Monday 29 May 2006

Sylvia Huot, From Song to Book (Cornell UP, 1987)

Sylvia Huot's 1987 From Song to Book: The Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry is a stimulating study of the way that medieval French literature developed, during the late-thirteenth and fourteenth-century, a more acute sense of authorship, evinced, she argues, in the changing form of the vernacular codex. The author has clearly a wide knowledge of medieval French manuscripts, especially of the Roman de la Rose. Indeed the RR, she argues, is the great presence throughout the period, providing a model for how poetry can be constructed and how multiple authorship is inscribed and theorized. The crucial mid-point is a fault line where Guillaume de Lorris takes up the continuation of the allegory, changing its focus, and incorporating new themes while weaving together that which has already been written. The idea of the continuation is also explored, as a readerly and writerly response. Think, for example, of the Response to Richard de Founival's Li Bestiaires d'amours, especially the gendered voicing: the response is in the voice of a woman, though that does not necessarily mean that the author was female.

The most interesting part of the book is the third part, "Lyricism and the Book in the Fourteenth Century", which deals with the rise of the single-author codex, especially in the work of Machaut and Froissart. The former provides an especially vivid instantiation of the new sense of authorship in the period and the sense of the control and interaction between the writer and the reader. The book traces the development of a "writerly poetics of courtly lyric and lyric narrative" (p. 329), and it is extremely competent, stimulating, and will strike so many chords to anyone who reads Chaucer, for example. A great companion volume to this book, which I am reading too, is Kevin Brownlee's Poetic Identity in Guillaume de Machaut (Wisconsin UP, 1984). Brownlee is a brilliant scholar and this book is a tour-de-force. Important things happen in France in the fourteenth-century and the direction of English poetry in the period is completely alive to it.

Wednesday 24 May 2006

Katherine H. Tachau, "God's Compas and Vana Curiositas", Art Bulletin 80 (1998), 7-33

Somehow it seems unconventional to review an article but some articles are really every bit as stimulating and informative as plenty of books around now, so I've decided to review briefly Katherine H. Tachau's wonderful article entitled "God's Compass and Vana Curiositas: Scientific Study in the Old French Bible Moralisée", Art Bulletin 80 (1998), 7-33.

Her view is that the Bibles moralisées appeared during a time of intense intellectual ferment in Paris at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and that to some (like Peter the Chanter), this appeared as an age of spiritual crisis. Her view is that "as a genre, the Bibles moralisées were created, affected, even motivated, by scholarly clergy who shared the latter Weltanschauung, and that they designed the Bibles moralisées to instruct not other scholars but royalty, especially the French kings" (p. 7). The article proceeds to read several fascinating folia of some thirteenth-century Bibles moralisées and discusses, in particlar, the way that pagan Eastern thought was represented in the form of astrologers, and are constantly seen as challenging and encroaching upon the divine sciences. The mechanism of reading these double images is fascinating, with the unmoralized 'original' representation sitting in a roundel above its moralized version, all sitting beside the text. Learning how to read these images is, in a very real way, learning how to read many medieval texts. She concludes: "Seen in that early thirteenth-century Parisian context, the depiction of the compass-wielding God in the first image of the Old French Bible moralisée would not have conveyed to its educated or royal viewers any approbation of the scientific study of the material world. Rather, the painting voices first of all the biblical exegetes' conviction that only God - not astronomers or philosophers - encompasses the entire created order" (p. 27). There is much else to be said about this learned article, but let your own curiosity dictate some attention to it. You will not regret it.

Tuesday 16 May 2006

Alice Oswald, Woods etc. (Faber, 2005)

There's some great poetry around these days. I am not going to review Seamus Heaney's District and Circle. He has said that he feels like an over-ploughed field, so my own words would do nothing to help that. There are very learned reviews elsewhere doing better jobs than I could. I read District and Circle on Easter Sunday morning as the sun shone full on my face. It is a beautiful collection and was like listening to a childhood relative use words I had long forgotten.

Alice Oswald's third collection of poetry is entitled Woods etc. and is a stunning work. Her second volume, Dart, made her a well-known figure, with a long single poem following a river. These poems are about what she sees around her in her home in Devon, the elemental images of the earth, the moon, water, stones. Such things. Her ancestor is very definitely Ted Hughes, but they are very different. There is something less physically robust about them and at the same time they are more physically sensitive. I hardly know which poem to reproduce here, each time I read it I want to put a different one down here. This poem is the title poem in the collection, 'Woods etc.':

footfall, which is a means so steady
and in small sections wanders through the mind
unnoticed, because it beats constantly,
sweeping together the loose tacks of sound

I remember walking once into increasing
woods, my hearing like a widening wound.
first your voice and then the rustling ceasing.
the last glow of rain dead in the ground

that my feet kept time with the sun's imaginary
changing position, hoping it would rise
suddenly from scattered parts of my body
into the upturned apses of my eyes.

no clearing in that quiet, no change at all.
in my throat the little mercury line
that regulates my speech began to fall
rapidly the endless length of my spine.

Thursday 11 May 2006

Manuele Gragnolati, Experiencing the Afterlife (U. of Notre Dame Press, 2005)

Manuele Gragnolati's book Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture is the seventh volume in 'The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies' published by the University of Notre Dame Press. It is an extremely interesting read and comes highly highly recommended. Based on the author's Ph.D. thesis at Columbia (1999, sup. Barolini), the book looks at concepts of pain and suffering in the thirteenth century and how these were incorporated into the notion of Purgatory by Dante. Exactly how do the damned in Hell, and the souls in Purgatory suffer and how does corporeality (and lack therof) affect this suffering? G. looks at Bonvesin de la Riva's Book of the Three Scriptures and argues that the second Red Scripture provides a conceptual model of experiencing the suffering of the Passion that is analogous to the kind of experiencing of suffering the souls undergo in Purgatory. He also argues that Dante's embryological theories, outlined by Statius in Purg. 25 is a (poetic) sythesis of competing theoretical positions on the formation of the soul, form plurality of forms (Bonaventure, Bacon et al.) to unicity (Albert, Thomas, et al.). He asserts that Dante 'plays with the ambiguity within unicity of form's understanding of the soul, but also that he vacilates between the principles of unicity and plurality, arriving at his own original position on personhood, which allows for the perseverance of identity in the afterlife and at the same time maintains the significance of the body materiality' (p. 87). These are important points and provide important philosophical and theological reasons for why the body's materiality is so interesting in the Comedy. G. argues in addition that, in consonance with much Northern Italian eschological writings, the resurrection of the body was seen as a fundamental part of death, that everything that happens after one dies is merely a process until the soul is reunited with the body on the Day of Judgment. These are powerful considering when reading Dante's experience of the afterlife, for he is experiencing it as no-one else is, both in body and soul.
There is much more to say about this book, such as the re-focussing on those aspects of Dante that are indebted to rich veins of popular medieval culture, largely ignored by the critics who sought to place him in a highly Scholastic and learned tradition. This is a very enjoyable book, it is clear, concise, and argued with assurance.

The book has also got me thinking about Eleonore Stump's lectures here in Schools on Evil and Suffering, on the different kinds of pain, on the evil of suffering (or not), and Thomas Aquinas' definition of love.

Friday 5 May 2006

Studies in the Age of Bargains!

I try not to gloat but sometimes a little piece of luck comes my way and I find a bargain that is just too joyous to be quiet about. The other day I went into the Mind bookshop on Walton Street and found Vols. 1-22 of Studies in the Age of Chaucer, a find that I really never thought would happen. I got it for a super price too. I don't know how many articles I have photocopied over the years from this journal, or which I have promised to go back to read again in the library, and now I can (not) read them on my very own shelf. I am also a member of the New Chaucer Society and so have the newer numbers of SAC, so do not have many to make up the complete set (23-25, if anyone's offering!). Sheer joy.
I also picked up a copy, in Jericho Books, of Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602, ed. by Thomas A. Prendergast and Barbara Kline (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1999), also for a bit of a bargain (£4.50!). There are quite a number of interesting articles in this collection, dealing with the very important issue of what the early scribes did to Chaucer, how that was dealt with by the earliest printers (who sometimes had access to manuscripts that are no longer extant, Caxton for example), and how they interacted. The freedom scribes felt, and the very different concepts of 'authenticity' that circulated in the period, all create hugely complex problems for modern editors and readers of Chaucer's work, problems that are unlikely to be solved any time soon. At least that is until someone finds a holograph copy of the complete works of Chaucer. What's the alternative, then? Read Chaucer from transcriptions of Hg, or El, or in parallel texts like the Chaucer Society publications done by Furnivall? Or on CD-ROM facsimiles with hypertext links to other readings? The Riverside Chaucer in this scenario would become obsolete and students would read from their computers and turn the leaves of digital manuscripts. But editing will still be required, presumably. So what kind? And, if the Variorum Chaucer really is so methodologically flawed as everyone says then will Kane's principles be expanded (exemplified in his Piers Plowman edition) and applied to Chaucer? And who will that be?

Monday 1 May 2006

Happy Birthday Blog

I am one today! Happy Birthday Me. This blog was started on this day exactly twelve months ago. Aww. Thank you to my faithful and loyal readers, and here's to another year of interesting films, plays, books, and poems.


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