As most of you probably know, I have a background in medieval studies, and more particularly, Western European medieval literature. This past week, I found myself wondering why so much medieval literature is unknown, or worse, denigrated. I wrote a post a few weeks ago on Christine de Pizan (1364-ca. 1431), who was a prolific writer of social criticism, political treatises, didactic works, histories, and .biographies. Perhaps due to the diversity and volume of her work, she has been described as a scribbler with nothing better to do, in Gustave Lanson’s view, than to portray her “universal mediocrity,” (Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française, 1896, p. 163; my translation). I am finishing a dissertation on one of Christine de Pizan’s works, which was described by Rose Rigaud as an “allegorical poem of the worst fifteenth century, in which the author makes herself known through her most unbearable defects” (Rigaud, Les idées féministes de Christine de Pisan, p. 21; my translation).
This particular work is The Letter of Othéa, Goddess of Prudence, to Hector of Troy at the Age of Fifteen Years. Never let it be said that Christine didn’t make sure her audience knew what her books were about. The Othéa, as I will call it henceforth, is a collection of 100 stories drawn from Greek or Roman mythology, mostly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Each story begins with four lines of verse summarizing the classical story. Next is the gloss, which gives the lesson to be drawn from the story for the good knight. The gloss ends with a quotation from a Greek philosopher. Finally, Christine delineates the allegory, which teaches the good soul the lesson from the story, ending with a quotation from the church fathers and another from Scripture.
The Othéa was Christine’s most popular work, surviving in more than forty manuscripts from the fifteenth century. Philippe Pigouchet first printed the Othéa around 1499, under the title Les Cent Histoires de Troye. It was reprinted three times in the next thirty-five years. The Othéa also fascinated audiences in England, where it was translated three times within one hundred years: first in 1440; again in the late fifteenth century; and last, in the 1530’s. After a while, medieval texts dropped from favor, and Christine’s work disappeared for several centuries. When it was discovered again, critics were not kind, as shown above.
Why the vehement dislike of this work and others like it? They do not appeal to our tastes. The critics who acknowledge Othéa‘s popularity often admit the unattractiveness of the work to our eyes. One problem with the Othéa is its blatant didacticism. Twenty-first century readers willingly read openly didactic works; witness the interest in self-improvement texts. However, fiction and non-fiction are kept pristinely separate in bookstores and on bestseller lists. While imaginative works often have a strong didactic element, the reader is left to cull that lesson for himself. In the self-help books, case studies of real people are acceptable; parables about fictional people are often seen as juvenile or demeaning. Twenty-first century plays seldom have a human Epilogue to give us the moral at the end, as did those of Shakespeare’s time. The Othéa, with its allegorical meanings, is seen not as a literary work, but a quaint reference work for classical mythology and the Christian interpretations attached to these myths in the Middle Ages. The popular distaste for allegory and didacticism combine to make the Othéa unknown to the twenty-first century general reading public.
Finally, the Othéa suffers from the longstanding critical stance that originality is good, and derivation is bad. At base is an eighteenth-century concept of originality, one that would be completely foreign to Christine de Pizan. The Oxford English Dictionary enumerates many denotations of the word “original.” The one perhaps closest to the common use today is: “Having the quality of that which proceeds from oneself, or from the direct exercise of one’s own faculties, without imitation of or dependence on others; such as has not been done or produced before; novel or fresh in character or style.” The earliest use in this sense given by the OED is from 1756-82 in Warton’s Essays on Pope. Ironically, the quotation from Warton is: “Dante wrote his sublime and original poem, which is a kind of satirical Epic.” It would be interesting to know whether Dante thought he was doing something “without imitation of or dependence on others” in writing the Commedia. Contemporaneous use of the word “original” is shown by Chaucer’s use of the term exclusively in the sense of “origin” or “author.” While Christine may well have felt that she was indeed “exercising her own faculties,” it is unlikely she would see the merit in departing from common expectations of character or style. In contrast, medieval authors saw their way of narrating as a major part of their contribution to the text. Christine also saw the choice and organization of her texts as part of her contribution. She had many choices to make as she began to write the Othéa: which stories from Greek and Roman mythology to include; which quotations from the Greek philosophers, the Vulgate, and her other sources would best fit her theme in each story. In her arrangement of the stories, Christine counted on the generic expectations of her audience to identify her work; through the glosses, the expectations common with other manuals of instruction; and through the allegories, with those of other moral treatises.
So, my question: Have I convinced myself that these didactic works aren’t all bad, just to justify the years I have spent on medieval studies? No, don’t answer that one!
How do you react to a mixture of moralizing or teaching in a story? Does it only fit in children’s literature, to your mind? What do you see as the originality in a story, even one that is “retold’?