La Mort dans la littérature française du Moyen Âge ed. by Jean-François Kosta-Théfaine (review)
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La Mort dans la littérature française du Moyen Âge. Sous la direction de Jean-François Kosta-Théfaine. Villers-Cotterêt: Ressouvenances, 2013. 524pp., ill.

The first thirteen of the twenty-five essays in this collection analyse in detail the rhetoric of death and the signification it acquires in different medieval literary genres: chanson de geste, courtly romances, miracles such as Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles de Nostre Dame, poetry, and danse macabre. The remainder touch upon subjects associated with the theme of death, such as suicide and mourning, representations of death in the text–image pairing, and subversive ways of facing death through laughter and satire. The range of authors, genres, and titles explored is impressive: from Chrétien de Troyes to Eustache Deschamps, from courtly novel to farce, from encyclopedic treatises to pietistic works. Given this comprehensive coverage, it is to the volume’s credit that a number of less [End Page 387] canonical authors are unearthed, such as Hélinand de Froidmont and Pierre de Hauteville, as well as archival texts that are difficult to access, like the testament of Isabeau de Bavière. Two of the essays deal with the social display of death, as in public manifestations such as the performance of danse macabre in the cemetery (Caroline Denhez), or as in the poetic ekphrasis of a funeral tombstone (Julie Singer). What the collection does less successfully, however, is demonstrate critically the originality of representations of death in medieval literature. Part of the problem stems from the heuristic approaches that a significant number of authors adopt: Zoé Ververopoulou, for example, reconfirms the Bakhtinian thesis that medieval conceptions of death should be understood in a carnavalesque sense, that is, as regeneration rather than destruction; and Aurélie Barre integrates quite closely Jean Delumeau’s thesis according to which fear and death are interconnected, and thus the image of death that medieval literature portrays replicates this sense of threat and danger. Such theoretical models may have had particular relevance in the 1970s and 1980s, but they have been challenged quite substantially in the last twenty years or so. A critical review of the use of such models would have been particularly welcome in the present volume. Some articles, despite the complexities of their argument, do not analyse sufficiently the ideological connotations of various words. For example, Hélène Bouget considers that gory scenes in general, and a scene of cannibalism in particular, are sheer ‘barbaric’ acts (pp. 102–03), that is, they offend the Western ‘civilized’ mentality. Given the overall scope of the volume, the reader might have expected a longer, more detailed preface that emphasized the complexities of death in medieval literature within the context of ongoing discussions in the humanities concerning such aspects as mourning, melancholia, or trauma.

Andreea Marculescu
Harvard University