Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: Gaffney, Phyllis. Constructions of Childhood and Youth in Old French Narrative.

James A. Schultz
The first chapter of Phyllis Gaffney's Constructions of Childhood and Youth in Old French Narrative begins with a brief review of the historical and literary-historical scholarship on medieval childhood, along with the obligatory discussion of the theories of Philippe Ariès (3-12). Then Gaffney distinguishes her own project: "unlike previous approaches to the topic, this book will foreground considerations of genre" (11). She believes that changes in the representation of children in French texts over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have "to do with the emergence of the romance genre" (11). Gaffney defines genres in conventional terms. While the epic "reflects a warrior world" in which the protagonist's "acts are a means of serving some public end" that is "accepted without question," romance shifts the emphasis "towards inner, personal values [and] the analysis of intimate feelings" (16). While the epic "hero's actions and essence are identical," romance "brings a more dynamic view of the protagonist" who "as an individual must discover his identity" (18). These preliminary definitions are important, since they provide the terms on which Gaffney relies to make her argument about childhood and genre.

Before turning to that argument, however, Gaffney describes, in chapter two, a "repertoire of traditional images" on which "medieval poets and their audiences" could draw in "their constructions of childhood and youth" (23). Recognizing the difficulty of limiting medieval childhood to a "fixed span of years" (26) or of making clear divisions within childhood, Gaffney takes "childhood, adolescence and one unbroken web" (30). After surveying the various schemes for the "ages of man" (31-34), she moves on to the traditional "attributes of childhood" (34-37)--like children's lack of speech or understanding--and then to the traditional "attributes of youth" (37- 34)--such as their susceptibility to sensual pleasure and lack of balance. Common medieval ideas about the education of children follow, including the function of punishment and the relation between nature and nurture (43-48). Finally Gaffney surveys "stock figures" and "narrative archetypes" (49-56)--the prodigious birth, the secret upbringing, the child wise beyond his years. Although this chapter contains little that will surprise medievalists, especially those familiar with the scholarship on medieval childhood, it nevertheless makes an important point: the Old French texts to which Gaffney turns next were written in a world where these ideas were common currency, and the texts must be understood in relation to them.

The first of the two core chapters in Gaffney's study, chapter three presents "changing models of childhood and youth in the chanson de geste." The chanson de geste is treated before romance because, even though it is not the most likely genre in which to find children, it comes first chronologically, and the real goal of the project is "to see how the narrative portrayal of the young evolves" (59, my emphasis). In the first part of the chapter, Gaffney presents a "threefold typology" (62) of epic youth. The first type is the "unheroic" or "normal dependent child," who adds "realistic detail to the idealized epic world" (62). Some texts portray "dependent children from lower social strata" (63), others child kings whose "weakness" and "vulnerability" leave them unable to defend the lands they have inherited (65-66). The second type of epic child is the "exemplary victim" (62), represented by Vivien. Over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, "the figure of Vivien...seems to grow more immature and more the later chansons de geste give prominence to childish traits absent in earlier songs" (67). I am not convinced, however, that the later versions imply a criticism of Vivien's youthful démesure (71) and "lack of reasonable restraint" (73). The negative judgments all come from modern scholars, while the quotations from the medieval texts express nothing but awe for the precocious heroism that drives Vivien to his death. Vivien's younger brother Gui exemplifies the third type of epic youth, the puer senex or youth wise beyond his years (75). Here too Gaffney can chart "changes in epic taste that...increasingly emphasize youth as a time of unconscious inexperience" (74). She is able to do this because she sees Rainouart as Gui's "replacement" (78) in the later installments of the Guillaume cycle, and Rainouart is, of course, famously inexperienced. The second section of the chapter, which is devoted to "complex family plots" (82-93), illustrates one of the less attractive features of this study. Gaffney works through five epics, one after the other, summarizing a good deal of the plot of each and commenting on the parents and children she encounters. These summaries take up a lot of space but yield no general conclusions about epic childhood. The final section of the chapter begins by reviewing what has already been said about "the epic view of the child" (94). It concludes by considering three "innovations" in the content of the epics that may indicate "the influence of romance poetry" (99): the increased prominence of young females (99-102); the way a hero's "past history begins to be connected with his identity" (102); and the heightened attention given the theme of youthful "ignorance and inexperience" (103).

Continue to read here.

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