French Forum 28.2 (2003) 115-117
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Sahar Amer. Ésope au féminin: Marie de France et la politique de l'interculturalité. Faux Titre 169. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999. 243 pp.
In this lively analysis of the twelfth-century Fables, also known as the Ésope, of Marie de France, Sahar Amer deploys structural, post-structural, post-colonial, and feminist theory to support her thesis that Marie's work constitutes a new kind of medieval translatio studii. Specifically, Ésope au féminin argues that Marie's vernacular fable collection challenges the monologic, univocal, and patriarchal Christian discourse of the western tradition by rewriting and subverting the Latin fable "par le biais de l'autre, c'est-à-dire de la fable arabe, de l'interculturel" (18-19).
Drawing on Said and Amin, and building upon studies that trace the transmission of certain tales along with scientific knowledge from Arabic sources, Amer portrays a culturally-diverse twelfth-century England, where Western and Eastern traditions coexisted. The former would have provided Marie with thematic material, and the latter with an aesthetic base, especially a semantic and semiotic system, a theory of composition, and a method of interpretation.
Amer's argument hinges on two assumptions: first, that the Romulus Nilantii, to which some of Marie's apologues have been linked, 1 typifies the entire medieval Latin fable tradition; and, second, that the Kalilah wa Dimnah, an Arabic collection of tales, also influenced Marie's work. Pointing to three factors (i.e., the last two-thirds of Marie's collection cannot be traced to a single extant source; the English version of the fables to which Marie refers has never been found; and some of Marie's fables have been compared to Eastern tales), Amer speculates that Marie might have been inspired by an Arabic source, perhaps, as Joseph Jacobs suggested in 1889, through Alfred of Sareshel. Thus not only might "li reis Alvrez," whom Marie's Epilogue acknowledges as a source, have been Alfred the scholar instead of Alfred the Great, but, Amer hypothesizes, Alfred of Saresel could have translated the Arabic fables orally, thus leaving no written trace of the English translation (23-26). [End Page 115]
Beginning with a summary of the history of the fable genre, especially Phaedrus's first-century literary fables, which spawned hundreds of fable collections in Latin and in medieval vernaculars, Amer focuses on the eleventh-century Phaedrian descendant known as the Romulus Nilantii. Additionally, she examines an Eastern fable tradition stemming from the Panchatantra, or Patchatantra (third century B.C.), especially the eighth-century Arabic translation, the Kalilah wa Dimnah by Abdallah Ibn al-Mouqaffa. While the Romulus Nilantii and Kalilah wa Dimnah claim to instruct by means of a philosophie, Amer observes that the former is a closed text in which every fable is accompanied by a didactic Christian moralization, whereas the latter is an open text that provides no explicit interpretations and requires the audience to participate in constructing meaning (53). For Amer, Marie's fusing of these two traditions leads to a new poetics based upon re-writing with new meanings that encompass alterity.
Elaborating upon this new intercultural poetics, Amer offers a Bakhtinian analysis: the Romulus Nilantii, with its monologic voice of the auctoritas who delivers moral lessons to a silent, passive audience, stands in contrast to the Kalilah wa Dimnah, with its dialogic voice and "'contact' dynamique entre locuteur et destinataire" (127-28). According to Amer, Marie's vernacular creation, composed in a multicultural context and based on the voice of the "Oriental other," challenges the Latin-based "notion d'une pédagogie absolue" (131). By way of illustration, Amer discusses medieval Occidental animal typology, which, she maintains, reduces the animal-signifier to a single signification (e.g., both the bestiary's generic fox and the beast epic's particularized Renart are equated with ruse). She argues that Marie offers a new "heterologous" representation of animals (138-39). This new relationship between signifiant and signifié allows Marie to explore diverse aspects of the same character (139-140); for instance...