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Rethinking Self-Reflexivity and Genre in Medieval French Romance


This dissertation argues that gestures of literary self-consciousness, especially those articulated through rhetorical play and ironic voicing on the part of the first-person narrator, become a conventional feature of medieval French romance tradition in the wake of Chrétien de Troyes.

The highly developed self-reflexivity of a number of canonical twelfth-century French romances has been the focus of much scholarly attention over the last few decades, but critics have tended to treat them as the unique hallmarks of a handful of exceptional canonical texts, ascribing the innovation of literary self-consciousness to the individual master authors. Thus, much criticism of French romance beyond a few canonical masterworks has taken as its primary goal to prove that a romance text exhibits literary self-consciousness of its own forms and conventions; self-reflexivity is taken as the end of analysis, and its presence indicates that a text is unique and worthy of critical interest.

The dissertation looks at explicitly intertextual French romances of the late twelfth century (Renaut de Beaujeu’s Le Bel Inconnu, chapter 1) and the thirteenth century (Heldris de Cornuailles’s Le Roman de Silence and the anonymous Amadas et Ydoine, chapter 2), as well as a thirteenth-century German adaptation (Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein, chapter 3), in order to show how readers, adaptors, and translators of a canonical generation of twelfth-century romance recognized and responded to the techniques of self-reflexive literary play that pervade Chrétien and the French Tristan tradition. The romancers that followed in Chrétien’s footsteps did not fail to recognize the irony, ambiguity, and play within his oeuvre; nor did they simply offer derivative or lesser imitations of his famous scenes and passages. Rather, they relied on readers’ previous knowledge and expectations formed by an earlier generation of romance in order not only to reproduce but to build and comment upon by-now familiar gestures of self-reflexivity, often pushing romance to its formal and logical limits. Or, in the case of Iwein, written for German readers largely without access to or detailed knowledge of the French source corpus or subsequent tradition, Hartmann manages to adapt and translate the poetic concerns of his French source and his French contemporaries for a different audience.

Attentiveness to gestures of self-reflexivity not as the indicator of individual authorial ability (something that distinguishes good and interesting authors from derivative and uninteresting ones) but as forms that can and do become familiar and conventional, and that can be and are innovated upon, satirized, and subverted help us to understand the later romance tradition and its relation to its predecessors in a new, more productive way.

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