Notes: on medieval poetic community and marvellous / uncanny strangeness

Oez merveilluse aventure
Cum genz sunt d’estrange nature

(Thomas, “Le Mariage de Tristan” ll. 234-35)

People are strange. This is marvellous, and part of what makes people marvellous.

This post is the start of some rough notes on some work in progress that’s part of The Consent Project, one of its offshots on another C-Word, “comunal” and especially its adverbial form “comunalmen.” The main part of this work is in and on Occitan poetry. The central network nodes, the points around which the early stages of this thing is being woven, are:
1. Guilhem de Peitieus “Pos vezem de novel florir”
2. Giraut de Borneil & Raimbaut d’Aurenga “Ara.m platz Giraut de Borneil”
3. Ramon Vidal de Besalú “Abrils issi’ e mays intrava”

A fourth point (in Latin but with Occitan connections) is William of Aragon De nobilitate animi. There will be further points and threads interwoven, and embroidery on top, and doubtless the usual knots and raggedy edges. These will include, at later stages (or spin-offs, who knows at this stage): Boethius and early vernacular translations of the Consolation; the chansonniers and other manuscripts involved; and Matfre Ermengaud, Brunetto Latini, and Francesco da Barberino.

My usual methodology, insofar as I have one, is to read and meander; usually several things at the same time, not all of which are of immediate obvious relevance. One of these is Twitter; another is whatever I happen to be teaching at that time, which right now is Maupassant’s “Le Horla” and student compositions. Everything is of course actually relevant, just as are all things that are legible are readable; using a broad sense of “legible” and “readable” to include all manner of perceptibility and perception. Other animals’ making sense of the world by using their sense of smell, for example.

Having started out with the word “community,” the main route as a philologist has been tracing its usage and reading poems in which it and a whole related group of words appear. That’s resulted in the aforementioned three central poems. (Their centrality may change, depending on the rest of my reading.) I’d shifted to “comunal” and “comunalmen,” for reasons which have to do with the Consent work. I’m curious to see how these c-words are brought into poetic interaction with volition, reason (and rationality, reasoning, rationalization, and razo), and learning (as knowledge and as education; and as a motile process not a fixed static object). It’s fortuitous but a lucky accident that we’re working on “Le Horla” at the same time: thinking about the rational and the irrational; the natural and unnatural and supernatural; the canny and knowable and uncanny; debatable distinctions between the marvellous, the mysterious, the other-worldly; and forms of horror requiring greater or lesser belief, suspensions of disbelief, and leaps into the unknown. All of which also connects back to grammatical work earlier in the course: hypothetical sentences and the French subjunctive; and how they move one to see one’s world anew, to seeing the worlds (plural) around us that we inhabit, to verily and fully being in irrealist speculative and imaginative modes.


At the same time, I’ve been rereading something that I first read nearly ten years ago for completely different reasons: Poetry, Knowledge and Community in Late Medieval France, ed. Rebecca Dixon & Finn E. Sinclair, with Adrian Armstrong, Sylvia Huot, & Sarah Kay (Cambridge: Brewer, 2008). This seemed like a fairly natural thing to do when working on “poetic community” in all its senses. The following extracts from Michel Zink’s essay, “Les Razos et l’idée de la poésie,” are what I’ve been thinking about today (in between marking and other things; regular academic multitasking).


That reference on p. 96 also got me to reread something else I’ve read before, indeed umpteen times: “Le Mariage Tristan,” part of Thomas’s Anglo-Norman Tristan romance (1170s). (Depending on approach and attitude, it’s a fragment or a complete shorter work—about the length of a lai or novas—in Sneyd 1; Oxford, Bodleian Library, d 16 f. 4a-10d. MS information and editions at end of post.) What follows is just the text from a standard edition …


… with raw notes (and some earlier notes from when I was working on this 15+ years ago, in conjunction with the 13th-c. Occitan Flamenca romance; as a small part of my PhD dissertation’s ch. 2). It’s mainly here as a Note To Self, but part of it also seemed peculiarly—perhaps uncannily—pertinent, appropriate, and relevant given recent events in and around medieval studies; including the medievalist poetic community that is #medievaltwitter, twittering being an essentially poetic—razo, canso, sirventes, tenso, partimen—form. This here:



(It’s a commentating excursus which starts out very sensibly but, as often happens in this work, then does several other things; sometimes with simultaneous counter-senses; sometimes to make one think and question; sometimes in ironic play. I’ll say no more. Over to you, good reader.) Obviously a case of coincidence rather than any greater causation … and of that fine line between deep truth and platitude. Or is it? I wondered how far this event was uncanny, how far it was marvellous, and how far being of a medievalist frame of mind either fudges the two or makes everything marvellous and relevant. I’d tend towards the latter. People are people, and they are strange; so is our whole world, or rather, all of the worlds that we live in; and that is how it has always been, how it will always be, and how we are. It is not a bad thing. Au contraire. Acknowledging and accepting it, and a shared humanity, can be uplifting—soulevant, élevant, re-levant après une chute—and another expression of commonality, community, and indeed communion. Long live poetic community!

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The manuscript above is Bodleian Library MS French (old Sneyd) d 16, c. 1200; I’ve included the whole “Mariage de Tristan,” beyond the end of the excerpt further up. Just out of feminist prejudice, so as to give a fellow woman the last word. It is a well-known fact that we are harpies and that we do like to harp on.

The edition above is:
Tristan et Iseut: les poèmes français, la saga norroise. Daniel Lacroix & Philippe Walter. Paris: Livre de poche “Lettres gothiques,” 1989 [reprinted 1992, 2004].

Other more recent editions:

Le roman de Tristan par Thomas. Ed. Félix Lecoy. Paris: Champion “Les Classiques français du Moyen Âge,” 1991.

Tristan et Yseut: les premières versions européennes. Ed. Christiane Marchello-Nizia. Paris: Gallimard “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,” 1995.

Le roman de Tristan par Thomas suivi de “La folie Tristan” de Berne et “La folie Tristan” d’Oxford”. Emmanuèle Baumgartner & Ian Short using Lecoy 1991 as base. Paris: Champion “Champion Classiques,” 2003.

Further editions and translations, and Thomas in other manuscripts, and secondary reading: ARLIMA

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