The Old Talks Series: “The 13th-century Occitan ‘Flamenca’: a mere curiosity or a larger literary conundrum?”

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FHIS departmental research seminar
UBC Vancouver, 2009


This paper explores one of Flamenca‘s many oddities: narrative peculiarities that set up questions on relations between art and life, and on the nature and purpose of literature, in the form of a sophisticated literary joke.


Flamenca is an 8095-line-long Old Occitan work in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, probably dating from the later 13th century. It apparently disappeared from the European literary scene until the early 19th century; Flamenca‘s several oddities have consistently piqued Romance philologists’ interest for the last two centuries, and have recently started to attract the attention of wider audiences.

This paper takes Flamenca‘s narratological problems as its main focus: multiple focalizations and commentating voices, the peculiar importance of dialogue, and collisions and collusions between multiple realities.

A first intention is to see how Flamenca sets up questions on the relationship between art and life, and on the very nature and purpose of literature itself. The paper also aims to show how- amongst many other things – this romance works not only as a literary summa and critical meta-romance, but also as a sophisticated literary joke.


  1. A plain old-fashioned jolly good read.
  2. A puzzle.


Jean-Charles Huchet, Flamenca: Roman occitan du XIIIe siècle (Paris: U.G.E., 1988): 20-22. Trans. O’Brien.

What remains of the story opens with the examination of the offer for Flamenca’s hand, presented by an emissary on behalf of Archimbaut, lord of Bourbon. The request is granted by Flamenca and her parents. The nuptials are celebrated with magnificence at Nemours. The festivities last eight days, then Archimbaut returns to Bourbon to oversee his young wife’s welcome. Flamenca’s arrival in the town is the occasion for sumptuous feasts, at which the king of France demonstrates excessive courtesy. This awakens Archimbaut’s jealousy: and, when at a joust, he sees the king bearing a sleeve suspected of belonging to Flamenca. The new husband sinks into a morbid jealousy that leads him to neglect himself, renounce the worldly values of courtesy, and, finally, to cloister Flamenca in a tower, the better to keep watch on her and shelter her from the attentions of imaginary gallants.

The romance then lends itself to a near-clinical study of jealousy and an evocation of the recluse’s woes. Rumour of the latter reaches the ear of a young knight – Guillem de Nevers – endowed with every quality, but sheltered until then from the trials of love. Guillem decides to love Flamenca and becomes Love’s devotee. He goes incognito to Bourbon, arriving the Saturday after Easter, finds the best inn, and chooses a room from which he can perceive the tower concealing the sole object of his preoccupations henceforth.

The next day, in church, he has the chance to glimpse Flamenca’s face; although the jealous husband keeps her in a nook sheltered from all gazes and desires. Guillem works out that it is possible to slip the beauty a word, under cover of the psalter, the moment when it is given to be kissed. He takes the place of the clerk Nicolas – sent to Paris to continue his studies – and has his hosts empty the inn of other guests so that he can have an underground tunnel dug secretly, linking his room to the baths where Flamenca is sometimes allowed to go. Over the course of several weeks from May to August, uttering one word every service, Guillem reveals his love to Flamenca, who agrees to reply to him and ends up sharing the same feelings. Feigning serious illness, the recluse obtains Archimbaut’s permission to take the waters whenever she wishes, and regularly visits Guillem’s room via the underground tunnel. This clandestine love lasts until the end of November. Flamenca then pronounces a kind of oath [of fidelity]that allows the jealous husband to recover his courtesy and announce that a tournament will be held the next Easter. Flamenca persuades Guillem to return to his lands and then come back for the tournament.

Thanks to Archimbaut, who is frequenting tournaments again, news of Guillem’s exploits reaches Flamenca, as well as salutz [love-letter(s)] composed by this former clerk who has become a knight and troubadour again.

The week after Easter, jousters gather in Bourbon, where Guillem, too, arrives. Invited by Archimbaut to choose some jewels in a room, the lovers are able to resume their pleasures again at their leisure.

Guillem wins the Prize for the tournament’s first day, as well as Flamenca’s sleeve, with which he covers the inside of his shield. The story ends on the second day.


(From O’Brien 2006)

Flamenca is a manuscript unicum, its witness being Bibliothèque municipale de Carcassonne manuscript 34, from around the late 13th to early 14th century.1 The text itself could have been composed at any time(s) beforehand, although it is generally supposed to date from the final quarter of the 13th century, and therefore close to this manuscript’s making.

The manuscript contains 140 good-quality vellum folios, of which the first is badly torn, such that only the top left-hand corner and a few partial lines remain. Each folio measures 21.5 by 14.2 cm. The manuscript is probably in fifteen quires, each of around eight folios, within a leather binding dating from around 1890.2 The text is single-column, with around 29 lines per side. There are substantial lacunae – of an unknown number of folios – at the beginning and end, and four others through the text: one of three folios, between ff. 122 and 123, and three of one to two folios, after ff. 1, 31, and, 115.3 Fifteen lines are missing, two lines are repeated, and there are eight instances of two lines being written as a single one at the bottom of a folio-side. Otherwise, the text is in good condition, written in a very fair, Italianate hand, with next to no standard scribal abbreviations. There are no illuminations, but quite plentiful decorated capitals (221 monochrome blue or red, 25 gilded) and rich abstract marginal ornamentation, in a French style, possibly early 14th century.

The text is in Occitan. It is in the form of 8095 lines of (mostly) octosyllabic rhyming couplets: the standard, basic formal definition of the Old French romance (romans), and of the Occitan verse narrative (novas) and epistolary poem (salutz). It would be usual for such a text of this period to name its author and title at its start and / or end, often in a prologue or in a parallel paratextual conclusion. The title would often provide some indication of its author’s intention as to generic identity. Due to the absence of the opening and closing folios of the Carcassonne manuscript, which would quite probably have supplied this information, the text in its present form lacks all indication as to author, title, and genre.


FHIS Joint Graduate Seminar
23 September 2009

The 13th-c. Occitan Romance of Flamenca:
A Mere Curiosity or a Larger Literary Conundrum?”

Juliet O’Brien, FHIS, UBC


This talk is a continuation from the pre-circulated paper [which might have been this though it might also have been this]: at its core is that line in Flamenca to which I keep returning, 1197: fenera d’amor cortes. In that paper, as in my dissertation work that preceded it, I was looking at the amor and cortes parts. Indeed, the dissertation itself is built around Flamenca’s play with cor –cors – and cort.

In my current work in progress, I’m continuing with cortes and cortesia, seeing how they may be better understood not as the more usual “courtliness” of “courtly literature” but as “courtesy”; and investigating how cortes is used, and how that usage changes, over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, in – roughly speaking – French literary culture. This may be useful for looking at the 13th c. as one in which literature, like other features of life, opens up. It would be going too far to claim a democratization, but labeling a lot of the literature as being attached to courts doesn’t altogether work.

In my current work specifically on Flamenca, I’m looking at features in the work that indicate its being, in the modern sense of the word, a fiction. I’d previously worked on its being a work about writing, and the cycle of writing and reading and discussion that constitutes literary activity: so, reading Flamenca as a work that’s about literature. It’s also, as you’ll have seen in the pre-circulated paper, a literary summa and meta-romance. My work follows in the tradition of the last 200 years’ worth of work on Flamenca, in examining two recurrent topics: firstly, the problematic nature of this text, particularly its date of composition; and secondly, intertextual allusion and refashioning. It’s hard not to.

Richness of allusion aside, a marvellous and attractive feature of Flamenca is its openness. A single manuscript – with an unknown past history of composition and compositors behind it. Complete anonymity. A mixture of elements formal, French and Occitan, 12th and 13th century. A mixture of full fusion or hybridisation, and of juxtaposed parts with visible seams. A lack of coherent narrative voice. Huge problems of authorial intention and intended audience. This openness permits a variety of approaches to making sense of the text. Now, while these various approaches are illuminating, those that fail to be entirely satisfactory do so because they posit a single line of interpretation. My basic criterion here for a more successful reading is one whose argument holds up well against the evidence of the text itself.

So: approaches that take into account multiple lines of interpretation work better (such as deconstruction and reader-reception), as do approaches that are themselves not mutually exclusive but are compatible with other approaches. Moving away from Flamenca, where do we find the greatest need for such approaches?

In jokes.

The reading I propose – and that’s all I’m doing, proposing a reading that I hope works – is that Flamenca is a joke.

[Caveats: I am not going to talk about Freud. Nor about Bergson. My main resource about jokes and how they work is from performance by stand-up comedians, and through their theoretical writings on the subject. There is a good Medieval reason for this; for another day, on the subject of Raimon Vidal de Besalú.]


What do I mean by a joke

Here is an example of a joke:

– My dog’s got no nose.

– How does he smell?

– Terrible.

Here is another example:

– When is a door not a door?

– But Klaus, a door is always a door.

And an explanation.

In the first case, we have a pivotal double meaning, in SMELL. One: The action of using the nose to detect odours. Two: being, well, odorous. The question sets up meaning one, and the response takes meaning two.
So: my base form of joke – and, yes, all too often this sort of thing is regarded as base – my base form is a pun. Word-play. Paranomasia.

In the second case, here is what is happening.

The more common form of the joke starts with the same introductory line:

– When is a door not a door?

– When it’s ajar.

As previously, the joke hinges on a pivotal ambiguity: “a” is the indefinite article and the prefix.

It also plays around with “is” – “is ajar”, the attribute or property, versus “is not a door because it is a jar”, a matter of identity.

That first line sets up an audience expectation of the more usual punch line.

But now we add in an element of cultural context: that the English believe the Germans have no sense of humour.

So we have Germans being their stereotypical humourless selves, and not getting the joke – or the fact that it’s supposed to be a joke. They’re also missing the joke-trigger of that set phrase, and of its formulation in a question.

In a further twist, though, the Germans have the last laugh. That humourlessness is also reason and good sense. As opposed to English silliness. With the gentle, chiding “But, Klaus…”

Add in one last bit of context: this is an advertisement for a German car, featuring bespectacled men in white coats. A cutting comment on comparative automobile industries, British and German.

Particularly with that second joke, there are levels of “getting it”. It’s still a joke if you just laugh at my poor imitation of a German accent, or if you’re laughing at the Germans. But in order to get the whole joke, you need to take into account everything that’s in it. Multiple senses, cultural context, intertextual allusion, polysemic disjunction, audience expectation.

There is, by the way, a “laughing at the Germans” version of the dog with no nose, which – like the car-door joke – brings in a positive stereotype, again associating Germans with rationality and science:

– My dog has no pancreas.

– How does he digest fatty acids?

– Terribly.

Puns and their literary importance

  1. Adnominatio in 12th c. literature (and Guillem indulges in it too). Play with invented etymologies.
  2. Work on Medieval humour: Howard Bloch remains classic; for a general history of humour, see Homo ludens (???). Much of the extant work has been on the visual and situational comedy of the fabliaux.
    A fair amount has also been on parody, such as in the Bel Inconnu as a comic Perceval (well, Perceval does pretty well for himself already, to be fair). Aucassin et Nicolette and Fleur et Blanchefleur, similarly. This is one strand of the late 12th to early 13th c. French experimental play with the romance form.
  3. I’d actually come to the topic from a late Medieval angle, in the use of puns in highly complex Grand Rhétoriqueur poetry. Some of the best work on puns is around this period: François Cornilliat’s Or ne mens, François Rigolot’s work on Lemaire de Belges’s Amant vert. And, indeed, Rigolot’s work on Rabelais, and Bakhtin and others on Rabelais too.
  4. Bringing together the early Renaissance French and earlier Medieval Occitan literature: I noticed (way back when, in the first year of graduate school) that Paul Zumthor had worked on both late-15th-c. and 12th c. poetry and poetics. I also observed that a wave of poetics treatises preceded and followed this late-15th c. period of highly formal poetry. And that something similar happens in late 12th to early 13th c. Occitan: formal experimentation and play, the ric vs leu debates, and poetics: Raimon Vidal de Besalú. At the end of the 13th c., we have another wave of Occitan and Catalan poetics treatises (many written in Italy) – and the formal experiments of encyclopedias (the Breviari d’amors) and the canzonniere compilation-collections. I’m not the only one to spot parallels between trobador and Grand Rhérotiqueur poetry and poetics: see Jacques Roubaud.
  5. More general work on humour: play with audience expectation and dramatic tension, the laughter of discomfort as a taboo is broken or the material is too close to the bone, the laughter of relief, the laughter of cruelty or of satisfaction (and relief) that someone else is hurt rather that you. From Aristotle to Beckett criticism and Nehamas on Frasier (before Niels and Daphne get together).


Puns in Flamenca, and puns “writ large”

I’m pulling together three key elements here: the joke, the fake, and the fictional. Like other jokes, Flamenca is a joke at several levels and in several directions: including, here, from single words up to the work as a whole.

Puns and derivative ingenuity:

Puns proper are fairly frequent, and often combined with derivative devices – for instance, in word-play based on shifting grammatical form, derived form, and false etymology. The most famous is probably the coining (and sole extant instance of) the word trobairitz – lady poet. Flamenca herself also produces a very Isoldian replique to her husband at one point, punning on gardar/guardar to the effect that she has been as guarded in her doings as Archimbaut has been successful in keeping her captive (and watching her).

The subversion that lies behind such derivative word-play also runs through the narrative’s events: disguise, plotting, pretending to do one thing but doing another, saying one thing but meaning another, public in-jokes in lovers’ dialogue. Guilhem is disguised several times through the course of the book, and the key plot device is a digging of the Tunnel of Love.

Fakery and disguise:

What’s also happening in Flamenca to my eye is play with trobar and false trobar.

We have false love and imaginary love: the dream-taking of Flamenca that’s actually Amors having her way with Guilhem. Our protagonists are in love with Love, and love imaginary constructs: Guilhem falls in love with an idea of Flamenca by habit, repute, and poetry in circulation; Flamenca falls in love with Guilhem by the suggestion he might be hot – but in this stage of falling in love, neither can see the other, as effectively they’re both veiled.

In a second stage, once meeting privately and in normal clothes: Flamenca falls for Guilhem’s fine appearance (peeling the onion, he’s swanky and seductive all the way down). Blinding and being blinded: unveiled – at her wedding to Archimbaut (the jealous husband), and in the tournaments at the end of the book – Flamenca’s so radiant, particularly her hair, that she dazzles people.

There’s also elements of false and joke trobar: the lovers’ dialogue is built out of words that are heavily loaded with poetic allusion as heavily used in the trobador lyric corpus. It also riffs on two pearls of that corpus, dialogic-mode poems by Peire Rogier and Guiraut de Borneil, with the “hail as – mor mi” business. Both these poems are psychomachia (something else that will be picked up elsewhere in Flamenca, in each lover’s inner musings, complaints, and prayers).

But the words themselves are also banal, and a banalisation. And when the lovers are together, their conversation is far from witty.

So one must bear four things in mind at the same time: the rich, high, dense allusiveness – the everyday, common parlance – clever reuse – and impoverishment, through overuse and abuse.

These topics of trobar and its falsification have implications on the work as a whole. Flamenca has been read as a post-Albigensian Crusade political allegory featuring nostalgia tropes – ex. David Rollo. It can also be read as a close-up slow-motion study of language decline. In a further twist, the plot is left dangling in an apparently resolved love-triangle, in public, its participants acting according to normal social convention, and with a sense that this is normal life – or life has returned to normal, now that the jealous husband has returned to normality. His jealousy and the associated lovers’ idyll was a hiccough:

[find a good example… Alis and Margarida make sarcastic but saccharine and sycophantic comments on Flamenca finding a good word]

The fictional:

Whenever Flamenca invites the reader to embark on a particular interpretative trajectory, it sets up a counter-trajectory at the same time.

On the larger scale:

What sort of work is this?

Novas – romans – collection/compendium – lyric writ large – dialogue writ large and expanded (tenso) – Ovidian ars amatoria treatise refashioned. It’s also an anti-romance: if one expects a romance to start with some kind of combat – whether real battle or jousting – followed by a quest, and ending with a marriage. I’m thinking of Eneas, Troie, and Alexandre as early models, and above all Chrétien de Troyes. Though admittedly his earliest known romance, Erec et Enide, is an anti-romance too …

Here, instead, we have a mismarriage (but with husband who wants to be a lover), then a quest that – like other quests – incorporates a search for knowledge. Except that it’s not in the outside world, but interior and delving ever deeper inside, underground and between the lovers. The quest’s in the form of a co-authored poem: We don’t really see this again – grosso modo – until Machaut and Froissart. The affair ends, and then we have its resumption. And this romance ends with jousting.

When is it from?

On the one hand: the source materials are almost all 12th to early 13th c. The forms, and most of the kinds of experimentation, are already in existence by about 1230 (including Guillaume de Lorris’s portion of the Roman de la Rose, if we accept the hypothesis that author and part of the book wasn’t a Jean de Meun invention but was distinct and prior).

On the other hand, there are features that are associated with late 13th century writings. Principal amongst them is language: though (as shown nicely by Gschwind and others) this includes lexis and structures only witnessed in later 13th c. writings and not before then, there is also terminology that doesn’t fit, including antiquated and possibly falsely-antiquated terms (such as blisaut).

There is a heavy caveat: much has been lost. We don’t have that good an idea of the relationship of what’s left to what there was, nor of how important and representative what we have actually is. We don’t know what we’re missing, so we don’t know if earlier works might have possessed features that we’ve only seen in later ones.

Second caveat: Flamenca, like other works of the broader period, is far from simple or “barbarous.” Within the Troubadour corpus, we have a substantial collection of tensos, dialogue-poems ranging from the insertion of at least one other voice in a piece of first-person lyric, through to a sequence of poems written in response to one another. These other voices are sometimes attached to known historically real persons, sometimes not. Some are inventions. Some are men masquerading as women, many are ambiguous (see further: the range of poets identified as such for these poems, and the wide variation in the numbers of accepted feminine poets). Some are parodies and pastiches. Given a background culture of high-quality fakery, we have to tread very carefully with Flamenca: and also to celebrate the creativity of this fakery.

Indeed, the late 13th century writings brought into play by Flamenca are characterised by literary faking. We have the vida-razo-commentated collection, reworked and expanded – model of a late 13th c. ms of Arnaut de Mareuil’s poetry, reorganised and narrativised, to form a romance – reordering of Guilhem de Peitieus’s lyric to follow a certain biographical-historical path (in some manuscripts).

You’ll have seen some of this business in the pre-circulated paper; what’s important to note here is a notion of play with convention and audience expectation, one part of a more generalised playfulness. A radical answer to the question of date would be to say that this is a work of the late 13th century, that deliberately evades dates and plays with audience expectations on that count too: for example through the use of real-historical persons from different who cannot coexist in real time, persons who are placed in the jousting section of the book, more probably aimed at gentlemen readers, of a more historical bent. What an annoyance, after putting up with all that soppy loving business for most of the book. I’d also argue that the choice of literary references is important in making the work undateable: the books chosen are classics, that is, the new classics of troubadour lyric and novas, and French romance.

Who is it by?

Nobody. One person. More than one person. Written all of a piece. Written in several phases. Incorporating and working in earlier material.

Teasers in the text – point of view and narrative voice:

– Shifting point of view: court – Archimbaut – Guillem – Guillem and Flamenca – Flamenca – back to the Court.
Possibility of reading this as a “choose your own adventure” narrative, following one single protagonist; or of a reading that is sympathetic to one character, who is naturally closer to the reader. Or one can attach oneself to an alien character, if one is a perverse reader – or interested in other points of view, and in educating oneself as to How the Other Half Thinks. But one is only going to see the full picture – that blindness theme again, and some optics – and one can only understand the whole story, by following
all the points of view.

– More than one commentating voice. Differentiation and characteristics:

1. Third-person recounter of events.

2. First-person address of audience as vos. A first one (towards the end of the narrative) tells people what’s going on, the main verb is dirai.

3. A second one thinks and invites/incites the audience to think. Towards the start of the narrative. This division is one factor that suggests the end of the narrative is at least written to look like a continuation by a different hand.

4. Another one produces stock Ovidiana. The style is indistinguishable from same stock Ovidiana in the mouth of one of our young lovers. This voice appears throughout the narrative, with greater or lesser degrees of clunkiness. The least clunky, in my view, being when one does a double-take, as to whether this is a commentator or a character speaking: there being no punctuation in the manuscript. This constitutes a further multiplication of paths.

5. Yet another (may be identical with the Ovidian voice), in the last part of the narrative, interjects some moralising comments and performs some light name-dropping (Horace).

One nice comparison here is with tricky, teasing, manipulative, misleading and redirecting voices in some late 12th to early 13th c. French texts: (Le Bel Inconnu etc.) recalling – if you’ll permit the anachronism –nice later use of similar devices in different forms of address to the reader in Tristram Shandy, plus of course Jacques le fataliste et son maître.

– Bernardet is a popular one: look for someone who’s named, and a clerc, and – better still – makes some snarky comment about patrons and payment. Then as now, a sure sign of the professional writer.

– Other clercs: Guillem himself has had the training, or the part-training anyway, and the appropriate veneer of Parisian scholarly and urban culture.
Nicholas is younger, and sent off to Paris to repeat the cycle.

– Witnesses: Archimbaut (and that’s who my money is on), the impotent voyeur, who sees all that’s going on with the ladies through his spyhole. They know he’s there from the start; do they forget? Are we seriously supposed to think so?

Back to my point of departure, and point of perpetual return: fenera d’amor cortes. We’re given the clue right near the start, after all, that fener will be important:

A n’Archimbaut no-us deves fener; meller cavaliers nom puet cener espaza tan quan dura-l monz. De totz mals aips es sos cors monz. (29-31: court agrees to Flamenca’s father’s choice of husband for her: “You shouldn’t hide your feelings from lord Archimbaut: no knight can gird his sword better in all the world (ever), and his heart is pure of all evil.”)

– Other literate persons: Guillem’s hosts, the innkeeper and his wife (Peire and Bellapila). Flamenca’s ladies, Alis and Margarida. Guillem’s gentlemen, Clari and Otis.

– Possible patrons, woven in in a Chrétien de Troyes / Marie de Champagne way. King and Queen who set up the action, and watch its aftermath. A second sort of “sentimental education”: how young people become integrated into the phoniness, play-acting, staged spectacle, and life under observation – that is courtly life.

– My money’s on at least a pretence that the work involves a feminine hand, be that directly involved or guiding and informing. The middle portion is, after all, a dialogue. And there’s the – note: feminine in Occitan – presence of Love.

That’s what I’d like to go into, in the last stage of this talk: Lady Love.


Flamenca’s overabundance of forking paths is already amusing and entertaining. I’m not just saying that “the poem is funny” or “crazy” or “breaking conventions”. I think it’s deliberately structured to be funny. Built as a joke.

Now, besides that line about fake lovers, the other thing that’s been worrying me is connections between Flamenca and the Roman de la Rose. There are obvious shared points: a work that is open to alternative approaches and readings, the more single-track of which don’t work. Both works feature the use of multiple points of view.

In both, the God or Goddess of Love is present, and sets rules whilst being outside rules (in Flamenca, Love non a senior ni par, 3716: “has no lord or peer”). In both, Love governs the whole work and guides its direction – including through ambiguities set up to confuse the voice of Love with narrative voice (or voices). Flamenca expresses a slightly different connection between Love and Fortune: most of Love’s appearances are associated with the future, destiny, hypothesis, and hypothetical syntactic constructions. Not only is Love not real – and associated with dreams, fantasy, and imagined ravishings – Love is associated with potential and promise. Accept her, and dreams will be made real, and she will help you to realise them. This potential aspect is expressed in her guidance of Guillem: telling him the future, giving him stratagems – and indeed giving the plot away to readers in advance.

I haven’t got room for it in this talk today – I’m just giving you some sample examples here – but the fully-fleshed article version of this paper has a substantial section comparing and commenting on Love’s role in both the Roman de la Rose and Flamenca.

The two works also express a similar sort of humour – and, indeed, a sense of what’s funny that’s in common with other 13th century writings. Laughter at folly, pomposity, and pretension. Topics of greed, excess, overindulgence, and corruptions moral, physical, and financial. Jokes about the clergy. A moral laughter of hope for a come-uppance, and respect for cunning. A fascination with the vagaries of Fortune (on which, see Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Fortune’s Faces).

This kind of joking-about involves comment and criticism: an awareness of the disjunction between how things are and how they ought to be. The Roman de la Rose’s antifraternalism and misogyny can be read as two sorts of misanthropy, for example, and have – to some extent – counterbalances elsewhere in the text (in paradoxically good examples of couples, for instance, such as Faus Samblant and Astinance Contrainte).

Indeed, I think one of the best and most useful studies of Medieval humour is the Querelle de la Rose. This literary debate, between 1401 and ’05, pits Christine de Pisan and Jean Gerson against the Col brothers and Jean de Montreuil. Low blows to women amateur readers aside, the quarrel is about the Roman de la Rose: whether it’s a good or a bad book, what makes a book good or bad, and what makes a reading good or bad. The issues of good – and sensitive and sophisticated – reading is linked to whether or not the reader “gets it.”

Falseness: Faus Samblant and Guillem

The doubleness at the heart of the Roman de la Rose is a middle section centred on Faus Samblant: the son of Hypcrisy and Fraud, he is at once “appearance” and “falseness”, the Antichrist’s right-hand man in leading mankind astray and sorting the true from the false, and the liar paradox personified. There is much talk, by and around Faus Samblant, about multiple layers and their unpeeling: see Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski on the outer shell and marrow topic, ecorce et moelle. If there is anything that makes the work “tick”, or a key to unlock it, this is it: it’s at the structural centre (Susan Stakel), which is usually a bit of a clue. At the very heart of this middle sectionis a metaleptic mise en abyme: a combination of the Bible – “l’escripture” (l. 11347); “saint pol” (l. 11387); “saint machi / – c’est a savoir l’evangelistre – (ll. 11606-7); “li testamenz ancien”(l. 11611); “saint jehan baptiste” (l. 11707); “li .iiij. evangelistre” (l. 11826). – and Guillaume de Saint Amour and his De Periculis (line 11492), l’Evangile pardurable (line 11806), that is, Gerard of Borgo San Donnino’s Liber introductorius ad evangilium aeternum. Paralleling the God of Love’s Ten Commandments at the heart of the Guillaume de Lorris portion.

Flamenca plays this slightly differently. Here, the middle section is in the form of a dialogue, with split focalization: a doubleness at the core, but accompanied by an absence of narrative direction: Amors has disappeared from the scene by this stage, Like in the Rose, we have a bookish metalepsis: in the Rose this is deadly serious – about the end of the world, and about a real event and real person – Guillaume and his expulsion from Paris – that, apparently, Jean de Meun cared about deeply and sincerely. It’s soooo tempting to see a send-up in Flamenca, where the book is instead the popular, fashionable, lighter-weight and highly imaginative Fleur et Blanchefleur, and it’s here pretending to be the Psalter, in a drag re-enactment of what happened between Flamenca and Guillem at Mass earlier that day.

The Rose’s liar paradox, or paradoxical liar, has shifted. Guillem, like Faus Samblant, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and adopts a clerical disguise. What makes the affair between Guillem and Flamenca happen is not just Love’s magic wand, but the very real hard graft or, well, graft: falseness, deceit, duplicity, corruption, and buying people off. This is the engien not so subtil at the core – again, tripping up audience expectations, after all the talk of ingeniosity by the ladies. Again, it is sorely tempting to see some connection between this Guillem – who’s left Paris – and the other one, Guillem de Saint-Amour, who I should add also happens to converge in a slippery fashion with Faus Samblant at a certain moment, as a martyr to the truth.

If Faus Samblant is crucially double – appearances and truth, deceiver but seeker and defender of truth – Guillem is not. He is, as Sarah-Grace Heller points out well (new book just out), all appearances. There’s a lot on his clothes in Flamenca: sumptuous descriptions, some standing around in underwear (interestingly, a rare instance of “vest and underpants” in pre-15th c. Romance, non in French till then), their removal and how much his clothes impress Flamenca. Peel him like an onion, as Heller says, and he’s seductive appearances all the way down.

So where’s the paradox? He’s all appearances, but he THINKS that he’s true. In an interesting echo of Aquinas, he thinks this because of faith and reason.

Firstly, he has taken the step into belief. In reward, he’s been disguised by Amors, as part of her “having” him.

Secondly, in the step of reasoning underpinning his love, he has lied to and convinced himself. And we see him arguing and deluding himself, in that close-up and slow-motion that this romance does so finely:

[Guillem speeches…]


So where’s this going next? The work on Amors/Amours aside, the next stage in this work in progress is doing as comprehensive a study of fener and its lexical field as I did of trobar in my doctoral work (for which I refer you to the first chapter of the dissertation and its very very very long footnotes), and indeed like the work I did on amor in that pre-circulated paper.

My earlier readings of Flamenca focussed on trobar, and Flamenca as a work that plays around with trobar – not only being a literary compendium, and a hybridising refashioning, but a work about discussion, and commenting on trobar as finding, composing poetry, building a love-affair, and how these are connected creative enterprises – and with, that discussion element again, continuations and consequences in real life. I’m now seeing trobar as counterbalanced with fener, and fener being as important. We’ve got a fake lover, and a fake love. Love itself is fake: Guillem and Flamenca are in love with Love, or with the idea of being in love, that classic lyric trope. But they’re not in love with each other. There’s a lot of pretending going on, and play-acting under people’s noses. The whole thing may be a set-up – be that by the king and queen, or by Archimbaut. So: this is reading Flamenca as a work about jokes, about the connections between jokes, fakery, and literature; and about being a joke. The working hypothesis is that we can see some precursor to post-Medieval ideas of “fiction” in intentional, deliberate, conscious writing as a joke and a fake.

1The manuscript’s date remains an open question, in the absence of further supporting material evidence. The only other manuscript presence of Flamenca is the appearance of ll. 2713-20 in the 14th century Catalan Vega-Aguiló codex. [There is no subsequent reception history, except for] one reference to it […] in a 14th century Catalan letter.

2The exact quire structure cannot be ascertained because the book’s current binding covers about an inch of margin. For the same reason, the exact number of folios missing remains uncertain, as does the physical evidence for the circumstances of their removal.

3The lacunae have given rise to interesting hypotheses. Rita Lejeune suggests that those pages would have been highly tempting for removal had they contained lavish illumination: “Le Manuscrit de Flamenca et ses lacunes,” in Littérature et société occitane au Moyen Âge (Liège: Marche Romane, 1979): 338. They may have been cut or torn out to remove contentious material, whether textual or visual, and whether by censors or in self-censorship and self-protection: René Nelli, Le Roman de Flamenca: Un Art d’aimer occitan du XIIIe s. (Toulouse: Institut d’études occitanes, 1966). Roger Dragonetti reads the lacunae as an integral and intentional part of the text, a deliberate device in its construction, in Le Gai savoir dans la rhétorique courtoise. Flamenca et Joufroi de Poitiers (Paris: Le Seuil, 1982)


More on this blog on Flamenca:

For more on dogs and their noses, see:

a dog with two noses called Snuffles

One comment

  1. A few quick comments, some four years or so after the thing above was first written…

    1. On magic, illusion, deception, self-deception, the suspension of (dis)belief, and fiction: see David Rollo. Who did, for instance, a very good paper on this at the last UBC Medieval Workshop.

    2. Fakery, play-acting, and performance as a prisoner withint the Society of Spectacle: see of course Debord; but also, on performance and performativity, Sankovitch, Vitz, and assorted scholars mostly of Renaissance English theatre (EKS for starters on gender and performativity)

    3. Note to self: tidy up that elderly paper on “Love as Arch-Player” that’s kicking around, a spin-off from he dissertation’s last chapter…

    4. Note to self: tidy up notes, notes to self, and other meta-memo-scribblings on the compositional layers in “Flamenca,” which span at least a century (late 12th to late 13th). Also remembering that it’s a literary joke, so it might also be a fake layer-cake.
    4b. Bonus thesis topic for fun, for any student out there looking for an amusing hypothesis: “Who wrote ‘Flamenca?’ Dante, of course.”
    4c. Second bonus thesis: “A lost work by Marie de France / of Barking: remains found in ‘Flamenca’.”

    5. On a more serious note: following on from Sankovitch’s view (supported by yours truly elsewhere) of characters as puppets in this dark and disturbing romance + combined with art/life relations (art imitates life, life imitates art, this goes round in circles, bounces back and forth, add in self-reflexivity, things get complicated and messy and, if you’re lucky, neurotic, paranoid, and possibly “mad”):
    puppets and automata;
    early science fiction (yes, invented in France; no, not by Jules Verne, though he’s a very important part of this long and noble tradition) and its influences and infusions from Byzantine, Persian, and Chinese literature featuring automata;
    automata and their attempts to attain consciousness and escape the evil clutches of their makers (trobadors);
    -> some parts and parallels / associates / allied ideas of subjectivity and literary subjectivity: feminism, humanism (including minorities and the marginal / marginalised, e.g. from Godwin and Mill through Aron and Popper to Nussbaum), and especially (where I think this paper was starting to think, along the lines of much of what I’ve been reading in the last four years) cyborg theory and post-humanism.

    More on all of that anon. “Anon” might be next week, next year, or in another four years’ time.

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