Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature

Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature

by Sharon Kinoshita


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In Medieval Boundaries, Sharon Kinoshita examines the role of cross-cultural contact in twelfth- and early thirteenth-century French literature. Starting from the observation that many of the earliest and best-known works of the French literary tradition are set on or beyond the borders of the French-speaking world, she reads the Chanson de Roland, the lais of Marie de France, and a variety of other texts in an expanded geographical frame that includes the Iberian peninsula, the Welsh marches, and the eastern Mediterranean. In Kinoshita's reconceptualization of the geographical and cultural boundaries of the medieval West, such places become significant not only as sites of conflict but also as spaces of intense political, economic, and cultural negotiation.

An important contribution to the emerging field of medieval postcolonialism, Kinoshita's work explores the limitations of reading the literature of the French Middle Ages as an inevitable link in the historical construction of modern discourses of Orientalism, colonialism, race, and Christian-Muslim conflict. Rather, drawing on recent historical and art historical scholarship, Kinoshita uncovers a vernacular culture at odds with official discourses of crusade and conquest. Situating each work in its specific context, she brings to light the lived experiences of the knights and nobles for whom this literature was first composed and—in a series of close readings informed by postcolonial and feminist theory—demonstrates that literary representations of cultural encounters often provided the pretext for questioning the most basic categories of medieval identity.

Awarded honorable mention for the 2007 Modern Language Association Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812239195
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date: 04/10/2006
Series: The Middle Ages Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sharon Kinoshita is Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Medieval Borders began with the curious realization that many of the best-known works of medieval French literature take place on or beyond the borders of "France" or even the French-speaking world: the Chanson de Roland, the Lais of Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes's Cligès, Aucassin et Nicolette, and a host of others. Capitalizing on this insight, Medieval Borders sets out to rethink Old French literary production (circa 1150-1225) through the thematics of cultural interaction. The inaugural phase of vernacular French literature, I will argue, is inextricably linked to historical situations of contact between French-speaking nobles and peoples they perceived as their linguistic, religious, and cultural others.

Like much recent work in the emerging field of "postcolonial medievalism," Medieval Borders is animated by theoretical problematics derived from Edward Said's Orientalism and postcolonial theory: the representation of the other, the dynamics of cross-cultural contact, the question of the crusades as a proto-colonial enterprise. To date, much of the work in postcolonial medievalism has focused on late medieval England in the age of Chaucer and after. The cultural and temporal specificity of this focus has important consequences. In late medieval England, as critics like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Geraldine Heng, Suzanne Conklin Akbari, and others have shown, it is possible to identify elements of the discourses of Orientalism and nationalism in nascent but clearly recognizable forms. Such exercises in postcolonial medievalism thus tend, implicitly or explicitly, to make an argument for continuity, construing the Middle Ages as the site of the origin, or at least the consolidation, of the emergent ideologies of European colonial expansionism.

Medieval Borders seeks to complicate this understanding by delineating the specificity of a representative range of medieval texts along three critical axes: periodization, geography, and vernacularization. We will begin with periodization. In her synthetic study Strong of Body, Brave and Noble, Constance Brittain Bouchard cautions against the dangers of reading history "backward," of assuming that a phenomenon or attitude found in the fourteenth or fifteenth century must also have existed in the twelfth. Medieval Borders explicitly casts the early thirteenth century as a moment of epistemic rupture, in which several key twelfth-century institutions, practices, and mentalities were, in relatively short order, reorganized, challenged, or abolished. The Fourth Crusaders' sack of Constantinople (1204) and the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29) marked a turning inward of the violence Pope Urban II had unleashed in 1095 with his famous cry, "Deus lo volt!" (God wills it!), while Philip Augustus's victory over the Angevin-Flemish coalition at the battle of Bouvines (1214) assured the ascendancy of the French monarchy over the great feudal lords—many of whom had, at the time of Philip's accession (1180), commanded greater wealth and power than the king himself. But it was the Fourth Lateran Council (convened in Rome in November 1215) that most ominously augured some of the changes to come. Most particularly, the attention devoted to identifying and regulating internal others—Jews, heretics, and lepers—gestures toward the increasingly disciplinary taxonomies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, part of an epistemic will toward totalization also manifest in the encyclopedic impulse prevalent in Latin and vernacular culture alike. Whatever the causes of this epistemic shift, medievalists working in a wide range of specializations agree on its effects. For R. R. Davies, the thirteenth century brought a new tone to the Anglo-Norman colonization of Wales: "racial distinctions became sharper and more abrasive," accompanied by "notions...of legal and even moral uniformity" that would have been alien to early twelfth-century Normans—"motivated by greed and power, not by racial or 'national' animus." For Geraldine Heng, the long thirteenth century is one of the policing of internal and external boundaries, of "interiors turned inside out for inspection," of an impulse toward containment, assimilation, and regulation; not coincidentally, it is also the century of the rise of medieval nationalism, built on " a racializing discourse of biological and spiritual difference, posited on religion, color, and physiognomy." David Abulafia likewise identifies the late Middle Ages with "the hardening of the external boundaries" between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in a process linked to the "wider process of state-building," by the fourteenth century, "even the Muslim kingdom of Granada...had become staunchly Islamic in identity" while the Christian kingdoms "increasingly legislated to separate their Jewish and Muslim subjects from the rest of civil society, even if the new laws were often honored in the breach." The "fuzzy and foggy" religious frontiers of earlier times gave way to "mental barricades," sometimes "translated into real, physical walls, dividing the judería or morería from Christian society and from the nation state of which they could not be members."

My second critical axis concerns the geography of medieval French literature. Geography, Franco Moretti has argued, shapes narrative structure: "Placing a literary phenomenon in its specific space—mapping it"—can thus be a powerful tool of analysis, "bringing to light relations that would otherwise remain hidden." Approaching medieval texts in this way requires, however, an initial effort of defamiliarization. In the twelfth century, the national borders we today take for granted were far from inevitable. Henry II and Richard I of England ruled an "Angevin empire" stretching from the Scottish border in the north to Aquitaine in the south, while the count-kings of Aragon were assembling a trans-Pyrenean empire wrapping around the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Marseilles. This means that the nationalist paradigms that have traditionally shaped our understanding of the Middle Ages are frequently ill-suited to the objects they purport to explain.i In our period, to take one example, it is impossible to correlate language with nation: by the late twelfth century, Old French was spoken in England, Norman Sicily, Lusignan Cyprus, and the crusader states of Outremer, but not in the area today known as southern France. One of postcolonial medievalism's most significant contributions has been to analyze the emergence of nationalism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the context of England's Hundred Years War against France and the consolidation of English as a literary and national language. Conversely, one of the goals of Medieval Borders is to delink our readings of twelfth- and early thirteenth-century French texts from the teleology of the modern nation, making visible alternate histories not defined by the borders of the modern Hexagon. As we will see, the interests and imagination of the crusaders, mercenaries, pilgrims, merchants, and settlers who constituted the audience of Old French epic and romance were not limited to the frontiers of twelfth-century—let alone twenty-first-century—France. A fundamental thesis of this book is that medieval French speakers had a much greater degree of involvement in and knowledge of the cultures of the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean than modern readers generally credit.

The third critical axis Medieval Borders seeks to make visible is the distinction between Latinate and vernacular culture. Against a trickle-down theory of medieval culture, in which Old French literature is presumed to mirror the ideologies and concerns of official and learned texts of the day, I believe, with Peter Haidu, that vernacular texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries "constitute a new cultural territorialization, best identified as that of a 'minor literature': one in which a subordinate group—minor at least within the sphere of culture and ideology—constructs its own textuality, as against an official and formally institutionalized culture (that of the Church), a construction in which everything is to be read politically, as implying collective values. In this context, the reading of medieval textuality as representing a closed ideological and semiotic monophony is as gross a travesty of historicism as one can find!" The long twelfth century, between the Council of Clermont (where Pope Urban II preached the "armed pilgrimage" that would become the First Crusade) and Bouvines, was a moment of prise de conscience for the feudal nobility for (and, in some cases, by) whom the earliest surviving examples of Old French and Occitan literature were composed. This was the age of great turf battles between the church and feudal kings and princes, exemplified in flashpoints like the Investiture Controversy, the assassination of Thomas Becket, and (in a case we will examine at length) the Albigensian crusades. In the ways they conducted their wars and contracted their marriages, colorful figures like Guilhem IX of Aquitaine and even staid ones like French king Philip Augustus repeatedly ran afoul of papal policies that sought to bring all areas of secular life under ecclesiastical control. In such circumstances, as Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich write, "The very decision to write in a vernacular tongue grants that tongue a status that bears at least some analogy to that of Latin....It reflects a perception of the social and communicative importance of the tongue and inevitably raises issues of hegemony of one tongue over others."

Nowhere is the intersection of periodicity, geography, and vernacularization more important than in representations of Latin Europe's interactions with its religious and cultural others. Bracketed by the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, the twelfth century is, indisputably, a century of crusade. It is certainly possible to construct a history of Christian-Muslim hostility running in a straight line from the council of Clermont in 1095 to our own present moment. My argument in Medieval Borders, however, is that postcolonial medievalism's disproportionate focus on the English fourteenth century has produced a skewed impression of a proto-modern Middle Ages in which nascent phases of nationalism, colonialism, and Orientalism are always already visible. In part, this has to do with another problem of periodization: the divide between the late Middle Ages and early modernity. In a sense, claims for the medieval roots of early modern racism or colonialism may be seen as the dark side of claims for a twelfth-century "Renaissance" and discovery of the individual: a subaltern attempt to overturn the binary "othering" of the Middle Ages imposed by the discourse of early modernity.

But, as Ania Loomba writes, "any meaningful discussion of colonial or post-colonial hybridities demands close attention to the specificities of location." Rather than attempting to trace the continuities between medieval and modern intolerance, Medieval Borders tries to bring into focus the messier, less codified age before the early thirteenth-century epistemic divide, a world less riven by fixed perceptions of difference. "Nation" was an unstable category that could be defined neither linguistically nor territorially, marking anything from regional feudal affiliations (gens Normannorum) to a nascent sense of Latin—opposed to Orthodox—Christianity (gens latina). Representations of alterity were notably more fluid and less marked by the racializing discourses typical of later centuries than we sometimes assume.

It is particularly in analyzing the relationship between medieval Christians and Muslims that the focus on vernacular literature as such can make a difference. This is a topic that has, of course, been treated by many eminent medievalists: Norman Daniel, for example, in Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (1960), and R. W. Southern in Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1962). Revisiting these classic essays in the wake of Edward Said, however, we cannot help but be struck by the incommensurability underpinning both titles: an abstract, geographically defined culture, "the West," on the one hand, and a world religion, "Islam," on the other. For the Middle Ages, it would surely make better sense to speak of " Christian views of Islam" (Daniel's chapter headings include "The Early History of Christian Anti-Islamic Polemic," "Revelation: Christian Understanding of Islamic Belief," and "The Relation between Islam and Christianity") or even "Latin Christian views of Islam," since Southern repeatedly underscores the distinction between Latin Europe and the Byzantine East. Both titles, moreover, cast Islam as an object, created by Western representational machinery and offered up to the Western gaze. The focus on Islam (rather than on Muslims or the Islamic world) reflects the tendency of many modern studies to privilege medieval anti-Muslim polemic. Containing "much that is appalling to the [modern] reader: crude insults to the Prophet, gross caricatures of Muslim ritual, deliberate deformation of passages of the Koran, degrading portrayals of Muslims as libidinous, gluttonous, semihuman barbarians," medieval treatises furnish vivid and copious material to those interested in tracing the long genealogy of Christian hostility toward Islam. Obscured in the process, however, are medieval Christians' lived reactions to and interactions with Muslims and the Islamic world—interactions much more complex and multifaceted than implied in the demonizing depictions by Norman Daniel or Edward Said himself.

Composed in a milieu often at odds with the "official culture" of Latin clerics, vernacular French literature offers a peek at this other Middle Ages, often lost beneath the radar of ideological polemic. An emblematic object here is the so-called Eleanor vase, a luminous honeycombed rock crystal vessel (today displayed in the Louvre) that Eleanor of Aquitaine brought north with her in 1137 when she married the French king Louis VII. There Abbot Suger—the king's minister and architect of the new "Gothic" style—had it fitted with a precious metal frame bearing the following inscription: "Hoc vas sponsa dedit Alienor Regi Ludovico Mitadolus avo mihi rex sanctis que Suger" (As a bride, Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the Saints). The vase (originally carved in pre-Islamic Sassanian Persia) had first come into Eleanor's family as a gift to her grandfather, the troubadour-duke Guilhem IX. The giver, Mitadolus, has been identified as 'Imad al-Dawla (the last ta ifa king of Saragossa), deposed in 1110 by the Almoravids, his Muslim coreligionists from North Africa. After losing his kingdom, 'Imad al-Dawla made common cause with the Christian king of Aragon, Alfonso I, against the Almoravids at the battle of Cutanda in 1120. Since Guilhem was there, too, it may have been on this occasion that he received the vase: a token of friendship between two political allies, one Muslim and one Christian. In Suger's inscription, a single verb, dedit, governs four acts of giving: 'Imad al-Dawla's to Guilhem IX, Eleanor's to Louis, Louis's to Suger, and Suger's to his spiritual patron, Saint Denis. The original act of giving, by the Muslim king to the Christian duke, is part of the vase's proud pedigree, syntactically indistinguishable from the abbot's donation to the saints. Both in its hybridity and in its migration across the Christian-Muslim "divide," the "Eleanor vase" materializes the very kind of cross-confessional dealings that would have surprised no one in medieval Iberia (where, for one brief moment in the early eleventh century, the Christian king of Navarre was a first cousin of the Muslim ruler of Cordoba). Such material traces of cross-cultural commodities and practices cede nothing to the postmodern hybridities chronicled by the likes of Pico Iyer or Néstor García Canclini.

Of course, this does not mean that Christian-Muslim relations were consistently peaceful; this was a violent age. But it does means that religion was never the only—and sometimes not even the dominant—criterion in the determination of difference. Even in the fourteenth century—"among the most violent of centuries" for minorities—"violence across religious boundaries was relatively rare. The majority of altercations took place within religious communities, not across them." This also means that amid crusades and polemics there was an almost continuous history of political accommodation, commercial exchange, and cultural negotiation across the Muslim-Christian divide. Though the details of such non-hostile interactions are too often known only to specialists, a good deal circulates as common knowledge: that much medieval and early modern scientific inquiry was catalyzed by the "recovery" of ancient Greek texts filtered through Arabic translations and commentary; that the wealth of the Venetian empire was built on trade for Eastern luxury goods like silk and spices; that the nickname of the Spanish "national" hero, the Cid, derived from an Arabic word (sidi) meaning "lord." Yet somehow, by a logic of denial—"Je sais bien, mais quand même"—such insights rarely come together in a critical mass sufficient to overturn the master narrative of the clash of civilizations.

Medieval Borders thus seeks to recast the contours of some of our most familiar images of the period, to see Henry II not only as the English king responsible for the Assize of Clarendon or the martyrdom of Thomas Becket but also as the king whom Adelard of Bath praised as a "philosopher-prince" with a passion for Arabic science and who dispatched his youngest daughter, Joan, to distant Palermo to marry the Norman king, William II; to see Eleanor of Aquitaine not only as the queen who brought a taste for Provençal poetry to the French and English courts but also as the princess whose grandfather (closely related to the kings of Aragon and Castile) exchanged gifts with the deposed Muslim king of Saragossa; and to see their son, Richard the Lionheart—the English king who, notoriously, spent only six months of his ten-year reign in England—as the prince who composed lyric verse in both Old French and Occitan, who conquered Cyprus and sold it to his Poitevin vassal Guy de Lusignan, and reputedly offered his sister Joan (now the widowed queen of Sicily) in marriage to Saladin's brother, al-cAdil.

Displacing the crusades as the privileged model of medieval Christian-Muslim interaction also allows the internal complexities among both Christians and Muslims to emerge. Robert Bartlett has reconceptualized Europe not as an essentialized geographical entity given in advance but as a culture of shared practices, overlapping with but not identical to Latin Christendom. First crystallizing in the heartland of the former Carolingian empire, this culture subsequently spread through conquest, colonization, and acculturation. For our purposes, his work not only gives us better purchase on the collective identity emerging among the crusaders and others actively engaged in the "expansion of Europe" but throws light on the anomalous position occupied by peoples who are indisputably Christian but not always treated as completely European, living in areas where Europe and Latin Christendom did not fully coincide. The clearest example is that of medieval Wales and Ireland—the so-called Celtic fringe—whose inhabitants were often depicted as savage and intractable others. A more complex case is that of Spain. Even aside from the centuries-long tradition of coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Christian Iberia (with the exception of Barcelona) was set off from the emerging culture of Europe by its Visigothic past and its isolation from programs of standardization characterizing Carolingian and post-Carolingian society. Thus the culture encountered by northerners who began crossing the Pyrenees in the mid-eleventh century, though Christian, bore traces of difference: its distinctive "Mozarabic" liturgy (officially replaced by the Roman rite in 1080 but persisting well into the thirteenth century and beyond), its Visigothic (rather than Carolingian) hand, as well as its easy assimilation of many forms and aspects of Arabic culture. It is, I suggest, French contact with these lands—familiar yet foreign, where the boundary between self and other was not always self-evident—that underlies many vernacular texts of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

By returning medieval French and Occitanian literature to this historical context, Medieval Borders seeks to produce new perspectives on well-known texts like the Chanson de Roland and the Lais of Marie de France, as well as to argue for the historico-thematic relevance of lesser-known texts like La Fille du comte de Pontieu or La Chanson de la Croisade Albigeoise. Part I, "Epic Revisions," examines literary representations of conquest and colonization in twelfth-century chansons de geste. Chapter 1 focuses on La Chanson de Roland, canonized as the foundational text of the French Middle Ages. Typically taken as a precocious expression of French national sentiment, the Roland has more recently been seen as a locus classicus for the medieval expression of Christian-Muslim antagonism. This chapter seeks simultaneously to contest these readings and to complicate the vision of the Middle Ages on which they are built by unpacking the opening scene of the poem, in which the pagan king Marsile offers Charlemagne vast wealth if only he will lift his siege of Saragossa and go home. Rather than skimming over this episode as a plot device designed to set Roland's heroic death in motion, I consider it against the contemporary Iberian institution of parias : the payment of tribute money by the Muslim ta ifa kings to the Christian rulers of Castile and Aragon. After showing how many Normans and other northerners had intimate, firsthand experience of Iberian politics, I argue that the Roland does not so much reflect a preexisting ideology of crusade as actively work to construct it, precisely by taking on the Realpolitik clearly governing Christian-"Saracen" relations at the poem's outset.

Chapter 2, "The Politics of Courtly Love," focuses on La Prise d'Orange, the best-known example of the stock epic motif of the Saracen princess who converts to Christianity for love of a brave Christian warrior. Contesting traditional assumptions that this theme (and the comic notes accompanying it) represent a "contamination" of epic seriousness by the thematics of romance, I argue that Guillaume Fierebrace's seduction of the Saracen queen Orable literalizes the courtly trope of love-as-siege while exporting the dubious morality surrounding adulterous love into a context, the crusades, in which all moral qualms are erased. The second part of the chapter demonstrates this "epic" theme's wide dissemination, showing it at work in highly disparate texts where it has not previously been recognized: the Chanson de Roland (where the conversion of the Saracen queen Bramimonde constitutes a condensed and de-eroticized instantiation of the same motif), the Voyage de Charlemagne (where Oliver's seduction of the emperor of Constantinople's daughter parodically situates the motif in a situation where the princess, already Christian, is not available for conversion), and Aucassin et Nicolette (where the foreign-born Christian convert must return to her roots as a Saracen princess in order to bring the text to proper closure).

Part II, "Romances of Assimilation," examines representations of nonmilitary contact on the southern and northern frontiers of Latin Christendom. Chapter 3 analyzes the mid-twelfth-century romance Floire et Blancheflor in its Mediterranean setting, reading the uncanny physical resemblance between the titular protagonists—one a Saracen prince, the other a Christian slave—as an allegory for the intense interconnection between medieval Islamic and Latin Christian cultures. Floire's pursuit of Blancheflor (who had been sold as a slave) from their home in Muslim Spain eastward to "Babylon" (Cairo) constitutes, I suggest, an important reterritorialization of the medieval Mediterranean: formerly cast as the space of translatio —the historical migration of political and cultural hegemony from Greece to Rome to France (exemplified in the Roman d'Enéas and the prologue to Chrétien de Troyes's Cligès)—it is remapped as a space of commerce and interconfessional exchange, concluding with the conversion not of the Saracen queen (as in chapter 2) but of the Saracen king.

Chapter 4, "Colonial Possessions: Wales and the Anglo-Norman Imaginary in the Lais of Marie de France," turns to the northwestern border of the feudal world, where post-Carolingian Europe met the so-called Celtic fringe. Its point of departure is the common ground shared by Marie de France's lais "Yonec" and "Milun": both are set in Wales and both, exceptionally, feature the birth of an illegitimate son. These two facts, I posit, are not unrelated, for one of the things distinguishing Welsh society from the emerging European norm was its attitude toward illegitimate children. The chapter goes on to read the differences between the two plots as divergent takes on the Anglo-Norman colonization of Wales: in "Yonec," the heroine's secret love affair with the king of an occluded kingdom bespeaks a sympathy for the indigenous past, while in "Milun" the chivalric successes of the titular protagonist and his illegitimate son exemplify the integration of Cambro-Norman Wales into the normative world of European chivalry.

Part III, "Crisis and Change in the Thirteenth Century," argues for seeing the two decades following 1200 as a moment of epistemic rupture, in which events like the Fourth Crusaders' sack of Constantinople (1204), the Albigensian Crusade (beginning in 1209), and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) both precipitate and exemplify a wide-ranging reorganization of politics and the imaginary. In literature, this perturbation is marked by the disruption of the dominant generic forms of epic and romance, producing curious hybrid forms—as in Aucassin et Nicolette and Le Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole —that constitute a transition between twelfth-century literature and the new modes of dream vision and allegory (as in Le Roman de la Rose and La Queste dou Saint Graal) that will come to typify the late Middle Ages. One of the most striking developments is the sudden emergence, in the first years of the century, of vernacular prose, which has been analyzed as a response to a perceived crisis in the "truth value" of verse, linked to the shifing fortunes of the great feudal nobility.

Chapter 5, "Brave New Worlds," is the first of two chapters devoted to early vernacular prose. One of two Old French chronicles of the Fourth Crusade, Robert de Clari's La Conquête de Constantinople is typically ignored in favor of the more "authoritative" account of Geoffroy de Villehardouin, one of the crusade's organizers. This chapter focuses precisely on the moments of the Conquête usually dismissed as the most problematic: the colorful "digressions" describing Robert's encounters with the wonders of Constantinople. Far from exemplifying the author's naïveté, I argue, these episodes underscore the havoc the experience of the Fourth Crusade wrought with the basic categories of the Western mentality: Christianity, chivalry, lineage, feudal hierarchies, and East-West difference.

Chapter 6, "The Romance of MiscegeNation," takes up a prose romance considered the first Old French "nouvelle," La Fille du comte de Pontieu (c. 1220). Like Floire et Blancheflor, La Fille begins on the Santiago trail and features a romance between a Christian woman and a Saracen prince. Both texts, moreover, purport to supply the genealogy of a famous historical figure: Charlemagne in the first instance, Saladin in the second. In this text, however, the lines between Christian and Saracen culture are even more radically scrambled and revalued than in the former. Pontieu—and Christian Europe more generally—is posited as the site of genealogical failure: the count's barren daughter is raped on the way to Santiago de Compostela to pray for an heir, then cast adrift by her father for attempting to kill her husband. This failure is redeemed in Almería, where the count's daughter converts to marry the sultan—becoming, in effect, the paradigmatic Saracen queen of our Chapter 2. The disparate fates of the two children she bears the sultan before returning to Christendom make visible the contradictions in the imaginative politics of lineage and conversion—here represented as less unproblematically regenerative than in the twelfth-century texts examined in Part I.

Medieval Borders concludes in Chapter 7 with La Chanson de la Croisade Albigeoise, a curious Occitan text that pours one of the Middle Ages' most traumatic events—famously described by Ernest Renan as one that all Frenchmen "must have forgotten"—into the form of a vernacular epic. The first part of this hybrid text, composed by a Navarrese cleric named Guilhem de Tudela, narrates the start of the war from the perspective of the predominantly northern French invaders. My reading focuses on the Anonymous Continuation, tracing the emergence, in response to the war itself, of a regional Occitanian consciousness distinct from the Cathar (Albigensian) cause and built around a vocabulary of chivalry and feudal values of precisely the kind undermined in the texts examined in chapters 5 and 6. The chapter concludes by returning to the generically idiosyncratic chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette. Composed in Picard (the Old French dialect associated with the same cultural milieu as Clari's Conquête de Constantinople and La Fille du comte de Pontieu) and set in Beaucaire (the site of one of the most decisive sieges of the Albigensian Crusade), this hybrid verse-prose text systematically inverts the norms of feudal and courtly society—another reaction to the ways the Occitanian wars strained the values of the twelfth-century "culture of fidelity" past their limit.

The payoff of these readings is, I hope, at least twofold. First, Medieval Borders seeks, quite simply, to give students of medieval French literature a stronger sense of the historical context grounding the works we study. In contrast to poststructuralist-inflected readings from the 1980s forward, my focus is less on textual, intellectual history (reading vernacular texts in relationship to contemporary works in Latin philosophy and theology) than on political, economic, and sociocultural interactions: the practices and lived experiences that would, I think, have been more immediate to the feudal nobility for whom this literature was composed. More ambitiously, through its detailed unpacking of medieval representations of cross-cultural contact, Medieval Borders seeks to highlight the specificity of modern notions of alterity and cultural difference. Examining the variety, complexity, and reversability of cultural contact in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries problematizes oversimplified postcolonial genealogies of ideologies like nationalism, Orientalism, and colonialism, underscoring the need for alternate genealogies of a medieval West that can no longer simplistically be adduced as the moment of origins of a "clash of civilizations."

Table of Contents


Part I. Epic Revisions
1. "Pagans Are Wrong and Christians Are Right": From Parias to Crusade in the Chanson de Roland
2. The Politics of Courtly Love: La Prise d'Orange and the Conversion of the Saracen Queen

Part II. Romances of Assimilation
3. "In the Beginning Was the Road": Floire et Blancheflor in the Medieval Mediterranean
4. Colonial Possessions: Wales and the Anglo-Norman Imaginary in the Lais of Marie de France

Part III. Crisis and Change in the Thirteenth Century
5. Brave New Worlds: Robert de Clari's La Conquête de Constantinople
6. The Romance of MiscegeNation: Negotiating Identities in La Fille du comte de Pontieu
7. Uncivil Wars: Imagining Community in La Chanson de la Croisade Albigeoise

Selected Bibliography

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