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24.01.16 Small (ed.), The Cent Nouvelles nouvelles

24.01.16 Small (ed.), The Cent Nouvelles nouvelles


The subtitle of this volume, Text and Paratext, Codex and Context, aptly summarizes the variety of topics covered in this in-depth study devoted to the lone extant fifteenth-century manuscript of the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles--Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 252--and its early print editions. The ten chapters offer a way into both text and manuscript for medievalists and early modernists from a variety of fields: codicology and literature, naturally, but also history, art history, linguistics, and politics. There is occasionally some repetition, as is to be expected in a collaborative work of this nature that is nevertheless designed to be read as stand-alone pieces at need. Overall, though, the book offers a wealth of new and interesting information that expands our understanding of the text and material objects being scrutinized and that can likely be extrapolated to the study of other late medieval French works.

Prefaced by an introduction and followed by a conclusion and index (but sadly, no general bibliography), the ten body chapters are paired off into five thematic sections focusing on: the manuscript itself, the text’s reception, text-image relations, language use, and text as historical archive. Graeme Small’s brief introduction explains the advantages of these many foci, fields, and collaborators in understanding the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles as a “situated use of language” (20)--namely, that the complicated relationship between medieval history and medieval fiction purporting to have been created by real historical actors necessitates a multipronged approach.

Part 1 begins with Richard Gameson’s detailed assessment of MS Hunter 252 as a physical object. His conclusions about the extensive trimming to which the volume was subject over the years and its probable original dimensions are interesting not only for their own sake, but for their applicability to other manuscripts of mysterious provenance. His account also sets the stage for the work done by other colleagues in the volume, particularly in discussions of the quality of the illuminations and their relationship to a lost model, presumably Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy’s own copy. Although MS Hunter 252 has been fully digitized and is available online, it would have been nice to see examples of the ornamented initials discussed in the section on Decorative Design, for instance. The companion chapter by Hanno Wijsman delves deeper into the questions of the lost model, MS Hunter 252’s provenance, and using the fashion of clothes in the miniatures to help narrow down the date of its creation. His proposal of Peter II of Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol as the potential patron of this manuscript, which combines a Burgundian text with Parisian-style art, is quite tempting.

The second pair of articles are Mary Beth Winn’s contribution on the print editions of the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles and Graeme Small’s article speculating about why we have only the one extant manuscript copy despite the Burgundian court’s typically outsized influence on Middle French literature. Winn’s article is, as to be expected from this scholar, scrupulously detailed, comprising analysis of dedicatory prologues, text, woodcuts, and colophons to establish which earlier editions influenced which later ones and in what order. She concludes that the small number of remaining copies despite the thirteen separate editions printed between 1486 and c. 1536 indicates that the books “were read to destruction” (117). Winn’s choice of images makes sense and would help the reader follow her argument, except that in many cases, the images are too small for the details she discusses to be readily discernible (perhaps a printing error, or perhaps an error introduced during typesetting, but either way regrettable). Small’s chapter considers the historical and political context at the time of the lost model’s creation to hypothesize about why the text knew such limited success as a manuscript. He proposes that Philip the Good’s death and Charles the Bold’s ascension combined with the preceding decade’s worth of tension between the two men and their respective courtiers severely curtailed its interest to the Burgundian court itself, but in fact explains its appeal to the men of Cleves and Luxembourg a few decades later. He also agrees with Winn’s assessment that Antoine Vérard’s reworking of the paratext to present the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles as a royal production rather than a Burgundian one increased the text’s print reception.

The third section, on text-image relations, pairs one of the weakest articles in the collection with one of the strongest, to the detriment of the former. Maud Perez-Simon’s chapter on “Storytelling through Architecture” aims to analyze the “textual variants of the short stories and the combinatorial possibilities created” by multiple iterations of the same theme in a single collection as well as “the iconographic opportunities that this generates” (168), ostensibly in the study of the illuminator’s use of architectural forms to structure space and narrative flow in a “sequential progression in...complexity” (186). The argument did not hold for this reader; although certain of the observations about the illuminator’s methods of compartmentalizing the narrative proved interesting, the contents of the chapter seemed to consist more of long list(s) and story summary than actual critique and analysis. By contrast, Alexandra Velissariou’s (†) insightful discussion in chapter 6 offers a clear, convincing explanation of how Tzvetan Todorov’s idea of the grammar of narration manifests in the choice of scenes illustrating several individual nouvelles in MS Hunter 252, opening up the possibility of another scholar applying this theory to the remainder of the collection in the future.

Part 4, “The Text as a Site of Language Use,” pairs Geoffrey Roger’s examination of the regionalisms present in the text of MS Hunter 252 with Peter Davies’ (†) assessment of the nouvelles’ linguistic archaisms and contemporaneity. Both chapters offer extensive, detailed evidence to support their claims, and it is easy to accept Roger’s assertion that “several identifications of the anonymous acteur [frame narrator] that have been made in the past are rather unlikely” (203), as the text’s “isographs intersect consistently in Picardy” (221). As a fellow scholar of Middle French, I also support his call for a large-scale survey of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century French. Davies’ diachronic approach--and the question of whether the acteur’s personal language use inflected the recorded language use of the tales’ various tellers--offers much food for thought for those of us hoping to assign more precise dates to certain fifteenth-century texts.

The final pair of articles investigate the historical social networks attached to the text in the form of tale-tellers and subjects. Edgar de Blieck and Graeme Small employ the established identities of certain of the raconteurs and propose new identifications for others in order to narrow down the probable time during which the tales were first recounted aloud at Philip’s court (presuming that this is not a fiction of the acteur). While their conclusions about these historicized characters and their likely real-life equivalents are convincing, the analysis of story-telling’s importance to court culture which is ostensibly their main point of investigation gets rather short shrift. Since the focus of this volume is on the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles and thereby limits a comparative approach (beyond the obvious relationship to Boccaccio’s Decameron), this problem is both understandable and could easily be resolved in another publication. The last chapter, also by Small, finally moves beyond just identifying these various men (the world of the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles is quite homosocial) to consider their roles within the Burgundian court--as valets, quartermasters, butlers, squires of the stable, etc. Small’s investigation especially reminds us of the inextricably intertwined nature of kinship networks with service networks at medieval courts, encouraging us to question our assumptions about who might have been important figures at these courts at various points in time.

Despite the minor faults mentioned above, the chapters in this volume provide a significant contribution to the study of the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles which, if not measurably impactful until the sixteenth century, nevertheless offers important points of comparison for other mid-century literary confections. It will undoubtedly prove useful to experienced researchers and graduate students alike.