Réalités, images, écritures de la prison au Moyen Âge ed. by Jean-Marie Fritz, Silvère Menegaldo (review)
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Reviewed by
Réalités, images, écritures de la prison au Moyen Âge. Études réunies par Jean-Marie Fritz et Silvère Menegaldo avec la collaboration de Galice Pascault. (Écritures.) Dijon: Éditions universitaires de Dijon, 2012. 230pp.

The strength of this collection of articles is to point to the pervasiveness of prison as a literary trope in the Middle Ages and to situate prison in historical perspective. Allegorical and metaphorical references to prison are shown to have been shaped by historical reality, while in its turn the literary trope shaped thinking about prison beyond the bounds of literary discourse. A useful introduction by Jean-Marie Fritz sets out the theoretical parameters of the discussion and the allegorical implications of the prison: love is a prison, even the book itself can be a prison, although, as the individual articles reveal, the prison is also a stimulus for contemplation and poetic expression. Theological implications are explored here too: the imprisonment of humanity in the net of original sin, and the story of Jonah’s earlier typological prefiguring of salvific release in the New Testament. The articles themselves consider a variety of types of prison, from labyrinths (Maria Luisa Meneghetti, whose interesting article would have benefited from an image of the scene in Lucca that she describes) to cages (Patricia Victorin), ecclesiastical imprisonment (Bruno Lemesle), and secular imprisonment (for example, Patricia Turning, Gérard Gros, Miren Lacassagne, Nicolas Lombart). What is particularly striking is the wide range of ways in which the trope of the prison was allowed to resonate. As the articles demonstrate, it is impossible to pin down this trope to a single field of meaning. Fabienne Pomel usefully explores such diversity of meaning in her article on Froissart’s La Prison amoureuse, describing a network of analogies and providing constructive ways of thinking about the interaction between these different implications of the prison. It is at once a place of love, of creativity, and of isolation. Moreover, she shows how the trope operated at three levels: the historical, the metaphorical (the prison of love), and the metatextual — the idea of entrapment within, and by, the text provides an opportunity for the expression of a reflexive consciousness of the idea of both writing and reading. She thus makes it clear that normative or literary depictions of the prison, while often taking a historical reality as a reference point, did not necessarily represent that reality faithfully; rather, the idea of the prison could be played with and manipulated. There are important points of divergence between the literary senses of prison and what we know of the historical reality, as Patricia Turning hints at in her article. Whereas the literary trope of the prison tends to depict a place of isolation (Corinne Füg-Pierreville), work by Guy Geltner, for example, has demonstrated that prisons were usually fairly integral parts of the urban landscape. It is the willingness to acknowledge these divergences that renders this volume such a rich and useful collection.

Hannah Skoda
St John’s College, Oxford