An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 3, 2014

Sigu: Médiévisme et lumières, Véronique. Médiévisme et lumières: le Moyen Age dans la ‘Bibliothèque universelle des romans'. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, August 2013 (SVEC 2013:8).

Reviewed by Jessica Stacey, King’s College London (

That the Middle Ages were not highly regarded by eighteenth-century French society is widely known. This is the age of Voltaire writing of the dismal, barbaric birth of Europe, of gothique as a byword for confusion and ugliness, reaching its apogee in the neo-Classicist French Revolution. However, it is also in the eighteenth century that French medievalist scholarship is born with the work of antiquarian La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, who wrote memoirs on chivalry and troubadour poetry which made their way to Horace Walpole’s library at Strawberry Hill.[1] Alongside this serious scholarship, medievalist (or medievalish) short stories were rapidly gaining in popularity. Paperback collections, or bibliothèques, such as the populist Bibliothèque bleue made folk tales and characters dating back to medieval romance cheaply available to an expanding reading public. It is amidst these contrasting strains of thought that, in 1775, the first volume of a new project, the Bibliothèque universelle des romans, is published. The title page is graced by an ambitious mission statement to which Véronique Sigu frequently returns over the course of her new study, Médiévisme et Lumières: le Moyen Age dans la ‘Bibliothèque universelle des romans’, and it is worth quoting this key passage at the outset: ‘La Bibliothèque universelle des romans, ouvrage périodique dans lequel on donne l’analyse raisonnée des romans anciens et modernes, français ou traduits dans notre langue; avec des anecdotes et des notices historiques et critiques concernant les auteurs ou leurs ouvrages; ainsi que les mœurs, les usages du temps, les circonstances particulières et relatives, et les personnages connus, déguisés ou emblématiques.’[2]

The BUR is interested in the process of categorisation. This process was key to the formation of what Roger Chartier, in a well-known article which Sigu cites more than once, dubbed ‘libraries without walls’: encyclopaedic or exemplary collections of texts, in vogue since the seventeenth century.[3] As a universal library of novels, the BUR posits eight distinct classes according to which all novels can be ordered, and the second of the eight categories is romans de chevalerie.[4] It is on these extraits (extracts) or miniatures and their analyse raisonnée that Sigu focusses, also drawing occasionally on the third category of ‘historical’ novels, to elucidate her thesis on the role of the BUR in crafting a place for the medieval in both popular and intellectual thought.

The Bibliothèque universelle des romans has garnered criticism for its pretensions, which were lofty: the editors, working from the Marquis de Paulmy’s extensive collection of manuscripts and with the help of the antiquarian La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, aimed at a more sophisticated audience than the Bibliothèque bleue but, as Lise Andries has shown, BUR extracts were often based not on manuscripts but on the Bibliothèque bleue itself.[5] Sigu acknowledges this charge, but seeks to elevate the collection’s status for both medievalists and eighteenth-century specialists by emphasising both the project’s commitment to ‘serious’, manuscript-based medievalism (especially in its earlier years), as well as the close ties between those working on the project within philosophe as well as antiquarian circles. Sigu makes the philosophical stakes of her project clear in the introduction: as the philosophes often mocked erudition and erudite scholars were frequently hostile to the philosophes, the possibility of the BUR as a site of crossover renders the periodical interesting to those who focus on the history of ideas as well as to those who focus on the history of medieval reception. If accepted readings of intellectual currents in the eighteenth century see reason (philosophy) opposed to memory (erudition) in epistemology, and reason triumphant with far-reaching implications, Sigu seeks to establish the BUR as a location in which these opposed forces might, to some extent, be reconciled (15). Hence the work’s title, which unites rather than opposes médiévisme and lumières – medievalism and Enlightenment.

To elucidate this claim, Sigu begins her analysis with portraits of the two major personalities behind the BUR, the Marquis de Paulmy (who guided the publication from 1775 to 1778) and the Comte de Tressan (who took the reins after Paulmy’s somewhat acrimonious and mysterious departure). Sigu situates the two men in French intellectual life with reference to the salons they attended. We learn that both would have mixed extensively with Montesquieu and Voltaire at the salon of Madame Tencin, as well as attending the salon of Madame Doublet where the antiquarian La Curne de Sainte-Palaye made his intellectual base. She reveals the surprising fact that the two men were closely linked with the philosophe par excellence, Voltaire, who was invited to the editorial board and seemed, at the age of eighty, regretful of having to decline (17). Whilst acknowledging that there is a schism between the time of Paulmy and the time of Tressan – the loss of the former’s extensive library as a resource seems to have led to a more slapdash, less antiquarian approach – she argues that the Bibliothèque universelle des romans took two major ideological stances towards the Middle Ages, created under Paulmy’s reign and continued, even reinforced, under Tressan’s. These stances are, firstly, a particular ideology of fiction and history which seeks to rehabilitate the novel or romance through its historical content, and secondly, the creation of the medieval as a site from which ideal masculine models, both aristocratic and patriotic, can be drawn.

In arguing for a rehabilitation of romans through their historical content, Sigu is engaging with an anxiety foundational to eighteenth-century medievalism. Novels and romances become valuable for their faithful portrayal of the customs and morals of past times; the BUR was following La Curne de Sainte-Palaye who, in his Mémoires sur l’ancienne chevalerie (developed during the 1750s) had set out an extensive defence of using fictional texts to ground assertions about history and about actual medieval life. These same novels or romances were, however, considered potentially dangerous, and this is the crux of the BUR’s engagement with fiction – what are its safe uses and what, when making an extrait or miniature should be excluded, or even rewritten? a fascinating discussion of the implications of the term extrait, Sigu convincingly argues that we must take its origins in chemistry seriously. The BUR generally masked the more violent or sexual aspects of medieval texts, figured as dangerous, inflammatory, or simply poor-taste: medieval writing must be ‘distilled’ to recover only the useful or harmlessly diverting. Infamous anti-philosophe Fréron, reviewing the BUR in 1775, praised the process in intriguingly chemical language: ‘D’après ce que j’en ai vu, j’ose dire que tous ces ouvrages lus dans la Bibliothèque en question, non seulement n’ont plus rien de dangereux, mais qu’ils contiennent les plus grandes leçons de sagesse et d’excellents préservatifs contre les séductions du vice. Le poison secret qui pourrait s’y trouver renfermé reste dans le creuset de l’analyse, laquelle se borne à donner l’esprit et, pour me servir de l’expression même des auteurs, la miniature de chaque roman: miniature dans laquelle n’entrent que les traits propres à caractériser l’ouvrage, et d’où sont bannis toutes les images qui ne seraient pas avouées par la décence la plus rigoureuse.’ (quoted 120-121, my emphasis)[6] As Sigu notes, what is conserved is the fond historique (historical foundation), and what is left out is the imagination en délire (fevered imagination) of pre-modern writers.

The primary issue that can be taken with Sigu’s analysis of this process concerns how far it can be considered a rehabilitation of the novel/romance form. She qualifies that this rehabilitation is not wholehearted, comporting a moralising taint that the reader may find paradoxal, but the purification implied by this process of extraction – which results in something which no longer has the form of a novel or romance – may be more significant than Sigu allows. On the one hand, Tressan is happy to speak of the roman de chevalerie as valuable for having ‘point de modèle dans l’antiquité. Elle est dûe au génie des François ; & tout ce qui a paru, de ce genre, chez les autres Peuples de l’Europe, a été postérieur aux premiers Romans que la France a produits, & n’en a été, pour ainsi dire, qu’une imitation.’[7] On the other, content is pruned, and the form itself undergoes extensive modification to produce an easily digestible miniature.

Sigu’s second major argument revolves around the changing ideological function of the Middle Ages in France towards the end of the eighteenth century. She identifies two primary deployments of a medieval ideal in the Bibliothèque universelle des romans, roughly splitting between Paulmy’s and Tressan’s directorships but present throughout the publication’s history. The first is the chevalier as critique of and model for the modern aristocrat, and the second is medieval France as the birthplace of the modern French nation. Concurrent to the textual and narrative harmonisation practised by the editors, there thus runs a harmonisation of power dynamics between rulers and their vassals, which tends to recast kings as absolute monarchs and knights as absolutely loyal – not through a sense of feudal obligation, but through an anachronistic nationalism (228). She quotes Tressan who, blending aristocracy and national progression, figured chevalerie as a civilising aristocratic force pushing society forward (139). Of course, not all knightly characteristics fit this assessment. In a century which had forbidden duelling, the central role of single combat was downplayed (147), whilst the religious attitudes of the knights, uncomfortably close to superstition and fanaticism for eighteenth-century thinkers, were also modified or skipped over, even when the Grail Quest is at issue.

Rehabilitators of the medieval past are interested in grounding French national character, and particularly their gallantry in love, in the Middle Ages, but most (aside from the notable exceptions of Boulainvilliers and his followers) seek to divert attention from medieval political organisation. In common with other eighteenth-century retellings of medieval tales (Baculard d’Arnaud’s Nouvelles historiques, for example), the BUR expands (or even fabricates) a principal role for individual sentiment, and elides the troubling non-individuation of the medieval hero/heroine (‘son étrangéité’, 177) and the primarily social function of courtly love. Furthermore, love of the eighteenth-century kind is used to mask medieval political concerns: Blanchefleur’s feudal war in Chrétien de Troye’s Conte du Graal is rewritten with the damsel besieged by a spurned suitor (169). Sigu also demonstrates that greater emphasis was placed, throughout the BUR’s treatment of the medieval past, on conjugal rather than extramarital love, and convincingly argues for a sexist undercurrent restricting female agency (notably, 176 on Guinevere and Lancelot in Le Chevalier de la charrette).

A minor criticism, but one pertinent to medievalists, is that Sigu’s medieval secondary references are rather venerable, whereas her eighteenth-century secondary sources are much more up-to-date. This may, of course, be because she deals with well-established medieval texts, whilst the study of eighteenth-century medievalism is in the process of blossoming. This imbalance has no particular negative impact on the investigation, but it might have been interesting to reference more recent work by, for example, Carolyn Dinshaw on nineteenth-century amateur medievalism. However, this is not to say that her work does not engage with problems of contemporary relevance to medievalists for, by situating the BUR’s extract of The Perilous Cemetery in relation to the periodical’s editorial technique more generally, she draws conclusions important to the manuscript tradition of the medieval text. In contrast to the text’s editor Nancy Black, who judges from the great disparities between the BUR version and the extant manuscripts that a lost manuscript must have been known in the eighteenth century, Sigu demonstrates that the variations from extant manuscripts to the BUR version are no greater than those extracts for which the source manuscript is known for certain, refuting the lost-manuscript theory (discussed 147-151). Another moment which will bring a smile to the faces of medievalists is when she cautions her readers with one of the fundamental elements of engagement with medieval literary tradition, but applied to the BUR: ‘évitons [...] de juger trop sévèrement le manque de fidélité de la reécriture à l’original mediéval, nous imposerions des critères tout à fait anachroniques à ces travaux d’adaptation’[8] (254). A medievalist Enlightenment indeed.

Sigu has undertaken a formidable amount of research, supporting her analysis of the ideological agenda of the BUR by citing reviews from many contemporary journaux which back up her assertions, suggesting a widespread engagement with, and appetite for, the brand of medievalism the BUR was selling. Her critical engagement with the implications of the metaphor of chemical extraction is, overall, highly compelling. Her extended analysis of the technique consistent throughout the BUR’s publication (no matter who held the reins) of distilling ‘unwieldy’ or ‘barbaric’ medieval texts down to a particular conception of their essence, and then adding a great deal of moral or historical commentary to produce a more coherent image of chivalry, builds a convincing picture of a publication seeking to enhance the chevalier for eighteenth-century reappropriation – though this by, ultimately, denigrating medieval literary production. In identifying a move, as the publication evolves, from the medieval figured as a place from which to criticise modernity to the medieval as modernity’s origin point (244), Sigu situates the Bibliothèque universelle des romans at the heart of the current revaluation of what medievalism meant to the Enlightenment.

Jessica Stacey

King’s College London

[1] Mémoires sur l’ancienne chevalerie; Considerée comme un établissement politique et militaire. 3 vols. (Paris: Chez Duchesne, 1759).
Histoire littéraire des troubadours, (Paris: Chez Durand, 1774) (Horace Walpole’s annotated copy held at the British Library, class-mark 1464 d.1).
[2] The Bibliothèque universelle des romans: periodical giving a reasoned analysis of novels ancient and modern, French or in translation, including anecdotes and historical and critical annotations regarding authors and texts, as well as the morals and customs of the past, particular and related circumstances, and known, disguised or symbolic characters.
[3] Chartier, Roger, ‘Libraries Without Walls’ in Representations, No. 42, Special Issue: Future Libraries (Spring, 1993), 38-52.
[4] As Sigu notes on 197, the term ‘roman’ (novel) as used by the BUR includes many forms not covered by modern usages – medieval romances, contes, even poetic retellings of history.
[5] Andries, Lise, ‘La Bibliothèque bleue et la redécouverte des romans de chevalerie au dix-huitième siècle’, in Medievalism and manière gothique in Enlightenment France, Damian-Grint, Peter (ed.), (Oxford: SVEC, 2006) 52-67.
[6] ‘From what I have so far seen, I dare say that all the works in this Bibliothèque not only no longer contain dangerous material, but that highly edifying lessons and effective defences against the seductions of vice are to be found therein. The secret poison which could have been hidden within is left behind in the crucible of the analysis, which restricts itself to portraying the spirit or, to use the favourite term of the authors, the miniature of each novel: miniature into which are admitted only those traits necessary to convey the character of the work, and from which are banished any images which the most rigorous modesty would scruple to avow.’
[7] ‘no model whatsoever in Antiquity. It was a French invention, and all other works of this genre which appeared in Europe were posterior to those first novels/romances produced by the French, and were thus imitations of them.’ Tressan, le Comte de, ‘Discours préliminaire’, in Corps d’extraits de romans de chevalerie, (Paris: Pissot, 1782)
[8] ‘let us avoid judging the lack of fidelity to the medieval original in the retelling too harshly, for this would be to impose utterly anachronistic criteria upon these adaptations.’