The Department of French Literature, Thought, and Culture is thrilled to welcome a new medievalist: Assistant Professor Ariane Bottex-Ferragne. A Montréal born Canadian of Haitian and French descent, she holds a MA and a Ph.D. in Medieval French literature from McGill and Université de Montréal. She has worked on various topics related to her field, using a manuscript-informed interdisciplinary approach. Her work focuses on forms, objects and genres that may challenge our modern definition of “literarité” (didactic poetry, economic literature, historiographical fiction, moralizing lyric, etc.), and help re-think the production and reception of beauty and meaning.
Terrence Collin, an NYU doctor in Medieval French Literature, has interviewed her about her new book, Essai de poétique hélinandienne, an embodiment of her research interests and methods.
Terry Cullen (TC): Could you tell us a little about the trajectory, personal or academic, that brought you to NYU?
Ariane Bottex-Ferragne (ABF): I was trained as a classical trombonist from my teenage years until my early 20s. I studied at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal and was set for a career in that field. But I always had questions that my professors didn’t seem to care about, especially about early music, and history. In my classical music training, everything was about the how – how you play Romantic music, for instance, or how you perform such and such baroque cadence. Yet I was interested in the why; I felt like I was missing something. I was already doing history on the side and felt that this field did a better job at answering the questions I had. Even though I felt that I may have been better at music performance, history was ultimately the way I wanted to go to answer my questions. So I did a liberal arts degree in the Great Books Program at Concordia University. One of my professors there encouraged me to become a medievalist. Although my reaction at the time was, “a what?”, I looked into what it entailed, and it checked all of my boxes: literature, philosophy, history, linguistics, everything. So I enrolled in a graduate literature program at McGill, where I met Francis Gingras, who became my Ph.D. director.
TC: Was your Ph.D. a basis for your forthcoming book, Essai de poétique hélinandienne: lire autour du Reclus de Molliens (XIIIe -XVe siècles)? Could you talk a little more about this project and how you arrived at it?
ABF: For the anecdote, the idea stemmed from a discussion with my thesis advisor, Francis Gingras, who asked what type of medieval text I was interested in. I answered him half-jokingly that I liked “the boring stuff,” to which he replied that he had something for me! He said that the Reclus de Molliens was the most boring material he had ever read, so I said “OK, that’s my man!”. My intuition was that “boring stuff” – or in other words the artistic objects escaping our modern criteria of appreciation – may be precisely the ones that reveal the most about the fundamental otherness of this cultural landscape. In the case of the Reclus, this intuition proved quite fruitful. While digging into the manuscript and textual reception of the Reclus’ works, I was stunned by just how massive and central it was: this now-forgotten poet proved to be one of the most significant and widely known authors of his days! That paradox between medieval and modern reception was fascinating to me.
TC: How do you go about resolving this paradox in your book? What was your research method?
ABF: This great distance between medieval and modern pushed me to start with a fact-based and empirical approach, using material and textual from the actual manuscripts to re-construct medieval modes of approaching the Reclus’ work. In the spirit of “new philology”, I mapped out the whole manuscript tradition in the hope of finding patterns and recurring motives in modes of reading that may explain why medieval audiences enjoyed the Reclus so much. Yet, for a long time, the 55 manuscripts I was working on led me nowhere: I kept finding clues leading in lots of different, conflicting directions. But I finally realized that, as many medievalists, I had been overlooking a key factor in my analyses: the actual verse form of these texts, a factor often discarded as ornamental if not superficial. Yet as soon as I started taking form into account, everything started to make sense: it helped me explain otherwise puzzling aspects of his manuscript tradition while, at the same time, shedding some light on the uniqueness of his poetic approach.
TC: What was this form? And what was its significance?
ABF: The Reclus de Molliens uses the “strophe hélinandienne”, a stanzaic formula used in a wealth of religious and didactic poems from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Upon reading some of the other text using this form, it started becoming clear to me that this stanza was more than a mere ornament, or a decorative form. Rather, it worked like a fully functioning sound structure, engaging a set of poetic rules regulating the treatment of themes, style, sound, and performance practices. The “strophe héliandienne” itself then seemed to be, if not a literary genre, at least a forme-sens, a formal system whose mere presence can generate a distinct, consistent, and specific horizon of expectation.
TC: What were these rules?
ABF: There are a lot, but I’ll give you an example. One of the hypotheses I put forward in my book is that this form has to do with death: the “strophe hélinandienne” functions a lot like the minor mode functions in music for us. Whether or not you’re knowledgeable about music, when you hear something in a minor mode, you think that it sounds sad. What’s interesting is that even when the texts don’t talk overtly about death, you sometimes see medieval readers adding comments that put it in the context of other macabre texts or even drawing marginalia related to death.
TC: Do we have a sense of who these readers were? Were they from one particular milieu?
ABF: One of the fascinating things I found about the Reclus de Molliens is that everyone seems to have read him: aristocrats, of course, some of them owning display manuscripts of his texts; men and women in religious orders; and even La Sorbonne, which at the time had only four books in French, one of which was the Reclus de Molliens. Their copy was a chained book so no one would steal it, which shows how popular it was. Last but not least, there were also bourgeois readers as early as the 14th century, at a time when bourgeois readership is still relatively scarce.
TC: If the Reclus was so popular in the Middle Ages, what do you think led to his waning fortunes after this period?
ABF: The Reclus’ fortune started to fade around the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century. I think one of the most immediate reasons for this is simply linguistic changes: the Reclus’ 13th century work may have become too difficult and archaic for readers over time. Another reason is that the “strophe hélinandienne” itself went out of fashion and eventually disappeared, while the Reclus’ texts relied on this form for their full literary effect. To jump towards our own era, didactic and religious texts like the Reclus’ don’t fall neatly into modern disciplines like literature or philosophy. They’re difficult to classify. When teaching, medievalists often turn to texts that fit modern assumptions of what literature is like (such as Marie de France or Chrétien de Troyes), so texts like the Reclus’s are often overlooked in classrooms.
TC: What do you think medieval studies stand to gain from your rehabilitation of the Reclus and this poetic form?
ABF: The fact that the Reclus was so widely read – and therefore constituted a model and a poetic benchmark for such a broad audience – makes him an ideal case study to re-think the vitality and codes of moralizing poetry based on the actual and reading practices of medieval readers and audiences. Since everyone in the Middle Ages was reading him, including the authors of more familiar texts from the period like Adam de la Halle or Rutebeuf, the Reclus may help us better understand those texts. It gives us a better sense of the literary field at that time and the dynamics of influence at play. Personally, I find the process of studying an author that does not resemble me almost a spiritual exercise in understanding the other. I think the world needs more of that!
TC: The research for this book involved a lot of time spent in the archives. Where does your interest in manuscript culture come from? Did the topic itself dictate that or do you have your own interest in the history of books or reading?
ABF: Actually, my grandfather was an amateur bookbinder and taught me some of his craft as a kid! But beyond that, I didn’t have much personal interest in the field. When I was first studying medieval literature, though, it was only when I started working with physical books that I became really interested in the field. It became almost like a detective story! It was no longer just the encounter between the researcher and the book but became a conversation with multiple voices. You could even see the handwriting and the notes of past readers in these books, which I found quite touching.
TC: Does this project or other academic interests intersect with your former musical training?
ABF: Given the well-known sonic, oral, and aural aspects of medieval literature, music was a constant preoccupation in my project. However, with varying stages of my academic life came different ways of understanding the interpenetration of manuscript culture – which is all that is left to us to decipher as literary critics – and the forgotten sounds and melodies of the medieval era. For instance, a meaningful shift in perspective occurred when I put my musical training into practice by teaching a history of music class at Concordia and started performing music again during the pandemic. This intensified my interest in the sonic aspect of medieval literature. For my next project, I hope to bring music and literature more closely together by working more on medieval poems and songs, perhaps in the context of Marian prayer.