It’s nice to be back in medieval studies. I had a few years off with babies, and they are lovely, but upon my return I’m quickly finding one of my old bugbears raising its head and annoying me again: making things up and then deciding they’re true.
Now, in theory at least, I’ve nothing against making things up, particularly in medieval studies. After all, with so little information available to us, we have to be creative quite frequently. If we weren’t, we’d never get anywhere. The trouble comes when we hypothesise and do not make it clear that we are doing so. When that happens, ‘fiction’ very quickly becomes ‘fact’. I had thought – hoped – that this tendency was dying out as the various calls for it to be regonised (my own contribution can be found in the first chapter of my PhD) were heard and acknowledged. Perhaps I’ve just been hanging out with too many like-minded people, because this week I read a piece from 2011 which had me, quite literally, shouting ‘what?’ at my otherwise innocent computer screen. I will return to the item which so offended me towards the end.
First, though, a little of the history of this, and how it relates to Machaut studies. Guillaume de Machaut is an enticing figure for today’s readers and scholars, because his manuscript legacy, rare for the medieval period, invites us to conceive of an author, a ‘poète’. It is, in all probability, an image he cultivated, though the actual degree to which he did so is not known for certain. Six manuscripts survive which appear to contain Machaut’s ‘complete works’, and their contents are surprisingly – though far from entirely – heterogeneous. Although there is a large number of manuscripts which contain a lesser number of works by Machaut, often presented anonymously and/or intermingled with works by others, the six ‘core manuscripts’ (as they are known) provide an immensely useful base on which to build our appreciation of the fourteenth century’s greatest poet-composer. Wait a minute – how do we know he was the ‘greatest’? Well, we don’t. There could have been others whose works have not survived. Philippe de Vitry, for example, is a figure named in contemporary works but whose surviving output is relatively small, though much lauded. There is no accounting for documents lost through the ravages of time, or indeed never produced. But the presence of the core Machaut manuscripts leads us to think that he must have been ‘great’ – otherwise why would they even exist? It is not an unreasonable assumption. But let’s make one thing clear: it is an assumption.
One of the core manuscripts is particularly enticing, and it can be viewed online here. (We met one of its pictures in the post on authority.) Known by the siglum A, its full title is Paris, BnF fr 1584. When I’m feeling cynical, I call it ‘the carrot’. The principal source of the enticement can be found, on folio Av, at the opening to the manuscript’s index:
See it? It’s in red, at the top of the left-hand column, just to the right of the big initial ‘L’ for the first item. ‘Vesci lordenance que G. de Machau wet quil ai en son livre premiers’; ‘Here is the order that G. de Machau wants his first book to have’. It is interesting that the ‘first’ is almost never mentioned in discussion of this item; the notion of there being more than one ‘book’ – when the manuscript is in fact only one volume – is evidently uncomfortable and best ignored. Nowhere in the carefully rubricated index is ‘second’ mentioned; the ‘premiers’ is thus puzzling. (Some of the other core manuscripts are – or have been – in two volumes, and it could be that at the time of writing this rubric the compiler of the index anticipated a second volume, but he does not mention it again, nor does he correct its mention here.)
This rubric appears to claim that the index reflects Machaut’s wishes. It is hard to imagine what else it might mean. But how do we know it is telling the truth? Well, frankly, we don’t. On the other hand, we do not have particular reason to doubt it, other than general, and easily misdirected, cynicism. But what we can say, I think with as great a degree of certainty as is possible for this period, is that whoever wrote the rubric wanted his readers to think that his index reflects Machaut’s wishes. This, in itself, implies that Machaut’s wishes were important enough to merit reflection – or at least the semblance thereof. (For, as has been noted by Lawrence Earp, the actual order of the manuscript is not quite that given in the index, and in his dissertation ‘Scribal Practice, Manuscript Production and the Transmission of Music in Late-Medieval France’ (Princeton University, 1983) he spends considerable time detailing the deviations and the possible reasons for them.)
François Avril, to whom Machaut studies owes such a great debt, dated this manuscript to within the poet-compoer’s lifetime. He also identified the artist of the great frontispieces (again, we saw one of them on the post on authority) as being active in Paris. The artist for the rest of the miniatures remains unidentified, and Avril suggested that he was provincial, perhaps based in Reims where Machaut lived, since such a scenario would allow for Machaut’s supervision of the codex to have been possible. This hypothesis is by no means impossible – indeed, it is quite likely. But it is a hypothesis.
Domenic Leo has taken it further in his dissertation ‘Authorial Presence in the Illuminated Machaut Manuscripts’ (New York University, 2005). His arguments and detailed analyses are convincing, enough that there really is very little room for doubt that Machaut played a significant role in the artistic programmes accompanying his works in some of the manuscripts which have come down to us today. Do we, then, need to use verbs such as ‘seem’, adjectives such as ‘probable’, adverbial phrases which highlight our ultimate uncertainty about Machaut’s role in manuscript production? Surely, this is cumbersome and unnecessary: we don’t know for certain, we can’t know for certain, we know that we don’t know, so let’s stop peppering our prose with these unwieldy caveats.
Well, this is the crux of the matter at stake. We need those unwieldy caveats to draw the line between established fact and likely hypothesis. As more and more writings become more and more accessible to a broader public, the importance of these caveats in scholarly discussions increases. We cannot assume that readers of open-access, online texts know this background. (They may know it far better than I do, they may be at the start of a journey into the Middle Ages, or at any point on that journey.) If we are not clear about where the line is drawn between fact and hypothesis, then before we know it, hypothesis is considered fact.
The majority of scholars are aware of this. Leo certainly is in his dissertation. The most recent book-length overview of Machaut and his works, Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician by Elizabeth Eva Leach (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2011), is extremely clear about what we do and don’t know, and Leach is crystal clear about where her own assumptions come into play. Readers may or may not agree with such assumptions, but the clear drawing of the line between the (pitifully few) facts surrounding the medieval period and the conjecture which colours the picture gives scholarly works credence.
The work which brought out the valkyrie screech from me, however, draws no such line. As a freely available, online edition of one of Machaut’s most neglected works, its audience appeal is wide, and its responsibility to its readers is great. Sophie Hardy’s doctoral ‘Edition critique de la Prise d’Alexandrie de Guillaume de Machaut’ (Université d’Orléans, 2011), available here thus fails its readers in this sense.
The repercussions of this oversight – or decision, if it was conscious – is that it is hard to take the edition seriously. Hardy does not justify why she feels the previous, and recent, edition of the Prise (by R. Barton Palmer, soon to be reissued as part of the edition of Machaut’s complete works later this year) is inadequate. She also makes no mention of the new edition underway. This makes one wonder what the usefulness of her text will be, as it is so soon to be superseded. It doesn’t help that she departs from one of the core manuscript sigla, and not acknowledging that it already in fact has an entirely new siglum (thus n. 5 on an unnumbered page, presumably xi since it falls between x and xii, shows her to be several years behind the history of one of the core manuscripts containing the work she is editing). She ‘reminds’ us that one of Machaut’s ‘obsessions’ was the conservation of his works in manuscript form. She then quotes Elizabeth Keitel who in fact acknowledges that this is but a hypothesis; Hardy, however, ignores the hypothetical nature of Keitel’s observations and treats them as fact (p. xii).
It is not my intention to discredit Hardy’s careful work. She is but a recent example of a trend which, before my break from medieval studies, I had thought was in decline. This trend can be traced from the rediscovery of Machaut’s works – along with many other medieval works – in the nineteenth century. Early printed editions often mutilated the manuscript’s contents – Paulin Paris’s edition of the Voir Dit is the frequently cited example for Machaut – in their quest for the untainted original. Sometimes this quest was coloured with nationalistic sentiments, as Andrew Taylor has argued for the (inappropriately named?) Chanson de Roland and ‘Sumer is icumen in’ (Textual Situations: Three Medieval Manuscripts and their Readers (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania University Press, 2002)). In any case, such quests for the original have seemed futile since the work of Derrida in the 1960s, Zumthor in the 1970s, B. Cerquiglini and Barthes in the 1980s, Nichols and co. in the 1990s, and countless examples in print and online from the twenty-first century. I thought we had moved on.
Let’s hope we have moved on, and that I can get off my high horse once and for all. It’s drafty up here.