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  • Making a Canon *
  • William Calin

For the average, reasonably cultured person (this includes colleagues who don’t go to the conferences but read about them in the Chronicle of Higher Education), to address the phenomenon of marginality and the function of the literary canon implies discussing race, class, gender, and ethnicity. It also perhaps implies exploring from a cultural studies perspective the extent to which the canon has been shaped by social, political, and ideological forces and even implies questioning the notion of a canon and a list of great books. I speak, instead, as a postmodern Averroes. I believe in the Two Truths. On the one hand, unlike some conservatives, I am fascinated by the new scholarship and its insights. In my own little way, I recognized the artificiality of the classical French academic canon and of a newer, Mallarmé-oriented poetic canon, and saw through them to their social and ideological roots. 1 On the other hand, unlike some on the Left, I maintain the humanist vision of our parents and teachers, their commitment to the great books and to the “great chain of civilization” extending, Auerbach and Curtius would say, from Homer to Proust or, if you prefer, from Gilgamesh to Julien Gracq.

This article will not contain micro-analysis or close readings. It attempts an overview of the Old French canon and probes some of the issues raised. It also submits a vision of the canon, medieval and modern, where the Middle Ages should be situated in the total picture, and what a totalizing literary history could be. The terms center and margin with their equivalents self and other, and inside and outside, function largely as metaphors.

Looking at the medieval vernacular canon or precanon, as the Medievals themselves envisaged it (in this context “canon” can be [End Page 1] defined in broad terms, as the books respected and esteemed by a literary public or an empowered social class), we discover first of all the fact that for many an intellectual all vernacular texts or all secular texts were ephemeral and deserving of contempt, “canciones turpissimae atque illiteratae.” Even in the secular courts, the Medievals did not necessarily prize the same texts that we do; furthermore, there is no one medieval canon. It varied from century to century, almost from generation to generation.

A number of books we consider to be the Old French “classics”—La Chanson de Roland, La Chanson de Guillaume, Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, Girart de Roussillon, and Raoul de Cambrai, to speak of chansons de geste alone—are extant in only one manuscript. These texts either were never held in favor or, as in the case of Roland and Guillaume, they dropped from favor upon the appearance of a rifacimento. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true for the two early versions of the Tristan story, by Beroul and Thomas. Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes fared better. A reasonable number of their manuscripts were copied and are extant; both writers were praised in later texts and were translated or adapted into foreign tongues including English. Chrétien had a major recognized intertextual impact upon subsequent romance in verse, for a good century; roughly the same is true for Marie and subsequent creation in the lai form.

However, by the early thirteenth century, romance in verse gave way to romance in prose. Vast compilations such as the Prose Lancelot and Prose Tristan survive in hundreds of manuscripts; these were now the texts to be copied and translated into foreign tongues. Similarly, chanson de geste cycles and long biographical epics such as Renaut de Montauban and Huon de Bordeaux replaced Roland and the early chansons of the Guillaume cycle.

By the fourteenth century, the epic and romance cycles were to be revised and expanded and re-incorporated in turn, with the verse chansons turned into prose. Meanwhile, the new fashionable genre was allegory or the dit amoureux. Le Roman de la Rose achieved classical status; it was the first vernacular book in modern Europe to be glossed, anthologized, cited, and praised as if it were a classic from Antiquity. Following in the trace of the Rose, new fashionable “poëtes” such...

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