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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Tradition should penetrate the libraries of all those laden with divers cares about antifraternal thought and culture. ROBERT E. LERNER Northwestern University EUGENE VANCE. Mervelous Signals: Poetics andSign Theory in the Middle Ages. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Pp. xvii, 365. $35.00. This variegated volume brings together several of the essays Eugene Vance has published over the last decade on a wide range of medieval texts along with some new writing and proposes answers to the question, "What historical assumptions about signs, language, and discourse governed the productionof-or weretransgressedby-themedievalpoetic text?" (p. ix). Vance has been prominent in recent years among those arguing for the applicability of semiotic approaches to medieval texts and he argues here that "the major thread of coherence in medieval culture was its sustained reflection, within the three branches of the trivium . .. upon language as a semiotic system-more broadly, upon the nature, the functions and the limitations of the verbal sign as a mediator of human understanding" (p. x).Because the ten essays move from Augustine to Spenser and voice ten different complex arguments, such a brief review risks degenerating into mere paraphrase. I have accordingly though reluctantly omitted any treat­ ment of three essays, on Aucassin et Nicolette, the French drama, and The Faerie Queene, to each of which the interested reader is enthusiastically directed. The first two chapters treat of Augustine, chapter 1 the Confessions, and chapter 2 Augustine's writings on signs and language more generally, focusing on his dissatisfaction with the inability of temporal human lan­ guage to signify God's nontemporal truths, as a consequence of which he "implanted in the Western consciousness an aesthetics of transcendence that haunted medieval poets of every major genre" (p. 49). Vance quite reasonably recurs to this notion often in the essays which follow, but his reasons for reading some ofthe texts which follow and not others in terms of Augustine's aesthetics of transcendence are not entirely clear to me and seem to arise less from historical or textual evidence than from habits of 266 REVIEWS twentieth-century scholarship. That "following St. Paul, St. Augustine inaugurated what we may call the semiological consciousness ofthe Chris­ tian West" (p. 34) is beyond dispute. It is less certain that Augustinian domination of the fertile and dynamic intellectual enterprise that Vance shows medieval sign theory to be followed the trajectory implied here. Chapter 3, on the Chanson de Roland, argues persuasively that the privileging of memory in medieval culture "determines" the Chanson de Roland but that in the second half of the poem, following the death of Roland, the "commemorative paradigm" and its ethical system are dis­ rupted.Charlemagne's portion of the poem dramatizes a loss ofsignifica­ tion in the world and is "less a tragedy in language than a tragedy of language itself" (p. 79), a tragedy of the discovery of discontinuities of signification, documenting in its language the shift from oral to written transmission of truth and the past. Chapter 4, on the Chatelain de Couey, continues the process begun by Robert Guiette, Roger Dragonetti, Paul Zumthor, and others to free the grand chant courtois from neo-Romantic models ofmedieval lyric produc­ tion.The courtly lyric has served, indeed, as the beachhead for the struc­ turalist and poststructuralist invasion of medieval studies, and this essay seems both a consolidation of ground gained and a proposal of certain adjustments of the enterprise: "There was a time when ...structural de­ scriptions might have sufficed.Since that time, however, we have become moreconcernedto find out why, or under what ideological and psychologi­ cal conditions, structures ...have been produced in the first place" (p.107).The exploration which follows ofthe parallelsbetween the latent narrative program ofthe chanson and Freud's theories ofsexual jokes is very suggestive and interestingly leads the study ofthe chanson back toward the discussions of psychological and ideological lyric structures posited as long ago as 1951 by Leo Spitzer, but with the essential difference that Spitzer treated the individual lyric as an isolable "text" rather than as structure within the larger text of the song tradition. In chapter 5, on Chretien's Yvain...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 266-270
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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