Proleptic Subversion: Longing for the Middle Ages in the Late Seventeenth-Century French Fairy Tale

By Stedman, Allison | The Romanic Review, May-November 2008 | Go to article overview

Proleptic Subversion: Longing for the Middle Ages in the Late Seventeenth-Century French Fairy Tale


Stedman, Allison, The Romanic Review


In his important analysis of the first French fairy tale vogue, Fairy Tales, Sexuality and Gender in France (1690-1715): Nostalgic Utopias, Lewis C. Seifert contends that the rise of the literary fairy tale in the early 1690s can be indirectly connected to a widespread phenomenon of medieval nostalgia, particularly affecting the salon aristocracy. Dismayed by the waning cultural influence of the worldly nobility, and apprehensive of the noble identity's increasing instability, late seventeenth-century salon authors used fairy tales to sublimate the present, refashioning in its place an idealized, medieval past, traditionally associated with oral genres and folklore. As such, while the formulaic opening of the archetypal fairy tale ("once upon a time") may give the impression that the tale is situated in a mythical or non-existent temporal space, the majority of these tales in fact refer to a chronologically and geographically specific context: that of the indigenous, French Middle Ages. (1)

Medieval nostalgia, as it operates in the late seventeenth-century French fairy tale, does not involve an exclusively present-past dynamic, however. Rather, it is proleptic. (2) In looking to the past as an idealized alternative to contemporary reality, late seventeenth-century fairy tale authors inadvertently constructed the Middle Ages as a kind of utopia, a concept that, according to Ernest Bloch, is fundamentally future oriented (Seifert 16). (3) Passing over the present, nostalgic authors probed a real or imagined remote history for a reason to believe that the future might hold new and better possibilities.

Seifert advances several theories as to why the Middle Ages, as opposed to another era, might have been particularly inspirational to so many late seventeenth-century fairy tale authors. While women writers appear to have imagined medieval culture as legitimizing feminine desire to a greater degree than at present, male writers seem to have associated the period with "normative masculinity," a view of manhood exemplified by the heroic knights of courtly, chivalric romances (Seifert 129,149). (4) Authors of both genders viewed the Middle Ages as representing an idealized form of "social cohesion and interaction," which was believed to be lacking in contemporary society (Seifert 22). (5) Above all, however, the Middle Ages appear to have represented a more stable era for the aristocratic identity, whose innateness was confirmed by the presence of the marvelous and the prevalence of exceptional, physical heroism. This was a curious tendency, especially when one considers that nearly a third of the authors who developed the vogue were not themselves aristocrats (Seifert 112, 151). (6)

Here, I would like to propose a new dimension to studies on the complex and dynamic relationship between the late seventeenth-century fairy tale and the French Middle Ages" that medieval nostalgia embodies more than simply a longing for a better time, or for a specific set of salon values perceived to have been normative in medieval culture. Specifically, this type of nostalgia comprises one of several authorial strategies developed by worldly authors toward the end of Louis XIV's reign, in their efforts to articulate a direct and calculated political response to the absolutist propaganda of Louis XIV. This was a propaganda that sought, in similarly nostalgic fashion, to extol the monarchy's glorious present and to project that present onto an even more glorious future through proleptic association with the grandeur of Greco-Roman Antiquity. In creating an alternative medieval origin for the worldly literary fairy tale, and for the diasporic salon community that produced and consumed such stories, late seventeenth-century salon authors distinguished themselves and their works both from the classical literary canon and from the absolutist social and political orientation of Louis XIV's court. (7)

Proleptic Nostalgia at Court

In the decades before the fairy-tale vogue took shape, Louis XIV's court at Versailles had become fraught with nostalgic obsession for a time when France had been part of a powerful Roman Empire, and the emperor had represented a kind of deified political authority, believed to be in direct communication with the gods of Olympus. …

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