SARAH GORDON, Culinary Comedy in Medieval French Literature. (Purdue Studies in Romance Literatures, 37.) West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2007. Paper. Pp. ix, 220.
Humor seems fundamentally to be the result of an encounter with the unexpected. From the tenderest infant to the most decrepit retired Ph.D., humans learn and understand by drawing analogies. By force of habit, consciously and unconsciously, we continually form expectations. The arts, including literature, themselves have value primarily because of their use of analogy—which itself makes use of that expectation—especially in their use of varieties of allegory and symbol. Anticipation of what will be or what will happen is not merely caninely Pavlovian; it is essentially human. Humans grow by nourishing a habit of foreseeing what must happen or be, given a set of circumstances. The methods of "science" are not new. The connection between what is known and what will likely turn out to be true, given certain similarities, is a fundamental human assumption. However, when the unexpected occurs, either we are flummoxed or we laugh: with either response we are reacting to that affront to our assumptions. We first see that "illogicality" to be a bit of nonsense. If the joke is on us, whether we remain entirely baffled or whether we see the "point" as being a satiric means of demonstrating a certain reality in human existence depends on our own individual mass of real experience accumulated between infancy and decrepit old age.
In Culinary Comedy in Medieval French Literature Sarah Gordon presents one very potent means of creating both humor and lessons about human and social realities. It is the incorporation into literature of references to food, its ingredients, preparation, or consumption. Gordon divides her study into six parts: the nature of humor; the extent to which food, cooking, and eating were present in Old French literature; surveys of their specific use in three particular examples of that literature; and a conclusion. The first two parts are given over to general considerations: Gordon looks at both the range of theories propounded in recent times to "explain" humor and comedy and the ubiquity of a concern about food in medieval times, a concern that, consequently, could lend itself to a broad variety of types of humor. The subsequent three chapters incorporate the substance of Gordon's extensive and painstaking analysis of early French literature—even though, understandably perhaps, only three sources seem to have yielded material sufficiently apropos to warrant building a book about the theme of food in literary comedy. The three sources are romance, fabliaux, and the Roman de Renart. Supplementary instances of humor involving food, particularly in Aucassin et Nicolette, the Jeu de Robin et Marion, and miscellaneous incidents in epic literature, are invoked from time to time throughout the book. Such oddments as the Bataille de caresme et de cbarnage (a mockepic dietary spoof of Scholastic debate literature) deserve perhaps a little more examination, but they might well remain incidental.
In Arthurian courtly romance, using Chretien de Troyes's work especially, Gordon collects episodes in which uncourtly behavior with respect to food creates a comic moment. She finds that "culinary comedy works in romance as a contrast chiefly to conventions" (p. 57), observing that "food served . . . as a powerful means for poets to call into question literary and social convention" (p. 60).
The second principal source investigated, the fabliau, is rich in examples for Gordon. The explanation of this wealth is in the variety of interpretations to which both the ubstance (food) and the milieu (of the bourgeois and peasant) lend themselves. Subsections in this chapter provide a synopsis of that wealth: morality, class, thievery, scatology, eroticism, religious satire, and sexuality. "The humor of the fabliau genre is achieved through the juxtaposition of the preparation and consumption of food with criticism of certain aspects of social institutions and human nature" (p. 97).
In the heterogeneous Roman de Renart—generically variable "from mock epic to hivalric romance, from vulgar fabliau to moral exempla"—human character and society are again the butts of the humor. "The guiding rule of food play in renardie, eat or be eaten, echoes the constructions of human political, mercantile, and social rapports" (p. 176). All in all, it becomes clear in reading Culinary Comedy in Medieval French Literature that you don't have comedy if the writer evokes merely what is commonly understood, what is familiar, but only if the writer disposes the reader to envision a clearly different state coincident with what is evoked. Comedy is triggered in the arts when observers are led to bring their own imaginations, experiences, and expectations into play. To fulfill her purpose, in every literary work she uses Gordon has had to study two things simultaneously: the scene or situation and the purpose it served. She has performed both studies well. Furthermore, her own writing is articulate and clear; her literary criticism eschews the habitually obscure jargon of those who aren't sure what they are trying to say. She is sure, and her book makes sense.
TERENCE SCULLY, Wilfrid Laurier University