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L'intérêt que revêtent pour l'ethnologue et l'historien les exempla, ces récits que les prédicateurs inséraient dans leur sermon pour convaincre leur auditoire par une leçon salutaire, n'est plus aujourd'hui à souligner. Les exempla son tout d'abord précieux pour étudier les croyances imposées aux fidèles, tout comme pour cerner les modèles qui devaient entraîner de leur part un changement de comportement. Ils apportent aussi des renseignements-- involontairement--intéressants sur la culture des laïcs et sur la vie quotidienne. Et ils sont particulièrement précieux pour étudier les traditions "folkloriques" du Moyen Age (Berlioz and Beaulieu 17).
Stated so overtly, these claims cannot help but seem problematic, if not simplistic. It would be easy to dismiss them outright as naively uncritical appeals to concepts of representation that literary criticism and linguistic philosophy no longer allow. At the same time, it would be impossible to ignore the appearance in certain exempla of some discourse related to quotidian activities. Our strategies for construing this relationship as access to knowledge of the past offers, I think, an interesting illustration of how our scholarly medievalism appropriates its objects of study. My remarks below analyze one way that our estimation of exempla as illustrations of daily life reinterprets a basic feature in the production of exempla. I will suggest how perhaps the principle of decorum that encouraged using quotidian exempla in preaching to popular audiences creates a kind of "specularity," which we today readily accept as an "effect of the real."
To begin with, the claim that exempla offer testimony to later medieval daily life is both too problematic and too widespread to ignore. Since literary critics and philosophers of history have lately devoted particular zeal to interrogating concepts of discursive "representation," it may seem almost banal to point out that exempla cannot offer unmediated, empirical testimony to the reality of everyday life in the later Middle Ages. And in fact, some of the first scholars to study exempla in the past century already made a distinction between the representational value and the strategic function of exemplary discourse. Thomas Frederick Crane differentiates the "literary" and "historical" interest to exempla in his The Exempla or Illustrative Stores from the Sermones Vulgares of Jacques de Vitry (1890), one of the works that did most to promote study of the genre. Crane claims for his study the dual goal of tracing the "history of the use of illustrative stories in sermons, and the influence this use exerted upon various forms of literature" and of showing "the great importance of this custom for the history of medieval culture, and especially for the diffusion of popular tales" (cxvi). Thus, he dismisses one work as "of little importance for the history of mediaeval fiction" while lauding another "of much greater literary interest" (lxxxiii). Many scholars have since followed Crane's lead in exploring the literary character of exempla. He also recognizes that the stories of the moralist Thomas of Cantimpré bear "the greatest importance for the history of the culture of the times" because they cover "almost every condition of society and contain precious material for the history of superstitions" (xc, xci). Subsequent historians, from C. H. Haskins (38) to the French compilers of the "History of Private Life" (Duby e.g. 80, 157, 206-7, 530, 591), have not hesitated to exploit this valuable resource.
Crane's label "illustrative stories" has become familiar to several generations of medievalists. It perhaps earned such wide acceptance precisely because it suggests a common representational function for the disparate medieval and modern uses of exempla: these are "illustrative" because medieval authors employed them as literary devices of amplification and because modern scholars regard them as historical testimony. Nonetheless, even though Crane offers this conveniently inclusive label, he insists on distinguishing the "literary" and "historical" value of exempla. This dichotomy was necessary, I suspect, in order to avoid compromising that historical value by associating it with the many non-representational considerations involved in the literary use of exempla. Crane already recognized some of these, which more recent scholarship has explored extensively. To mention only several: exempla devoted to apparently quotidian topics are vastly inferior in number to those concerning fantastic, scientific, doctrinal, or overtly fictional topics; a preacher like Jacques de Vitry expresses more concern for correct use of these other categories than for creating little "vignettes of life" (see the introductory remarks from his Sermones vulgares, provided as an appendix to this paper); the later medieval Romance vernaculars apply the term exemplum to diverse illustrative devices (including even proverbs); the collection and dissemination of exempla as commonplaces did not favor the circulation of anecdotes closely bound to a particular place or time; the compilers' techniques for indexing, alphabetizing, and classifying exempla likewise abetted their revision and recombination; and ultimately, the exemplum is not even an autonomous genre like the fabliau or novella, but rather an instrumental device for realizing the purpose of some other discourse. This last function in fact leads Jacques Le Goff to conclude that
Mais au-delà de cette pêche au détail réaliste, l'intérêt historique des exempla nous semble surtout se manifester dans le témoignage qu'ils apportent sur les présupposés et les buts conscients ou inconscients de la catéchèse de cette époque, sur les rapports entre la parole et l'écrit, la rhétorique et l'histoire, les stratégies de persuasion qui sont au coeur de la fabrication des exempla, de leur diffusion et de leur réception au Moyen Age (Brémond et al. 79).
Le Goff therefore concludes that "les exempla ne sont pas un reflet des structures de la société et du comportement quotidien des catégories socio-professionelles," but instead manifest "le moment où des éléments de ces comportements sociaux entrent dans le discours idéologique" (ibid. 80).
This entrée recognized by Le Goff necessarily involves a wide range of other cultural, social, economic, or political factors. Hence characterizations of exempla as Volkspoesie or "the Bible of daily life in the Middle Ages" scarcely seem satisfying as historical explanation (ibid. 13, 85). Since Crane's era, many scholars have taken the practical rhetorical situation of preaching itself as a basis for analyzing those other factors. Thus, C. H. Haskins explains that "In order to hold the attention of the people the preachers found it necessary to be entertaining, as well as simple and direct, and to make abundant use of marvels, anecdotes, and pointed illustrations from everyday life" (38). Most medievalists and any student of rhetoric will immediately recognize that Haskins is citing as a matter of "necessity" a tactic recommended in numerous medieval manuals of preaching. This is the broad principle of discursive decorum that recommended exempla about ordinary affairs as especially effective devices for preaching to popular audiences. Considerations of decorum are among the most basic axioms of medieval rhetoric and poetics: virtually every encyclopedist propounds the need to respect the circumstances of time, place, audience, and subject-matter, while centuries of grammar students learned to correlate subject-matter with levels of style according to the Rota Vergilii. Later medieval preaching guides especially developed the general principle, best-known from Gregory the Great, that different audiences required different styles and subject-matters. This principle clearly involves a wide range of further aesthetic, epistemological, and psychological, social, and cultural assumptions, which lie beyond the scope of my comments here. I offer Jacques de Vitry's introductory comments to his Sermones vulgares, appended to this paper, as one fairly detailed illustration of their scope. Our willingness as modern scholars to accept this medieval rhetorical principle as a guarantor of immediacy or relevance seems to me one of the chief grounds for our perception of exempla as illustrations of everyday life.
Two corollaries of this principle of decorum become axioms of preaching theory from the thirteenth century on: 1) exempla are the material best suited to popular audiences; and 2) these listeners respond best to material relevant to their own rank or occupation (status). Jacques de Vitry's preface to his Sermones vulgares invokes the first precept as undisputed truth: uneducated people "Magis enim moventur exterioribus exemplis quam auctoritatibus vel profundis sententiis." My own favorite moralist, Ramon Llull, expounds the second in his plain explanation of how
Rhetoricus ornat sua uerba secundum officium gentium. Vt quando homo loquitur de scientia, de largitate et castitate clericiae, et huiusmodi. Et similiter in militia est rhetorica, quando homo loquitur de audacia, de probitate et nobilitate, de equo, de ense, et ceteris. Et in arte mercaturae loquitur de argento, de auro et de mercibus pretiosis, et huiusmodi. Et in agricultura loquitur de campo, orto de plantis et animalibus. Nam sicut mercatori est pulchrum uocabulum loqui de auro, et ceteris, sic est pulchrum uocabulum rustico loqui de campo aut ferro, aut huiusmodi (Ars generalis ultima 10.86; RLOL 14: 364)
Zealous elaboration of this second precept generates collections of sermones ad status. However, most popular sermons apply both precepts broadly. Both Haskins's brief comments and Jacques de Vitry's lengthy preface to his Sermones vulgares suggest the diverse considerations of entertainment and edification that guided their application. Few of these considerations constituted any sort of "will to expression" of daily life. Indeed, the didactic use of exempla was by itself enough to mitigate their representational value. Numerous modern studies have analyzed the freedom that preachers employed in adapting exempla to suit their didactic ends. The effective communication of a sententia or moral lesson was always more important than the accurate representation of res or illustrative material.
Now, if we ignore all the contingent factors involved in the use of certain exempla and instead favor reading them as representations of everyday life, this occurs, I suspect, as a response to the precepts of decorum that encouraged matching material to audience. These precepts create a discursive effect of specularity, which common appears in other medieval preceptive genres that attempt to illustrate their doctrines in their own discourse. Alexandre Leupin has argued that Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova blurs the distinction between form and content by treating them as elements from a common discourse, thus achieving what Leupin calls "absolute reflexivity." Preachers who match material to audience likewise blur the distinction between models of behavior and their audience's conduct by treating them as elements from a common vita (or better, conversatio, to use the moralists' term). This process evidently involves the relationships of assimilatio and occasio described by J. B. Allen (263-89). Leupin sees the cultivation of "absolute reflexivity" in manuals of poetics as the genesis of a concept of fiction. Its use in sermons or moral literature, and our ready response to it, perhaps indicates the preachers' and moralists' success as creative writers. Similar strategies of specularity operate in all those "mirrors for princes" or "mirrors for clerics" of the later Middle Ages.
However, even collections of popular exempla like the Speculum laicorum do not achieve this specularity simply through direct representation of their audiences' conduct. As an illustration, I offer another passage from the writings of Ramon Llull. The fourth part of his treatise Rethorica nova (a sort of general guide to Christian communication) offers ten proverbs on the righteous use of speech, explicates each one with an exemplum, and recommends an appropriate audience. The last deals explicitly with quotidian matters:
Qui habet caritatem, verba turpia facit esse
Fuit enim quedam paupercula mulier que in oratione quam ad deum offerebat verba huiusmodi offerebat: dicebat enim quod si sciret domum ubi deus morabatur, illuc accederet et cotidie domum eius purgaret, lavaret parasides, et cibum ad comedendum pararet et quod hora vespertina lectum eius sterneret et cum aqua calida lavaret pedes. Hec autem dicebat ex maxima caritate qua deum intime diligebat. Quidam autem senex, cum audisset verba que mulier in oratione dicebat, reprehendit illam dicens: "Bona mulier, fatuam et turpem orationem Deo offers. Deus enim talibus non indiget obsequiis, cuius domus est clarior sole, cuius vita est sempiterna. Unde omnino cibo corporali non utitur, nec oportet ut ei parasides laventur nec etiam lecto vel domo indiget, cum ipse omnia sua virtute contineat." Cui mulier respondit dicens quod nesciebat per alium modum servire deo, sed per modum illum quem didicerat, prout sciret et posset, deo servire cupiebat. Senex itaque statim advertit verba orationis mulieris illius ex caritate et devotione procedere et que primo ei turpia videbantur apparuerunt postmodum plurimum speciosa. Unde mulierem de huiusmodi oratione comendavit et ut eandem cum caritatis fervore continuam ageret est ortatus. Istud proverbium cum ipsius exemplo illis est enarrandum qui verba iudicant levia, non attendentes ex quo animo proferantur, ut exemplo huiusmodi doceantur agnoscere quod oportet in verbis attendere ex quali affectione dicuntur et ad quem finem et terminum ordinentur (4.10; 53-4).
This passage obviously displays the two features of popular preaching in question here: first, it explicitly mentions a quotidian activity, namely household chores; second, it matches this material to a suitable audience. However, it does not specify that this discussion of household chores belongs in a sermon directed to housekeepers, or even claim that this activity is necessarily familiar to the suggested audience. Instead, Llull matches exempla and audiences according to the virtues or vices whose understanding and exercise they promote. (This was a much more common scheme for organizing collections of exempla than were lists of audience status.) Llull's presentation of this exemplum according to moral categories displays that entrée of the quotidian into ideological discourse already recognized by Le Goff. Llull's presentation clearly assumes some well-known theological, social, and cultural values. The figure of the poor woman offering her domestic services parallels the sacrifice of the poor widow of the Gospels who offered her last mite (Mk 12.42 or Lk 21.2); her ingenuous response to the old man recalls stories of holy women whose simple wisdom confounds those (usually men in authority) who vaunt the subtleties of human knowledge; and the question of style raised here implies the whole aesthetic of Christian sermo humilis. These values all involve further distinctions of age, gender, class, and so forth, which inflect Llull's presentation of the quotidian. Moralists like Llull invite us to consider the wider use of exemplary material for purposes of socialization and control of conduct in the later Middle Ages, which recent studies on practices of confession, devotion, and asceticism have explored. It's interesting to note that this exemplum teaches exaltation of the quotidian as a kind of exercise in allegoria per contrarium, based on attention to the intentiones that penitential methods of the era scrutinize so keenly. Later medieval devotional writers develop the allegory of daily life into comprehensive guides for meditation on quotidian affairs (see especially the manuals for women studied by Hasenohr).
Nonetheless, I suspect that the chief effect of this "specularity" for us modern readers is to induce an "effect of the real," in the sense popularized by Roland Barthes. That is, we appropriate the principle of decorum that matches material to audience as a relationship of representation. This appropriation necessarily depends on the whole range of epistemological, aesthetic, moral, cultural, and social distinctions that we scholars commonly invoke in our discourse on the Middle Ages. Consider the following discussion by R. I. Burns of hospitals in thirteenth-century Valencia, which cites exemplary narrative from Ramon Llull as evidence:
Care of the sick was neither absent in them nor a minor duty. In the hospitals of Valencia for which there is good documentation, this identity of "poor" and "sick" is assumed. One sees this also in the thirteenth-century novel Blanquerna, written by the Majorcan Raymond Lull who was familiar with the Valencian and the analogous Majorcan frontiers. He describes the founding of a hospital for the "poor and destitute," where all is done "in the service of the poor"; only in a later chapter does one find that the workers daily "tended the sick" here and "healed many sick folk in the hospital." Lull describes the establishment in detail, including the many servitors and even the beds for the sick; the poorest bed had to be contrived from vine-branches, straw, and a coverlet (Burns 238).
The description of the hospital cited here comes from a series of exemplary scenes that explicitly illustrate acts of charity in Llull's novel, which constructs nearly its entire narrative through dramatic concatenation of such scenes. Both the "specular" and "representational" relationships achieved through this stragegy of composition are very complex. Burns's appropriation of this exemplary narrative as historical evidence requires various suppositions: the coherence of Ramon Llull's lived experiences as "familiar" knowledge; the correlation of that knowledge with a narrative "histoire;" the abstraction of that "histoire" from the narrative "discours" in which it appears; and the recognition of that knowledge in descriptive detail from the discourse. Recent debates on the "new philology" have certainly focused keen attention on these and many other distinctions or assumptions that we must employ throughout our enterprise of "negotiating the past," as Lee Patterson has termed it.
Yet, perhaps the charm of the quotidian detail included in certain exempla will always discourage us from recognizing that those details are not necessarily meaningful in themselves, but "make sense" thanks to many other factors, such as the principle of decorum that urges the match of material to audience, and all the social, esthetic, or cultural distinctions that this principle assumes. Perhaps we value such exempla precisely because they allow us to mediate the seemingly unreconcilable functions of "telling stories" and "presenting facts" that we demand of historical scholarship. Ultimately, there is a certain irony in the disparity between our appreciation of exempla as firm evidence of everyday life and their use as adaptable devices of persuasion in medieval preaching. Where the preachers readily revised exemplary details to serve the presentation of moral truths to their audiences, we seize on those details as truth itself. We appropriate their principle of decorum in expression as our referential guarantor in interpretation. Thus the quotidian details that were instrumental means in medieval preaching become the ultimate end of modern historical scholarship, namely the truth about the past. Refurbished as historical evidence, these exempla continue to circulate in modern scholarship, just as they did in medieval preaching. So Judith Bennett's recent study of women in rural England observes that "Wife-beating, as featured in both popular and sacred literature, was considered to be a normal part of marriage" (103); the literature cited turns out to be exempla, paraphrased by Eileen Power in Medieval Women (16-9). Perhaps distilling their conditions of production distilled into the categories of "popular and sacred literature" allows these exempla to offer their historical truth more readily. In any case, this handling of quotidian exempla neatly displays the "return of the irrelevant" suggested by Michel de Certeau (4). That is, all the social, cultural, or moral "sites and procedures" that we ignore by reading exempla as empirical evidence of daily life become precisely the past experience that we seek to recover through that reading.
Bennett, Judith M. Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock Before the Plague. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Berlioz, Jacques and Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu, ed. Les Exempla médiévaux: Introduction à la recherche, suivie des tables critiques de l'Index exemplorum de Frederic C. Tubach. Carcassonne: GARAE/Hesiode, 1992.
Brémond, Claude, Jacques Le Goff, and Jean-Claude Schmitt. L'Exemplum. Typologie des Sources du Moyen Age Occidental, Fasc. 40. Turnhout: Brepols, 1982.
Burns, Robert I. The Crusader Kingdom of Valencia: Reconstruction on a Thirteenth-Century Frontier. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967.
Certeau, Michel de. The Writing of History. Tr. Tom Conley. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.
Crane, Thomas Frederick. The Exempla or Illustrative Stories from the Sermones Vulares of Jacques de Vitry. London: Folk-Lore Society, 1890.
Duby, Georges, ed. Revelations of the Medieval World. A History of Private Life 2. Tr. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Hasenohr, Geneviève. "La vie quotidienne de la femme vue par l'église: L'enseignement des `journées chrétiennes' de la fin du Moyen Age." In Frau und sptmittelalterlicher Alltag. Vienna: Osterreichischen Akadamie der Wissenschaften, 1986. 19-102.
Haskins, C. H. Studies in Medieval Culture. Oxford, 1929; rprt. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1965.
Leupin, Alexandre. "Absolute Reflexivity: Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova." In Barbarolexis: Medieval Writing and Sexuality. Tr. Kate M. Cooper. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989. 17-39.
Llull, Ramon. Ars generalis ultima. Ed. Aloisius Madre. Raimundi Lulli Opera Latina 14. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis 75. Turnholt: Brepols, 1986.
Llull, Ramon. Ramon Llull's New Rhetoric: Text and Translation of Llull's Rethorica nova. Ed. and tr. Mark D. Johnston. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 1994.
Power, Eileen. Medieval Women. Ed. M. M. Postan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975.
Speculum laicorum. Ed. J. Th. Welter. Paris: A. Picard, 1914.
Sed etiam fabulas ex quibus veritatem edificationis dicimus interserere aliquando valemus. Sicut in libro Judicum XX. legimus de rampno et lignis silvarum et de situ vite et olivae que lignis silvarum prefici renuerunt. Similiter et IV. Reg. XIV. legimus quod Joas rex Israel dixit ad Amasiam regem Juda: "Carduus Lybani misit ad cedrum que est in Lybano, dicens: Da filiam tuam, filio meo uxorem, transieruntque bestie saltus et conculcaverunt carduum." Licet hec sunt secundum litteram fabulosa, non tamen fabulose dicta, sed ad reprehensionem elationis Amasie, qui de viribus suis presumens provocabat regem Israel ad prelium sine causa, volens se potentiori coequare.
Haec diximus contra quosdam neophytos, qui sibi videntur scioli, nec reprehendere formidant illos qui per experientiam noverunt quantus fructus proveniat ex hujusmodi fabulosis exemplis laicis et simplicibus personis, non solum ad edificationem, sed ad recreationem, maxime quando fatigati et tedio affecti incipiunt dormitare. Dicunt tamen predicti reprehensores: "Musica in luctu importuna narratio." Ad luctum non ad risum menandi sunt auditores, sicut in Exodo X. dicitur quod tubis ululantibus convocata est populi multitudo. Objiciunt insuper illud quod in Ecclesdiastes X. Salomon ait: "In risu faciunt panem et vinum." Quis dubitat quin ad luctum incitandi sint auditores? Qui tamen ne nimio merore confundantur, vel nimia fatigatione torpere incipiant, aliquando sunt quibusdam jocundis exemplis recreandi et expedit quod eis proponatur fabulosa, ut postmodum evigilent ad audiendum seria et utilia verba. "Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci." Experto credite: cum aliquando protraherem sermonem, et viderem populi multitudinem affectam tedio et dormitantem, uno modico verbo, omnes incitati sunt et innovati ad audiendum. Exempli gratia, aliquando memini me dixisse: "Ille qui in loco illo dormitat, secreta mea vel consilium meum non revelabit." Unusquisque autem pro se dictum credens oculos aperiebat, et facto strepitu, postmodum in silentio utilia et seria verba attente audiebant: "Sapientia igitur justificata est a suis filiis." Quamvis de intentione eorum qui talia interserunt, quidam audacter nimis judicare presumant, dicentes: Deus non indiget mendaciis nostris.
Scurrilia tamen aut obscena verba vel turpis sermo ex ore predicatoris non procedant. Illud insuper in hujusmodi proverbiis similitudinibus et vulgaribus exemplis adtendendum est, quod non possunt ita exprimi scripto, sicut gestu et verbo atque pronuntiandi modo, nec ita movent vel incitant auditores in ore unius, sicut in ore alterius, nec in uno idiomate, sicut in alio. Aliquando quidem cum audiuntur, placent; cum scripta leguntur, non delectant. Expedit tamen ut scribantur, ut habeant materiam hii quibus Deus dat gratiam auditores incitandi ex modo pronuntiandi (cit. Crane xli-xliii).