SIMON GAUNT, Professor of French Language and Literature at King's College London, is a leading figure in French Studies internationally, and particularly well known for his work on medieval literature in French and Occitan. His most recent publications include Marco Polo's 'Le Devisement du Monde': Narrative Voice, Language and Diversity (Boydell and Brewer, 2013), Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature (OUP, 2006) and The Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature (CUP, 2008), which he edited with Sarah Kay. He is the leader of two major research projects, the recently ended "Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France" (funded by AHRC) and the still ongoing "The Values of French Language and Literature in the European Middle Ages" (funded by the ERC).
In her influential Romancing the Past, Gabrielle Spiegel argued that early 13th-c. vernacular prose played a key role in enabling a truly historical discourse to disengage itself from fictional writing. Her analysis often presupposes, however, definitions of ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ that do not map comfortably either on to medieval terminology, or on to medieval textual practice. The early thirteenth-century Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César—one of Spiegel’s key texts—repeatedly offers or alludes to multiple versions of well-known episodes of its ‘history’ (such as the Trojan horse or Eneas’ descent into hell), in order explicitly to vaunt the verisimilitude of its own account in contrast to the fables in circulation. This lecture will argue that texts like the Histoire ancienne thereby define ‘fiction’ far more clearly than they do ‘history’ and also that the transmission of the Histoire ancienne can be used to demonstrate that the fluid boundary between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ remains problematic—and fascinating—throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the category to which the various forms of writing in vernacular prose (whether ‘historical’ or ‘fictional’) are all committed is the truth, but how then is the truth to be told in the relatively new and unstable medium of vernacular prose?
French Department Lecture