The Judgment of Palaemon: The Contest between Neo-Latin and Vernacular Poetry in Renaissance France by Philip Ford (review)
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The Judgment of Palaemon: The Contest between Neo-Latin and Vernacular Poetry in Renaissance France. By Philip Ford. (Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts, 9.) Leiden: Brill, 2013. xvi + 270 pp., ill.

In Virgil’s third eclogue Palaemon declines to judge a poetry contest between his fellow shepherds Menalcas and Damoetas, who have sung, respectively, of their love for a boy and a girl. Palaemon declares them equally worthy of the prize. The episode serves as emblematic programme for Philip Ford’s posthumous book, which traces the ‘almost symbiotic relationship that existed between humanist Latin and French poetry in Renaissance France, while at the same time exploring the motivation for choosing one language rather than the other’ (p. xiii). Ford ranges from statistical comparisons of literary language choice across regions and dates, to charting the influence in France of international poetic trends (the neo-Catullan ‘revolution’), to stylistic analysis and calibration of individual poems. The linguistic picture that emerges is more complicated than might first be assumed. The greatest precursor of the Pléiade, Clément Marot, was obliged to abandon at around the age of ten his local Quercy dialect in order to learn not Latin but ‘la paternelle langue Françoyse’ (p. 5) that would be essential for his career at court. Indeed, Marot had begun learning Latin four years earlier. And Latin, counterintuitively, may have been a less stressful language choice for many poets, both north and south of the Loire, in as much as it provided ‘a level playing field’ (p. 229). Yet if the French and neo-Latin literary organisms are symbiotic, they are not always homologous. In appraising Du Bellay’s theory of translation and his bilingual poetic practice Ford invokes the concept of ‘language communities’, showing how a change of language, even by the same author, can entail a significant change of perspective. Ford demonstrates that the Pléiade poets picked up the neo-Catullan style, which left its mark on vernacular poetry right through the sixteenth century, from neo-Latin writers. The vernacular classicism of Marot, conversely, is shown to have been just as influential on French neo-Latin poets in the first half of the sixteenth century as it was on French. Chapter 5 is devoted to collections of tombeaux, or tumuli, a collaborative genre that seems to have been born multilingual (French, Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, etc.) and flourished especially in Renaissance France. Chapter 6 reviews various contemporary French translators of Ronsard and their motives (some to enshrine their great national poet as a ‘classic’ for an international [End Page 389] audience, others as a source of personal inspiration). The final chapter draws back the curtain on a vibrant literary microcosm: the cosmopolitan and multilingual Parisian salon of Jean de Morel, in the rue Pavée, of which we have caught glimpses throughout the book. Inspired by irenic Erasmian ideals, Morel championed French and Latin poets (Ronsard, Baïf, Salmon Macrin, and Nicolas Bourbon) and fostered a culture of mutual poetic criticism; the group saw its literary activities as conducive to moral and religious health and harmony. Ford leaves us with a poignant portrait of pietas litterata on the eve of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. He concludes that ‘to a considerable extent [. . .] the rivalry that Du Bellay sets up in the Deffence et illustration between French and Latin is specious’ (p. 229).

Yasmin Haskell
University of Western Australia
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