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


Life Imitating Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating Life? A Peek at Machaut and Le Franc – Part IV

Last part, I promise!

So, there you have it. We’ve encountered Guillaume de Machaut’s literary influence on Martin Le Franc, and suggested the earlier poet’s name still resonated at the Burgundian court in the middle of the fifteenth century. We’ve mirrored art and life, juxtaposing Machaut’s Boethian Remede with Le Franc’s framing of two literary works and two books within the intellectual politics of the court of Burgundy. We’ve seen how this mirroring might have been achieved, and what Le Franc could have gained from it. Now, the question is how any of this can affects the way we view courtly culture.

I ended the previous instalment suggesting that the story told by the manuscript Paris, BnF fr. 12476 is subtly yet materially different from its actual, textual and visual content. Regardless of what one thinks of this specific case, allowing such readings forces a deeper interaction of material culture and situational context into literary, artistic and musical analysis. Texts accrue meanings beyond their words, not only through their presentation, ordering and juxtaposition within each manuscript source (Huot, 1987), but also with each interaction of users with the book as object. Clearly, not all interactions are as carefully managed as that orchestrated by Le Franc for the presentation of this manuscript. Nevertheless, crafted intentionality can be read into any book-presentation or gift-giving ritual, and even into book-loaning at court. This, of course, relates also to the literary use of books, especially when this involved an intentionally communal consumption, with discussions appending readings (Kelly, 2017).

The notion of communal interpretation of cross-literary-courtly behaviour that underpins these blogs links to many other established directions of research. The social performance component clearly relates to discussions of the orality of literature (Coleman, 1996; McGrady, 2006). It ties in with institutional research into the operation and use of princely libraries (Wijsman, 2013). I have already highlighted its relevance to interpretations of the use of allusion within courtly life (Plumley 2013), and the whole affair underlines performance—of literature, or of courtly, social ritual—as an integral component of creating meaning. This is taken for granted within the realm of linguistics, taking it to be a building block of communication. Musicological, art-historical and literary analyses, however, often shy away from incorporating performance within their models of meaning, no doubt due to our distance from both original performers and audiences, and the meagre evidence we have concerning their techniques and aesthetics.

Finally, I’d like to throw some questions out there, which go clearly beyond the current context and medium. These relate to more general notions of time, contemporaneity, memory and relevance. How was the border between contemporaneity and the past navigated? Were works by Machaut thought of as current a century after their composition, or did they act as relics of an authoritative past? Did Machaut have special status in this regard? How did his oeuvre compare to the scores of other writings circulating and being reproduced long after the demise of their authors, for example, the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose? Could audiences easily date the works they were consuming? Did dating matter beyond the notion, that something was ‘old’? To what degree do such considerations rely on the objects in which works are contained? Is an old work in a new book new or old? In what other ways did owners and courtiers engaged with new books? Were old books cherished for their literary contents, or as tokens of dynastic inheritance? Were they used, or simply preserved? Assuming at least a few of Machaut’s works did remain in some publics’ imagination for a century or so, how did this manifest itself? Were they remembered in detail? Were they viewed as idealized tropes? Or viewed not at all, with only his name acting as a nebulous tag of authority?

With so many questions still outstanding at the end of the analysis, at least intellectually, none of us will be out of work any time soon. I hope this has encouraged some of you to carry on thinking along these lines. If that happens, these multiple entries will have been well worth the effort.

Image: French gift book detail

Selected further reading:

Sylvia Huot, From Song to Book: The Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry (Cornell University Press, 1987).

Douglas Kelly, ‘Judgment at Court: Open Thought and Prudent Dissimulation in the Anonymous Livre du Tresor amoureux’, in R. Barton Palmer and Burt Kimmelman (eds), Machaut’s Legacy: The Judgment Poetry Tradition in the Later Middle Ages and Beyond (University Press of Florida, 2017), pp. 9-27.

Joyce Coleman, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Deborah McGrady, Controlling Readers: Guillaume de Machaut and his Late Medieval Audience (University of Toronto Press, 2006).

Hanno Wijsman, ‘Book Collections and their Use: The Example of the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy’, Queeste, Journal of Medieval Literature in the Low Countries 20 (2013), pp. 83-98.

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