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A New History of Medieval French Literature

Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet translated by Sara Preisig

Publication Year: 2011

Is it legitimate to conceive of and write a history of medieval French literature when the term “literature” as we know it today did not appear until the very end of the Middle Ages? In this novel introduction to French literature of the period, Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet says yes, arguing that a profound literary consciousness did exist at the time. Cerquiglini-Toulet challenges the standard ways of reading and evaluating literature, considering medieval literature not as separate from that in other eras but as part of the broader tradition of world literature. Her vast and learned readings of both canonical and lesser-known works pose crucial questions about, among other things, the notion of otherness, the meaning of change and stability, and the relationship of medieval literature with theology. Part history of literature, part theoretical criticism, Cerquiglini-Toulet reshapes the language and content of medieval works. By weaving together topics such as the origin of epic and lyric poetry, Latin-French bilingualism, women’s writing, grammar, authorship, and more, this work provides students and scholars with a comprehensive introduction to medieval literature. Cerquiglini-Toulet does nothing less than redefine both philosophical and literary approaches to medieval French literature. Her book is a history of the literary act, a history of words, a history of ideas and works—monuments rather than documents—that calls into question modern concepts of literature.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

Translator’s Note

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pp. vii

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pp. 1-12

Does it make sense to write a history of the French literature of the Middle Ages? Strictly speaking, no. Meanings of words have changed, including that of the word littérature; in Old French, literature refers to Latin literature. This is the case for the oldest attested use of the term...

Part One: Writing in the Middle Ages

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pp. 13-61

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1. The Materiality of Writing

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pp. 15-19

In the middle ages, books were manuscripts: the handwritten codices that made their appearance in the fourth century CE and whose use drastically changed the relationship to culture. A few scrolls (the Latin word is volumen) subsisted in the medieval era...

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2. The Question of the Author

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pp. 20-37

At the opening of her Lai du Chèvrefeuille, Marie de France states that she is going to tell the truth about this lay, “Why it was composed, how and what are its origins” (Pur quei fu fez, coment e dunt). These are recognized as among the questions...

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3. The Work and Its Audiences

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pp. 38-55

The “author,” whether real or fictitious, who guarantees the text with the formula “the tale says that . . . ,” certainly held a role in the medieval mental toolbox. However, the relationship of the author’s name to history is not unequivocal...

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4. The Work and Its Milieux

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pp. 56-61

Behind the acknowledged audience, the one inscribed within the works, real audiences exist and they are variously stratified. This chapter will indicate a few of the directions that a sociological analysis could take. Three large social fields concern...

Part Two: The Field of Literature

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pp. 63-112

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5. The Subject Matter

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pp. 65-79

What did french authors write about in the Middle Ages? What is the subject matter [la matière] of their texts? This is one part of the questions raised by the accessus.1 Etymologically, the French word matière signifies...

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6. The Paths to Writing

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pp. 80-99

Assembling his “complete works,” an entirely new practice at the time, Guillaume de Machaut precedes them with a theoretical reflection, a mirror en abyme of the entirety of the work: four ballades and a commentary in octosyllables...

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7. Modes of Composition

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pp. 100-106

Rhetoric gives only very general indications as to the composition of a work. Numeral patterns were therefore a powerful resource in the Middle Ages. Behind this pattern can be found references to cosmology, to the Bible, and to folklore...

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8. Models of Writing

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pp. 107-112

Some large fields of knowledge serve to define didactic, satiric, or parodic texts. This type of writing generally combines a vocabulary that is supplied by the chosen intellectual model, and a formal mold...

Part Three: Building the Sense

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9. The Question of Literary Heritage

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pp. 115-128

What are the stakes in medieval literature from the point of view of meaning? How should their evolution be perceived? The binary characteristic of early medieval thought is striking, and one of the principal evolutions, within literature...

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Conclusion: The Incubation Period

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pp. 129-134

In his beautiful book Bild und Kult (Likeness and Presence), Hans Belting speculates about writing a “history of the image before the era of art.” In this book, I have found myself in a position that, without being identical, presents certain...


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pp. 135-146


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pp. 147


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pp. 149-165

E-ISBN-13: 9781421403328
E-ISBN-10: 1421403323
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421403038
Print-ISBN-10: 142140303X

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2011