essays by F. Regina Psaki, Lourdes Soriano Robles, Chiara Concina, Marisa Galvez, Anna Alberni, Patricia Harris Stäblein Gillies, and Jessica Stoll, and, on the “Northern Axis,” work by Adrian Stevens, Marjolein Hogenbirk, and Florent Noirfalise. Other essays, meanwhile, demonstrate movement between between these two axes: Victor Jante describes the book collection of Pierre Villa, a Lombard pawnbroker in Ghent, and Eliza Zingesser describes the assimilation of Occitan lyric into northern French trouvère repertories.

Morato and Schoenaers’s Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France adds considerably to our understanding of the use of French throughout late medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. Its strengths lie not only in the thematic, geographic, and linguistic breadth of individual contributions, but also in the willingness of the editors and authors to consider new disciplinary frameworks. In particular, the focus on translations and textual transmission reveals the wide range of sophisticated attitudes of French users, which is not always visible in works that look primarily at the context and intentions lying behind “original” compositions. Morato and Schoenaers’s collection shows the need for further collaborative efforts that will enrich our views of medieval French in its many different linguistic and cultural contexts. Although some of the pieces here--particularly Brandsma’s and Desmond’s--demonstrate the key role played by Latin as an adjunct or rival to French outside the French kingdom, other studies that will look at French in contact with learned languages like Latin--or Arabic, or Hebrew, or Greek--seem more necessary than before. Moreover, future studies ought to take a cue from Morato and Schoenaers’s work to incorporate the voices of scholars in other medievalist disciplines, like History and History of Art, to understand the complexities of language use during the Middle Ages.