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

July 25, 2014

Montoya: Medievalist Enlightenment

Alicia C. Montoya. Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. 256pp.

Review by: Kathryn E. Fredericks (

The subject of Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Alicia C. Montoya is medieval literature, and this book is the second volume in the series Medievalism.  Volume I of the series is entitled Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, edited by David Clarke and Nicholas Perkins.

In Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alicia C. Montoya provides an in-depth study of the period 1680-1750.  She explains that in this time frame "portions of the secular, vernacular literature of the Middle Ages – the romances, troubadour lyric and other narrative works we consider today as the age's literary classics – came to the fore: the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, or the period spanning late classicism through early Enlightenment" (2).  Reiterating the fact that the presence of medieval literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has already been documented, Montoya states that "the decades from the 1680s through to the 1750s have almost invariably been overlooked or addressed only in passing" (2).  She presents here, therefore, "the first book-length study addressing the literary medievalism of the decades from the 1680s to the 1750s" (2), and in this book, she sets out her intention specifically to "make the argument that modernity arose in part out of literary medievalism" (4).  In the abstract to her book, Montoya says that this 'literary medievalism' "played a vital role in the construction of the French Enlightenment; Starting with the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, it influenced movements leading to the Romantic rediscovery of the Middle Ages, and helped to shape new literary genres, from the epistolary novel to the fairy tale and opera."  Concerning the overall purpose of the book, Montoya writes: "From the re-evaluation of the medieval thus emerged not only the seeds of a new poetics, but also the central questions that preoccupied Enlightenment thinkers from Montesquieu to Rousseau", and "[a]t the centre of these debates was the notion of historical progress."  Montoya shows in this work that a careful examination of how this particular period of history considered the Middle Ages provides us with a better understanding of conceptions of modernity.

Medievalist Enlightenment is divided into three main parts, and is comprised of an Introduction, six chapters, and a Conclusion.  The first two chapters are found in 'Part I: Conceptualizing the Medieval', which discusses "late seventeenth-century conceptualizations of the medieval" (8) to "the reflections on the medieval of the philosophes and their critics of the 1750s" (8).  Montoya examines the following three authors in great detail: Charles Perrault, Jean Chapelain, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In 'Chapter 1: A Sense of the Past: Ancients, Moderns, and the Medieval', Montoya presents a discussion of Perrault's Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes.  She chooses Perrault's Parallèle "because this was the most complete and systematic text to appear during the initial phase of the Quarrel addressing the issues it raised (25).  Chronologically speaking, the "issues," she later explains, are two opposing ideas: "If, on the one hand, the medieval was moving closer to the present day, on the other hand modernity was encroaching on the medieval, for there was not always a sense, in Perrault's Parallèle, of a strict separation between the two" (32).  Montoya provides a particular example in Perrault's work: "The last volume of the Parallèle, which argued for the technical superiority of the Moderns over classical Antiquity, was perhaps the most surprising, for time and again Perrault resorted, for his examples, to the medieval period" (32-33).  Ideas regarding considerations of the relationship between the past and the present, and the question of where to place the Middle Ages in history, or how to label it as its own historical classification, are of central importance in this opening chapter.  

'Chapter 2: The Medievalist Rhetorics of Enlightenment' explores considerations of medieval literature specifically by Jean Chapelain and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Chapelain's dialogue La lecture des vieux romans and Rousseau's Discours sur les sciences et les arts are directly compared.  Montoya points out that "at first sight, the two texts may appear to convey diametrically opposed viewpoints.  While Rousseau ostensibly condemned the medieval, Chapelain's dialogue on the contrary argued for a rehabilitation of medieval romans, on moral rather than stylistic grounds" (47-48).  Montoya dedicates this chapter to showing how the two texts, though different in methodology, can both be viewed as favorable considerations of medieval literature.  Montoya concludes that "Chapelain and Rousseau drew on humanist precedents in order to propose a vision in which modernity could be perceived not as the result of a process of historical progress, but, rather, as moral and political degeneration" (68).  Montoya writes that the "[a]ges previously viewed as dark" (68) – as well as "barbaric" (68) – "were now viewed in terms of moral exemplarity" (68) during the time of the philosophes, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, or, the Age of Light.     

Chapters three, four, and five are found in 'Part II: Reimagining the Medieval'.  This part treats "concrete examples of literary medievalism" (8).  In 'Chapter 3: Survivals: Reading the Medieval Roman at the Dawn of the Enlightenment', Montoya opens by explaining that here she "will explore how, during the early period covering the 1680s to the 1700s, the roman or chivalric romance (roman de chevalerie) was read by contemporary readers, and how these readings related to other conceptions of the medieval" (71).  She takes as her prime example the letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné and "relates Sévigné's remarks on medieval romans to other traces of early Enlightenment readers and readings of medieval texts, and beyond these, to the critical debate on the significance of the medieval past for literary modernity" (72).  In this chapter, Montoya primarily discusses the existence of romans de chevalerie in eighteenth-century libraries, which ones were being read and by whom.  Montoya points out a "more interesting question" (83) as to "how [these texts] were actually read by contemporary readers" (83).  Here she mentions specifically "correspondences, journals, and other autobiographical works" (83), and takes the letters of Madame de Sévigné as a powerful example of "opening literature to new social groups" (95) – to a female audience and to different classes of society, for example.

In 'Chapter 4: Continuities: The Medieval as Performance', Montoya shows how two genres, the opera and the fairy tale, "invite us to think of the medieval not so much as text, but as performance: not primarily as content, but as a kind of musical mode" (12).  This argument is particularly strong with reference to the opera, where Montoya provides several detailed examples within the context of theatricality and performativity (117).  While the "performing authorship" (128) discussion of the fairy tales is indeed an interesting and novel approach, other considerations of the later influence of fairy tales could also be explored further, such as the evolution and development of the conte to the conte philosophique genre so characteristic of the Enlightenment and of the literature of the eighteenth century, including different European authors, and especially Voltaire.    

In the final section of Part II, 'Chapter 5: Reconfigurations: Medievalism and Desire, Between Eros and Agape' Montoya focuses primarily on the letters of Madame de Sévigné and the fiction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Here, she "[explores] Sévigné's and Rousseau's rewriting of the Abélard and Héloïse myth" (12).  The purpose of this is to show "that these authors deployed medieval references in an attempt to secularize older notions of Christian agape, seeking to attain a new, distinctly modern reconciliation between secular and divine varieties of love" (12).  Specific topics discussed include "Earthly and Divine Love" (147), "The Role of the Heroide" (150), "Desire as an Instrument of Religious Realization" (154), " Sévigné: The Mother as Lover" (157), "Motherhood and Agape" (160), "Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse and the Héloïsian-Ovidian Model" (165), and "New Ideals of Marriage" (173).

The third and final part of Montoya's text is entitled 'Studying the Medieval' and includes the sixth chapter and the Conclusion.  Part III "argues that the professionalization of medieval studies coincided with broader philosophical shifts marking the beginning of modernity – and defining, too, the conceptual parameters within which we continue to speak of the medieval today" (8).  In 'Chapter 6: The Invention of Medieval Studies', Montoya "focuses on the ideological contest between academic medievalists, and aristocratic scholar-amateurs" (12).  Montoya begins her final chapter by stating that the "new, academic medievalism had its institutional basis at the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres" (185), from which emerged "an ideological struggle between two competing models of medievalism" (186), as Montoya suggests, "an older, aristocratic model of amateur engagement with the medieval, and a newer, bourgeois model of professional historiography" (186).  The chapter focuses on the varying considerations of medieval scholarship by three authors: Jean-Baptiste La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, Anne-Claude-Philippe, comte de Caylus, and perhaps most importantly, as Montoya notes, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, in whose works "in the actual practice and development of medieval studies, the two competing traditions came together" (219).

Montoya ends Medievalist Enlightenment with a section called 'Medievalism as an Alternative Modernity' (221), where she concludes that "[u]nderstanding [literary medievalism from the 1680s to the 1750s] is crucial not only to understanding the parameters within which we have ourselves come to conceive of the medieval, but also to understanding the epistemological debates on which [Enlightenment's] modernity itself was built" (224).  This work presents an organized, thoughtful, and detailed analysis of the presence and considerations of medieval literature in the early Enlightenment period.  The selections discussed here highlight pertinent entries from this volume, which is an excellent contribution to scholarship on both medieval and Enlightenment studies, and a valuable resource for scholars of each period.   

Kathryn E. Fredericks
State University of New York at Geneseo