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Marie de France: A Critical Companion by Sharon Kinoshita, Peggy McCracken (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 72-73 | 10.1353/art.2013.0018

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Unlike A Companion to Marie de France edited by Logan Whalen (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011), this new book is organized not by Marie’s different works, but by theme. Successive chapters look at literary history (‘Communication, Transmission, and Interpretation’), historical context (‘Courtly Love and Feudal Society’), plot (‘Movement and Mobility’), characters (‘Bodies and Embodiment’), narrative techniques (‘Repetition and the Art of Variation’), and the afterlife of Marie’s oeuvre, including its manuscript transmission and influence on other texts (‘Posterity’). The authors are skeptical about Marie’s authorship of La vie seinte Audree (110–12), and comment on it sparingly.

Although some episodes from the Lais and Fables end up being summarized more than once, the thematic organization is effective, and makes the book a fantastic complement to Whalen’s more substantial volume. The close reading of Marie’s texts is consistently persuasive and illuminating, enriched by expertise in matters as diverse as international trade, material culture, dynastic politics, and Christian thought. The authors put their prior work on topics like the values of feudal society (Kinoshita) or gender and embodiment (McCracken) to good use, and discussions like that of the paile roë ‘patterned silk’ in Le Fraisne (77–80) beautifully explicate Marie in relation to the broader medieval world. Fans of Howard Bloch’s The Anonymous Marie de France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), often cited approvingly, may find this book especially congenial.

If the book were called Reading Marie de France with Sharon Kinoshita and Peggy McCracken, we could simply admire it for its many qualities: the range of its learning, the clarity and sensitivity of its exposition, and its close attention to textual detail, especially in the chapter on narrative techniques. However, as A Critical Companion—which implies a certain comprehensiveness and objectivity—it is a touch idiosyncratic, and not always fair to the unsuspecting reader. For example, one would never guess that the interpretation of lur ‘their’ in de lur sen le surplus metre (v. 16 of Marie’s Prologue to the Lais) was as controversial as it actually is. Most scholars (see Whalen, 7–14) understand Marie to mean that the moderns (her contemporaries) are supposed to unpack the meaning already present in the writings of the ancients, but Kinoshita and McCracken present only the alternative view that the moderns need to add new meaning of their own. Their suggestion that the moderns are supposed to introduce an element of ‘human reason’ (22) that the ancients (apparently) lacked is provocative, to say the least. The authors would have been better off taking Gerald Graff’s advice to ‘teach the controversy’ (in Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education [New York/London: Norton, 1992]).

There is a surprising lack of curiosity in this book about anything ‘Celtic’—surprising because of the emphasis in Chapters 1 and 2 on cross-cultural communication and multiple languages. Apparently ‘the large role Celtic traditions played in the formation of vernacular French literature has long been acknowledged, and much scholarly attention has been devoted to identifying indigenous antecedents of specific characters, plot lines, or cultural phenomena’ (6); here we would expect at least a footnote to a little of that scholarly attention. Bisclavret is ‘a native Breton word’ (34): maybe, but how so? What are the ‘obvious Celtic antecedents’ (57) of Lanval’s lover? The ‘otherworlds’ of ‘Celtic folklore’ are described as ‘marvelous spaces [where] [t]he constraints and restrictions of the world ordered by social hierarchies falls away, desires are fulfilled, and adversity is left behind’ (122); but actually the Otherworld of medieval Celtic literature—Annwfn (Welsh) or the síd (Irish)—is a reflection or extension of human society as often as an escape from it, and forms various types of ‘personal bonds and reciprocal obligations’ (13) with human protagonists (see, e.g., Tomás Ó Cathasaigh, ‘The semantics of síd,’ Éigse 17.2 [1978]: 137–55). The observation that ‘Yonec mixes the Celtic marvelous and Christian mystery’ (149) is not substantiated on the Celtic side in any meaningful way, although this was possible (as I showed in Romance Quarterly 55.3 [Summer 2008]: 205–30). To readers just encountering Marie, such issues still...



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