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22.10.14 Devard, Pouvoir(s) et parenté dans la Matière de France

22.10.14 Devard, Pouvoir(s) et parenté dans la Matière de France

Surveying over 70 chansons de geste (and Karlamagnús saga), often with references to multiple editions of the same chansons, Jérôme Devard’s Pouvoir(s) et parenté dans la Matière de France is a detailed exploration of how power is gained and lost among families in medieval French epic literature. Devard is a historian who studies law and parentage, and his book is an effort to show the legal patterns in the poems’ depiction of aristocratic family life, but also to investigate actual historical norms during the early medieval period.

Pouvoir(s) et parenté has two main arguments. Its primary intervention is to characterize parentage (and the power that goes with it) as significantly horizontal and not purely vertical for the families of the chansons de geste. These families trace their power to a heroic ancestor, Devard acknowledges, but that power does not travel straight down a line, so much as bless potentially the entire lineage with its spirit. Devard emphasizes moments in the chansons where horizontal relations hold the day, including fosterage, notable solidarity between siblings, or when a family operates more like a household than a lineage. Devard presents aristocratic lineage as something at least somewhat fluid, open to construction by society and by characters.

The second main argument, perhaps subsidiary to the first, but also foundation for it, is that the chansons have value in the study of historical law. Devard turns to the chansons in part due to gaps in the law sources for the various eras during the chansons’ long lives. Certainly, it is risky to look to poems for genuine reflections of historical practices, not least because the events depicted in the poems, inasmuch as they happened at all, occurred centuries earlier than when the poems were written. Devard acknowledges these risks, but makes his case on the basis of several points in the introduction. First, critics have long agreed that medieval writings blurred the lines between fiction and history, as we would today understand those terms. As an example, Devard cites the critical conversation around Conventum Hugonis, which critics see as a precursor to the chansons despite being mostly historical and juristic in feeling. Second, Devard draws on another long-held critical consensus, which is that even fictional literature makes for important cultural contexts for the period in which it is written. Third, legal documents are themselves part of a society, pieces of social science, and like literature, are constructed by that society. But make no mistake, Devard is not under the spell of the chansons: throughout the book, wherever the chansons diverge from known historical fact, Devard points it out, such as when the chanson Hugues Capet invents a daughter of Louis le Pieux out of whole cloth.

Pouvoir(s) et parenté opens with a preface from Bernard Ribémont, which also argues for literature’s value to legal studies. Apart from this and a generously-sized introduction and conclusion, Devard divides the book into two major parts, each with two chapters and numerous subdivisions. Part 1 focuses on parentage above all. The first chapter of this part works to establish a genealogy of different characters across the chansons (while recognizing that the chansons were not necessarily written consciously as parts of cycles). Devard does this partially through convincing and easy to follow onomastics and reference to anthropology. Names were a source of power, Devard argues, often derived via patriarchal lineages, but also through some horizontal connections based on marriage alliances and other relationships. Devard frequently invokes and revisits key terms in this and in later chapters, concluding here that lignage has a sense of patriarchal control, but also a sense of grouping along clan lines or as part of a maisinie (a conceptual household which can even include close friends). L’honor and esprits are crucial concepts in the second chapter of the first part, where Devard shows how a family’s sense of self can come from more amorphous connections to a historic heroic ancestor.

Part 2 narrows down the analysis to key conflicts that these lineages can face. Chapter 1 covers feuds, and how leaders of a family or a family sub-group intervene to defend their perceived honor, as well as how they can influence marriages. These marriages can unfortunately also lead to or be the result of violence, as the aristocrats prioritize the expansion of their house over the freedom and wishes of women in conquered lands. The second chapter of Part 2 explores how vassals mitigate tensions between their family’s interests and the demands of the king, both when the monarchy is tyrannical and when it is vulnerable. As is the case in other medieval literature, the noble will usually elevate the family over royal needs. The two chapters of Part 2 are related in that several of the conflicts with the king (often Charlemagne, but sometimes others) have to do with who is allowed to marry whom.

While gender relations are not his main focus, Devard does indeed take care to analyze the relations of women regularly throughout his book, usually highlighting the oppressive power of aristocratic patriarchy in the epics. For example, in his survey of the frequency of family-related words in the chansons (itself an impressive undertaking), he notes that “femme” is only the third most common. But where examples of female empowerment can be found, Devard points them out, such as when Gerbert de Mez’s Queen Blanchefleur becomes a “chevetaigne de guerre” in the sense of managing a feud, or how multiple women in the Geste de Monglane exert a larger influence than in other chansons. This interest in female characters does not particularly lead to new revelations about women in the chansons: when the conclusion of Devard’s book recounts the status of women alongside its argument about horizontal relations, it is clear that the families, vertical or not, still use women to accrue power. Overall, the chansons are preoccupied with the male-dominated pursuit of battle, as Devard recognizes, but inasmuch as they are also preoccupied with family, it is good that he also parses out the female side of the lines.

One highly noticeable thing about this book, one that gives it more of a social science than a literary analysis feeling, is its 59 charts and figures. Devard uses 42 of these (covering no fewer than 51 pages) in the first chapter of Part 1 to illustrate the families, and this does help illuminate the horizontal relationships. These thorough charts cover dozens and dozens of characters, and show the book’s commitment to genealogical study, but still, I can imagine a literature scholar reaching for this book as a quick reference to identify a stray character of a given chanson, even if the scholar were focused on close-reading a different section. One shortcoming is that the long family trees are often interconnected both vertically and horizontally across multiple pages, and these connections are shown with arrows. My preference would have been to put the pages together as several folded pull-outs, though I do not know if that would be viable for a publisher to do. Anyway, that is more of an aesthetic preference, and the remaining charts later in the book are incorporated into the text elegantly.

This book will be a significant help to anyone studying aristocratic family patterns in early medieval France, and I cannot imagine that future studies on that topic can avoid reckoning with it. Scholars engaged in literary interpretation of the chansons should refer to this study, too. While much of the book is too granular for in-depth poetic analysis--there are too many sources for Devard to devote a long time to any one chanson--it does offer surveys of relationships, historical context, interpretations of character motivations, and as I noted above, convenient references to character genealogies. (And after all, the chansons do devote space to listing character origins, so to interpret their verse is often to interpret their genealogical exposition.) Devard also summarizes relevant textual history and even offers interventions of his own, arguing, for example that Geste de Monglane should continue to be seen as one cycle, though some scholars see it as two.

With 862 pages of text and notes, and an additional 74 pages of back material, this book is thick and heavy enough to withstand a blow from Durendal, wielded by Roland from high on horseback. Despite this intimidating size, the book is highly accessible and written in clear and comprehensible language. It has an index of primary sources, but given Devard’s focus on key terms, a broader index would have been welcome. That being said, that would have inflated the page count further, and the thorough Table of Contents and Devard’s consistent use of examples make each key term easy to find and understand.

I can only imagine the amount of time, effort, and dedication made to create this book. Devard has done a great service to the study of the chansons de geste.