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  • The French Tradition and the Literature of Medieval England
  • Edward E. Foster
The French Tradition and the Literature of Medieval England, by William Calin; xvi & 587pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, $75.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Probably not many people will read all of this book, because it is very long. That is too bad, because it is also very good and its length is necessary for its double purpose: to reconceptualize the connections between French and English literature in the Middle Ages and to provide sensitive interpretations both of familiar and of ignored Medieval narratives. The doubleness is neatly reciprocal: the readings grow into the revisionist definition of influence, and the notion of influence informs the individual readings.

The innovative and persuasive argument that orders the whole book is that the impact of the French tradition has been too narrowly defined. Rather than simply retracing the influence of the classics of French fin amour, like Chrétien, on the corpus of Middle English literature, Calin sinuously argues the influence of Anglo-Norman and thirteenth and fourteenth century Central French works on the literature of the high English Middle Ages. From Anglo-Norman, Calin draws, predictably, on the lais of Marie de France. Less predictably, he draws on Beroul and Thomas of England and on romances like Ipomedon, Amadas et Ydione, and Gui de Warewic. Least predictably, he draws on the tradition of saints’ lives as formative of later Medieval moral narrative. From Central French, he draws, predictably, on the Roman de la Rose. Less predictably, but very convincingly, he draws on material frequently slighted even by French critics: Guillaume de Digulleville, the Prose Lancelot, Machaut, Froissart, and Chartier. But even more than influence, in the traditional sense, Calin persuasively demonstrates an enlivening intertextuality. He rescues Anglo-Norman classics from their stodgy reputation and late Central French texts from inattention and makes both relevant to the development of the English narrative tradition in court poetry and in popular romance.

The power of Calin’s overarching argument depends heavily on the critiques of individual works. Without forgetting Chrétien and the earlier French tradition, he traces in Marie, Beroul, and Thomas, the formation and complication of fin amour which were present and available to English writers. He describes the narrative force of Anglo-Norman saints’ lives on the fictional techniques of English romance. His acute treatment of interlace in the Prose Lancelot reveals the treasure trove that English romancers could draw on, for technique as well as themes. In addition, he shows both how de Digulleville served up the “dream vision” and Machaut and Froissart served up the limited, even bumbling, narrator for fourteenth-century England.

It could be argued that Calin’s method of doing very modern or postmodern analyses of early French poetry and prose is misleading. And it is true that some of the readings of French texts seem eccentric. For example, the relentless imposition of Freud on Marie is perplexing even when plausible. One wonders [End Page 400] whether this is the best way to approach the Lais. And Calin moves on to feminist, and old and new historicist readings of other texts. Each is well done, but it is sometimes hard to tell which way the winds of theory are blowing and why. While it must be granted that the interpretations of Middle English romances, like Ywain and Gawain, Amis and Amiloun, and William of Palerne, are not profoundly different from what other scholars have come to, there is no denying that embedding them in their French contexts gives them a richness they ordinarily lack. Even more laudable is the way in which influence is elaborated not just as a matter of themes but as a transformation of techniques and even sensibility.

My greatest reservation is the treatment of Chaucer, especially “The Franklin’s Tale.” Calin does recognize Chaucer’s debts to the classics (though mostly through the Ovid Moralisé) and to the Italians. Yet Chaucer is the one author for whom the weight of French intertextuality seems less a determinant than a stimulant. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” the French burden leads to a reading that too easily dismisses both ironic...

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pp. 400-401
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