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  • La ‘Vie des Pères’: genèse de contes religieux du XIIIesiècle
  • Penny Simons
La ‘Vie des Pères’: genèse de contes religieux du XIIIesiècle. By Élisabeth Pinto-Mathieu. (Nouvelle bibliotheque du Moyen Âge, 91). Paris: Honoré Champion, 2009. 871 pp., ill. Hb €135.00.

This study of the 30,000-line Vie des Pères, a reworking in Old French of the Late Antique Vitae Patrum, breaks new ground in its attempt to read the contes of all three cycles both as examples of medieval rewriting and as texts that are as consciously ‘poetic’ as they are didactic. Previous studies, such as those by Tudor and Zink, have examined only selections of the contes. Pinto-Mathieu deals with all seventy-four stories, and reads them in the light of each other and of their sources, within an overarching structure comprising the three great themes of the collection — asceticism and the desert existence of the early Fathers, monastic life, and the Virgin Mary. But this is not a series of studies of each conte, nor an attempt to identify all their sources precisely; rather, the task Pinto-Mathieu sets herself is to capture the patterns of repetition and resonance to be found in the collection by comparing tales that are ideologically similar and, by comparing these pairs or groups with their sources, to reveal the intellectual and literary landscape of first half of the thirteenth century as the context for the tales. The great strength of Pinto-Mathieu’s work is her deft handling of the texts themselves; she rightly observes that the Vie des Pères can only be truly read by paying attention to details contained within the contes (p. 253). So, in Part I, examining the ways in which the desert context of the early Christian hermitic tradition is portrayed in contes in the first cycle, she analyses temporal and spatial distancing effects that are magnified by the extreme rigour of the ascetic life led by many of the protagonists. More interesting is her comparison with the similar extremism in the portrayal of human vice and folly in the fabliaux, suggesting, in a reversal of the usual wisdom, that the religious contes may actually be the inspiration for their secular counterpart, rather than vice versa. Again, the detail of a door, barred by a vision of the Devil in Gueule du diable, and shut inadvertently by the ascetic hermit of Sel, when carefully dissected to reveal its scriptural, psychological, and spatial origins and overtones, is the key to a richly satisfying reading. Less persuasive is Pinto-Mathieu’s claim that the parallels she draws between the contes are indicative of a mnemonic organizing principle within the collection. Further evidence would be needed to support this hypothesis, for example analysis of the orders in which the tales are preserved in the manuscripts; indeed, the lack of discussion of the transmission of the tales is a serious shortcoming of this study. Further desiderata include individual tale numbers from the Lecoy edition, given in the main text to help those unfamiliar with this vast collection, and a simple index of the contes discussed. It is also disappointing to notice a number of typographical errors — ‘idélogiquement’ (p. 17), ‘des être subordonnés’ (p. 183), for example — blemishes on an otherwise fine piece of scholarship.

Penny Simons
University of Sheffield


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