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French Forum 26.2 (2001) 111-112

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Reading in the Renaissance: Amadis de Gaule and the Lessons of Memory

Marian Rothstein, Reading in the Renaissance: Amadis de Gaule and the Lessons of Memory. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999 .

Marian Rothstein's Reading in the Renaissance makes an important contribution to our understanding of reading in 16 th century France, which was a practice that was quite different from our own. Rothstein begins with a pertinent thesis that is often overlooked by modern readers of early-modern texts. The linear, "organic" development of plots and stories that readers expect of modern literary works is quite foreign to the non-linear plot schemes of the romans d'aventures on which Rothstein focuses her attention: "In the place of 'organic unity,' a romantic notion, the texts I am interested in are structured by internal links and echoes which call upon readers' sensitivity to repetition, variation, and analogy" (11 ). The book continues with a meticulous demonstration of this thesis, which details Renaissance education and reading habits that propagated an "horizon d'attente" specific to the reading public that made Herberay des Essars's "Frenchified" version of Amadís de Gaula "France's first best-seller." Rothstein discusses the relation between Renaissance romans d'aventures, which she calls "novels" for the sake of convenience, and the epics of Antiquity, a comparison which was largely responsible for readers' expectations that defined the genre. She also provides a fascinating material account of Amadis's publication, giving us a good idea not only of what certain sectors of the population were reading at the time, but also of the burgeoning market for books that was revolutionizing literature and thought. One of the most interesting aspects of Rothstein's work is her examination of Amadis de Gaule as a model for elegant French from the 1540 's to the 1560 's, especially her consideration of the status of translations and adaptations at that time. If there is one minor flaw in this discussion of the status of Amadis as a translation, and of the translator's role as reader, it is Rothstein's assumption that French as a "target language" enjoyed a "greater prestige" than the original Castillian (47 ), which would certainly be disputed by our colleagues in Spanish departments. Rothstein's explication of how Renaissance books literally invited their readers to participate in the construction of story and plot provides a valuable insight into methods of reading that were unique to the period. Returning to her original thesis that the roman d'aventures is based on medieval forms of elaboration, such as "interlace, construction by analogy, mirroring doublets, and incremental repetition," (66 ) Rothstein remarks that these works were distinguished by "formulaic requests that readers correct any errors found in the text, presumably by physically modifying the manuscript [End Page 111] at hand . . ." (96 ). The book includes a particularly valuable discussion of reading as a memory exercise in narrative construction, and of theories of memory from Aristotle to Aquinas. Rothstein concludes with a discussion of the reasons why Amadis fell out of favor in the second half of the century as quickly as it had risen to prominence in the first half. Changes in readers' expectations, caused largely by the outbreak of the civil wars, meant that Amadis was regularly condemned for its lack of moral and practical purpose later in the century. These critiques focused specifically on the roman's representation of clandestine marriages (Rothstein is particularly lucid in her description of the scandal caused by the union of François de Montmorency and Diane, the daughter of Henri II, after Montmorency had clandestinely married another woman), and major changes in warfare techniques after the outbreak of the guerres de religion. As a whole, Reading in the Renaissance is an important scholarly work, which illuminates the significant yet nearly forgotten set of intellectual habits that must be reactivated in order for us to understand the quite foreign narrative practices of the 16 th century.


David LaGuardia
Dartmouth College



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pp. 111-112
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