- The Place of Thought: The Complexity of One in Late Medieval French Didactic Poetry
Attempting to stretch the boundaries of conservative views on multiplicity and oneness in medieval literature, Sarah Kay makes a study of a number of French texts spanning the ‘long fourteenth century’ exploring how the concepts of ‘one’ and ‘place’ in didactic texts converge. This innovative approach to the genre is balanced by Kay’s ability to address the texts with supporting contemporaneous philosophical texts as well as by considering the influence of classical ethical works, treating each as a step in the investigation of its problematic relation to the medieval world through vernacular texts.
Kay’s premise is the common loci, or metaphors of place, that are called up to convey a unity of meaning and interpretation that thereby impose an idea of homogeneity. The premise for the interplay between place and thought is set out early on, when the didactic ‘place’ is compared to that of the individual.
Though the framework for this study is thoroughly expounded in the introductory chapter, supporting evidence is at times ponderous. Classical philosophic ideas are shown as useful for comparison as well as inspiration for the medieval texts, though Kay points out the medieval trend of coming away from Platonist realism in medieval investigations of the concept of unity and universals in relation to plurality. Kay describes the didactic texts that she explores as written for the purpose of giving pleasure as well as for provoking reflection. Thus, she does not disregard verse over prose, but suggests that it is monologism and the expression of melancholy that imparts the philosophical as well as the aesthetic goal to the audience. [End Page 177]
Kay begins with Matfré Ermengaud’s Breviari and the metaphorical tree of love that maps relations between unities and particulars. Turning to the Ovide Moralisé, Kay proposes that the unity of the commentary alongside the poem in this work can be fully understood when studied as a whole rather than piecemeal, and that the ‘unity of place’ can then be perceived as the individual’s place in the divine community from which man has been banished. It is the antithesis of perspective here that allows the ‘place’ to be perceived by the audience. Building upon these constructs, Kay delineates the journey through thought taken in Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pélerinage de vie humaine, outlining paradoxes in the conception of place: the domains of human nature and of divine wisdom. Kay suggests that the idea of transformation is introduced in the form of the inner space contained by Penitence, which then becomes the container of the inner space, marking an exploration of the dualism of the individual. Kay sees these first three texts as showing how it is possible for the individual to be in unity with God, the ‘one’, but that this unity involves unstable and paradoxical ‘places’.
In the next three texts, Kay seeks to show how poets acknowledge the priority of universal knowledge, but emphasize that the individual is excluded from it. Kay’s approach to Machaut’s comedic poems about love and the conduct of leaders written in monologue, Jugement de roy du Navarre, takes into account the ‘elaborate rewriting and combining of past texts’ and suggests it to be in dialogue with its didactic models such as Boethius and Aristotle. Kay draws attention to the use of internal and external spaces and the transformation of settings, and how this allows the text to disengage from Boethius’ idea of God as the one supreme good. Machaut’s idea of good is shown to be a completion of a progression rather than an entity in itself, differing according the circumstance, where the singular becomes excluded from the universal. The metaphorical locus of the tree reappears in the merry bush of Froissart’s Joli Buisson, providing a dream vision setting that Kay compares to the tradition of the...