Medievalism and Enlightenment, 1647-1750: Jean Chapelain to Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Montoya, Alicia C., The Romanic Review
Critiques of modernity and the Enlightenment project increasingly recognize the need to historicize the Enlightenment debate (Baker and Reill; Darnton). Reframing criticism of the Enlightenment in its original eighteenth-century setting has shown that such critiques are not new to our own epoch, but draw on a long history and tradition of their own. Not only do historians increasingly distinguish between several varieties of Enlightenment (Israel) but it also appears that questioning the Enlightenment is germane even to the most radical forms of Enlightenment discourse itself. As exemplified most famously by the supreme "autocritic" of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Enlightenment appears not as a fixed set of philosophical notions but rather as a series of interlocking, often strident debates on what Enlightenment is, or should be, or cannot ever be. (1) As Mark Hulliung writes, "Not the least significant, albeit the most ignored, of the many critiques of the Enlightenment that have been articulated during the last two centuries is the one the 'age of criticism' made of itself, largely through the instigation of Rousseau" (7).
The Enlightenment's self-criticism, as voiced ultimately but not exclusively by Rousseau, was founded in part on the contrasting images of historical light and darkness, equated respectively with modernity and the medieval. The binary opposition "Lumiere(s)" versus "tenebres" was continually and insistently mobilized in the ongoing debate on what human society and culture should be like. So widely accepted were these terms that critics of the Enlightenment came to use the light-dark metaphor as naturally as did the small group of thinkers--the French philosophes--most commonly identified with the movement (Delon). Yet the very banality of this metaphor invites us to take it seriously. As several scholars have argued, metaphors can fundamentally structure thinking and are central to the performance of culture (Lakoff and Johnson; Sapir and Crocker). Recent studies have drawn attention to the ways in which the Enlightenment metaphor of light could structure not only thought bur also concrete action, particularly in the political arena (Reichardt).
The Enlightenment metaphor of light is rendered complex by its own genealogy. The metaphor was not a new one, for eighteenth-century discourse borrowed it from Italian humanism, which had in turn "borrowed" it from medieval theology. Alluding to the medieval metaphor pitting Christian light against pagan darkness, some varieties of humanism had polemically presented pagan Antiquity instead as a source of light, and the Middle Ages as a period of darkness and ignorance. Petrarch, the "father of Humanism," was also "the father of the concept or attitude which regards the Middle Ages as the 'Dark Ages'" (Mommsen 242). At the same time, however, the humanist light-dark metaphor was subject to nuances and qualifications. While the most strident versions of humanism did indeed posit a clear opposition to the medieval, humanism as a whole still co-existed with medievalism, exemplified among others by the pseudo-chivalric epics of Ariosto and Tasso, which mixed classical elements with narrative models drawn from medieval romance.
The Enlightenment expressed a more fundamental aversion to the medieval. As an Age of Light, the eighteenth century perceived itself to be the absolute opposite of the Dark Ages. Reacting against the hardening of orthodoxies during the previous centuries, the philosophes saw the medieval institutionalization of religion as a source of darkness. Following the humanist cue, they opposed the Middle Ages to the pagan culture of classical Antiquity, on which they modeled their own ideals. Antiquity, perceived as the purveyor of timeless, "universal" values rather than divisive particularisms, became a powerful ally in the ideological battle for a new society. As John Pocock has written, "modernity was engrossed in the study of Antiquity, and could not live without reinforcing Europe's obsession with its classical past. The enemy was not the primitive but the medieval" (132). Because of this, the Enlightenment had to construct a new, corresponding Dark Ages--a new historical narrative or cultural memory of the medieval--against which it could offset its own achievements, "reconstruct[ing] not only the past, but organiz[ing] the experience of the present as well as the future" (Assmann 69). Within these new conceptualizations of the medieval, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as some scholars have intimated, were a key period (Damian-Grint; Edelman; Gossman), inextricably linking attitudes towards the medieval to the major cultural movement of this period, the Enlightenment.
I will argue that when the Enlightenment rhetoric of light and dark is reframed in its original historical context, the role of the medieval indeed becomes crucial, revealing tensions inherent in Enlightenment discourse. To make this argument, rather than attempting to produce a synthetic account, I will focus on two texts composed at the beginning and at the end of the process of Enlightenment appropriations of the light-dark metaphor. The first of these texts, Jean Chapelain's dialogue La Lecture des vieux romans, composed around 1647, dates from the decade during which the intellectual transformations culminating in the Enlightenment started, the 1640s. In 1641, Rene Descartes had introduced in his Meditationes the image of "lumen naturale," as opposed to divine light, as a source of cognitive certainty, thereby giving metaphorical identity to the intellectual revolution his philosophy was to help bring about (Reichardt 104-105). (2) The second text I will examine, Rousseau's Discours sur les sciences et les arts, was published over a century later, in 1750, a date by which it has been argued--not entirely unpolemically--that "all major intellectual innovations and accomplishments of the European Enlightenment were well advanced if not largely complete" (Israel 20). By this time, the use of the term "Lumieres" to refer to the present historical age was so widespread that it had virtually become a cliche. Although these two texts were produced in entirely different intellectual and literary climates, they are linked by their use of a rhetoric of light and dark that ultimately challenges the notion of Enlightenment. Equally importantly, they share a distinctly modern, post-humanist view of history. Italian humanism had replaced the biblically-inspired notion of four world monarchies with a division of history into three periods--"ancient," "medieval," and "modern" times. Enlightenment thought added to the schema a fourth age: that of French cultural ascendancy, which entailed a re-alignment of previous definitions of "ancient" and "modern."
The Enlightenment's most stereotypical view of the Middle Ages is summarized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the opening paragraphs of his Discours sur les sciences. Seeking to answer the question whether the progress of the arts has contributed to the moral improvement of humankind, Rousseau initially assumes the role of devil's advocate, reiterating the traditional opposition between the barbaric past and the enlightened present:
C'est un grand et beau spectacle de voir l'homme sortir en quelque maniere du neant par ses propres efforts; dissiper, par les lumieres de sa raison les tenebres dans lesquelles la nature l'avoit enveloppe ... Toutes ces merveilles se sont renouvellees depuis peu de Generations. L'Europe etoit retombee dans la Barbarie des premiers ages. Les Peuples de cette Partie du Monde aujourd'hui si eclairee vivoient, il y a quelques siecles, dans un etat pire que l'ignorance.... Il falloit une revolution pour ramener les hommes au sens commun ... La chute du Trone de Constantin porta dans l'Italie les debris de l'ancienne Grece. La France s'enrichit a son tour de ces precieuses depouilles. Bientot les sciences suivirent les Lettres; a l'Art d'ecrire se joignit l'Art de penser. (6)
This is the cliche image of the Middle Ages, which underlies the more progressivist strands of Enlightenment discourse. The Middle Ages are described, negatively, as an age of "Barbarie," and there is a clear opposition between the "lumieres" of the present and the "tenebres" of the past. It is only through "raison," the Cartesian inner light implicitly contrasted to divine illumination, that humankind has extricated itself from its original state during "les premiers ages." The passage is marked by an easy mixing of conjectural history with "real" history. Rousseau describes the primordial state of humankind as being close to "nature," a state that often functions as a hypothetical construct, yet he follows this passage of conjectural history with straightforward references to real historical events, including the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. Finally, by its division of human history into four ages--classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance, and French ascendancy--the Discours sur les sciences refers back to the humanist tripartite division of history, but with the Enlightenment now functioning as the fourth element, i.e. the culmination of the artistic and scientific aspirations of previous generations. Variations on this schema can be found in the writings of many other eighteenth-century thinkers, most famously in Voltaire's, which read like a systematic condemnation of everything associated with the medieval past. In his Siecle de Louis XIV, humanity is described as having known four ages of light: the age of Alexander and Pericles, the age of Caesar and Augustus, the Italian Renaissance, and the age of Louis XIV, whose legacy Voltaire sought to preserve for the Enlightenment. Medieval darkness is, by implication, the foil against which present progress must be viewed.
Jean Chapelain's dialogue La Lecture des vieux romans, written a century before Rousseau's text, drew on a similar rhetoric of light and dark. Nonetheless, at first sight, the two texts may appear to convey diametrically opposed viewpoints. While Rousseau ostensibly condemns the medieval, Chapelain's dialogue, on the contrary, argues for a rehabilitation of medieval romance on moral rather than stylistic grounds. This view found little support in the decades following the dialogue's composition. French classicism, which took hold of the literary field during the 1650s through the 1680s, resolutely turned its back on medieval precedents in favor of "universal" values inspired by the texts and authors of classical Antiquity. It was only toward the end of the century, starting in the 1690s, that the first signs of renewed interest in the medieval became visible, and it was only some time later, in 1728, that Chapelain's dialogue, left in manuscript form upon his death, was finally published. This is, therefore, a text that does not sit easily with the Zeitgeist of the period in which it was composed, all the more when one bears in mind that Chapelain himself was one of the major ideologues of the same classicism that was so hostile to medieval literature.
While this dialogue seems to bear little relation to what was immediately to follow it, it appears less unusual when viewed in relation to what preceded it. Chapelain was not only one of the architects of classicism, but also one of the last representatives of European humanism; he was instrumental in adapting Italian humanist thought to a new political context in the heart of the French absolutist state. La Lecture des vieux romans can be viewed simultaneously as a new departure, for, as I will demonstrate, it anticipates developments in the eighteenth century, and as the final link in a genealogy leading from medieval romance itself, through its fifteenth and sixteenth-century prose adaptations and Italian imitations, to the collapse of the romance genre during the seventeenth century. As such, Chapelain's dialogue participates in an older humanist discourse that made a place for some forms of medievalism. Throughout his career, Chapelain remained faithful to this Italianate humanist tradition. From his first formulation of the theory of classicist "vraisemblance" in 1623, in a preface to Giambattista Marino's epic poem Adonis, to his final demise as a figure of literary authority in 1656, with the publication of La Pucelle, a medievalist epic of his own, Chapelain drew on Italian and medievalist sources to nourish his poetical vision. Throughout his life, his literary models remained Tasso and Ariosto: a polemic in 1639 that pitted him against other members of the salon of the Marquise de Rambouillet, in the context of which he defended Ariosto's merits against his detractors, was but one sign of a much deeper and long-lasting affinity.
Nationalism and the Ancient-Modern Opposition
In his dialogue, the illustrious Academician describes how he is discovered by two of his learned colleagues--"caught in the act" might be the more appropriate term--reading the medieval romance Lancelot (known today as the Lancelot propre). Although, as he admits in a concession to classicist taste, this work may be "chetif et maigre" (200), his library catalogue reveals that he possessed two sixteenth-century editions of it. The main text of La Lecture consists of a transcription of the dialogue that follows, in which Chapelain offers a spirited defense of his choice of reading matter and tries to persuade his colleagues, the philologist-grammarian Gilles Menage and the poet Jean-Francois Sarasin, of its interest. A first set of arguments hinges on the question of national identity and is framed within the context of the opposition between Ancients--representatives of the culture of classical Antiquity--and Moderns, or representatives of the new historical epoch born of the Middle Ages. Chapelain coins an intriguing expression:
Lancelot ... a ete compose dans les tenebres de notre Antiquite moderne et sans autre lecture que celle du livre du monde. (177)
The expression "les tenebres de notre Antiquite moderne" pithily summarizes the argument of Chapelain's dialogue. In its most superficial meaning, it simply points to the fact that Chapelain's contemporaries had their own antiquity, which was different from the antiquity of the Ancients. But it is also enigmatic because it brings together two seemingly contradictory elements--Antiquity and modernity--and rests on an evocative metaphor, the image of "les tenebres." This raises several questions. For how can Antiquity be modern? And what is then, exactly, Antiquity, if it cannot be defined by its distance from the present? If modern Antiquity is defined by its dark recesses, then what are the areas of light to which it is implicitly contrasted? And, of course, what, exactly, is modern about Chapelain's Antiquity?
By the terms in which the argument is couched, it is apparent that the La Lecture seeks to provoke. At the time of its writing, Parisian
literary society was already dividing into the two camps that would later fight out the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, launched in 1687 by Charles Perrault's reading at the French Academy of his polemical poem Le Siecle de Louis le Grand. The Querelle opposed the Ancients, who felt that modern culture would never equal the achievements of classical Antiquity, to the Moderns, who felt that with the advent of French classicism, modern culture was finally surpassing Antiquity. As Marc Fumaroli has demonstrated, this was an episode in a much older debate that went back to Petrarch in Italy, and to sixteenth and seventeenth-century humanism. In the 1640s, the Moderns, closely associated with Cardinal de Richelieu's construction of an absolutist state, were represented by the abbe de Boisrobert (Discours contre les Anciens, 1637) and Nicolas de Rampalle (L'Erreur combattue, 1641), while the Ancients were defended by Francois de Grenaille (La Mode ou le caractere du temps, 1642) and other ecclesiastics. Within the debate about the respective merits of Ancients and Moderns, Chapelain assumed an ambiguous position. Despite his later identification with the Modern party, in his construction of classicist doctrine, he drew on a deep appreciation of the classical tradition. In the opening paragraphs of La Lecture, Menage, himself a known partisan of the Ancients, refers to Chapelain's intermediary position:
M. Menage qui est tout dans les anciens Grecs et Latins et l'erudition duquel ne lui permet qu'a peine d'avouer qu'il y ait rien de louable en quoi que fassent les Modernes, me trouvant sur ce livre que les Modernes memes ne nomment qu'avec mepris, me dit suivant sa gaite accoutumee, en se moquant de moi. "Quoi, c'est donc la le Virgile que vous avez pris pour exemple, et Lancelot est le heros sur lequel vous formez le comte de Dunois [in La pucelle]? Je vous avoue que je n'eusse pas attendu cela d'un homme a qui l'Antiquite n'est pas inconnue, et que nous avons oui parler raisonnablement de ses philosophes, de ses poetes et de ses orateurs." (164-165)
The dialogue is framed from the beginning as a debate that should be read within the context of the opposition between Ancients and Moderns. At the same time, however, it marks a turning point in the Querelle because of the attention it gives to national literary traditions. The first sentence of La Lecture refers to "nos vieux romans," with the possessive pronoun hinting at the possibility of a nationalistic interpretation of the dialogue. Following up the argument suggested by Menage's ironic reply, Chapelain--again speaking through Menage--posits the comparability of the two traditions, classical Antiquity on one hand and medieval French tradition on the other:
Comme les poesies d'Homere etaient les fables des Grecs et des Romains, nos vieux romans sont aussi les fables des Francais et des Anglais. (172)
Menage/Chapelain's choice of subject for the comparison is deliberate, for Homer was the ultimate reference point for any discussion of the standards to be followed by acceptable literature. Chapelain's reevaluation of medieval romance undermines classicism from within, and equally importantly, it suggests the possibility of a national literary historiography. Just as modern Italians could look back to Roman Antiquity as an ultimate source of their literature, so could modern Frenchmen and Frenchwomen look back to medieval romance as the source of their own traditions. This is why Chapelain's first argument in favor of medieval romance is a linguistic one. Addressing the grammarian Menage, he argues that reading Lancelot is worthwhile at the very least because it provides scholars like himself with the material to reconstruct "le langage et le style de nos ancetres" (167). Of course, as Menage and Chapelain, a founding member of the French Academy, well knew, this was an endeavor compatible with Richelieu's nationalistic project of documenting and standardizing the French language. In tacit acknowledgement of this, Chapelain invokes one of the encomiastic topoi of classicist discourse, that of the present perfection of the French language:
Pour tout dire en un mot, vous y observerez, par la comparaison de ce vieux style, le nouveau, quels changements a souffert notre langage, comment il a depouille peu a peu sa rusticite premiere et par quels chemins il a passe pour venir a la douceur et a la majeste, a la politesse et a l'abondance ou nous le voyons maintenant. (169)
What remains unsaid in this passage is the extent to which this linguistic perfection, thanks in part to Chapelain's own activities in the Academie Francaise, would come to be perceived as the result not only of a natural development, but also of state intervention. In using a linguistic argument in defense of medieval romance, Chapelain's Lecture played into the hands of the Moderns who, in the later phase of the Querelle, framed their argument in nationalistic and royalist terms. Chapelain's originality as a thinker had lain in his openness to Italian humanistic influence, yet it was precisely by turning its back on Italian precedents that the later Querelle defined itself. In the eyes of Perrault and his followers, it was French culture that disproved the thesis of the superiority of the Ancients: whereas Chapelain still looked to the Italians Tasso and Ariosto as literary models, Perrault (interestingly seconded by his Ancient opponent, Nicolas Boileau) condemned their epics as unworthy of inclusion in the literary canon. The nuance of Chapelain's middle position was lost in the later debate, which instead focused attention on the perfection of the French language as further proof of history having entered a fourth phase, with France supplanting Italy and classical Antiquity as the standard-bearer of civilization.
From Classicist Vraisemblance to an Anthropology of the Middle Ages
In the course of the eighteenth century, interest in the medieval acquired a more anthropological focus that was, again, anticipated by Chapelain. In his Lecture, Chapelain follows his linguistic argument in favor of medieval romance with a second argument, based on the classicist notion of "vraisemblance." Like a number of humanist antiquarians before him, including Etienne Pasquier in his Recherches de la France (1560) and Claude Fauchet in his Origines des dignites et magistrats de France (1600), as well as his contemporary Charles du Cange, he argues that medieval texts can be used as a source of historical knowledge: not of actual fact, but of the "moeurs" of a people. Rather than describing real historical events, medieval romance paints a generally realistic picture of life as it had taken place during the past:
[Lancelot] est une relation fidele, sinon de ce qui arrivait entre les rois et les chevaliers de ce temps-la, au moins de ce qu'on etait persuade qui pouvait arriver, soit par les vestiges de semblables choses qui avaient accoutume de se pratiquer aux siecles precedents. Je crois vous pouvoir assurer encore plus fortement que c'est une representation naive et, s'il faut ainsi dire, une histoire certaine et exacte des moeurs qui regnaient dans les cours d'alors. (177)
The wording of the passage contains a reference to Aristotle's famous injunction that "the poet's function is not to report things that have happened, but rather to tell of such things as might happen" (54). This opposition was linked in contemporary poetical debates to the notions of "verite" ("ce qui arrivait") and "vraisemblance" ("ce qui pouvait arriver"), the latter considered superior to the former. Chapelain rehabilitates medieval romance by arguing that it fully meets the classicist requirement of poetic "vraisemblance," at least in its most narrow social sense, i.e. that which is perceived to be probable or realistic within a particular socio-historical setting (Cavaille). Having previously argued, in his Sentiments sur le Cid (1638), against the uncritical use of history because it could produce situations that were not morally acceptable, Chapelain now postulates that because medieval fiction was "vraisemblable," it could be used as a reliable source by historians.
La Lecture deliberately stretches the notion of poetic "vraisemblance." Chapelain is ambiguous in his use of the term, which, in addition to moral or social meanings, can also carry philosophical ones. While the social acceptance of "vraisemblance" could, indeed, lead to an instrumental view of poetry, the philosophical acceptance, i.e. "vraisemblance" as the uncovering of universal truths, leads, according to Aron Kibedi Varga, "aux romantiques et a tous ceux pour qui la poesie est un savoir" (332). It is significant, therefore, that Chapelain gives a positive connotation to the notion of naivete--the opposite of social savoir-faire--as a guarantee of the text's truth value ("une histoire exacte"). More surprisingly, in a view that, according to Carlo Ginzburg, may well anticipate Rousseau and the Romantics (381-382), "songes" and "reveries" are described as potentially closer to the truth than mere, dry facts. Chapelain summarizes his view in the conclusion to this passage, when he opposes annals and chronicles, "lesquelles ne nous apprennent que la naissance et la mort des princes, avec les accidents qui y ont signale leurs regnes" to romance, which "nous familiarise avec eux et nous montre le fond de leur ame" (181). Sounding the depths of the human soul would, indeed, seem to be an altogether different undertaking than producing fiction that was socially acceptable to its age.
Chapelain's idea that fiction could be used as a historical source became a topos in other texts that called for a reevaluation of medieval literature. In scholarly circles, it was taken up by the likes of Antoine Galland and, especially, by the founder of modern medievalist studies in France, Jean-Baptiste La Curne de Sainte-Palaye (who, although aware of Chapelain's Lecture, admitted to not having read it) (Gossman 248). By mid-century, the truth value of romance had become such a commonplace that Helvetius was only summing up accepted wisdom when he wrote in De l'esprit:
... les anciens romans [sont] encore agreables a quelques philosophes, qui les regardent comme la vraie histoire des moeurs d'un peuple considere dans un certain siecle et une certaine forme de gouvernement. (9)
The historicity Chapelain and his successors describe is not that of political history but rather what we know today as social history or even what the French describe, pace Ginzburg, as "histoire des mentalites" (382). The polysemic term "moeurs" can be translated both as "customs" or, when used to describe a general ethos, as "morals." According to Chapelain, the Lancelot can be read as a history of the "moeurs" of the thirteenth century, while Helvetius claims that medieval romances are "la vraie histoire des moeurs d'un peuple." This suggests a shift of emphasis whereby interest in political history--the succession of kings and queens and of conflict between states--makes way for an interest in social history, or even social science. It coincides with the rise of a new genre of history practiced by the eighteenth-century philosophes, including Rousseau (Hulliung 38-75), termed "philosophical" history. This new history sought to "peindre a la posterite, non les actions d'un seul homme, mais l'esprit des hommes," as Voltaire wrote in his Le Siecle de Louis XIV (616). In this optic, literary history was regarded as a vital component of any history and could be invoked to describe or explain social institutions of old.
Chapelain's intuition of the historical value of romance was followed up in the 1660s by his colleagues Sarrasin and Pierre-Daniel Huet, who both wrote about the relations between French medieval romance, "la politesse de notre galanterie," and "la grande liberte dans laquelle les hommes vivent en France avec les femmes" (Huet 139). This view announces one of the most protracted Enlightenment considerations of the medieval, Montesquieu's discussion of chivalry in Book 28 (especially Chapter 22, "Des moeurs relatives aux combats") of his Esprit des lois:
Notre liaison avec les femmes est fondee sur le bonheur attache au plaisir des sens, sur le charme d'aimer et d'etre aime, et encore sur le desir de leur plaire ... Ce desir general de plaire produit la galanterie, qui n'est point l'amour, mais le delicat, mais le leger, mais le perpetuel mensonge de l'amour.... Nos romans de chevalerie flatterent ce desir de plaire, et donnerent a une partie de l'Europe cet esprit de galanterie que l'on peut dire avoir ete peu connu par les anciens. (237-238)
Rather than merely reflecting the customs or ethos of an age, medieval romance is now said to help create and strengthen this ethos. The national character of the French, here described in relation to women's role in the public sphere--a central question in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (DeJean 66-69)--can be defined by an "esprit de galanterie" that goes back to a medieval context. Montesquieu was attracted to the Middle Ages because he felt this period held important clues about the form of government most uniquely suited to the French temperament. His discussion of medieval "galanterie" is framed by another discussion, that of the role of combats in feudal society, which hints at the links he makes elsewhere between monarchy and warfare. The chapters on chivalry were quoted at length in the article on chivalry ("chevalerie") in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedie, surely in part because they reflected this new anthropological view of history, whereby culture and society were perceived to be inextricably linked. In accordance with the Enlightenment's new valorization of literature, in which men (and sometimes women) of letters were seen as representatives of an intellectual avant-garde, medieval literature was seen as a point of light in a dark period in history, in short, as a civilizing force. This is not so far from Chapelain's earlier claim, in which he provocatively questioned the common equivalence between the Middle Ages and barbarism.
J'ai lu ce livre [Lancelot] et ... j'y ai vu la source de tous les romans qui, depuis quatre ou cinq siecles, ont fait le plus noble divertissement des cours de l'Europe et ont empeche que la barbarie n'occupat le monde entierement. (166)
Medieval romance, considered a shaping force in creating medieval society, is perceived as preventing rather than strengthening barbarism. While adhering to accepted usage, in which "barbaric" is held to be the proper adjective to describe this historical period, Chapelain nonetheless postulates that our view is too generalized, for it fails to account for the fact that it was the Middle Ages that gave birth to that ultimate expression of "modern" refinement: the novel.
The Middle Ages as a Counter-Model for Modern Society
If medieval literature could be presented as a civilizing force, the opposite of barbarism, it was because the "moeurs" it helped create had a fundamentally moral dimension. While the term "moeurs" could, in its weakest sense, denote merely the customs of a people or an age, the strong sense of the term--morals or morality--is never far from the surface in Chapelain's text. His third and most far-reaching argument in favor of medieval romance, following upon the linguistic and historical ones, is an ethical argument. While the literary style in which events and behavior are described in medieval romance really is barbaric, i.e. devoid of any rhetorical elegance, the events and behavior themselves are exemplary. Lancelot, for example, is to Chapelain the ideal lover:
Il n'y eut jamais de si parfait galant que Lancelot; il ne joue point l'amoureux, il l'est veritablement.... la dame est parfaitement adoree et, ... au lieu de paroles, on ne lui donne que des effets, ou les yeux et les oreilles rencontrent moins de satisfaction, mais ou l'esprit et le coeur la rencontrent tout entiere. (196-197)
This is an example of perfect sincerity, in which language and rhetoric, perceived as a source of falsehood, do not intervene to corrupt pure sentiment. One of the most persistent commonplaces associated with the medieval past was that of the courtly lover, whose deeds speak louder than his words. The praise of courtly love and medieval lovers' sincerity was frequently linked to another topos that went back to Renaissance humanism, that of the "bon vieulx temps," elaborated in two rondeaux by Clement Marot and Victor Brodeau (Damian-Grint 5-9). The memory of the "bon vieulx temps" was closely linked to a perceived degeneration of morals, as in Frederick the Great's lament that "Le bon vieux temps n'est plus, le siecle degenere, / L'amour etoit jadis tendre, discret, sincere: / Il n'est plus a present que leger et trompeur, / La debauche succede aux sentiments du coeur" (135). The medieval past, by the middle of the eighteenth century, came to be perceived by some authors as the reverse of the corrupt present, as classical Antiquity's Other, or even, in its most philosophical form, as a past, quasi-mythical Golden Age.
In the most radical version of this view, the Golden Age acquired a political dimension that drew on humanist ideals expressed during the Italian quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns--"une vision geopolitique de lettre independant, et non pas les oeilleres de sujet d'un Etat national ou ecclesiastique" (Fumaroli 33). This vision was particularly linked to the military, aristocratic values equated with the system of chivalry. Despite Chapelain's participation in the institutions of absolutism, faint echoes of this ideal can still be heard in his comments on "la vertu militaire" (194) of medieval paladins and the "peuples du Nord" with whom he associates them: Goths, Teutons, Huns, Normans and Scyths, among others (186-187). Chapelain's Lecture balances uneasily on this point between admiration of the medieval anda royalist discourse that cannot but condemn this "reste de l'ancienne brutalite des Francais" (188). Eighty years before Henri de Boulainvilliers' anti-monarchist defense of feudalism, which again focused particular attention on the military worth of the "peuples du Nord," it was clear that praise of the medieval could be linked to the adoption of a critical stance in discussions of the monarchical state.
Medievalist discourse most clearly engaged with Enlightenment thought in its philosophical dimension. Discussions of the Middle Ages regularly invoked another topos in describing their significance for modern humankind, that of "l'enfance de l'homme." In critiques of the medieval, this topos took on the form of the quasi-Hobbesian "silvestres homines" (186) or uncivilized, brutal men evoked by Menage in Chapelain's Lecture. The more positive image of infancy could be understood either in mythical terms, as in the many literary texts that classicized the Middle Ages by presenting them as a quasi-utopian Golden Age, or in more anthropological or historical ones, as in Montesquieu's use of the medieval past as a point of origin for modern political institutions. The question of origins--the origin of languages, the origin of inequality, and so forth--was one that particularly engaged the philosophes. Infancy or the state of childhood, likewise, provided another great current in Enlightenment thought, which was from the beginning preoccupied with pedagogy and forming future generations of citizens. Thus the notion of mankind's medieval infancy had several dimensions, including historical and philosophical ones.
Two adjectives that recur regularly in discussions of mankind's medieval infancy are "naive" and "innocent." In Chapelain's Lecture, both of these are imbued with strong positive connotations. A century later, Marguerite de Lubert's abridgement of the chivalric romance Amadis de Gaule, while modernizing the medieval romance, still draws attention to the fact that it has sought to preserve "ces precieux traits de simplicite, qui peignent les moeurs de nos premiers ages" (x). The author of the preface underlines the "innocence" of the world described:
On ne s'est donc permis aucun changement qui put alterer le fond de l'ouvrage, & faire deroger l'Historien a sa simplicite Gauloise.... On a ete long-tems indecis sur certains Actes de piete qui precedent, accompagnent, & suivent les combats des Chevaliers & leurs receptions. Mais, quoiqu'ils soient un peu burlesques, comme ils sont dans la verite des moeurs, & qu'ils servent a caracteriser l'innocence de ces tems-la, on a juge a propos de les conserver. (xiii-xvi)
Although the form of religious faith practiced in the Middle Ages may appear comical to modern audiences, who have been corrupted by centuries of civilization, it is actually more sincere than eighteenth-century expressions of faith. This echoes Chapelain's insistence, throughout his Lecture, on the religious sincerity demonstrated by the protagonists of medieval romance, rendering his Middle Ages "modern" by definition, by the fact that they belong to the Christian era rather than to pagan Antiquity (Mortgat-Longuet 247). As in the later Romantic idealization of the Middle Ages, religion played an important role in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century argument for the period's rehabilitation. (3) Like medieval love, which was perceived to be purer than modern love, medieval morality was perceived to be purer than modern customs. From here to the hypothesis of medieval virtue was but a step, which Chapelain did not hesitate to make:
Les siecles les plus voisins du notre, a mesure qu'ils se sont approches de la lumiere, se sont recules de la vertu.... Si rien m'y touche, c'est cette jalousie de leur [les chevaliers] parole, cette maxime d'observer toujours ponctuellement ce qu'ils ont promismorale digne de l'admiration des ages illumines, et qui, par sa constante pratique, laisse bien loin derriere soi la fanfare de la theorie des preceptes. (193)
The language of this passage offers an ironic criticism of the prevailing metaphor of modern enlightenment as opposed to medieval darkness, for the "ages illumines" are now opposed to virtue, empty modern theory to the richness of medieval praxis.
The development initiated by Chapelain culminates in Rousseau's Discours sur les sciences, a text that, like Chapelain's Lecture a century earlier, stands at the crossroads of two competing visions of the medieval. Drawing simultaneously on humanist and classicist precedents, Rousseau's Discours sur les sciences is the text in which Rousseau first revealed himself as an outspoken critic of Enlightenment, following his famous "illumination" on the road to Vincennes. More importantly, this text dramatizes a return to the older humanist views of the medieval that Chapelain had espoused a century earlier. Like Chapelain, Rousseau's poetic affinities were with the Italian humanists. Tasso's chivalric epic Jerusalem Delivered, as he himself admitted, was the work of literature that most moved him during his life, and it was the only one he read in the last months before his death (Hammann 859). At the same time, as Patrick Riley has demonstrated, Rousseau was also fundamentally ancient in his outlook, for he took from the Ancients their ideals of republican simplicity and disinterested virtue. What has not received enough critical attention is the way in which Rousseau combined these influences by consistently projecting medievalist themes onto his imagined classical Golden Age. His medievalism is evident in the very titles of his most well-known works, from La Nouvelle Heloise, with its reference to the twelfth-century ill-fated lovers Heloise and Abelard (whose narrative of persecution Rousseau adopted as his own), right through the Confessions, with its crucial Augustinian intertext. This medievalist strand, which makes of Rousseau, as he characterized himself, a "modern who has an ancient soul" (cited in Riley 91), emerges already in his first major work, the Discours sur les sciences.
In its opening paragraph, as we have seen, Rousseau's text reproduces the stereotypical image of the Middle Ages as an age of darkness, in contrast to the present-day age of light. The emphatic tone of the passage, however, should alert the reader familiar with the text's genealogy to other possible subtexts. Rousseau has already announced in the preface, after all, what his position will be: to argue against the idea that the progress of the arts and sciences has purified society's "moeurs," which should qualify his praise in this first passage. In addition, he includes an epigraph on the title page, borrowed from Ovid's Tristia, which calls for explanation: "Barbarus hic ego sum quia non intelligor illis" (V.x, 210) ("Here they take me for a barbarian because they do not understand me"). The word "barbarian" is ambiguous: while Ovid, lamenting his exile "hic in Scythicis gentibus" ("among these Scythian tribes") clearly intended it as an antithesis, Rousseau intimates that his use of the term may be different. Thus, by designating himself on the title page as a "Citoyen de Geneve," he distances himself from Parisian society, i.e. the epitome of civilization in his day. His stated aim to criticize the arts and sciences also suggests a position closer to that of the title-page "barbarus" than was Ovid's in the original elegy. Rousseau's basic sympathy, if not actual identification, with the Scythian barbarian will be supported by a further reading of the Discours sur les sciences and explains why he re-used the epigraph in one of his last and most personal works, the posthumously published Dialogues de Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques.
Rousseau's framing strategies render problematic the introductory passages, with their cliche image of the medieval. As it turns out, it is not the Middle Ages that are dark, but the present, for, Rousseau goes on to argue, it is precisely the progress of the arts and sciences that has caused the corruption of virtue and morality.
Nos ames se sont corrompues a mesure que nos Sciences et nos Arts se sont avances a la perfection.... On a vu la vertu s'enfuir a mesure que leur lumiere s'elevoit sur notre horizon, et le meme phenomene s'est observe dans tous les tems et dans tous les lieux. (9-10)
Like Chapelain before him, who had posited an opposition between "les ages illumines" and "vertu," Rousseau too perceives a profound incompatibility between "vertu" and "lumiere." This opposition covers another one, that between knowledge and virtue (or, in Chapelain's wording, rhetoric versus naivete). Rousseau underscores this opposition on the opening page of his Discours sur les sciences by declaring that "ce n'est point la Science que je maltraite ... c'est la Vertu que je defends" (5). Summing up his argument at the end of the Discours sur les sciences, be entreats his readers: "restons dans notre obscurite ... laissons a d'autres le soin d'instruire les Peuples de leurs devoirs, et bornons-nous a bien remplir les notres" (30). By concluding on this note, he thus redefines obscurity as a positive trait, to be contrasted to the false "eclat" or "lumiere" of contemporary philosophy, which, despite its outward appearance, has little to say about practical virtue. This concern with obscurity is an important undercurrent that traverses Rousseau's writing and complements his well-known obsession with transparency and light, most famously of all in his Confessions and Dialogues. Although in these texts, images of shadows and darkness are used to describe the plot he believed his enemies had mounted against him, they are also applied to his own literary work. Rousseau refers to the Confessions as a "labyrinthe obscur et fangeux" (18) and indeed claims that his aim is to describe "l'oeuvre de tenebres dans lequel ... je me trouve enseveli, sans que, de quelque facon que je m'y sois pu prendre, il m'ait ete possible d'en percer l'effrayante obscurite" (695). Helene Vianu has drawn attention to the central image of the sunlit tree in Rousseau's writing, with the play of light and dark in its branches, as a means to understand the role he assigned to obscurity in his thinking. The relation between light and dark is a dialectical one. Thus, there is a central contrast throughout his work between the Golden Age ideal of "une vie obscure et simple, mais egale et douce" (43-44), as described in the Confessions and as realized--in fiction--at Clarens, and the light of contemporary society, whose brightness only blinds us to true virtue.
In his condemnation of Enlightenment, Rousseau does however single out a few real, as opposed to fictional, societies, which in his view have escaped at least in part the corrupting influence of civilization. Rousseau scholarship has rightly emphasized the role played by Sparta as a model of antique virtue (Grell 460-468, Shklar). In the Discours sur les sciences, Rousseau also specifically names five other societies as counter-models to the depraved present. These are, in the order in which he names them: the Persians under Cyrus the Great and the Scythians, as evoked by Xenophon in his Cyropedia; the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus in his Germania; Rome "dans le tems de sa pauvrete et de son ignorance" (11); and modern-day Switzerland, which he praises for its inhabitants' courage and patriotism. Having identified himself, on the title-page, both with the Swiss and with the Scythian "barbarus" described by Ovid, Rousseau now cites these same peoples as counter-models to polite Parisian society--as the Scyths had indeed already figured in Chapelain's Lecture as the medieval opposite of contemporary Frenchmen. The qualities praised in these examples are primarily military, in keeping with Rousseau's argument that the cultivation of the arts weakens the body and fosters a servile attitude. As in Boulainvilliers' medievalist condemnation of absolutism, a political form that he considered a degeneration from original feudal virtue, military values are central to the critique of contemporary society.
The Middle Ages are not explicitly named in this enumeration, but their presence seems indisputable. Tacitus's positive description of the mores of the Germanic tribes had already been invoked by humanists who, opposing local, medieval antiquity to classical Antiquity, had rendered problematic the concept of humanist enlightenment contrasted to medieval darkness (Burke 97). Moreover, in Rousseau's own day, allusions to the Germanic tribes were doubly significant, for they implied a possible stance within the debate among political thinkers as to the respective merits of the Franks and the Gauls. Praise of the warrior qualities of the Germanic Franks was an essential component in Boulainvilliers' defense of feudalism, which he held to have been the state of society after the conquest of the Gaulish inhabitants of France by the invading Franks. Rousseau's praise of the "simplicite, l'innocence et les vertus" (11) of the Germanic warrior tribes cannot be considered in isolation from these larger political debates shaping the notion of what can be termed, somewhat paradoxically, an "aristocratic republicanism." More importantly, by holding up these new examples of antique virtue, with their strong militarist component, he turns the language of Enlightenment on its head, recalling Chapelain's earlier, ironic use of the image of the blind man who, in not seeing the light, is more enlightened than modern man:
Je vous laisse a juger si ... les chevaliers ... n'etaient pas d'honnetes barbares et d'estimables lourdauds, et s'il n'y a pas a s'etonner que notre habilete puisse etre eclairee dans son devoir par leur ignorance; que de tels aveugles puissent servir de guides a des clairvoyants comme nous, enfin, qu'ils eussent de si grandes vertus, dans les purs termes de la nature, et que nous soyons si couverts de vices au milieu des enseignements de l'art. (194)
In this passage, a Rousseau-like opposition is created between nature and virtue on one hand, and art and vice on the other. By its association with vice, it is clear that "art" is to be understood in a sense close to its etymological companion, "artifice." The passage formulates a pessimistic point of view that, although sometimes held to be incompatible with the cultural optimism of the Moderns, betrayed an underlying anxiety perhaps inherent to their progressivist rhetoric. Thus, even a prominent Modern like Charles Perrault was to muse that, civilization having reached its peak, "peut-etre commencons-nous a entrer dans la vieillesse [du siecle ou nous vivons]" (I, 54). In the eighteenth century, similar views were held by Voltaire, Fontenelle and Turgot among others (Hulliung 42). This anti-progressivist vision, in which present-day civilization was perceived as incapable of moving forward, draws on the same sources as Chapelain's vision of a moral decline accompanying the progress of civilization.
The shadow side of the foundational rhetoric of Enlightenment, crystallized in the image of medieval darkness, reveals the complexity of eighteenth-century thought. Enlightenment, by its very invocation of the notion of "lumieres," contains in it the seeds of its own autocritique. The intriguing expression coined by Chapelain in 1647, "les tenebres de notre Antiquite moderne," can be read as one of the opening salvos in a longer battle over the concept of historical evolution. Culminating in the profound critique of Enlightenment expressed by that "modern who has an ancient soul," Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this debate had as its ultimate object a diagnosis of the modern condition itself. Chapelain and Rousseau drew on humanist precedents in order to propose a vision in which modernity could be perceived not as the result of a process of historical progress, but rather as moral and political degeneration. Ages previously viewed as dark were now viewed in terms of moral exemplarity, while the philosophes' light of reason was suspected to conceal merely false "eclat." Within this questioning of Enlightenment values, reconceptualizations of the medieval--no longer viewed exclusively as a barbaric past, but increasingly, as a site of lost innocence--played a crucial role.
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(1.) I follow here Jonathan Israel's "controversialist approach," which focuses on arguments and debates rather than on finished theories, and on the intellectual process rather than on the individual, canonical works of the major thinkers (21).
(2.) For the dating of modernity, most accounts agree on the crucial role played by the works of Descartes in producing a new "rational" or mechanistic world view. Descartes' Discours de la methode was published in 1637, his Meditationes in 1641, and his Principia in 1644.
(3.) The role of religion calls for further analysis, but the complexity and importance of the subject is such that I cannot begin to do it justice in an essay of this length. The emphasis that eighteenth-century medievalist authors laid on religion may explain modern scholarship's reluctance to view their medievalism as part of Enlightenment thought, which in oversimplified descriptions is sometimes perceived as antithetical to religion.…
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Publication information: Article title: Medievalism and Enlightenment, 1647-1750: Jean Chapelain to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Contributors: Montoya, Alicia C. - Author. Journal title: The Romanic Review. Volume: 100. Issue: 4 Publication date: November 2009. Page number: 493+. © 1998 Columbia University. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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