- Medieval French Literary Culture Abroad by Jane Gilbert, Simon Gaunt and William Burgwinkle
By Jane Gilbert, Simon Gaunt, and William Burgwinkle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Medieval French Literary Culture Abroad emerged from a large collaborative research project that initially set out to explore the varieties of medieval French in manuscripts produced outside of France and their transmission along “two main axes: a northern route that stretches from England across the Low Countries to Burgundy and the Rhineland; a southern route across the Alps to Northern Italy and out into the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, to the Middle East” (http://www.medievalfrancophone.ac.uk). So far the project has compiled data for the bulk of the manuscripts of Guiron le courtois, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, the Roman de Troie, and the Tristan en prose, and is working on the Lancelot en prose and the Roman d’Alexandre.
This volume shows where the project might eventually take us, sketching out a new literary history that supplants the most familiar texts (the Chanson de Roland, the lais of Marie de France, and the Tristan of Thomas) with histories and the later prose romances. Shifting focus from Paris to the Low Countries, Italy, and the eastern Mediterranean, it treats manuscripts as participants in complex, shifting, and contested networks. The book follows what has become a familiar trajectory—insisting that Old French “belongs to no one” (26), rejecting nationalist histories of the development of standardized French—but it goes further. Moving away from the recent emphasis on French’s relation to English, the authors challenge the model of westward translatio studii (a master narrative for both medieval and modern France), showing instead that texts emanated from or circled back to eastern cultural centers. The metaphor that structures the database—that of two axes—gives way, in the book, to the metaphor of the network, which the authors explore, in ever subtler ways, from one chapter to the next. Medieval French Literary Culture Abroad is an extraordinarily stimulating and ambitious book—not so much a comprehensive literary history as an exploration of how such a history might be written.
The volume draws on a wealth of theoretical models, most of them mentioned too briefly to permit full critical assessment, but Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory is central. Gilbert, Gaunt, and Burgwinkle approach the manuscript as an actant, “an entity which induces mediation [End Page 343] or translation, therefore not simply an ‘actor’ or ‘agent’” (201–2)—in other words, quoting Latour, as “mediators [that] render the movement of social visible to the reader’” (202). Similarly, the French language, always varying, localized but with global associations and ambitions, is seen as “an actant, a means and a message, a double agent” (242). A fuller discussion of Latour’s terms and the questions they raise would have been helpful, but the overall direction is clear.
The authors focus on manuscripts not as points of origin but as objects in transition that acquire new meanings as they move from one cultural situation to another. They emphasize the multiple paths along which the manuscripts moved; the routes of trade, crusade, and pilgrimage; and the complexities of shifting political situations. Yet, following Latour, they also stress the role of “the aleatory, contingent, and unpredictable” in these movements and the ways in which the movements often “take priority over the immediate concerns or intentions of their makers or owners” (197, 202). The book highlights the diversity of medieval French, which it analyzes with philological precision, as well as the political and cultural work performed by these various kinds of French in specific locations at specific moments. Places matter a great deal in this approach, individual human agents less.
Each of the book’s six chapters offers a number of micro-studies to illustrate these networks. Chapter 1 explores two texts emanating from what might once have been considered the periphery of the medieval francophone world and written in what might once have been considered impure French. The first, Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis, is an adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in what is sometimes almost franglais; the...