Flowering of Medieval French Literature: Au parler que m’aprist ma mere

This project previews an exhibition in New York and Paris, a scientific catalogue, and an international colloquium that all focus on a group of sixteen manuscripts all written in the French language between c. 1300 and c. 1550. Mostly illuminated, the manuscripts are widely diverse. They are written in verse and in prose. Some are translations from the Latin, others new compositions entirely in French. They treat a wide variety of subjects ranging from literature and science, to philosophy and theology, and to history and government. There are some unique texts that exist only in the manuscripts included here. A significant number of the volumes boast royal provenance. There are signed and dated works by newly identified scribes, as well as works by famous calligraphers. Some of the manuscripts still have their original bindings. So rare on the art market are illuminated manuscripts in the French language of this period that this project would not be possible without the purchase of a substantial group of mostly unpublished manuscripts from the Collection of Joost R. Ritman (born 1941), the Amsterdam businessman and founder of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.

The subtitle appropriates a quote from Jean de Meun, who with Guillaume de Lorris wrote the Roman de la Rose, the very bedrock of medieval French literature. In c. 1325, Jean describes writing in French as “speaking as I learned from my mother” (parler que m’aprist ma mere) or we might say now “speaking in my mother tongue.” Although the earliest records of written French date from the ninth century, by the thirteenth century French had become widespread as a written language, even if for writers like Dante, Latin was still considered the sovereign of the vernacular (“sovrano del volgare,” Convivo 1:7)

Many factors influenced the shift from Latin to the “mother tongue.” The change from an agrarian economy based on the land to a commercial economy in the towns and cities imposed a need for the middle classes to understand each other in written as well as oral forms. The centralization of French government and the rise of a nation state with the reign of King Philip Augustus (reigned 1180-1223) dictated a need for a language through which the court and the nobles could wield power far and wide (medieval French written and spoken in Paris became known as the “langue du roi” often contrasted with the “mother tongue” which was usually a dialect). And, not least of all, women played a major role the rise and evolution of medieval French as women readers, writers, and collectors. By the fifteenth century, vernacular language was well established as the language of literature, historical record, and personal expression.

The technology of the press provided greater access to the mother tongue and contributed to its standardization. Statistics of publications in French are indeed astonishing. Whereas in 1501 only 10% of books published in Paris were in French, by 1575, 55% of all books published in Paris were in French. The triumph of the French vernacular was also promoted by the Renaissance King Francis I, who in 1539, deemed French the official language of his kingdom. Then, in 1635, Cardinal Richelieu founded the Académie française whose mission was “to codify the French language, to give it rules, to make it pure and comprehensible to everyone.” And, the rest, so they say, is history. The medieval and Renaissance manuscripts discussed here endure as vibrant reminders of the historical legacy of modern-day France and the French language.

The scholarly catalogue that accompanies the exhibition will include of detailed descriptions with comparative material, a preface, an introduction, and an extensive bibliography, and will be published in full color. A one-day international colloquium will take place in Paris.