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24.02.08 Birge Vitz, Invitations à la performance de récits français médiévaux

24.02.08 Birge Vitz, Invitations à la performance de récits français médiévaux

The Pre-Raphaelite painting that adorns the cover of Evelyn Birge Vitz’s Invitations à la performance des récits français médiévaux encapsulates a core premise of this collection of essays. John William Waterhouse’s 1916 A Tale from the “Decameron depicts an entranced audience listening to a performer in an idyllic garden, and the painting’s title makes explicit that this scene of a performed narrative was culled from Boccaccio’s famous work. The Decameron narrates how noblemen and -women took turns to tell stories, and Waterhouse took cues from the text to represent such a moment of storytelling while adding costumes and accessories such as lutes as he deemed fit for such a scene. In a similar way, Vitz proceeds from a careful reading of French narratives from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to identify indications that these narratives were or could have been performed. The result of this exercise is an attentive elaboration of how texts ranging from chansons de geste to the Roman de la Rose could be voiced, acted out, and staged. While this book provides written, scholarly explanations of the “performabilité” (8) of Old French narrative, Vitz has also curated a website with recordings of NYU students performing scenes from these and other narratives (; videos archived on These recordings offer useful complements on how Vitz and her students envisioned and realized the performances that medieval French narrative literature invited.

Invitations à la performance gathers six essays written in English between 2005 and 2018 and translated into French by scholar of medieval French literature Denis Hüe. It is preceded by an introduction written by Vitz for this book. As this introduction lays out, “si les œuvres narratives étaient destinées à la performance orale/vocale” (if narrative works were destined to oral/vocal performance) in public reading sessions, “beaucoup d’entre elles invitaient aussi à une performance d’ordre physique” (many of them also invited a physical kind of performance, 7) that may have included music, acrobatics, acting, and miming. In Vitz’s estimation, the passage from text to performance occurs through “invitations” which are “basées sur toutes sortes de renseignements” (based on all sorts of information, 8) such as the mention of instruments, a clearly narrated battle scene, and dialogues that pepper narrative texts. With the term “invitation,” Vitz seeks to emphasize that no text constrains performers to act in specific ways: material limitations, interpretive freedom, and aesthetic sensibilities are among the many factors that influenced how they may have responded to and elaborated their own unique renditions of a text.

The six essays foreground the potential for “virtuosity, spectacle, and eroticism” that the book’s subtitle announces. In “La performabilité dans le cycle de Guillaume d’Orange: La Prise d’Orange et Le Moniage Guillaume” (“Performability in the Cycle of Guillaume d’Orange: La Prise d’Orange and Le Moniage Guillaume,” first published in 2018), Vitz compares two chansons de geste or epic songs about the bigger-than-nature William and argues that performance resides in a combination of “raconter” (telling) and “montrer” (showing, 32). Her readings include many musings on how a performer may have played different scenes while discreetly alluding to the mimesis/diegesis pair that underpins her discussion.

In “La Théâtralité et ses limites: Le dialogue et l’art du conteur dans les romans de Chrétien de Troyes” (“Theatricality and Its Limits: Dialogue and the Art of the Storyteller in the Romances of Chrétien de Troyes,” 2013), Vitz submits that Chrétien’s Arthurian verse romances display a strong potential for dramatization while also having substantial limits in how far this dramatization can go. Because the performer can only do so much when impersonating characters with accents, mannerisms, and looks that are specific to them, “il est à la fois acteur(s) et conteur” (he is simultaneously actor(s) and storyteller, 45, original emphasis) and needs to ensure the acting is subsumed to the telling. The argument of this chapter presupposes an evolution from collective performance to individual performance; it also presents interesting ideas on how the narrator “est devenu Chrétien” (has become Chrétien, 45), making the performer the mouthpiece of the author-and-narrator.

“La Performance bigarrée d’Aucassin et Nicolette” (“Variegated Performance of Aucassin et Nicolette,”2007) explores through the lens of performance the many discontinuities that literary scholars have noticed in this chantefable, a sung and told narrative that alternates between prose and verse and blends generic paradigms and registers. The “dimension théâtrale” (57) of this narrative comes to the fore through an attentive reading of passages that seem to lend themselves particularly well to the stage.

“Le Roman de la Rose, performé à la cour” (“Le Roman de la Rose, Performed in Court,” 2013) advances the argument that it was “pas simplement un livre” (not simply a book), but also that is was “performée, à la cour ou ailleurs, de façon à solliciter fortement les yeux et les oreilles” (performed, at court or elsewhere, so as to strongly appeal to the eyes and the ears, 66), at least as far as the first part by Guillaume de Lorris is concerned. Notably by imagining how scenes from the romance might have been mimed as it was read, Vitz ventures the idea that this potential for performance embedded in the text may have partly caused the success of this work in the later Middle Ages (77).

The last two chapters revolve around the Occitan romance Flamenca. “Une Vitrine pour les talents: La performance dans Flamenca, la performance de Flamenca” (“A Showcase for Talent: Performance in, and of, Flamenca,”2005) resembles earlier chapters in proposing, “à partir du texte” (starting from the text, 79, original emphasis), how scenes from the narrative may have been performed, including scenes that exploit the comical potential of Archambaud, Flamenca’s husband, whose jealousy-induced rage makes him fall down the stairs head over heels.

“La lecture érotique au Moyen Âge: la performance et la re-performance du roman” (“Erotic Reading in the Middle Ages: Performance and Re-Performance of Romance,” 2005) introduces a different type of performance: the intimate re-staging of scenes by readers (the previous chapter had also covered one such scene). Vitz argues that especially young people would have found erotic titillation in re-enacting amatory passages and may even have found love in doing so, as Dante immortalized in his Inferno with Paolo and Francesca (100-103). As with the Roman de la Rose, she surmises that this “érotogénique” potential (97, original italicized) may have secured the success of romances.

Together, these six chapters illustrate how a literarily attentive reader can find “invitations” to performance in a variety of narratives. By carefully modeling how to identify such invitations, this book could serve as a useful companion to teachers and learners who wish to explore medieval French and Occitan literature through performance. As Vitz herself suggests, whereas the predominant interpretive paradigm has been hermeneutics (and poetics, 54), performance constitutes its own paradigm to “incarne[r] et influence[r]...le sens des œuvres” (embody and influence the meaning of the works, 14) through in-class activities or even just through imaginative staging. The didactic purview of this book comes forth in its programmatic tone, its openness to a performer’s artistic freedom, and the discreetness of scholarly references. For instance, Vitz focuses her analysis of Le Moniage Guillaume on the short version, found in two witnesses, without encumbering her discussion with a digression on its differences from the long version, found in seven witnesses (26); scholarship is on occasion alluded to without burdening the text with lengthy references (e.g. 17, fn 4); concepts such as “voix” (voice) and “livre” (book, e.g. 65) are mobilized in an intuitive manner--the latter, I believe, to distinguish a written text from a performed one; and another example of the book’s didactic purview occurs when Vitz provides disclaimers that her readings are in no way prescriptive, which she often reemphasizes by withholding definitive interpretations of texts.

Since the essays were published within thirteen years of each other--nineteen if we include Vitz’s important Orality and Performance in Early French Romance (1999)--it is natural that terminology changed, concepts were refined, and scholarship was updated. The introduction provides a useful overview of the author’s most current thoughts on her subject of expertise and implicitly foregrounds divergences that exist between parts of this book. For instance, in the introduction, Vitz claims that the term “performance” is understood in Paul Zumthor’s sense (7, fn 2), which is an allusion only made there, whereas in other essays, she offers other explicit or implicit definitions of the concept. Likewise, Vitz--probably in consultation with the translator--ventures the neologism performeur in the introduction (7), while some essays use the more traditional term jongleur that performeur is meant to enclose. Some essays provide minor bibliographic updates, mostly for French editions and translations of medieval sources, but most chapters reflect the state of the field from the 1990s. In line with what I believe to be this book’s didactic purpose, these aspects attest to the priority to model performance-oriented readings for students and instructors alike and showcase the author’s familiarity with the works she discusses.

The translation of Denis Hüe creates a welcome bridge between scholarship in English and that in French. Like similarly recent translation efforts such as Laurent Brun, Corinne Denoyelle, Denis Lorée, and Lukas Ovrom’s rendition of Keith Busby’s Codex and Context: Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002; translation Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2022), Hüe enables readers reluctant to consult publications in English to get a clear sense of the work of an American scholar of medieval French literature who has marked scholars for decades. The minor issues that exist in the volume--mostly dittographies, inconsistent bibliographic style within and between essays, some errors in bibliographic references, the anglicism évidence for “evidence,” punctuation, the absence of a general bibliography and index--may be ascribed to the unavailability of copyediting and in no way hinder the reading of the text.

More generally, Invitations à la performance des récits français médiévaux offers readers its own set of “invitations.” Vitz’s deliberate limitation to narrative genres from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries raises the question of what interpretations attuned to the “performability” of works from other centuries (for instance Alain Chartier’s Belle Dame sans merci), genres (love treatises, bestiaries), and cultural and linguistic traditions (fictional epistles in Latin) may yield. Conversely, the consideration of this larger corpus raises the question of how it might complement Vitz’s analyses. Amidst a proliferation of medievalist scholarship on performance in a variety of realms, including liturgy (Bissera Pentcheva’s Enchanted Imagesproject), manuscript studies (Sarah Kay’s Medieval Song from Aristotle to Opera, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2022), and schoolboy education (Margaret Curry Woods’ Weeping for Dido: The Classics in the Medieval Classroom, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2019), there exist ample opportunities to place Vitz’s work in interdisciplinary dialogue with ongoing research. When historical evidence is limited or when instructional constraints require teachers to prioritize students’ personal engagement, the attentive reading of literary texts proves crucial. The contribution of this book may be a reminder of the many insights that such attention to texts gives into their ample potential for real and imagined perfo