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  • The Virgin and the Cosmographer: On Notions of Space in Jean Parmentier’s Chants Royaux 1
  • Michael Randall (bio)

If the demise of a vertical notion of space marks the beginning of modernity, characterized by a “a reduction of our perspective to the horizontal,” then the chants royaux of Jean Parmentier (1494–1529) can be understood as having been composed at the very point where medieval and modern space meet. 2 These poems bring the horizontal dimensions of cosmographers and discoverers of the “new world” into the vertical space of Marian poetry, a genre which traditionally extolled the glory of the Virgin Mary from the vantage point of the fallen and imperfect state of the poem’s narrator. The vertical axis of the Marian poems, rising from an imperfect narrative “je” to the perfect “vous” or “toi” of the Virgin, was not limited to Marian poems, but was a general characteristic of the high Middle Ages which has been said to “valorize elevation and depth.” 3 Parmentier’s chants royaux convert this vertical space into a more horizontal one through their use of cosmographical images.

The narratives of cosmographers and “discoverers” of the New World such as Cartier, Thevet, Columbus et alia describe the horizontal [End Page 897] movement between points on the globe, from south to north, from west to east, etc. By adopting this horizontal narrative structure, Parmentier’s cosmographical chants royaux place the Virgin Mary not as some vertical “telos” but rather as an immediate and almost tangible “advocatrix” who helps the traveler reach a destination that is located at a distance on the earth’s surface. The narrative perspective is modern and horizontal even if the space used to structure the poems is medieval and vertical. 4

The form of Parmentier’s poems, the chant royal, represents one of the most intriguing and contested poetic genres in the sixteenth century. It was rejected by Du Bellay in the Deffence et illustration de la langue française (1549) along with all other such “episseries” from the “Puy de Rouan” and the “Jeuz Floraux de Thoulouze” in favor of sonnets, epigrammes, odes and other forms of sixteenth-century modernity. 5 Very similar in form to the ballade, the chant royal was comprised of five stanzas and an envoy. It differed from the ballade especially in its content. Thomas Sébillet explained in his Art poétique français (1548) that the chant royal was an obscure allegory praising a god, a goddess, or an important person under its veil. Crucial to the chant royal are the delay tactics that Sébillet describes: the meaning of the allegory must only reveal itself at the poem’s conclusion. 6 Parmentier’s chants royaux will most often remain faithful to the format described by Sébillet, only lifting their “cosmographical” veil to reveal their allegorical meaning in the poem’s envoy. [End Page 898]

At the Puy de Rouen, whose patronne was the Virgin Mary, the chants royaux were often devoted to singing the praises of the mother of Jesus Christ. 7 The vertical nature of Marian poems is not simply due to their devotion to the Virgin; medieval chansons are, according to Maria Laura Arcangeli Marenzi, characterized by the “vertical.” As Marenzi states, “the sound, the voice, the chanson, was a cry which ascended from an “I” to a “you.” 8 The Marian chansons of the Middle Ages and the early sixteenth century written to the Virgin Mary were also characterized by the binomial pair “I” and “you,” but emphasized the vertical distance between them through the difference between the perfection of the “you” of the Virgin and the imperfection of the narrator’s “je.” 9

Writers such as Thibaut de Champagne, Gautier de Coinci, Rutebeuf, Christine de Pizan, François Villon, Jean Molinet, and many others, created their poems in honor of the Virgin along this vertical axis. The Marian poems of these writers all place the Virgin above the fallen imperfection of human beings. The terms used to describe her all express altitude and ethereal perfection. 10 Jean Molinet, for example, whose “rude engin” constantly failed to understand the Virgin, nonetheless expressed her “altitude” in contrast to his...

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