In my last post, I talked about one of the ways of accessing the Cambridge MML course — reading in the language. In case you missed it, I interviewed Clémentine Beauvais, a French young adult author, on her latest book, Comme des images; it really is an excellent first read for anyone who’s thinking of taking French at university. Today, however, I’ll be dealing with the ‘other end’ of the course: that is, what you can get out of four years of university education.
When I arrived in Cambridge, the structure of the first-year French course had just been changed: instead of choosing between a linguistics paper and a literature paper, everyone now had to do a combined paper that included elements of both. This really worried me, and made me wonder whether I had done the right thing in applying, given as how I was convinced that literature wasn’t ‘my thing’. I’d done English A-Level, but the thought of reading long, dull texts in a foreign language didn’t seem nearly as interesting to me as the idea of understanding how language works.
Over the course of my first term, however, something strange happened. I didn’t lose my interest in linguistics: on the contrary, the linguistics lectures were absolutely fascinating, and topics like sociolinguistics and register still engage me today. Rather, the shock for me was that literature wasn’t unpleasant in the slightest, but was in fact a really interesting subject. First-year students in Cambridge study five texts and a film, ranging from the Middle Ages to the 1960s, which gives you an excellent grounding in some cornerstones of literature and also helps you to make an informed choice about which periods to specialise in in your second- and fourth-year papers. During my first year, several of the texts stood out for me, but in particular it was the medieval text that captured my imagination: Le Conte de Floire et Blanchefleur, a rip-roaring yarn about two lovers cruelly separated and their quest to be reunited. In the light of this, I took the second-year paper in literature before 1300, and was soon hooked: a Year Abroad Project, Optional Dissertation, and finals paper later, I’ll be ready to start a Master’s in October.
When I tell people that I’ve gone down this route, the most common reaction I get is surprise. The best-known works of French literature were almost all written after this period — Molière, Camus, Zola — so to many people, including myself four years ago, medieval literature represents a barren wasteland of peasants scrounging for scraps on a dungheap, while the odd knight gallops past to provide a little excitement. This often translates into a belief that medieval literature is ‘inferior’ in some way to more modern texts: surely any text written in an era of ignorance, when people believed that the world was flat, cannot be nearly as useful or of as high a ‘quality’ as Proust or Racine?
Except that once you start to engage with these texts, it becomes apparent that medieval literature is just as rich as anything that came after it. Indeed, the texts themselves call into question many of our preconceived notions about the Middle Ages. A good demonstration of this is that persistent idea that medieval people saw the world as flat, an idea that was in fact a fabrication brought about by Victorian moral superiority. Not only did medieval scholars know the world to be round — diagrams of a round Earth appear in many textbooks and manuals of the period — but literary texts suggest that this knowledge had been held for centuries. An Anglo-Norman romance of Alexander the Great, the Roman de toute chevalerie (‘Complete Romance of Chivalry’) by Thomas de Kent, puts this best in its opening lines: ‘Anciennement ly sage mesurerent le monde, / Cum le firmament torne e cum la terre est ronde.’ (‘In days past wise men measured the world, / How the firmament turns and how the earth is round.’) Incidentally, reading Old French like the text above shows just how little the French language has changed in nine centuries compared to English: when read with a modern French accent, a native speaker would likely be able to understand it.
The richness in knowledge is matched by a richness in style and genre. In the medieval period, the concept of the novel — roman in modern French, a word not unconnected to ‘romance’ — was far less entrenched than it is today, meaning that compositions took on a huge variety of forms. Some of the earliest texts in French, such as the epic Chanson de Roland, are presented in verse form rather than prose, which only develops over the course of the next several centuries. Among these verse texts we find Arthurian romances by Chrétien de Troyes, introducing the character of Lancelot and popularising the Holy Grail; lais, short tales that often draw on Breton magical tradition and feature werewolves whose humanity finds more than a small echo in Twilight today; and the fabliaux, a group of extremely bawdy tales that would almost certainly lead our web editor, censoring me if I said anything more about them.
When prose comes along from the early thirteenth century onwards, the list of genres expands even further. One of the best-known uses of prose in this period was in what is known today as the Vulgate Cycle, an expansive series of texts that build on Chrétien de Troyes’ works to tell a complete story of King Arthur and his court. Prose is also used to tell the story of Mélusine, a fairy who is cursed to transform into a serpentine form every Saturday and is perhaps best-known today for being the lady on Starbucks cups.
But medieval French’s refusal to limit itself doesn’t stop there: not content with straddling the limits of genre, medieval French even straddles borders. It’s no coincidence that the term lingua franca today designates a language used between two people who do not share the same native language. It’s worth mentioning that in the medieval period, French was the native language of only a small portion of what we today call France, but as the centuries passed it became a language of prestige and culture. In Britain, French arrived with the Norman conquest and remained influential for hundreds of years: Chaucer wrote a significant part of his works in French, centuries of kings spoke French before they ever learnt English, and even today the Queen gives ‘royal assent’ to Acts of Parliament in Anglo-Norman (from 13 mins onwards).
So where to start with medieval French? If you’re interested in reading some for yourself, you’ve essentially got two choices: primary or secondary sources. ‘Primary sources’ refers to anything written during the period in question, such as any of the genres mentioned earlier, while ‘secondary sources’ include criticism written later. Of these two, primary sources give by far the best indication of how medieval French ‘feels’. These days there are several series, such as the Lettres gothiques imprint, that publish medieval texts with a facing modern French translation; this is a real boon if you’ve never read medieval French before. A good place to start might be the Châtelaine de Vergy, a short courtly love narrative: in just under 1,000 lines, we are taken on a love story which, like much of courtly love literature, doesn’t have a happy ending. The Chanson de Roland, which deals with a legendary battle between the nephew of Charlemagne and invading ‘Saracens’, is both better-known and significantly longer, and brings up themes of ‘Frenchness’ and national identity that still resonate today.
Of course, a single text can’t possibly capture the sheer variety that is on offer in medieval French. There are, nevertheless, plenty of excellent secondary works that seek to provide a more general overview. In the last forty years, there’s been a trend away from a categorical approach and towards a more integrated view of the period. It’s fascinating to read overviews from forty years ago, which are thoroughly methodical in their approach but often don’t really give the impression of engaging with problems surrounding the texts that they study: John Fox’s 1974 Literary History of France: The Middle Ages provides an excellent and thorough overview of the period, but also feels quite dry in its detail. At the other end of the extreme, Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet’s New History of Medieval French Literature (translated from the French) is awash with considerations of really interesting questions: what is the role of an ‘author’ in this period? How were texts transmitted? However, it does lack a certain structure, which means it’s probably best read after you’ve got some experience with the field.
A good balance between these two extremes can be found in Simon Gaunt’s Retelling the Tale: An Introduction to Medieval French Literature. Gaunt manages to avoid listing dates and subject matter while also holding onto a recognisable structure: his introduction in particular is one of the best places to start when it comes to exploring the context. He asks three questions: what is ‘medieval’? What is ‘French’? What is ‘literature’? So far, so similar to the New History … but Gaunt goes on to produce a carefully-structured book that looks at different genres through the lens of one or two texts. Retelling the Tale is definitely the place to start for budding French medievalists.
As you can see, then, medieval French is an immensely diverse field. If you’re considering applying to study French at university, I’d definitely take the time to explore it and see if it intrigues you. Either way, though, the popularity of medieval literature today certainly does show that there’s more to French culture than just Ronsard, Racine and Rousseau.