In or of? Towards a Literary History of French and Flanders

David Murray
Utrecht University

In recent decades, scholarship, especially in the Anglophone world, has moved to re-consider long-standing conceptualizations of medieval French literature as either monolithic, or as subject to steady centrifugal expansion from a centre that is implicitly Paris. In this vein, close attention has been paid to the particular contours of French language use and literary production in England, Italy and the Crusader States. Flanders, though on the doorstep of the Kingdom of France, has not enjoyed sustained attention. This is in some respects due to the peculiar complexifying factors of multilingualism (French co-existed not only with Dutch but also other languages) and a highly urbanized society that diverges from the feudal models that permeate medieval literary studies. More seriously, Flanders falls badly through the gaps created by post-medieval national, monolinguistic narratives (cf Gaunt 2015).

As such, this paper approaches French literary culture in the region by re-calibrating approaches to Flanders’ complex multilingual and translingual landscape. It examines not only the direct interactions between languages (why, for example, does the fourteenth-century Middle Dutch romance Florigout retain ‘Gardepont’as a proper name, but feel the need to gloss it as ‘bruggewachter’?), but also less obvious evidence. The Reynardus vulpes(1270s) translates the famous animal satire from Dutch into Latin, but it remains important to a fully-inflected understanding of the value of French in Flanders, not only for its patronage by Jean de Flandres (son of Gui de Dampierre, himself a patron of French literary texts), but also for the very fact that it is not in DutchSocial aspects are also of vital importance in this regard, both for what languages were used, and how. Comparatively great attention has been devoted to the francophone literary scene at the comital court (Stanger 1957; Collet 2004). This overlooks other forms of evidence, such as Serge Lusignan’s 2012 proposition that Flemish scribes consciously adopted an English scripta when writing French, valuable in particular for the alternative they offer to default France-centric thought-processes. I argue that only though such a multilingual and broad-based optic can the place of French in the Flemish literary scene be properly appreciated on its own terms, and this vitally important region assume its rightful place in a history of European literature in the Middle Ages.