Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Heroic Uncertainties: Representations of the Hero in the French Epic of the Later Middle Ages
by Cayer, Jonathan, Ph.D., Yale University, 2012, 272; 3525194
Abstract (Summary)

This study focuses on fourteenth-century chansons de geste, a corpus mostly forgotten and/or generally maligned as derivative. By a thorough examination of the permutations of the late epic hero, however, I show that these poems have much to teach us about the social and cultural anxieties and aspirations of the fourteenth century public. Reflecting the crisis and the gloom of the era, the late epic hero is, far from Roland's towering fixity and certainty, a figure in constant need of being reconstructed and reassembled. Through a threefold reading of who the fourteenth-century hero is or can be, my dissertation sheds light on the crisis of values of the late Middle Ages articulated explicitly or implicitly around the attempts of the trouvères to recover the heroes of old.

In this dissertation, I explore two poles of late epic heroism: its possibility and its impossibility. On the one hand, the thirst for heroes; on the other, the fractured picture of heroism. In Chapter One, I present the fragmented and diversified picture of heroism that nonetheless coalesces around a discourse of heroic self-definition. I argue that by making use of motifs and narrative structures from folktales (e.g., lost and stolen children raised away from their aristocratic parents), the late epic poets engaged, through a series of socio-economic mises en scene, the issue of who could be a hero. In the second part of the chapter, I look at the ambiguous and uneasy figure of the late epic bastard. I show that although he is the issue of what could have been called "romance influence" (i.e., sex), his presence in the poem contributes to the valorization of the epic ideal as he always seeks to reintegrate and support the paternal lineage.

In Chapter Two, I look at the episodic appearance of the merveilleux in the late epic and show, once again, that even though it might originally come from romance, it is quickly reintegrated within an epic framework. However, I also show that this generic cross-pollination either comes at a price or is the result of an initial lack. By incorporating figures heterogeneous to the epic genre (Arthur, Morgan, faeries, etc.), the late trouvères seem to implicitly recognize that something is missing in their picture of heroism, that the hero has to be supplemented by something external, as he has become insufficient to perform his chivalric duties by himself Whether we marvel at or are bothered by the merveilleux in the late epic, I argue that it is ultimately a symptom of a more general malaise within the epic universe.

Chapter Three continues the discussion of epic "lack" and its need for supplementation by examining the roles that women play in the chansons de geste. Though they had for a long time been ignored by critics, deemed heterogeneous to the martial world of the heroes, women come to have ever more prominent importance in the development of the genre. I examine in particular the women who are, either permanently or for a time, added to the heroic pantheon. They achieve such status either by cross-dressing or, in two surprising occurrences, what one might term a "holy sex change." I show that these women fighters can be interpreted as an index through which we can analyze the fragmentation of the heroic ideal.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Bloch, R. Howard
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 73/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Medieval literature, Romance literature
Keywords: Chanson de geste, Crossdressing, Epic, Epic poetry, Fourteenth century, France, French medieval literature, Hero, Merveilleux in literature, Poetry, Romance
Publication Number: 3525194
ISBN: 9781267574787
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