Life Imitating Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating Life? – Part III by Uri Smilansky

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating Life? A Peek at Machaut and Le Franc – Part III by Uri Smilansky

In the first two postings of this series, I’ve presented a couple of works by Martin Le Franc, a couple of manuscripts in which they were first copied, and traced their accepted or potential relationships to some of Guillaume de Machaut’s oeuvre. In the second post, I suggested one can choose to see a purposeful remodelling of Machaut’s Remede de Fortune narrative structure in Le Franc’s decision to compose the Complainte du Livre du Champion des Dames and present his Champion des Dames for a second time at the same court. According to this reading, both court and author—along with his two poems and two books—become characters in a meta-fictional performance of courtliness and cultural consumption. This raises many questions, though I will only mention three here. Why would Le Franc choose to act in this manner? Would this remodelling become apparent to his contemporary audiences? How was it enacted?

We cannot tell exactly why Le Franc decided to present his Champion des Dames to the same patron twice, a decade apart. Whatever the actual reasons, I believe this procedure was unusual enough to lead him to take precautionary action before undertaking it. After all, if the work was indeed rejected when new, would a new presentation not imply that the Duke of Burgundy and his court were wrong in their original judgement? If it was accepted back then (either enthusiastically or indifferently), why would the author presume his patron required a new version? True, princely libraries often contained multiple copies of single works, but these were usually the result of inheritance or commission, not of authorial presentation. To my mind, a second presentation would have required careful management on Le Franc’s part. It needed to be done in such a way as to explain the repetition of the act of presentation of the book by Le Franc to Philip the Good, and—assuming he was hoping for a more positive reception at his second attempt—provide both patron and court with an avenue through which they could change their reaction to the work without losing face. This is where Machaut’s model comes into play:  the use of an established literary trope recast to retrospectively explain real-life events would have offered exactly such a narrative paradigm. The Remede model presents a successful reintegration into court. At the point of the Champion’s second presentation, this could not have been guaranteed, as the second book (now Paris, BnF fr. 12476) had not yet been accepted by Philip and his court. Le Franc’s use of the Remede as model, however, creates the expectation of a positive resolution, and provides both court and its patron with a moral justification to change their minds: it was the original presentation that was faulty, not their judgement upon it, or, indeed, the work itself.

This is all very well, but such modelling would only be effective if it was recognized by the books’ recipients. Previously, I suggested that at least in the particular case of the reception of Machaut’s oeuvre in mid fifteenth-century Burgundy, adaptations, citations, references or allusions to materials a century or more old were intended to resonate with contemporary audiences rather than function as unacknowledged tags of an author’s learnedness for the benefit of future specialist readers. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suggest that such techniques, when used in works designed for presentation to a courtly audience, always relied on at least some listeners picking up on their significance (Plumley, 2013). Otherwise, they make little sense. If this was indeed the case, what would stand in the way of this audience familiarity underpinning the performance of similar relationships between old and new within managed courtly rituals such as book presentations? If meta-fictions and pseudo-realities were so eagerly consumed within late-medieval literature, why not act out meta-realities and pseudo-fictions within courtly life?

This leaves the question of technique. How would the relationship to Machaut’s Remede be communicated? One issue is that of specificity. For Le Franc’s fictionalized description of events to work, it would have been enough for the courtly audience to recognize a more general ‘consolation’ trope where adversity is successfully overcome. An association with the Remede—with its specifically courtly setting and near obsessive presentations, descriptions and discussions of performance—would have been ideal for Le Franc’s needs. Nonetheless, vague echoes of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (c. 524) in its Latin original or in any one of its many French translations and reworkings would probably have sufficed for his pretence to have worked (Cropp, 2012). This reduces the pressure to associate the proceedings with Machaut specifically and allow access also to consumers without this degree of prior knowledge.

Either way, the viability of any external allusion relies on the recipients noticing that Martin Le Franc added the new Complainte at the end of the Paris manuscript. To recap, this is the only work in that book beside the Champion, they are linked though scribal hand and illuminator, and there is no sign of separate origins for the two works. This joining seems original, and as the main textual difference between the Paris and Brussels books, it would have been easy to point towards the addition during a presentation ritual. The joint binding of the two works acts as a continuous reminder of the artifice they are engaged with, thus imbuing them with additional interest beyond their actual content. Furthermore, the relationship between the two works is readily apparent just from reading their rubricated titles. Combine this with the physical object of the presentation book that contains them and with a familiarity with the Consolatio / Remede narrative model, and it becomes possible for the books’ owners mentally to reconstruct or remember Le Franc’s meta-narrative without even hearing his poetry. The book’s physical location and intellectual context tells a story that, while authored by Le Franc, is not contained within it. One can go as far as suggest that while his work may well have been better received upon its second presentation, the very artifice used to enable the occasion may have caused a reduced likelihood for textual engagement with its contents. Courtly artifice—represented through the meta-fictional exchange outlined here and the dissonance between literary content and the new illumination programme of the Paris copy—may have won over contents.

In the next instalment, I ask: “So, what?”


Selected further reading:

Yolanda Plumley, The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Glynnis M. Cropp, ‘Boethius in Medieval France: Translations of the De consolatione philosophiae and Literary Influence’, in Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. and Philip Edward Phillips (eds), A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages (Brill, 2012), pp. 319-55.

Transl. by David R. Slavitt (trans.), Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 2010).

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