The Values of French

The Values of French Language and Literature in the European Middle Ages. ERC Advanced Grant at King's College London


Robert Bartlett (St Andrews), 'The languages of history in the Middle Ages'

Medieval Europe was a multilingual society where the learned language of Latin overlapped with many local vernaculars. Historians of that time had to choose which language to use, and this lecture first discusses that choice, looking at the relative prestige of different languages and the assumptions that were made about the appropriate audience and occasion for each. It moves on to discuss the writing of history in Latin and the vernacular, pointing out the main patterns and changes over time, the important role of French well outside France itself, the part played by translations and the milieux in which historical writing was located. Through this vast maze, the guiding thread is provided by the questions, who wrote history, for whom, and the history of what?

Mark Chinca (Cambridge), 'Kaiserchronik connections'

The Kaiserchronik is a chronicle of Roman and German emperors, from the time of Julius Caesar to the reign of Conrad III, the first Hohenstaufen emperor, in the twelfth century. It is the first ever verse chronicle in any European vernacular language, and the longest-lived work of early medieval German literature, with multiple versions circulating from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. In this talk I will introduce us to the exceptionally rich manuscript tradition, now completely digitized as Kaiserchronik digital ( I will highlight the variety of contexts in which the chronicle was transmitted, and also the variability of the text: the narrative of imperial history was subject to chronological extension, to bring it up to the present day, but also to the same kinds of textual reworking as we find in courtly romances in the same period.

My main focus, however, will be the twelfth-century context in which the first version of the Kaiserchronik emerged. There is a German as well as an international aspect to this. The German context is the formation, in the century or so before the chronicle’s composition, of a literary discourse of vernacular knowledge: the bursting on to the scene of a series of literary forms and genres—bible epic, Roman history, vernacular theology—which seek to explain the historical world to laypeople in their own language. It is striking that the first version of the Kaiserchronik situates its narrative polemically, in a field defined by historical truth on the one hand and ‘poetic lies’ on the other: an indication that the vernacular knowledge discourse had become contested by ca.1150. The international context is history writing in Northwest Europe. There are affinities between the project of the Kaiserchronik author (or authors—we are not sure) and those of Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain) and Wace (Brut); these connections suggest that German literature was receiving impulses from the Anglo-Norman world even before the rise of courtly romance in Germany toward the end of the twelfth century.

Serena Ferente (King’s College London), 'A story from the Genoese Black Sea: Ogdoas and the Wandering Jew'

Written in Latin by a Piedmontese humanist and school teacher, Alberto Alfieri, the set of dialogues known under the title Ogdoas originated in the city of Caffa, the largest Genoese settlement in Crimea, in the early fifteenth century. The work contains a crucial version of the story of the Wandering Jew, first recorded in Latin Europe in the thirteenth century and popularised in print, in several European languages, from the sixteenth century onwards. This paper analyses Ogdoas' immediate cultural context, with a focus on Caffa's model of ethno-religious coexistence, and the role of diasporas in the transmission of stories.

Simon Gaunt (King’s College London), 'Babel and the language(s) of universal history in the Middle Ages'

Universal histories—purporting to narrate all history from the Creation to now—were popular in the Middle Ages. One of the most widely disseminated universal histories—known as the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César—was written in Flanders in French c.1210, but then circulated widely throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, particularly in Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, as well as in France, often in sumptuous illustrated copies. This paper will focus upon the ideological freight of the Histoire ancienne being written and circulating in French in the light of the text’s own insistence on the value of being written ‘en nos lengue’. The analysis will draw on Jacques Derrida’s work on monolingualism and on the myth of a universal language, paying particular attention to the Histoire ancienne’s account of Babel, to the different visual style of manuscripts from different places (the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Italy and France), and to the narrator’s own repeated designation of the text’s language as ‘ours’. It will be argued that texts like the Histoire ancienne instantiate what might be called a ‘language network’ as opposed to the more familiar notions of a ‘language [or speech] community’ or indeed ‘textual community’.

Karla Mallette (Ann Arbor), 'Furtuna fallenti: Sicilian vernacular history as affective history'

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Sicily were an era of political unrest. While Angevin and Aragonese militias battled for control of the island, poets and prose writers used the local vernacular to memorialize contemporary events or local history of centuries past. Extant works include a poetic ystoria about the translation of the remains of Sant’Agata from Constantinople to Catania. Simuni da Lentini translated Geoffrey Malaterra’s history of the Norman conquest of Muslim Sicily into the Sicilian vernacular, adding a number of interpolations and interpretive passages. And Sicilian poets editorialized historical event: see Quaedam Profetie, lamenting the cascading calamities that beset Sicily during the fourteenth century, and Andria di Anfusu’s poem about the 1408 eruption of Etna. These resolutely local histories raise questions about using the vernacular to write micro-history, and in particular to write history after empire and before the nation. They refuse universalizing gestures, focusing on the local. The poetic works use verse forms associated with local and popular poetry: ottava rima, alessandrini, and terza rima. And all these historical works inject a personal, intensely emotional response to local history. In this talk, I will use Sicilian vernacular history to raise questions about writing the history of definite places (in Horden and Purcell’s phrase): What role did genre and prosodic form play in formalizing local histories? How did these texts intersect with popular narrative traditions in late medieval and early modern Sicily, like those performed by cantastorie? How did the vernacular contribute to the emergence of a micro-genre of affective history in late medieval Sicily? I will close by discussing an adjacent work of affective vernacular micro-history: the Maltese Cantilena of Pietro Caxaro, the oldest extant poem in the Maltese vernacular. This mid-fifteenth century text – like the Sicilian Quaedam Profetie – moralizes current events in a local language, and in so doing turns history into lament.

Rosa M. Rodríguez Porto (University of Southern Denmark / Danish Institute for Advanced Studies), 'Multilingualism and visual literacy: The development of the illustrated history book (1250-1280)'

The parallel generation of new formats and systems of illustration accompanying historiographical texts in territories as far apart as the Holy Land and the Iberian Peninsula around the third quarter of the thirteenth century has never been explored by previous scholarship, due to the academic compartmentalisation across disciplines and linguistic domains. It is my contention, though, that these multilingual—and even multiconfessional—realms may have fostered an unprecedented development of illustrated books addressed to a lay audience. In this regard, the diverse iconographic families of the Histoire ancienne jusqua’à Cesar seem paradigmatic of the inventiveness, impetus and wide geographical span of this process. Yet, as confirmed by the similar cases of England and Flanders, it may not have been the consolidation of the vernaculars as much as the coexistence of different languages that would have enhanced this fluidity across diverse literary and visual traditions, genres and local idioms. Paradoxically, the richness and vitality of Flanders, England, the Holy Land and Iberia contrasts with the relatively slower and more limited pace that can be verified in France, where the role of the secular books remained rather marginal in relation with the extraordinary religious manuscripts manufactured in these decades. In this general framework, Sicily constitutes a sort of precedent, since this process would have taken place even before, at the time of the Norman rule—with the Madrid Skylitzes (Madrid, BNE, Vitr. 26-2) as the most striking product of the period—later to be consolidated during the Staufer domain of Southern Italy.

Jill Ross (Toronto), 'Language, Culture and Power in Guillem de Torroella’s La Faula'

This paper will explore how Catalan-French bilingualism in a late fourteenth-century Majorcan Arthurian text functions as a mechanism of critical reflection on the histories of language, culture and dynastic politics in (and between) the Kingdoms of Aragon and Majorca. La Faula, written by Guillem de Torroella ca. 1374, narrates the marvellous adventures of an eponymous protagonist who, after stepping onto an ostensible 'rock' that turns out to be the back of a whale, is whisked away to a magical island inhabited by Morgan le Fay and King Arthur. While the narrator, Guillem, tells the tale in Catalan, all the Arthurian and other fantastic characters (a talking serpent, for example) speak only in French. Such linguistic difference presents no barrier between the characters since they all effortlessly understand the language of the other, mutual comprehension being another mark of the enchanted isle. While the enchanted island of La Faula is a marvelous place, it is also the scene of Arthur's imprisonment where he suffers from paralyzing dystopian visions.

Yet, Torroella's choice to integrate French into his narrative carries far more weight than a simple gesture or nod to the French origins of the matière de Bretagne, especially when viewed in the context of Occitan-Northern French history and cultural struggle, a struggle that is taken up by the author of La Faula to intervene in the more recent conflict between the Crowns of Aragon and Majorca. Torroella taps into a deeply rooted tendency in both Catalan and Occitan regions to respond to crises using the cultural grammar of literary expression and the nuanced subtleties of linguistic acculturation and confrontation. This paper will examine how and why Guillem channels earlier Occitan and Catalan hostility to Northern French culture to comment on his own contemporary historical moment in which the Catalan king, Pere III, a king whose court is notable for the prominence of French literary culture, invades Majorca in 1344, putting an end to the independent kingdom by absorbing it into the Crown of Aragon. He imprisons the young heir to the Majorcan crown, Jaume IV, who, following an escape from captivity in 1362 raises an army in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom in 1374. Exploiting French language and Arthurian tradition in the text of La Faula enables Guillem to explore and complicate the history, politics and sociocultural relations between the Kingdoms of Majorca and Aragon, relations that while fraught, also open up an ambivalent space where French cultural power may offer new avenues for reconciliation.

Teresa Shawcross (Princeton University), ‘From Liutprand of Cremona to Robert de Clari: Wonder and the Translation of Knowledge Before and After the Crusader Conquest of Constantinople’

Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the largest city of Christendom, was a magnet to people ‘who were called Franks, but were really drawn from almost every nation’. These westerners – sometimes just passing through, at other times seeking to settle more permanently – were accorded a precarious status as visitors. Assigned official minders and confined to specific quarters of the city, they could at any time find themselves rounded up and massacred or banished. A series of writings in both Latin and Romance vernaculars (especially Old French) across a range of genres, culminating with historical writing, recounts purported encounters by westerners with the “wonders” of an alien urban landscape. This paper highlights the rhetorical strategies the texts employ in order to explore and diffuse sentiments of impotence and exclusion. It focuses in particular on the choice made to copy out, transliterate, translate or gloss Greek terms relating to the sights and sounds of the city. Many of the scenes recounted can be shown to have originated not in the authentic first-hand experience of travellers, but instead to have been taken from official guides produced by the imperial regime and deliberately disseminated. Moreover, western authors displayed little independence in their transmission and interpretation of these scenes, generally contenting themselves with word-for-word calques of their sources. Total domination of the resulting descriptions by the discourse of the host culture belied successive claims by individual westerners from the tenth century onwards to possess a linguistic fluency that granted them special insight into the workings of high politics and enabled them to speak to the emperor directly and negotiate favourable treatment as near equals. The set descriptions of Constantinople that were an established part of western literary repertoire by the late twelfth century continued to exert influence into the thirteenth, fundamentally shaping the content and organisation of narratives of the crusader conquest.

David Wallace (University of Pennsylvania), 'Literature Happens: Where and When'

Literary history, most intensively in the nineteenth century, served to find and to codify a nation's voice and define its national epic. Today, much literary and cultural history still operates within nineteenth-century nation state paradigms that literary history did much to define; projects such as The Cambridge History of Italian Literature, or Germany: Memories of a Nation forget that neither Germany or Italy existed as a nation until the later nineteenth century. Bidding to escape such entrapment, Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418, published in 2 volumes and 82 chapters by OUP in 2016, conceives of Europe not as an aggregation of national literary histories, but as indefinite space traversed by diverse faith traditions, patterns of persecution, literary ties, language groupings, pilgrimage routes, dynastic linkages, paths of commerce, and of disease. This new literary history finds form within flux through choices of compositional locus (a city, a court, a monastery, a scriptorium) that should not be mistaken for expressions of a particular modern nation avant la lettre. As an archaeologist must choose where to dig, so a literary historian decides which locales, along a given itinerary, merit investigation. Some disappoint: why does Cologne, for example, given its abundance of pilgrimage motifs, ecclesiastical record keeping, and mercantile activity, fail to generate literature? By literature here I mean writing that rises above the purely mundane or functional. Conversely, how might brilliant, original literature arising at a particular time and place (Troyes in the twelfth century, Arras in the thirteenth) relate to narratives of historical causality (as produced for Troyes, antithetically, by Georges Duby and Theodor Evergates)? Why (when and where) does Ottoman historiography first emerge from romances of Alexander?

Do rivers and coastlines serve as alternatives to nation states, the boxed sets of traditional literary history? Writers as diverse as Stefan Zweig and Claudio Magris have explored the hyphenating power of the Danube, with its German-Magyar-Slavic-Romanic-Jewish-Central European connectivity; the Rhine, by contrast, seems rather ‘a mystical custodian of the purity of the race’. But here again we must distinguish how such rivers coloured the imagining of nineteenth-century Europe from how they ran c. 1348-1418.

Julian Weiss (King’s College London): ‘The French Connection: Cultural Colonization and the Mocedades de Rodrigo

This paper is a case study in the politics of narrating history across languages. Taking as my main example the late Castilian epic Mocedades de Rodrigo (Youthful exploits of Rodrigo [El Cid]), I examine how Castilian historiographical traditions in chronicle, ballad and epic borrow and rewrite Carolingian visions of Espagne which subject Christian Iberia to a process of cultural and historiographical colonization. France plays an important role in the plot and ideology of Mocedades. Having sketched out the broader historiographical rivalries between Castile and its trans-Pyrenean neighbour, I survey the scope of the poem’s references to France and characters of French origin in order to lay bare their structural and ideological function. Drawing on postcolonial approaches, I review the conclusions of earlier scholars concerning the ‘anti-French’ sentiments expressed in earlier chronicles and epics, and suggest that the Mocedades is an Iberian response to what Robert Bartlett called the Frankish diaspora and the ‘Europeanization of Europe’. I argue that the poem reflects the ambiguities and rivalries within an emergent Christian European identity.