The Virtuoso Circle: Competition, Collaboration, and Complexity in Late Medieval French Poetry

The Virtuoso Circle: Competition, Collaboration, and Complexity in Late Medieval French Poetry

By Adrian Armstrong
2012 | 204 + xxii pp. | 978-0-86698-463-8 | Hardcover 6 x 9 in
MRTS 415 | $58 | £43 |

French poets in the period 1420-1530 form a “virtuoso circle”: a self-conscious professional community that extends across different generations and political affiliations. They collaborate and compete with their predecessors and contemporaries, in a social process that is often revealed by the contents of manuscript and early printed anthologies. Building on recent research into poetic exchange and transmission in this period, Adrian Armstrong proposes a synthetic model for the culture of late medieval French poetry. It is a virtuous circle where the interplay between poets promotes constant development and innovation, while the poets themselves are a circle of virtuosi who master their art by interacting with each other.

What underpins the circle is a preoccupation with the knowledge of poetry. Poets acquire, share, promote, and enhance their expert knowledge by closely engaging with each other’s work. In so doing they secure cultural capital for themselves, for instance by proving that they can outdo their competitors in constructing complex verse forms or ingenious narratives. On a broader level, however, they also contribute to the overall sum of poetic knowledge. By refining and exploring aspects of the poetic heritage, they generate a steady increase in compositional sophistication.

Armstrong charts the story of poetry’s progressive enrichment through the work of major poets such as Alain Chartier, Charles d’Orléans, George Chastelain, and Jean Molinet, as well as lesser-known but equally inventive figures including Michault Taillevent, Pierre Chastellain, Jean Robertet, and Jean Nicolai. Analysing the interplay of textual transmission, intertextual allusion, form, and genre, he considers a wide range of manuscript sources and pays close attention to technical features of versification. The Virtuoso Circle sheds new light on the history of late medieval French poetry, notably by reassessing the position of the so-called grands rhétoriqueurs. Normally regarded as a distinct if not eccentric group of experimentalists, the rhétoriqueurs emerge here into the poetic mainstream – as a culmination of the practices of earlier generations, not a departure from them. The book is particularly suited to specialists in French literature of the late Middle Ages, as well as to all those interested in the evolution of medieval poetry.