NEW YORK, PARIS EXHIBITION… « Au parler que m’aprist ma mere » (Speaking in my mother tongue)

Fig. 1Fig. 2Fig. 3Fig. 4Fig. 5Fig. 6Une exposition, organisée en avril à New York puis en mai à Paris, présente un ensemble exceptionnel de seize manuscrits rédigés en français entre 1300 et 1550. Ouvrages d’une grande rareté, écrits en prose ou en vers, ces codex, pour la plupart enluminés, révèlent la place souvent méconnue de la femme dans la littérature et la société médiévale… Femme lectrice, écrivain et… bibliophile.

Nous publions ici le texte original en anglais du Dr. Sandra Hindman qui a dirigé cette exposition.


The subtitle appropriates a quote from Jean de Meun, who with Guillaume de Lorris wrote the Roman de la Rose, the very bedrock of medieval French literature. In c. 1325, Jean describes writing in French as “speaking as I learned from my mother” (parler que m’aprist ma mere) or we might say now “speaking in my mother tongue.” Although the earliest records of written French date from the ninth century, by the thirteenth century French had become widespread as a written language, even if for writers like Dante, Latin was still considered the sovereign of the vernacular (“sovrano del volgare,” Convivo 1:7).

From Latin to the mother tongue

Many factors influenced the shift from Latin to the “mother tongue.” The change from an agrarian economy based on the land to a commercial economy in the towns and cities imposed a need for the middle classes to understand each other in written as well as oral forms. The centralization of French government and the rise of a nation state with the reign of King Philip Augustus (reigned 1180-1223) dictated a need for a language through which the court and the nobles could wield power far and wide (medieval French written and spoken in Paris became known as the “langue du roi” often contrasted with the “mother tongue” which was usually a dialect). And, not least of all, women played a major role the rise and evolution of medieval French as women readers, writers, and collectors. By the fifteenth century, vernacular language was well established as the language of literature, historical record, and personal expression.

The Flowering of Medieval French Literature: catalogue and exhibition

This article previews an exhibition in New York and Paris, a scientific catalogue, and an international colloquium that all focus on a group of sixteen manuscripts all written in the French language between c. 1300 and c. 1550. Mostly illuminated, the manuscripts are widely diverse. They are written in verse and in prose. Some are translations from the Latin, others new compositions entirely in French. They treat a wide variety of subjects ranging from literature and science, to philosophy and theology, and to history and government. There are some unique texts that exist only in the manuscripts included here. A significant number of the volumes boast royal provenance. There are signed and dated works by newly identified scribes, as well as works by famous calligraphers. Some of the manuscripts still have their original bindings. So rare on the art market are illuminated manuscripts in the French language of this period that this project would not be possible without the purchase of a substantial group of mostly unpublished manuscripts from the Collection of Joost R. Ritman (born 1941), the Amsterdam businessman and founder of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. The following examples present a “taste” of the different categories of French vernacular texts, beginning with Literature and Science and the rise of the vernacular in the thirteenth century and how it manifests itself over three centuries.

A medieval encyclopedia, written for a woman patron
and painted by a woman illuminator

Encyclopedias were popular among the earliest of French vernacular compositions and reflect the Middle Age’s preoccupation with knowing the world. The thirteenth-century romance-encyclopedia La fontaine de toute science or Le livre de Sydrac is a didactic treatise, composed like a fable or fairy tale, in which the mythical King Bochtus tries to build a mighty tower between the kingdoms of India and Persia, but alas every night it is destroyed. Finally, Bochtus summons the astronomer Sydrac, who explains to him that in order to break the spell the land is under, he must gather herbs which grow on a certain hill guarded by dog-headed men (the subject of the striking frontispiece). Boctus then asks Sydrac a series of questions: Where does fire go when it is extinguished? Do birds, animals, and fish have souls? How big is the world? How do birds fly? Why is the sea salty? Do fish sleep in the water? Where does wind come from? How many stars are there in the sky? How are the stars held up? What language did Adam use when he named the animals? and so forth.

The frontispiece illumination is securely identified as the work of the celebrated female illuminator and Parisian stationer Jeanne de Montbaston. Jeanne worked with her husband between 1338 and 1353 as part of a husband-and-wife-team, and more than fifty manuscripts survive by their hands (nearly all in institutional collections). The couple is depicted as a pair of scribes and illuminators each seated at their work tables in a famous copy of the Roman de la Rose. Jeanne is one of the earliest women we know of working in the Parisian book trade, and probably the one we known more about than any other. The arms of the frontispiece demonstrate that the manuscript was made on commission for the Queen of Navarre. This was either Jeanne de France, who married Charles le Mauvais, king of Navarre, in 1351 or the Jeanne de France who was daughter of Louis X and Queen of Navarre from 1328 to 1349. In either case, the manuscript, illuminated by a woman and for a woman, is of royal provenance.

The only manuscript known of an unrecorded
author illuminated by a mannerist artist

At the dawn of the Renaissance two centuries later, the anonymous author Mellon Preudhomme presents another stab at knowing the world, this time from a hermetical perspective and in prose, and in Latin as well as French. This entirely unpublished work in French prose and verse (with Latin marginalia), Le lustre des temps, was composed by the hitherto unrecorded author, Mellon Preudomme and dedicated to Guillaume Preudhomme, a figure in the circle of King Francis I, who was “trésorier de l’épargne,” appointed by Louise de Savoie. Known in this single copy, the work is dated 1534, written and most likely illuminated in Rouen. It combines historical, genealogical, and hermetical poetry from a wide variety of sources – scriptural, patristic, classical, and medieval – to retrace the notable moral feats of past characters with passages clearly influenced by the pseudo-epigraphical writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the purported author of the Hermetic corpus. Had this manuscript disappeared, this unusual work would have been lost to all.

The highly original illuminations are also partly hermetical, such as the striking Creation of Light and the inclusion of the hermetical symbols of the Pelican and the Phoenix nest, and the cycle opens with the reclining author visited by Dame Solitude portrayed in a mannerist costume in flowing pink and blue draperies. The style relates to models coming from the workshop of the prolific Geoffroy Dumonstier, active in Rouen but trained at the court of Francis I in Fontainebleau alongside the Italian mannerist painter Rosso Fiorentino

The writing of history and the translation of the official
chronicle of French history: a copy from the personal library of King Francis I

History too responded to the impulse for works written in the French language. Studies have shown that the translation of the official Latin history of France, as originally compiled by the monk Primat at the Abbey of St.-Denis, into the vernacular, known as the Grandes Chroniques de France, was generated by the northern French nobility’s desire to assimilate a royalist model of the kingdom’s past into a readable form. Copies over the next two centuries are widely diverse, incorporating additions intended to personalize and contemporize the text. This example, probably made for Jacques d’Armagnac, has been recently identified by an early shelfmark as from the personal library of King Francis I, after whom it passed through a long line of distinguished bibliophiles up to Comte Paul Durrieu (d. 1925) and his heirs. Attributed to the Parisian painter Maître de Jacques de Besançon (an early work?), the lovely frontispiece depicts a kneeling monk (Primat) presenting a green leather-bound gilt-edged book to an enthroned king of France dressed in ceremonial garb and holding a scepter. Still in its original limp vellum binding, the manuscript acquires additional interest for its attribution to the scribe Michel Gonnot, who worked for Jacques d’Armagnac.

The Grandes Chroniques de France survives in over 120 copies ranging in date from 1274 to the end of the fifteenth century; most copies of the text are found today in public institutions. This is the only copy to include an apparently unedited genealogical chronicle with some textual features directly related to the Armagnac family.

Women and the manuscript book

The impact women had on the rise of French vernacular literature is undeniable. As early as Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century, male writers sought to feature women, who constituted a natural audience for their romances. From Marie de France (late 12th century) to Christine de Pizan (d. 1431) to Catherine d’Amboise (d. 1550), women writing in French struggled to carve out a place for themselves within a largely male literary canon. And, certainly by the Renaissance if not earlier, women – particularly aristocratic women – also built important collections that they used not only for pleasure but to make statements about their lineage, power, and cultural heritage. There can be no question that women, especially women writers but also women collectors, were aware that they were flying counter to the norm (Christine even invents a metaphorical gender transformation in order to navigate a man’s world in the Mutacion de fortune), but for them French vernacular literature was empowering, giving them a voice and enhancing their self-status.

A “love book” given from a learned husband
to his bibliophile wife

An excellent example of the impact of women on French vernacular is this so-called “love book,” which also survives as the embodiment of one of the great love stories of the sixteenth century. Berosus’s Chaldean Chronicle, Histoire caldayque, in French prose was presented (and translated?) by Pierre Balsac to his wife, the noble Anne Malet de Graville (c.1490-1540), with whom he eloped. They incurred the wrath of Anne’s father who thus disinherited her. The couple’s romance was a true love match and they had eleven children; the handsome miniature shows Anne receiving the book from Cupid, and notes in the manuscript itself allude to their romance. In the manuscript Anne writes suggestively about remembering what happened while she was reading the manuscript in bed. Figuring prominently in the court of the Queen Claude of France, Anne belongs to a group of highly educated literary women who became poets and novelists in sixteenth-century France. It is a testimonial to Anne’s upbringing and scholarly interests that Pierre de Balsac should think Berosus’s History a suitable love gift. The illumination of this all-important book was entrusted to the celebrated Jean Pichore, active in Paris from 1502-1520.

One Renaissance woman’s mastery
of the harsh world governed by Fortune

Written just decades after Anne de Graville’s love book, the manuscript by Catherine d’Amboise (1482-1550) is a rare example of consolatory literature written by a women in the French Renaissance, probably intended to circulate exclusively among family members saddened by the loss of the head of the Amboise dynasty, Georges, who died in 1525. The present copy is the most important among the three known copies, because the author directly supervised its production and devised the unique program of illustrations, and it is the only one remaining in private hands. Entitled La complainte de la dame pasmee contre Fortune, the text consists of an autobiographical allegory, in which the author (Catherine) undertakes a mystical pilgrimage through a harsh world influenced by Fortune on the path to eternal happiness.

The original cycle of illustrations recounts the vagaries of Fortune putting the narrator, who is clearly identified as Catherine by portraiture and heraldry, at the center of the story. The pictures begin with a swooning Catherine, sick with grief, and they follow her through her encounter with Fortune and her flight from the Mother of Despair, through the crucial lessons she learns from Patience, until she finds herself with Knowledge of God in the Park of Divine Love. A little-known, but clearly skillful Poitevin illuminator, P. Merevache (a woman?), who was also responsible for other illuminated manuscripts in this close-knit circle of aristocratic women, likely painted the miniatures. The manuscript survives as testimony of the persistence, long after Gutenberg (his Bible, c. 1455) of manuscripts in court circles, manuscripts that were intended for limited and select circulation and never meant to be printed.

Manuscripts in the Age of Print

At least for a century after the beginning of printing in c. 1455, manuscripts continued to be transcribed and illuminated because they must have still held significance for their audiences. Often such exemplars were intended for select circulation, whether copied for the scribes own use or destined for noble patrons. A study of the Renaissance manuscript in the age of print culture constitutes an investigation in its own right, and each surviving volume constitutes valuable evidence in the reconstruction of that history.

A newly discovered commission for Louis de Bruges
written by Colard Mansion, calligrapher-stationer-printer

At the dawn of printing, a manuscript by Colard Mansion for Louis de Bruges witnesses how scribes and libraires simultaneous with the practice of the new technology also perfected the scribal arts in the production of tiny numbers of exceedingly high quality books. This copy of a French translation of an apocryphal Biblical legend, La pénitence d’Adam comes from the workshop of Colard Mansion, the Burgundian scribe, translator, incunable-printer, and friend and working-partner of William Caxton. Even fragments of Mansion’s printed books are extremely rare in private hands, and this is the only manuscript of this text to ever come to the open market. It is newly identified here as in all probability the dedication copy of the second recension of the text made for the famed bibliophile Louis de Gruuthuse himself.

Material evidence confirms this identification : gauffered edges with lozenge decoration are still visible (as they occur on all of Louis of Bruges’s books), the scribe is the same who wrote another manuscript, the Jouvencel, for the same patron, and the borders are by one of two artists (the Master of Edward IV and the Master of the Flemish Boccaccio) much solicited by the Bruges bibliophile. Louis of Bruges owned the dedication copy of the first recension (Paris, BnF, MS fr. 1837); surely he would have wanted a deluxe volume of the second, revised edition produced by his favored team of scribes, illuminators, and binders. This work thus takes its rightful place as a late work directly associated with Mansion’s workshop, at the height of its activity, before the scribe-printer disappeared in 1484.
From Le livre de Sydrac to the Académie française

The technology of the press provided greater access to the mother tongue and contributed to its standardization. Statistics of publications in French are indeed astonishing. Whereas in 1501 only 10% of books published in Paris were in French, by 1575, 55% of all books published in Paris were in French. The triumph of the French vernacular was also promoted by the Renaissance King Francis I, who in 1539, deemed French the official language of his kingdom. Then, in 1635, Cardinal Richelieu founded the Académie française whose mission was “to codify the French language, to give it rules, to make it pure and comprehensible to everyone.” And, the rest, so they say, is history. The medieval and Renaissance manuscripts discussed here endure as vibrant reminders of the historical legacy of modern-day France and the French language.

      Dr. Sandra Hindman

Dr. Sandra Hindman is Professor Emerita of
Art History at Northwestern University,
owner of Les Enluminures located in Paris,
New York, and Chicago, and author,
co-author, and editor of nearly a dozen books
on illuminated medieval manuscripts
and early printed books,
as well as numerous articles


Soumettre un commentaire

Vous devez vous connecter pour soumettre un commentaire.