Syntax and Style in some Medieval French Poems

Syntax and Style in some Medieval French Poems

By Lars Lindvall

Nordic Journal of English Studies, Vol. 6:1 (2007)

Introduction: One such interesting case concerns the texts attributed to Jean Renart (between 1170/1180 and 1240/1250). He has “signed” a short verse romance called Le Lai de l’Ombre and, on the basis of formal and thematic similarities, several scholars want to attribute the anonymous, and much longer, romances Guillaume de Dole and Le Roman de l’Escoufle to him. Some have also identified him as the author of a text known as Galeran de Bretagne. If we, by means of a suitable sampling method, examine variables such as sentence length (the number of words per sentence as a syntactic unit) and the use of coordination and subordination in all these texts, we can determine quantitatively how the examined texts relate to each other. We then find that Galeran de Bretagne very clearly separates itself from the other three texts with which it has been associated. Of course, these results do not mean that a solution to this particular problem of authorship has been found. It is, however, quite obvious that one cannot invoke any really decisive syntactic similarity between Galeran de Bretagne and the other texts – there is just no such close grammatical similarity between them.

In order to test the reliability of the method, I wanted to measure variations between texts belonging to the same oeuvre (within the same genre and from the same period). There are scholars who attribute to Chrestien de Troyes (c. 1135–c. 1190), the greatest poet in French courtly epic literature, recognised as the author of Érec et Énide, Cligès, Yvain, Lancelot and Perceval, a rather mediocre text called Guillaume d’Angleterre. What results can the method applied yield in this particular case of disputed authorship? We find that this text differs quite clearly from the other texts but also, with some unease and, at the same time with some excitement, that Érec et Énide to a much larger degree deviates from the others. Can we then regard the method as so reliable that we can claim that Chrestien cannot be the author of Érec et Énide? Such a drastic conclusion would be hasty and uncertain but we should recall that Érec et Énide has a manuscript history different from the other texts attributed to Chrestien and that it also differs thematically from the others. In such a situation many scholars might be inclined to speak of an early text conceived and written before the poet’s later, mature literary works. That may, of course, be the case but such a general assessment cannot always be convincing.

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