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Medievalist Enlightenment

Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Alicia C. Montoya
Series: Medievalism
Volume: 2
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Medievalist Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    Literary medievalism played a vital role in the construction of the French Enlightenment. Starting with the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, it influenced movements leading to the Romantic rediscovery of the Middle Ages, and helped to shape new literary genres, from the epistolary novel to the fairy tale and opera. Indeed, the dominant mode of the early Enlightenment, 'galanterie', was of medievalist inspiration. Moreover, the academic study of medieval texts underlay modern ideals of scholarship, institutionalized at the royal academies. The Middle Ages polemically functioned as an alternative site, allowing authors to rethink their age's political and social ideologies. At the centre of these debates was the notion of historical progress. Was progress possible, as the 'philosophes' held, or was human history a process of degeneration, with the Middle Ages as a lost Golden Age? From the re-evaluation of the medieval thus emerged not only the seeds of a new poetics, but also the central questions that preoccupied Enlightenment thinkers from Montesquieu to Rousseau. This book shows how, in order to understand the aesthetic and intellectual transformations that marked modernity, it is essential to examine how this period conceived of the past, and particularly those "Dark Ages" that served as the defining foil for the modern Age of Light. Alicia C. Montoya is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Literary and Cultural Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-076-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Perceptions of medieval literature, far from being a simple matter of philological interest, have historically been fraught with ideological implications.¹ Thus, for example, when, announcing the advent of romanticism, Madame de Staël famously proposed that “romantic or chivalric literature is indigenous to us’,² she was not only celebrating the birth of a literary movement. She was also saying something about the literature that was, according to her, most appropriate for the French national–political context of her day. Opposing Napoleon’s neo-classicist ideal, the Middle Ages stood in her writings for an alternative, freer model of art and power. Likewise, when,...

  5. I Conceptualizing the Medieval

    • 1 A Sense of the Past: Ancients, Moderns, and the Medieval
      (pp. 17-42)

      This chapter argues that for early French Enlightenment authors, the medieval functioned not primarily as a historical concept, as it does for us today, but rather as a floating rhetorical category to which a precise content had yet to be ascribed. Modern ideas of the medieval as a discrete, closed-off period in history are themselves the product of discussions that took place, during the Enlightenment and at other historical moments, on the meaning and movement of history. Because the early Enlightenment’s concept of moyen âge was different from the way we conceive of it today, this chapter will first backtrack...

    • 2 The Medievalist Rhetorics of Enlightenment
      (pp. 43-68)

      If the medieval did not function in the early eighteenth century, as it does in our own time, as a historical or chronological category, then how exactly did it work? I argued in the previous chapter that in actual linguistic usage, the term moyen âge often served as a literary or linguistic term, as reflected also in the common use of the accompanying adjective barbare to describe the period. In this chapter, elaborating on this notion of the medieval as a non-historical concept, I argue that during the early eighteenth century, the medieval came to embody essentially a moral category...

  6. II Reimagining the Medieval

    • 3 Survivals: Reading the Medieval Roman at the Dawn of the Enlightenment
      (pp. 71-106)

      Understanding the medieval as essentially a moral–literary concept, late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century readers perceived it to be exemplified above all by one genre: the roman. In contrast to ecclesiastic historians and antiquaries who, like Mabillon, worked on charters, registers and capitularies that they did not explicitly designate as medieval,¹ it was to the roman that most other, non-professional or semi-professional readers turned when speaking of this period. Chapelain derived his arguments in favour of a reassessment of the medieval from his reading of the thirteenth-century Lancelot. Likewise, when commenting on the particularly French spirit of gallantry (esprit de...

    • 4 Continuities: The Medieval as Performance
      (pp. 107-144)

      Despite a rhetorics of Enlightenment that habitually contrasted the medieval to the modern, a number of early Enlightenment authors seem to have perceived no fundamental historical break between the two periods. By his striking refusal to use the term “middle ages” (moyen âge) in the Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, Perrault implicitly annexed the medieval period to modernity. Similarly, in his Esprit des Lois Montesquieu emphasized the continuity between the modern French spirit of gallantry (esprit de galanterie) and the medieval cultural practices illustrated by chivalric fiction. And even earlier, in his prescient dialogue on medieval romance, Chapelain had...

    • 5 Reconfigurations: Medievalism and Desire, between Eros and Agape
      (pp. 145-182)

      Desire was a defining element in early Enlightenment medievalisms, I have argued, because these medievalisms often expressed their longing for the past in an erotic or sexualized language. Embodied, performative forms of knowledge represented one response to the desire to physically touch the past. The roman genre provided another response to this erotization of the past due to its association with illicit desire and its supposedly seductive, corrupting power. For late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century authors, it was a cliché to think of the Middle Ages as a period characterized, above all, by the prominent place its literature assigned to...

  7. III Studying the Medieval

    • 6 The Invention of Medieval Studies
      (pp. 185-220)

      This chapter examines how out of the galant, aristocratic engagement with the medieval whose contours I have sketched in the previous chapters, there emerged during the first decades of the eighteenth century a new, scholarly approach to the Middle Ages. This new, academic medievalism had its institutional basis at the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. Originally founded by Louis XIV to compose Latin commemorative inscriptions in his honour, during the eighteenth century the Academy evolved into a full-fledged scholarly body, focusing more exclusively on historical and philological activities, and shifting its emphasis from classical to medieval subjects. This process...

    • Conclusion: Medievalism as an Alternative Modernity
      (pp. 221-224)

      In a provocative book about “the hidden agenda of modernity”, Stephen Toulmin has argued that modernity entailed a major philosophical shift. This was a shift from the oral to the written, from the particular to the universal, from the local to the general, from the timely to the timeless, and from humanism to rationalism.¹ The new modernity, whose rise Toulmin dates back to the major works of Descartes in the 1630s and 1640s, was marked by the “pursuit of mathematical exactitude and logical rigor, intellectual certainty and moral purity”.² While earlier thinkers had questioned the value of abstract theory for...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-240)
  9. Index
    (pp. 241-248)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-249)