The Rise of French Prose and the Forces of Anonymity

Lars Boje Mortensen
Centre for Medieval Literature, SDU (Odense)

An important and popular text in the first sudden wave of long prose works in French was the crusading chronicle Éracles, now believed to have been composed in Paris around c. 1220. It was an adaptation of the Latin chronicle of the Crusades and the Kingdom of Jerusalem by William of Tyre, which began with the prehistory of the crusades in the reign of Heraclius (610-41) and ended abruptly in 1184. The translation is anonymous, and it almost succeeds in anonymizing William’s otherwise strong authorial voice as well. In turn it opened the space for a number of equally anonymous continuations of the chronicle in French, important sources for the dramatic period after 1184.

With this example as point of departure, I want to explore the forces of anonymity in the High Middle Ages. The large number of anonymous texts from this period appears partly to be linked to basic conditions of textual production and reproduction. I will also reflect on what those forces mean for the way we think about literary history, obsessed as we are with named authorship and precise textual attribution.