- A New History of Medieval French Literature
Over the past thirty years, medieval studies has located itself within larger literary histories by claiming either its affinities and continuities with literatures on the other side of the modern divide, or, conversely, [End Page 169] by claiming a profoundly “other” status vis-à-vis later periods, most often creating a neat arc between the pre- and post-modern. Identity, sexuality, nationality, debates over authorship, secularization, and periodization narratives: each of these conversations, to name but a few, have provided a place from which to connect or distance the medieval period from ourselves. Neither linear timeline nor thematic narrative, A New History of Medieval French Literature adroitly shifts the point of inquiry to the very surfaces that shape our conversations about topics such as identity, authorship, and nationality. Beginning with a rejection of the assumption that it is possible to tell a literary history for a period which understood the word “literature” in a sense much different from our own (1), Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet asks instead how the Middle Ages thought about, made use of, and aestheticized the works that inform our understanding of the period. By closely reading how medieval texts posit their own questions about topics such as authorship, audience, creative inspiration, and the social milieu of reading and writing, Cerquiglini-Toulet successfully reveals how medieval authors and readers enjoyed a unique literary aesthetic. As such, A New History of Medieval French Literature moves away from historical timelines, periodizations, and thematic narratives in order to craft a vision of the medieval period as “a heuristic tool for thinking about literature” (4).
Clearly intended for students, A New History of Medieval French Literature focuses primarily on familiarizing readers with the aesthetic concerns and preferences of medieval French texts, and under Cerquiglini-Toulet’s skillful hand the sometimes arid quality of the literature becomes instead a provocative invitation to students interested in how pre-modern literature alternately responds to and resists works from later periods. However, thanks to the vast array of French texts, ranging from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, from which Cerquiglini-Toulet builds her argument, A New History of Medieval French Literature also successfully provides students with a sense for the celebrated works from the period. While the dazzling array of primary citations sometimes allows individual works to slip by before their specificity can sink in, A New History of Medieval French Literature nevertheless provides a remarkably inviting point of entry into the humor, gravitas, tastes, and playfulness of medieval literature.
The book also includes a useful chronology that charts the important literary and historical dates between the years 778 to 1500. Continuously shifting between works from these far-flung centuries, A New History of Medieval French Literature avoids using linear narratives to link these works together, instead opting to distinguish between [End Page 170] their different historical moments by noting changes in precise literary devices. Thus the trope of the singing poet shifts to that of the writing poet (40), the inflections in agricultural metaphors for writing change in the shift from planting to gleaning (96), and a preference for binary distinctions dissolves into a preoccupation with ambiguity (118). These narratives are pointed, not intended to make histories, but rather to invite inquiry about shifts in preferences, shades, and tones between the literatures of different historical moments.
Cerquiglini-Toulet’s argument clusters around “concepts that allow us to account for the literary production of four or five centuries, concepts grasped in their medieval use and amplitude” (3). The first section of the book, “Writing in the Middle Ages,” examines the phenomenon of writing from various vantage points, starting with the material conditions of production, where scribes, parchment, patrons, and oral recitations all play a role in determining the meaning and use of texts. This first section then goes on to deal more extensively with the relationship between authorship, texts, and readers. This section is useful notably for the concise and organized overview that it provides...