- The Virtuoso Circle: Competition, Collaboration, and Complexity in Late Medieval French Poetryby Adrian Armstrong
A virtuoso performance, the elegance and sophistication of which complement its complex subject matter, Adrian Armstrong’s latest monograph constitutes a vital addition to the ongoing scholarly examination of the culture of debate in late medieval French poetry. Building on the concept of ‘collaborative debating communities’ propounded by Emma Cayley ( Debate and Dialogue: Alain Chartier in his Cultural Context(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)) and on Jane H. M. Taylor’s analysis of poetic anthologies and their role in constructing social relationships ( The Making of Poetry: Late-Medieval French Poetic Anthologies(Turnhout: Brepols, 2007)), Armstrong proposes ‘a synthetic model for the culture of French poetry between around 1420 and 1530’ (p. xvi). While acknowledging the lack of any clear narrative of poetic development across this timeframe, the author seeks to underline the continuity between Chartier and his immediate successors, and the rhétoriqueurs. Thus, in addition to various debating communities existing more or less synchronically, the book posits a diachronic community to which successive generations bring their poetic knowledge. Competition and collaboration, the individual and the collective, are in continual tension. In contributing their own cultural capital to the sum of poetic knowledge, individual poets join in the generative process of the ‘virtuoso circle’. Five examples of this process at work are investigated. Chapter 1 examines the various texts constituting the Querelle de la Belle Dame sans mercy, in which a number of poets vie with, though never surpass, Chartier’s formal pyrotechnics. Armstrong discusses in illuminating detail the increasing versatility in language, poetic form, versification, ornament, rhetorical device, and use of allegory [End Page 235]displayed by the Querelle’s participants. The following chapter examines responses to two further works by Chartier — the Lay de paixand the Bréviaire des nobles— the didactic nature of which elicits a greater interplay between poetic form and ideology. Despite the undisputed supremacy of the originator, the proliferation of responses to these works demonstrates that ‘illustrious texts are stimuli to further production, not intimidating monuments’ (p. 69). Chapter 3 discusses the poetry of Charles d’Orléans and his coterie, in particular the famous Concours de Blois poems, from which Armstrong extrapolates an impressive range of applications of paradox. The Blois poets are seen as forming a ‘laboratory’ (p. 115), the author even likening Charles’s autograph manuscript to a volume of conference proceedings whose subject is the possibilities of courtly lyric poetry (p. 116). In Chapter 4 the focus shifts from the amatory to the political, as poets of France and Burgundy compete with each other, employing ever-increasing verbal violence, at the level both of poetic form and content. The status of George Chastelain and Jean Molinet as official chroniclers to the Dukes of Burgundy means that their poetry — and, consequently, that of the slightly lesser known French poets who lock horns with them — cannot be considered in isolation from rhetoric. The theme of history and rhetoric is continued in the Conclusion, though in a less combative context, through a discussion of the responses of certain late rhétoriqueursof the early sixteenth century to France’s Italian wars. I join the author in wishing that such a fine work will help to generate further debate.