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Knowing Poetry: Verse in Medieval France from the Rose to the Rhétoriqueurs (review)
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In Knowing Poetry, Adrian Armstrong and Sarah Kay address questions about poetry and knowing with relevance far beyond the geographical, linguistic, and chronological scope of their study: French and Occitan verse between 1270 and 1530. Their discussions of poetry and knowledge are provocatively relevant to educators’ understanding of the transmission and shaping of knowledge in the early twenty-first century, when curricular and other educational changes are at least as influential as they were in the late Middle Ages. In addition, the extensive collaboration beyond the contributions of the co-authors reflects changes and opportunities in the transmission and shaping of knowledge today.

Knowing Poetry has two evenly balanced parts, “Situating Knowledge” and “Transmitting and Shaping Knowledge” (three chapters each), framed by an introduction and conclusion. The authors’ aim is “to highlight the distinction between prose and verse, often overlooked by scholars, and to show how, contrary to expectation, verse not only continues—despite the rise of prose—to have a positive association with knowledge, but also develops—in the face of prose—new and privileged means of engaging with it” (197).Throughout the book, Armstrong and Kay carefully introduce and contextualize specific examples to make their analysis accessible whether the reader is familiar with the particular texts or not. They also conveniently conclude each chapter with a lucid summary. The structure of the book allows entry at the beginning of each chapter but also invites re-reading of earlier chapters in light of the analysis in later chapters.

Chapter 1 explores “the inventive reaffirmation of live performance as a means by which verse works were made physically present to an audience” (27). Armstrong and Kay argue that the visibility of performance, whether a public reading, poetry competition, or drama, emphasizes epistemic value while it intensifies the impact of the meaning. Verse drama especially provides opportunity for audiences to witness actors, members of their community, engaging with ideological knowledge. Armstrong and Kay argue, after prose began to compete with verse as a medium, performance of verse texts could shape the audience’s understanding of the ideas explored even more than had been possible before.

Chapter 2 examines changes in historiography, patronage, poetic forms, and representations of subjectivity to conclude, “although prose maintains the upper hand for the recording of historical events, verse remains significant as a means of evoking the way they are experienced” (70). Armstrong and Kay’s examples demonstrate that poetry not only “can record history,” the poetic form often implies “that there is more to history, thus recorded, than meets the prose chronicler’s eye,” that there might be “an absent meaning, a ‘truth’ about history that is not to be equated with factual detail because it is located not in external reality but in (not necessarily explicit or even conscious) subjective processes of reflection, sentiment, commitment, or memory” (60). They conclude that poetry can evoke a sense of the truth of historical narrative, of the relevance of the facts and events to the audience, and even of a “formal surplus” that “stands in for” inexpressible knowledge.

Chapter 3 examines the wide-ranging and complex influences of Jean de Meun’s continuation of Roman de la Rose, the Ovide moralisé, and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy on poetry and intellectual inquiry in late medieval France. The authors argue that the three texts depict reason and understanding “in relation to the body, so that any attempt to separate knowledge from the body inevitably reinscribes the body” (72). They also foreground ways the three texts and later poetry influenced by the three texts explore contrasts between chance and providence and encourage “thought about embodied existence in a changeable world” (72–73). Some of those texts “assert the mind’s capacity to transcend fortune and the body and free itself by a process of sublimation from their limitations. Others ... seem to revel in enjoyment of the body and/or the contingencies of embodied life” (73). The chapter concludes with a series of questions related to the ways thought “weaves its way sinuously around bodily nature and temporal contingency,” provoking awareness of a choice between accepting vicissitudes or attempting to rise above them and of the power of poetry as a...

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