ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Medieval Attitudes Toward Vernacular Literature

NOTE: Selections from Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia ("Of Literature in the Vernacular") and the Prologues and Epilogues by Marie de France are available on ereserve in Polylearn.  PRINT THEM OUT, place them in your course binder, and be sure to bring them with you to class, along with Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian Romances (or photocopies of pp. 37 and 123, where the first several paragraphs contain the Prologues to Erec and Enide and Cligés)


1) Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia

[Print out the text, on e-reserve in Polylearn, and be sure to bring it with you to class]

In the early 14th century, Dante (1265-1321) wrote the Divine Comedy, a Christian epic in which he visits Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso), the first two under the guidance of the great classical epic poet, Virgil. By choosing Virgil as his guide within the fiction of the epic journey, Dante implicitly demonstrates his participation in the process of translatio studii. Writing in vernacular Italian, but following the example of his "guide," Virgil, he will produce an Italian epic as great as Virgil's Latin Aeneid. But although the Divine Comedy is universally recognized today as a masterpiece of world literature, Dante himself felt compelled to defend the legitimacy of literature written in the mother tongue (as opposed to Latin, the recognized language of literary culture) in his treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia ("Of Literature in the Vernacular," 1304-1306). Paradoxically, Dante wrote this treatise defending the literary legitimacy of the vernacular in Latin, not Italian, because he wanted it to be taken seriously! 

Print out the selection from De Vulgari Eloquentia (on e-reserve).  Read them over quickly to get a sense of the care with which Dante constructs his argument (apparently, he felt that his contemporaries needed a lot of convincing!) Note in particular his distinction (p. 47) between the "mother tongue" (the one we learn "by imitating our nurses," i.e. the language which we imbibe with our mother's milk) and Latin, the "secondary language which the Romans called grammar" (grammatica). Note also, in the discussion of the various Romance languages (so called because they derive from the Latin spoken by the ancient Romans -- e.g. Italian, French, Provençal, Spanish etc.), Dante's comments p. 57 concerning the specific sort of vernacular literature which he associates with the langue d'oïl (French) and the langue d'oc (Provençal, the language of the troubadour poets). Interestingly, Dante asserts that langue d'oc is particularly suited for poetry (he cites the troubadour Peire d'Alvernhe as an example; recall that the first known troubadour poet, William IX, was Eleanor of Aquitaine's grandfather). Langue d'oïl (French) is associated with "works of history and knowledge" such as bible stories, "histories of Troy and Rome," and "the fables of King Arthur" -- all types of works which were written, in French, for Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Anglo-Norman court and later for her daughter, countess Marie of Champagne.
 
 

2) Prologues and Epilogues in 12th-Century French Works

[Print out the Prologues and Epilogues by Marie de France (on e-reserve in Polylearn) and be sure to bring them with you to class, along with Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian Romances (or photocopies of pp. 37 and 123).]
Like Dante's treatise, the comments made by 12th-century poets in the prologues and epilogues to their vernacular works reveal a great deal about their attitudes toward the literature they are creating. The poets who adapted Latin or other works into romanz, the French vernacular, clearly saw themselves as participating in the process of translatio studii. These poets were less concerned with the end product of their literary efforts than with the process whereby they participated in the on-going transmission of the "lamp of literature" from one generation to another. "Originality" is not at issue (nor is "plagiarism" or "intellectual property" -- notions which did not exist during the Middle Ages). A literary work would typically include elements drawn from a large number of Latin (and sometimes vernacular sources -- see the prologue to Marie de France's Lais, pp. 28-9). These elements were freely combined, modified, and reworked by the poet. Note that while medieval translatio often involves translation from one language into another, it is not concerned with producing what we would consider a faithful translation of the original. Instead, the medieval poet deliberately modifies, adapts, adds to and reworks his sources. His or her poem is valued not for its "originality" but for the skill with which the poet has combined disparate elements into a pleasing and artful whole.

The prologue to Chrétien de Troyes's Erec and Enide demonstrates that "originality" was not the goal of medieval poets. Chrétien freely admits his story is not "original": "This is the tale of Erec, son of Lac, which those who try to live by storytelling customarily mangle and corrupt before kings and counts" (Arthurian Romances, 37). Yet Chrétien is clearly proud of his literary achievement, boasting that his poem will be remembered "as long as Christendom lasts." What he is proud of is his participation in the process of translatio, his skill in transforming the disjointed pieces of a "tale of adventure" into a "beautifully ordered composition."

Medieval texts were valued not as end products but as links in an on-going chain of clerkly activity, parts of a process of textual transmission and regeneration linking the poet and poem to a collective literary past: the classical auctores taught in the Cathedral schools. Recall that the first "romances" were adaptations of Latin works into the French vernacular, or romanz, and that this word was applied to any vernacular French narrative regardless of subject matter (see "Courtly Love"). Two examples are the Anglo-Norman Romance of Eneas (ca. 1160), written for the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband King Henry II; and the Fables of Marie de France (active ca. 1160s-1190s ), who likewise worked in Anglo-Norman England (Henry II, is thought to be the King referred to in the prologue to her Lais, p. 29). But even as poets such as Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France began turning to non-Latin sources for inspiration, a sense of continuity with Latin tradition remained. Although Marie de France asserts that she deliberately decided against translating from the Latin when she began writing her Lais ("I began to think about composing some good stories and translating from Latin to Romance; but that was not to bring me fame: too many others have done it," Lais, 28-9), she still emphasizes the essential clerkliness of her writing project. She refers to the "ancients," to the philosopher Priscian, and to other unnamed philosophers in her Prologue (lines 9-17), implicitly inviting her readers to approach her vernacular work as seriously as they would a Latin text, "glossing the letter" (interpreting its meaning) as they would do with a "real" work of (Latin) literature. A similar reverence for clerkliness and pride in her participation in the process of translatio is found in the prologue and epilogue to her Fables (see handout). Marie presents her work as part of a dynamic literary tradition governed by the principle of translatio studii, the transfer of literary legitimacy from the Ancients (Greece and Rome) to the Moderns (12th-century England and France).

The notion of translatio studii et imperii is explicitly formulated in the prologue to Cligés, the second extant romance of Chrétien de Troyes (active ca. 1170-1190): "Through the books we have, we learn of the deeds of ancient peoples and of bygone days. Our books have taught us that chivalry and learning first flourished in Greece; then to Rome came chivalry and the sum of knowledge, which now has come to France" (Arthurian Romances, 123). Translatio imperii, the connection between "modern" (i.e. Arthurian) and classical chivalry, is illustrated by Chrétien's subject, the story of the Greco-Arthurian knight Cligés, "a youth who, in Greece, was of King Arthur's line." Translatio studii, the transmission of literary culture or learning, is represented by Chrétien's poem itself. While your translation refers to "learning" and the "sum of knowledge," the Old French word clergie used by Chrétien has specific literary connotations. (It might better be translated as "clerkliness," the literary skills taught to clerics by the medieval church.) Chrétien's pride in his literary accomplishments is clearly stated at the beginning of this prologue, where he lists his prior literary works, which include adapations from the Latin works of Ovid, a story about King Mark and Isolde the Blonde (characters in the stories about Tristan and Isolde, the "best sellers" of the twelfth century), and the romance Erec and Enide.

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