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When counting is recounting

First a caveat: the following lines will not deal with quantitative methods per se, if we mean by that counting words and assessing frequencies, relying on statistical models, and elaborating complex algorithmic patterns, etc. If my presence in this workshop on quantitative methods has some legitimacy, it could be because as a medievalist, the concept of a single text does not apply for me. In fact, it does not function for medieval literature. The transtextual dimension of medieval literature, and beyond the Middle Ages, until the XVIIIth century, imposes the need to work on a plurality of texts. This is in part due to the topicity of this literature which is defined, in rhetorical terms, by its use of stock formulas. More interestingly as far as the transtextual circulation between texts is concerned, this topicity comes from the recycling of narrative topoi and motives. This is well known, and the object of study of groups such as the SATOR, the Société pour l’analyse de la topique Romanesque or: the Society for the Analysis of Romanesque literature. An outcome of the activities of the Sator since its foundation in 1986, besides the publication of its annual conferences, is a database compiling narrative topoi with their occurrences in narrative works from the Middle Ages until the end of the XVIIIth century: www.satorbase.org. A parallel database is a Thesaurus of supernatural motives in medieval narratives. Although I am an active collaborator in both projects, it is not my intention to focus on them today.

I would rather like to reflect with you on the implicit metadiscourse on medieval literature and its quantitative aspect which is found in the works themselves. This could appear to some of you as a bold paradoxical affirmation, since we all know that we have to wait until the XVIth century for the apparition of institutionalized structures. Even the great medievalist Paul Zumthor felt compelled to put the word literature between quotation marks in his 1987 book La lettre et la voix. De la “litterature” médiévale (Paris, Seuil). A loose translation of this title could be: Literacy and Orality. On medieval “literature”. The quotation marks draw the attention on the oral component of this literature which explains to a certain extent, in part because of its recourse to memory, the quantitative transtextual aspect I mentioned earlier. However, the lack of an institutionalized discourse on literature does not mean, even in cultures in which oral modes of composition and reception are predominant, that a metadiscourse – often metaphorized but not always – does not exist. A sort of theorization of one’s practice. This is exactly what is manifest in the many examples of recurring formulas in the texts associating counting and recounting, as if the core of story telling, if not its origin, was naming people and things and counting them.

What I will present today is in part an outcome of my study on lists in medieval literature, from the XIIth to the XVIth century, entitled Le commerce des mots or “trading words” (Geneva, Droz, 2006). Typical situations give rise to lists. A sequence of war, a tournament, the evocation of festivities go usually with the names of participants or guests. The recurrent episodes of hospitality are stereotypically accompanied by the series of instruments played by entertainers. Some of these lists are found in enumerative pieces such as Le dit du mercier, an enumeration of goods sold by a pedlar or La bataille de Carême et de Charnage, the battle between Lent and Carnival with its accumulations of foods. The first enumerative piece in my collection dating from around 1165, was composed by a Catalan troubadour, Guereau de Cabrera. Disparaging the incompetence of his jongleur, and boasting about his own knowledge of literary works, he gives a substantial list of chansons de geste and romances. Besides this corpus of enumerative poetry, lists are inserted in long narratives such as chansons de geste, novels, and at the end of the period, dramatic works.

I will return later to these manifestations of quantity in medieval literature, especially to enumerative pieces and lists made of literary works. To a certain extent they constitute, from the middle of the XIIth century to the XVIth century, an image of the literary canon of the time, a representation of its evolution from catalogues of works to the elaboration of a Parnassus of authors at the turn of the XVIth century. I would like to consider first the meaning of counting and naming, and the implications of their synonymy related with the narration of stories. Usually when a list appears in a narrative, it comes with demarcating markers at its beginning and more often at the end. It is precisely at these end of list markers that the counting / naming / recounting analogy is explicitly stated by narrators. Examples are countless of this formulaic association. The quote I selected for my title is typical. “Et autres que nommer ne sai”, meaning “and others that I cannot name”. It comes from Le Dit de la Panthère d’amours, a XIVth century allegorical poem by Nicole de Margival in which the panther emblematizes the Lady he loves, as a closing formula to a list of animals seen in the castle of the God of Love. In this case, the narrator is explicit about the hyperbolic nature of the formula with a comment stating that he cannot remember all of them because there were too many. The impossibility of naming could as well have resulted from the fact that he did not know the specific names of all of them.

This association between the propensity to be exhaustive, which goes with the process of listing things, the admission that it cannot be fulfilled and the role played by memory in its double meaning of collecting data and reminiscing them, characterizes lists and the narrators’ comments on them since their very first manifestations in the vernacular. The Roman de Brut by the Anglo-Norman poet Robert Wace, telling around 1150, the story of Britain and of its legendary founders, establishes the literary and rhetorical narrative procedures for the centuries to come, at least until the end of the Middle Ages. The key episode relating the festivities that took place for the crowning of King Arthur is in fact a sequence of lists. The first one identifies the guests who gathered at his court with their names and the places they are identified with for a total of 97 items. A residue of other guests “de menor tenure”, of lower extraction, don’t deserve to be named and besides, there are too many of them. This revealing distinction is a good illustration of the argumentative value of the list: naming is not neutral and partakes of the epideictic procedures of demonstration. Another example of the narrator’s admission that he cannot provide names comes with the typical reference to the feast itself and the foods and drinks served. For this specific sequence, the formula must achieve the contradictory objective of underlining their abundance without displaying them in a way that does not suit courteous manners. Since courtois romances tend to avoid enumerating foods and drinks, their accumulation at the end of the XVth century novel Jehan de Saintré is the best illustration of a lecherous abbot’s coarseness. The list usually associated with the description of a feast is the one which evokes the art of the poet with the enumeration of the minstrel’s instruments. In the Roman de Brut, the hyperbolic formula of the narrator brings together at the rime the verbs "numer", for the foods and drinks too abundant to be named, and the polysemic "acunter". "Acunter" may mean counting them, as well as recounting and taking into account. The impossibility for the narrator to account for all the participants at the battle between Eneas and Turnus in the Roman of Eneas is expressed with the same quasi formulaic association between "nommer" and "aconter".

We can find in the two other narratives based on stories from Antiquity, the Roman de Troie and the Roman de Thèbes, the insistence put by the narrators on counting and/or naming the warriors involved in the action, due in part to the epic component of these texts. The Roman de Troie is especially interesting in this respect with pages devoted to the identification of the Trojan chiefs followed by the mention that their army counted as much as three thousand knights, then the identification of the Greek chiefs. We had before, as in Homer or Virgil, the enumeration of the 49 ships that brought them from Greece with their 1130 barons. The interest of these three works and Wace’s is that they have determined ways of telling stories for the whole period. When Chrétien de Troyes at the end of the XIIth century, initiates what will become the Arthurian novel, he applies the same formulas. In his first work, Erec et Enide, there is no other way of conveying the splendour of Arthur’s court where Erec introduces Enide, than through the counting / naming formula. He can only name one tenth of the knights gathered in the Great Hall or even maybe one fifteenth. He will however provide the precise count and names of the best ones, those of the Round Table. For the other ones, he will only give their names without counting then because “li nombrers m’encombre” (counting them bothers me) (v. 1683-84). At Erec and Enide’s wedding, the list of guests is regularly interrupted by the mention that Chrétien will add some more names to those already mentioned. When Renaud de Beaujeu, directly inspired by Chrétien de Troyes writes the Bel Inconnu, he admits being unable to count and name knights and ladies at the court (v. 36-37).

For all these authors, the epic model was too powerful to be totally ignored, especially with respect to listing. The ritualized enumeration of warriors or participants to an important event is clearly a motif expected by the audience that must be satisfied by the narrator, as we can see in some of his interventions. This need to produce witnesses could be related to the practices of cultures in which orality is predominant. In Girart de Roussillon, when Girard’s ambassador arrives in front of the King, all those present must be named. Then all the barons who claim having been victims of the King’s offense and who get together to fight him. Again in this case we see the argumentative value of the list and of the accumulation of names. In the Conquest of Jerusalem, numbers are more important than names: hyperbolic thousands of warriors are produced by armies for exhibiting their strength. In the Aliscans, we find with these hyperbolic numbers, a systematic use of precise accounting, for example when Déramé attacks Guillaume with fifteen kings which “I cannot name”, tells the narrator. As in Girart de Roussillon, exact numbers contribute to the sense of historic truth. The number and names of knights present to Renouart’s baptism has testimonial value as well. A parodic piece like the Battle of Lent and Carnival faithfully applies the same convention in conclusion of the list of fishes composing Lent’s army and at the end of meats and other foods fighting for Carnival.

As we see, providing inventories is of major importance for legitimizing the storyteller or the poet. XIVth-century enumerative dits are explicit about this. The Dit du Lendit’s author who has first presented all the merchants at the Parisian fair of the Lendit, then all the towns in which there is a fair, is very proud of having listed 76 of them in his “escrit” and thanks Jesus Christ for that. In the Dit des moustiers (Dit of the monasteries), the poet’s objective is to name each of the 88 monasteries in Paris, if Satan does not interfere with their numbering. In their case as in the Antiq triad, Eneas, Thèbes and Troie, the evocation of urban abundance goes with the pleasure taken in displaying and cataloguing repertories: the names of the towns themselves, streets and notable places (monasteries or taverns), goods and the diversity of trades producing and exchanging them. The new urban society is interested in the representation of its realia and the precision and technicality of the vocabulary for translating them.

Two major XIVth and XVth century poets, Guillaume de Machaut and François Villon can be invoked as witnesses of the counting / naming relationship with what is literature. Guillaume de Machaut, the great musician and “inventor” of polyphony, produced two copious lists of music instruments, one in the Remède de Fortune, and the other in La prise d’Alexandrie. In the Remède de Fortune they are classified according to classes of instruments. His end of list intervention specifies that he tried to name all those he knows : “I want to tell their proper names and their surnames, at least those I know”. He adds that he has divided them up into three categories : “de dois, de penne et de l’archet” (v. 3986-88), which means those played with the fingers, with a feather, and with a bow. There are many examples of lists in Machaut’s works associated with his comments on the necessity of naming and / or counting. They are meant to assess the credibility of his story, and most importantly to show off his verbal virtuosity. In some of these lists, his play on the words "compter", "nombre" and "nombrer", show that for him counting and storytelling are closely related if not synonymous. Here is an example from the Jugement du roy de Navarre. The poet admits his incapacity in counting all the victims of epidemic, of “writing the number of the dead” (v. 395). The strong relationship between writing and counting is confirmed by the enumeration that follows :
Car nuls ne les porroit nombrer,
Ymaginer, penser ne dire,
Figurer, moustrer ne ecrire. (v. 400-402)
“Indeed nobody could count them, imagine them, think nor tell, represent, show nor write.” In other words he produces a catalogue of the mental operations involved in the literary transcription of events. My two last quotes from Machaut are parodic ones, revealing by this parodic bias his compliance with the practice of naming and counting, especially in the context of hyperbolic exaggeration of epic narratives, as well as his ironic distance with it. After a sequence of enumerations of warriors in his piece the Confort d’ami (Comforting a friend), he concludes the number of 100,000 Hungarian enemies killed by the King of Bohemia with this question : is it the right number ? There is a similar occurrence of self derision in his Dit dou Lyon at the end of a list of exotic animals symbolizing evil in Hell. The last one in the list is a two horned beast that he does know how to name. This example is clearly a celebration of the virtues of inventories and a parody of their conventions.

François Villon is an expert in revealing the paradox underlining naming practices in literature. The multiplication of proper names in the Lais and the Testament, either those of his legatees or those he used for identifying himself, or rather playing with the diversity of his identities, translates the paradox which constitutes lists. They manifest themselves as the affirmation of the narrator or the poet’s dream of encompassing the totality of the universe and its creatures, and his own dilution in the substance of words. Critics have spent countless time and effort trying to decipher who was the real person behind the names without much result for the understanding of the poems. We are left with a useless accumulation of knowledge that does not help their comprehension. There is an irreducible opacity in lists of words which has in itself poetic value. Like other inventories, the collection of proper names produced by Villon nourishes the illusion of referring to reality, and in his case, to autobiographical fiction, while diffusing it in the magic of their sound. The reality referred to is a scattered fragmentary one that engages the reader in a quest for coherence which is always frustrated.

Without further transition I now turn briefly to another expression of the significance of quantity in medieval literature, the canon of works which emerges from the catalogues listed in the texts themselves. The first ones come from troubadours showing off in displaying the repertory of works their jongleur should know. They could be epic narratives when the poet is referring to chivalric culture (85 titles of chansons de geste) or references to legends from the Antiquity when he poses as a clerk. What they represent is not the reality of a minstrel’s repertoire, but the awareness that, like with nature, mastering the profusion of texts is a frustrating challenge for the poet or the narrator, and of course, the minstrel himself. Frustrating because it cannot be achieved, but however a source of pride for the list’s author who places himself and his productions as a competitor among these works and their authors, with the hope of outmatching them. Competition and rivalry define the ethos of minstrels as well, the display of works in their repertory being part of their identification, with the recurrent motif of the list of instruments. Such lists of works can be found in chansons de geste, fabliaux, in the Roman de Renart – where the fox counterfeits an English minstrel – and in the prologues of novels. With the list of works opening his Roman du comte d’Anjou, Jean Maillart, a XIVth-century civil servant at Philip the Fair’s court, openly mimics a jongleur competing with others for the attention of his audience. Even Chrétien de Troyes uses the same advertising device in the prologue of his work Cligés. His works are among the huge quantity of songs, epics, novels, lais performed at the festivities around the heroes’ wedding in the Occitan novel Flamenca. Again the catalogue, which is organized according to genres, has no referential value. What all these inventories tell us, besides their identifying and advertising purpose, is the awareness of a virtual entity made of the quantity of works circulating among those whose function was to produce and publish them. It also tells us that, along with the recognition of the existence of a literary corpus, too important to be encompassed with the means available in a manuscript culture in which orality is still prevalent, an effort was made to discriminate between genres. If it is true that even the most competent minstrels could not memorize the totality of works enumerated in some of the most abundant lists, what is implied by these inventories offered to memorization is the quantitative and transtextual aspect of literary culture in the Middle Ages. They constitute virtual libraries, series of bibliographical references, depositories of texts. If some could possibly be mastered in their entirety, most of them were more likely stored as anthologies of significant excerpts. In either case, the result is the same, a text has no significance by itself, only in the context of a corpus. These corpora evolve: they include fewer epics, more fabliaux and novels.

From the early XIIIth century, this anthological conception of literature is translated in the organization of manuscripts in which collections of works are grouped together by scribes. The association of a given work with different companion texts may lead to different emphases and different readings. An example among many is Paris BnF fr. 1374 which associates several texts selected according to a particular theme. Despite their generic diversity, they all share the same interest in the theme of betrayal. Parallel to this evolution emerges the sense of a literary canon, of works and authors coming through as paragons to be admired and challenged. Tristan and Yseut, Chrétien de Troyes romances, Jean Bodel’s fabliaux, the Roman de la Rose, Christine de Pizan, are recurring names in literary inventories. A shift will occur during the XVth century when lists are less interested in the works themselves than in their authors, with the multiplication of series of “bon facteurs”, of good artisans.

Like the narrator of all these medieval texts, the best way for me to conclude is to admit that I cannot name all of them. Or even name all the modern authors who have explicitly associated naming and literary creation (Paul Valéry, Roland Barthes, Georges Pérec, J.M.G. Le Clézio) and of course Borges with the infinity of books in his library of Babel.

Madeleine Jeay

SvD, 29 November 2009

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