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The Cambridge History of French Literature
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From Occitan poetry to Francophone writing produced in the Caribbean and North Africa, from intellectual history to current films, and from medieval manuscripts to bandes dessinées, this History covers French literature from its beginnings to the present day. With equal attention to all genres, historical periods and registers, this is the most comprehensive guide to literature written in French ever produced in English, and the first in decades to offer such an array of topics and perspectives. Contributors attend to issues of orality, history, peripheries, visual culture, alterity, sexuality, religion, politics, autobiography and testimony. The result is a collection that, despite the wide variety of topics and perspectives, presents a unified view of the richness of French-speaking cultures. This History gives support to the idea that French writing will continue to prosper in the twenty-first century as it adapts, adds to, and refocuses the rich legacy of its past.


'… a valuable and impressive introduction to the rich heritage of French literature.'

Source: Contemporary Review

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Page 1 of 3

  • 1 - Manuscripts and manuscript culture
    pp 11-19
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    The period extending from the ninth to the early-twelfth century, when the first-evidence of writing in the vernacular appears, there was little-likelihood that copyists in monasteries would be interested in these works. The name Marie de France that one use to identify one of the earliest female authors is for instance itself a modern creation. It is not known exactly how manuscripts were used during this period, and there are numerous-theories to account for the reception of literary-works either through or alongside their manuscript transmission. Successful and widely read works, such as the Roman de la Rose, have survived in more than a hundred. Scholars have recently made use of a term coined in French by Paul Zumthor nearly forty years ago to refer to the instability and dynamism of medievaloral and written production: mouvance.
  • 2 - The troubadours: the Occitan model
    pp 20-27
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    Dante Alighieri most famously celebrated Occitan as the perfect language for verse; and the Catalans, especially Raimon Vidal de Besal`u and Jofre de Foix`a, contributed enormously to the prestige of troubadour traditions by composing theoretical treatises on the art of composition and praise for the culture that supported it. Occitan is commonly taught in the universities of both areas and remains a necessary step in the acquisition of philological expertise. Troubadour song represents the earliest rhyming verse known in a vernacular European-language. Troubadour scheme presents the first evidence of a collective literary identity, secular and regional rather than clerical, which fuses divine devotion with praise of beauty, power, wealth, youth, and erotic love. The vidas and razos present the first contemporary history of a vernacular-literary phenomenon. There is almost no theme that appears in later French medieval literature that did not get a first hearing in Occitan verse or narrative.
  • 3 - The chanson de geste
    pp 28-37
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    The chanson de geste represents the first manifestation of a French literary tradition, with its oldest extant written text from around 1098. Chansons de geste were often grouped in cycles, which brought together a range of tales that either focused on a particular hero and his lineage. The two main themed cycles are the Cycle du roi, which includes the Chanson de Roland and poems featuring Charlemagne; and the Cycle des barons révoltés, the famous of which is Raoul de Cambrai. Simon Gaunt suggests that different genres may simultaneously present different types of imaginary resolution to historical and cultural problems, while Sarah Kay focuses on the dialogic relationship between the chansons de geste and the romance. Ethnic, cultural and religious differences were significant in shaping a sense of cultural identity in early medieval France. In the chanson de geste, this cultural identity appears predominantly masculine in focus.
  • 4 - Saints' lives, violence, and community
    pp 38-46
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    Medieval saints' lives offer comparable representations of violence to those found in so-called secular literature: where violence is represented, it is bound by certain conventions and is ideologically significant. Martyrdom is perhaps the obvious example of how saints' lives represent violence. The relationship between violence and community in accounts of martyrdom is arguably as pronounced as it is in epic. Women's involvement in hagiographic violence might be seen as part of an attempt to include them in a model of Christian community as well as forming part of a violently sexualising aesthetic. This chapter considers how violence serves a narrative purpose in hagiography and, more specifically, how it is related to the communal function of the texts themselves. It examines the Life of St. Agnes to illustrate how martyrdom acts as a focus for community in hagiographic texts, a feature common to the lives of male and female martyrs through the Life of St. Agnes.
  • 5 - Myth and the matière de Bretagne
    pp 47-56
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    Through the elaboration and iteration of formulae expressing core-codes of chivalry and courtly love, the matiere de Bretagne plays a crucial part in the development of romance in poetry and prose, establishing a literary-fashion that spread not only in France, but also inspired adaptations all-over Europe. The myth of Arthur became synonymous with the matiere de Bretagne in two phases. The first spans the post-Roman period to the twelfth century, when isolated fragments of a legendary figure emerge from Latin chronicles, hagiography, and Welsh poetry and prose. Myth now became a flexible literary model, and a simple evocation sufficed for authors to be able to engage audiences in a familiar-world, and explore limitless narrative possibilities. Le Chevalier au lion is a perfect example of what the virtual reality of Arthurian romance became. The advent of the prose romance in vast-cycles and collections further enlarged the matiere de Bretagne by elaborating familiar stories and inventing new ones.
  • 6 - Sexuality, shame, and the genesis of romance
    pp 57-66
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    Shame does describe inappropriate love behaviour but not along ourmodern line of division between 'heteronormative' and 'non-normative' sexualities. In view of the recent debate over the use of categories of homosexuality, heterosexuality and heteronormativity to describe sexual acts or identities in medieval literature and culture, this particular angle of shame sheds another light on the issue. Courtly love discourse emerges and is constructed in opposition to sodomy, with courtly love monologues developing on the heels of accusations of sodomy or the manifestations of male love, what looks like a clear-cut line of separation between heterosexuality and sodomy disappears when looked at through the prism of shame. Then, medieval sodomy, like male-male or male-female love, is not simply a sexual act, but a behaviour inherently linked to the larger politico-social order. Finally, if shame blurs a neat division between courtly love and sodomy, then generic distinctions based on shame between the epic, and romance may also have to be reconsidered.
  • 7 - Medieval lyric: the trouvères
    pp 67-75
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    The ultimate achievement of the Old French lyric, and arguably the cause of its demise, was the polyphonic motet. The complexity of simultaneously competing melodies, each equipped with its own text, was probably more than a trouvère without specialised musical training could master and certainly more than most audiences could readily comprehend. Richard the Lionheart was a patron also of the trouvères. Recent scholarship on the women trouvères has exposed the inadequacies of the conventional division of medieval French lyric into two registers, popular and aristocratic. The grand chant courtois, or chanson d'amour, was the premier genre of the trouvères: premier in terms of both age and nobility. The French courtly love song reached its apogee in the mid-thirteenth century with Thibaut IV, count of Champagne and king of Navarre, as its most prolific and most illustrious practitioner.
  • 8 - The Grail
    pp 76-83
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    Chretien de Troyes's Conte du Graal is the text in which the Grail is first portrayed in an Arthurian context. The Conte is the last Arthurian romance by Chretien, who names Count Philip of Flanders as the patron of this romance. The Conte du Graal's second continuation or Continuation-Perceval is attributed in the text to Wauchier de Denain. The Grail's association with the Last Supper is figured through the establishment, at Christ's instigation, of a Grail table in the Joseph. The Perlesvaus, also known as Le Haut Livre du Graal, is a fascinatingly anomalous prose romance which refocuses many of the principal pre-existing ideas and figures surrounding the Grail in a dark and unique work. In the Perlesvaus, King Arthur witnesses the Grail going through five different manifestations, although only the last, a chalice, can be described.
  • 9 - Women authors of the Middle Ages
    pp 84-92
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    The earliest known woman writing in Old French was Marie de France, who produced her works between approximately 1160 and 1190. Marie is an example of an author whose identity we determine based largely on who she must have been rather than on any historical fact. The two French writers who worked in medieval women mystics tradition are Marguerite d'Oingt and Marguerite Porete. d'Oingt's works are the Pagina meditationum; the Speculum, her major book; and a biography of another woman religious entitled Li Via seiti Biatrix, virgina de Ornaciu. Porete's book, Le Mirouer des simples ames, is the oldest known mystical work written in French, and the only surviving medieval text by a woman writer executed as a heretic. Christine de Pizan was prolific, and composed hundreds of lyric poems in the fixed-form models of the day, primarily the ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai.
  • 10 - Crusades and identity
    pp 93-101
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    From Pope Urban II's call for an armed-pilgrimage to the East in 1095 to the fall of the last crusader outpost at Acre in 1291, the experience of the Crusades brought new identities into being even while disrupting others. This chapter examines the effect of that experience and its afterlife on medieval Western notions of identity, particularly as refracted in the Old French vernacular-tradition running from the Chanson de Roland to Jean de Joinville's Vie de Saint Louis. In modern minds, the term Crusades conjures up an originary moment in the clash of civilisations, a violent world of Christians versus Saracens where identities were poured into religiously based categories of self and other. The Crusades were part of a larger movement of expansionism formative in the making of Europe. Fulcher of Chartres focuses less on the emergence of Western Christian unity than on the transformation of Occidentals into Orientals.
  • 11 - Rhetoric and historiography: Villehardouin's La Conquête de Constantinople
    pp 102-110
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    Taking medieval historiographical theory as a point of departure, this chapter presents a rhetorical and ideological analysis of the earliest original Old French prose history: Geoffroi de Villehardouin's La Conquete de Constantinople. First, it argues that though Villehardouin's history is indeed sparing in its use of figures, it is hardly uninflected, in particular where the use of providential explanation, direct discourse, and prose narration are concerned. Then, the chapter focuses on an axiom derived from cultural materialism, namely that aesthetic forms and modes of domination are inextricably linked. Gabrielle Spiegel argues that anti-royalist ideologies motivate both form and content in early thirteenth-century vernacular histories, especially six Old French translations of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle. For medieval chroniclers, the truth of temporal events derives not from factual reporting but from the instantiation of universal, theological paradigms.
  • 12 - Humour and the obscene
    pp 111-120
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    Humour and obscenity often spring from carnavalesque reassertions of the corporeal in the cultural domains of language and socialised behaviour. As Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose reminds us, some medieval commentators argued that since Jesus never laughed, comedy was obscenely incompatible with Christian belief and thought. In the fabliau La Demoisele qui ne pouvait oïr parler de foutre, the comedy revolves around precisely all that cannot be said. Emphasis on genre and on the narrative character of the fabliau has led to canonical examples being abstracted from the texts accompanying them in manuscript compendia. These squibs often state things more crudely than the fabliaux themselves, luxuriating in filth where the economy of action characteristic of fabliau comedy moves things on more smartly. The obscene and scandalous speech of the body is clearly sometimes far beyond a joke.
  • 13 - Travel and orientalism
    pp 121-130
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    Apart from French and their popularity, Le Divisament dou monde and Le Livre de merveilles du monde share traits of medieval-travel narratives: they are generically hybrid, and inscribe themselves in a quasi-encyclopaedic tradition of descriptions of the world and taxonomies of its peoples. Medieval travel narratives are vehicles for knowledge, and engage an intertextual debate about this knowledge. Since for the most part their object of knowledge is the Orient, it is appropriate to speak of medieval Orientalism, even if the modern relation between knowledge of the Orient and imperialism did not pertain in the Middle-Ages. Modern Orientalism has an important medieval prehistory in Marco Polo and John Mandeville, with a key pre-text for both being the so-called Le Roman d'Alexandre. Le Roman de toute chevalerie narrates the birth of Alexander, his education at the hands of Aristotle, his many battles, his exploration of Asia and Africa, and his premature death from poisoning.
  • 14 - Allegory and interpretation
    pp 131-138
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    If the Middle Ages might rightly be considered the Age of Allegory, it may well be because its authors were fascinated by the relation between abstract-qualities and concrete human beings, a topic that allegory explores more fully than any other trope in medieval literature. In Chevalier de la charrette, as the story opens, Chretien de Troyes represents Queen Guinevere, similarly, as at once the incarnation of love and an actual, historical-woman, whom Lancelot both worships and honours. Throughout Chretien's Chevalier de la charrette, love is identified with the loss of the sense-of-self in the contemplation of the other. As in Chretien's Chevalier de la charrette, in Guillaume's Roman de la rose love is identified with the loss of the self before the other; yet, unlike in Chretien's romance, this loss of the self is due, not to the contemplation of the other, but to the contemplation of the self.
  • 15 - History and fiction: the narrativity and historiography of the matter of Troy
    pp 139-144
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    Medieval French literary traditions are shaped by the historiographical possibilities of the Troy story. Benoit sets up an elaborate framework for the process of translatio studii that argues for the authenticity of his account of the Troy story; he further argues that the veracity of the Troy story is important. Benoit's twelfth-century verse narrative had developed the plot of events related to siege-warfare, such as the twenty-three battles that took place outside the walls of Troy; such a detailed heroic-plot becomes the basis for a prose history of the fall of Troy in the Histoire ancienne jusqua Cesar. The Troy story is more than a vehicle for articulating the Trojan foundations of European history. The conventional quality of the ideology suggested by the rhetorical set piece on the fall of Troy and the Trojan diaspora demonstrates how well the fictions of Trojan origin served the historiographical imperatives of Old-French narratives.
  • 16 - Mysticism
    pp 145-152
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    Medieval mysticism is generally characterised in terms of two set of distinctions: between bridal mysticism and essential mysticism and between affirmative and negative theology. Bridal mysticism is a blatant euphemism for an entire tradition of writing inspired by the Song of Songs. It is, in other words, shorthand for erotic mysticism, generally replete with bedroom imagery and amorous anticipation. Essential mysticism is, in its way, a euphemism as well, since what it wishes to pare down and struggle towards is no less than the blank space at the heart of the human, the blank space where the uncreated God might persist within his creatures. The history of vernacular French mysticism in the Middle Ages is a history of not just one Marguerite but two: Marguerite Porete, the northern heretic, finds her complement and foil in the Carthusian from Lyon, Marguerite d'Oingt, her strict contemporary.
  • 17 - Prose romance
    pp 153-163
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    The history of medieval French prose romance has often been told in stereotypical romance style: the form rose suddenly to great heights in the early thirteenth century only to decline sadly in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This narrative, however, presupposes understandings of genre and aesthetics that derive more from modern definitions of style than from medieval literary practice. The best-known and most widely studied prose romances are the second generation of Arthurian tales, referred to collectively as the Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate Cycle. The Tristan is integrated into the world of the Lancelot-Grail, including a fictive author, Helie de Boron, presented as a relative of Robert de Boron. The last medieval prose romance is often identified as Petit Jehan de Saintré, a narrative steeped in the ethos of crusade that concludes in fabliau fashion. Prose romances attracted some of the most elaborate pictorial cycles that survive from the medieval period.
  • 18 - Rhetoric and theatre
    pp 164-171
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    Rhetoric in the French Middle Ages was performance art, an important site of precisely the sort of theatrical activity that has attracted the attention of so many medievalists attending to the liminal spaces in which ritual oscillates generically with representation, undergoing its own anthropological version of mouvance, and in which thought oscillates with action. The most striking accounts of the progression occur in such staples of the medieval intellectual diet as Saint Augustine, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, and John of Garland. A revitalised focus on the theatricality is highly beneficial to a great variety of orphaned medieval art forms that have defied traditional-generic classification. Theatre has always been a socio-cultural conduit of and to thought and emotion, its verisimilitude not always a faux semblant but a rehearsal for history and social change, a visionary future that rhetoric-foregrounds, enables and changes in the literary imaginary and on the stage of the world.
  • 19 - The rise of metafiction in the late Middle Ages
    pp 172-179
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    Late medieval metafictions often dramatise the literary process from creative inception through composition, fabrication, distribution, and reception. Concerning subjects of critical inquiry, medieval metafictions pursued the most pressing issues facing contemporary literature. Scholars have singled out the Voir dit as a distinctive late medieval genre known for its fascination with the literary event. Jacqueline Cerquiglini defines this elusive genre as a literature au second degre because of the tendency to narrate its own existence. Jean Froissart's Prison amoureuse adopts the hybrid format of the Voir ditby incorporating lyrics, short tales and epistolary exchange to celebrate the collaborative process of poetic creation. As postmodern metafiction attacks the pretensions of realist literature, solate medieval metafiction from Guillaume de Machaut to Alain Chartier challenged established contemporary traditions, from the links between past and present literature to the relationship between authors and their audience.
  • 20 - What does ‘Renaissance’ mean?
    pp 180-187
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    Occupying geographically and culturally an intermediate space between the Italian Renaissance and the northern Renaissance, France was able to benefit from both of them, to produce its own version of the Renaissance. The humanist Renaissance was more about the recovery of Greek than the rebirth of Latin. Latin had remained the intellectual language of Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, a lingua franca that allowed an easy interchange between scholars and churchmen wherever they lived. In many ways, France's Renaissance was unique in Europe. The product of both Italian and northern European, of Catholic and Protestant influences, embracing enthusiastically Hellenism without discarding the Roman tradition, in the first half of the century it benefited from the patronage and enthusiasm of one of Europe's more enlightened monarchs.
  • 21 - Sixteenth-century religious writing
    pp 188-195
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    The importance of religion is evident in all aspects of the literature of sixteenth-century France. The study of Hebrew by scholars such as Francois Vatable entailed an engagement with some aspects of Jewish thought, although this was often regarded with suspicion. An interest in the cabbala, related to the enthusiasm in certain quarters for esoteric traditions, was developed notably by Guillaume Postel, a student of Vatable, and passed on to Guy Le Fèvre de la Boderie among others. In the early decades of the sixteenth-century, medieval literary traditions continued to flourish, with poetic competitions, often organised around liturgical and particularly Marian feasts, continuing to be celebrated regularly in numerous towns. The first half of the sixteenth century was also marked by the influence of Neoplatonism, as developed by thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, whose commentary on the Symposium was published in Latin in 1484 and subsequently in a French translation by Symon Silvius, dedicated to Marguerite de Navarre, in 1546.
  • 22 - Sixteenth-century poetry
    pp 196-203
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    This chapter explores what were poets doing by means of writing and publishing poetry in the sixteenth century. It discusses epic and lyric in turn, as sixteenth-century writers did use these terms, although their fields of application cannot be neatly delineated. Most important to the history of sixteenth-century French epic is the pseudo-historiographical tradition surrounding the mythical Francus. In Les Illustrations de Gaule et singularitez de Troie, Jean Lemaire de Belges tells of a putative son of Hector and Andromache, sometimes identified with the infant Astyanax generally thought murdered by Achilles. Another important epic, Les Tragiques, an account by Agrippa d'Aubigne of the persecution of Protestants, values truth over likelihood, though for different reasons. A lyric poem is often thought of as a text intended for music. The Rhetoriqueurs' poetry is often a sophisticated synthesis of late medieval formal experimentation, philosophical speculation, and playful self-reference.
  • 23 - Sixteenth-century theatre
    pp 204-210
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    The most striking innovation in French dramatic literature in the sixteenth century is the humanist theatre: tragedies and comedies drawing on classical and Italian models, allied to the Pléiade enterprise, and appealing to an educated audience or readership. In the absence of a professional theatre Cleopatre captive was first performed before the king in the house of the cardinal de Reims. Jean de La Taille, who wrote two biblical tragedies and two comedies, prefaced his published work with an essay De lart de la tragedie in which he emphasises the emotional appeal of tragedy and comedy. One difference between Senecan tragedy and its Greek precursors is that the Senecan corpus includes a play about very recent Roman history, whereas Greek tragedy dealt with the remote legendary past. Humanist tragedy can be much more than an exercise in verse composition, and its treatment of historical subjects illustrates this.
  • 24 - Women writers in the sixteenth century
    pp 211-219
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    Throughout the first half of the sixteenth century, stories that commented on contemporary mores known as nouvelles became increasingly popular. Jeanne Flore's Comptes amoureux, ostensibly written by a woman for women, recounts the disasters that befall those who refuse their lovers; it is now considered a collective work, making the author's female name a kind of marketing tool. Marguerite de Navarre herself was depicted in many contemporary accounts as surrounded by literate and cultured women who would pass books between themselves. Pernette du Guillet and Louise Labé transformed the Neoplatonic and Petrarchan tradition of love lyric, and had their work packaged as an address to the circles that had nurtured them: the literary salons of Lyon and the community of Lyon women. Marie de Gournay wrote moral essays herself alongside treatises, polemic, a novella, and poetry. The Le Proumenoir de Monsieurde Montaigne is a violent, fantastical story which already contains the germ of fierce polemic that Gournay made her own.
  • 25 - Sixteenth-century prose narrative
    pp 220-228
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    The vogue for prose narrative in the Renaissance derives from some established and some imported forms of literature that are not dissimilar in nature. Established forms included primarily the prose romance, a late-medieval expansion and rendering into prose of earlier chivalric epic. The prime example among early works is Helisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, which makes use of the roman de chevalerie in its second and third parts, but critical attention is usually concentrated on the tesmoignage that comprises the first part of the work. Rabelais's own experiments with prose narrative stretch over a period of twenty years. The nature of his relationship to the roman de chevalerie is visible in Gargantua and Pantagruel, where the broad division into enfances, epreuves and prouesses in both books mirrors the development and growth of the chivalric hero, recognizable from medieval models.

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