- The Virtuoso Circle: Competition, Collaboration, and Complexity in Late Medieval French Poetry by Adrian Armstrong
Adrian Armstrong’s The Virtuoso Circle grew out of the “Poetic Knowledge in Late Medieval France” project funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council. Other book titles in the fruitful series include Sarah Kay’s The Place of Thought (2007) and Parrots and Nightingales (2013), Kay’s and Armstrong’s Knowing Poetry: Verse in Medieval France from the “Rose” to the “Rhétoriqueurs” (2011), Sylvia Huot’s Dreams of Lovers and Lies of Poets (2010), and Rebecca Dixon and Finn Sinclair’s (eds.) Poetry, Knowledge, and Community (2008).
Drawing on the “virtuous circle” of economic theory, Armstrong posits a relationship among key late medieval French and Burgundian poets (during the period 1420–1530) in which collaboration and competition foster steady increases in rhetorical intricacy and innovation. These improvements, in turn, lead not only to enhancements of poetic bravura and flourish, but also to important increases in poetic knowledge itself. Poetry becomes a commodity, part of a cultural capital that ultimately promotes “a circle of wealth generation” (p. xxi) where poetic ability and output are concerned.
This work is particularly helpful in understanding more fully the relationships among the so-called rhétoriqueurs in France and Burgundy in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Though Henri Guy refers in 1910 to an “école de rhétoriqueurs,” it is clear that these poets belong, properly speaking, to no such school at all, and that the common term grands rhétoriqueurs is, in fact, highly problematic. To avoid the imprecision of the collective term, scholars like François Rigolot and Florian Preisig have discussed a certain “corporatisme artistique” that bounds certain poets together. Armstrong, for his part, builds on the work of Emma Cayley, who refers to the “collaborative debating community” in early humanist [End Page 155] France, and Jane Taylor, whose work has examined poetry’s role in building social networks and relationships among poetic collaborators during this period, in order to introduce the term “virtuoso circle” as descriptor for the Franco-Burgundian rhétoriqueurs of 1420–1530. Armstrong’s book clearly demonstrates that the interaction among these poets goes beyond mere intertextuality and referentiality, and argues that notions of the “anxiety of influence” are too anachronistically psychological to befit the late medieval context. As the virtuosi compete and collaborate, their poetic output tends toward greater complexity and innovation, as well as significant increases in poetic knowledge, a teleology that mirrors the scholarly process itself.
The book’s first chapter, on the “Querelle de la Belle Dame Sans Mercy” (ca. 1424), examines the poetic interactions among Alain Chartier, Baudet Herenc, Achille Caulier, and several anonymous poets. The second chapter centers on didactic poetry, especially Pierre de Nesson’s “Lay de Guerre”—a response to Chartier’s “Lay de Paix”—and includes the former’s poetic engagement with Michault Taillevent and Pierre Chastellain, in order to explore how these poets successfully imitate the authoritative voice of Chartier while simultaneously creating distinct and opposite voices of their own. Chapter Three considers Charles d’Orléans and his coterie in the so-called concours de Blois, and includes in Charles’s virtuoso circle François Villon, Jean de Garencières, Philip the Good, Fredet, George Chastelain, Olivier de la Marche, and others. The fourth chapter discusses the rivalry, both poetic and political, of France and Burgundy, and examines poets such as George Chastelain, Jean Robertet, Jean Molinet, Guillaume Crétin, and Octavien de Saint-Gelais. The final chapter reads less like a conclusion than as a fifth chapter that briefly but suggestively explores the poetic engagement of late-generation rhétoriqueurs such as André de la Vigne, Pierre Gringore, Jean d’Auton, and Jean Lemaire de Belges, while also serving to summarize the book’s chief arguments and to recommend topics of further study.
The Virtuoso Circle’s meticulous scholarship, with its deep and insistent emphasis on the manuscript context of these poems and many helpful tables offering detailed...