The Medieval Review 09.09.14

Arn, Mary-Jo. The Poet's Notebook: The Personal Manuscript of Charles d'Orléans (Paris, BnF MS fr. 25458). Texts and Transitions. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. xx, 202. EUR 80.00 978-2-503-52070-4.

Reviewed by: Adrian Armstrong University of Manchester


The poetry of Charles d'Orléans, unjustly neglected for much of the twentieth century, has attracted penetrating studies from both French and English specialists during the past two decades. Scholars have heavily relied upon Pierre Champion's pioneering work, notably his two-volume edition based on Charles's personal manuscript. Yet the limitations of Champion's approach--not only his heavily biographical perspective, but also the assumptions regarding genre and chronology that inform his edition's structure- -have become increasingly apparent. To liberate the rich potential for research into Charles's large body of poetry, thorough codicological investigation of BnF MS fr. 25458 has long been needed. Mary-Jo Arn triumphantly fills this gap with an invaluable study that will benefit literary historians and textual scholars alike.

Arn outlines her aims in a useful preface (ix-xi): she seeks to provide a "stratigraphic study" (ix) of this important manuscript, to facilitate a new edition of Charles's work. (This edition, on which Arn has been working with John Fox and R. Barton Palmer, is to be published shortly.) Broader literary issues, and questions of the poems' dating--as opposed to their ordering--, are generally bracketed out. The term "notebook" is glossed in ways that indicate the complexity of Charles's manuscript (x): it evinces informality and diachronic development, though these are far from its only traits. Finally, the preface sets out the study's organization, guiding readers with different priorities and, in conjunction with a further note (xxi-xxii), indicating how the tables work.

It is no accident that a preface requires so much comment: this is a book whose paratext is not ancillary, but very much part of the scholarly enterprise. Illustrations are carefully selected to demonstrate palaeographical arguments, and conversely clarify the technical terminology used in those arguments for the benefit of non-specialists; tables mesh neatly with the text, presenting various snapshots of the manuscript's physical makeup and the order of poems; an appendix briefly considers previous views of this order that the main text cannot accommodate. Most importantly, a CD-ROM provides a synoptic table of the lyrics in the manuscript, which can be sorted by any of its numerous fields. Extremely valuable to researchers, the table is accompanied by an explanatory note (183) and a ReadMe.txt file that clarifies the types of information it supplies. The field for the numbering of poems in Champion's edition contains some minor errors: there are two ballades numbered 97 (one is Champion's 47), two rondeaux numbered 109 (one is Champion's 111), and two rondeaux numbered 31 (one is Champion's ballade 31). Such problems are trivial, however, for the wealth of information in the other fields ensures that any confusion is only momentary.

Arn's introduction explains the manuscript's interest, and the challenges it poses to researchers from many perspectives, including vernacular manuscript production, Charles's literary career, and the aesthetic and social characteristics of the late medieval lyric. Here she signals one of her study's key traits: an uncompromising refusal of neat patterns, an affirmation of fine detail as crucial to our understanding of a complex book. The manuscript's organization reflects its gradual physical evolution, and that of Charles's poetry and artistic relationships. Working from this principle, Arn seeks to disentangle (or re-entangle) the conclusions of previous researchers, notably those of Champion, who had presumed the volume to be organized according to distinct verse forms. Equally, Arn distinguishes between the two intertwined histories that the manuscript manifests: that of its physical production, the central preoccupation of this study; and that of the composition of the poems it transmits.

Chapter 1 provides a comprehensive description of the manuscript in its current state. This is a good example of how to deal with a difficult challenge: Arn is refreshingly candid in identifying details that simply cannot be deciphered, such as the margins of the first page (34), and the deductions based on observation are consistently lucid. Here as elsewhere, a neat balance is struck between, on the one hand, the inevitably technical character of codicological analysis; and, on the other hand, the clarity required by less expert readers. Chapters 2-5 examine in detail the four successive copying stints. An initial batch of quires was copied in England, leaving space for future work; Charles and other scribes then copy lyrics into both these and more recently added quires. In a third stint, Charles and various other hands primarily added rondeaux, often onto the blank top halves of pages already bearing lyrics. By this time the volume had become a "locus of record" (155) that poets and visitors to Charles's household could consult. Finally, from the mid-1450s, ballades and rondeaux generally continue the existing sequences, and remain undecorated. Many fascinating issues are raised in passing: the narrative coherence of material copied in the first stint, and its relationship to the dit tradition (60-83); the similar scribal treatment of longer and shorter lyric forms (63-64), which prompts Arn to group these as "type-1" (ballades, complaintes) and "type-2" lyrics (chansons, caroles, rondeaux); the relative lateness of binding (68, 99, 128); the rhythm at which quires, as against poems, were added (70-72); the disordering of certain leaves (73-77). A recurrent finding is that Charles's attention to the manuscript was not always as close as has often been supposed (75-76, 84, 91, 99, 105). Particularly interesting from a formal standpoint is Arn's discussion of chansons and rondeaux, and their physical presentation (77-93). Arn definitively quashes any notion that space was left blank at any point for musical notation, and usefully reflects on the vexed terminological differences between these "type-2" forms; she concludes, convincingly, that the distinction is much more significant for modern scholars than it was for Charles and his scribes. Chapter 6 summarizes the book's evolution and the codicological challenges to assessing the poems' order, indicating the study's literary-historical implications.

Argument is carefully grounded in physical and textual evidence, and in a wider understanding of manuscript practice. Given that interrelated poems tend to form clusters in the book, one of Arn's basic assumptions--that poems were usually copied quite soon after their composition--cannot reasonably be contested. Many unanswered questions inevitably remain: on aspects of the volume's decoration, for instance, and on Charles's relationships with other poets. The persuasive findings, however, are many. A strong case is made for Charles's having taken the manuscript with him on his travels (96). The complexities of the third copying stint are teased out through meticulous attention to combinations of material and poetic features (106-12). More generally, the evidence strongly points towards "wide and frequent access to the book by those in the household at Blois" (114)--though, as Arn later observes, those who engaged with the manuscript thought of it in a variety of ways (132).

Two scholars permeate Arn's study. The first and most obvious is Pierre Champion, with whose findings Arn engages throughout. In some cases she reaches the same conclusions, albeit by different means (e.g. 136-39). In others she develops a new picture of the book's compilation, in particular of the order in which rondeaux were copied (116-26). Here Arn inverts the relative order of two groups of lyrics, on the basis of the frequency of Charles's autographs, the availability of vellum, the role that Charles played in multi-authored sequences, and the presence of other poets. She notes additionally that one sequence of rondeaux is transcribed in reverse--one of several observations for which Arn acknowledges the second major presence in her work, Johan Gerritsen. The frequency with which Arn credits the contributions of Gerritsen and other correspondents testifies to the importance of two qualities in manuscript-based research: accumulated individual expertise, and the willingness to share that expertise through collegial consultation. In this respect The Poet's Notebook resembles its eponymous subject: it bears witness to a culture of openness and generosity.

Codicologists, like critical editors, are often victims of unreasonable expectations: the nature of their task can lead their readers to assume that they should cover every possible issue in exhaustive detail. With this in mind, it seems almost churlish to note that the index is rather cursory, and that reference to Christine Dara's 2003 thesis on BnF fr. 9223 and nouv. acq. fr. 15771 might have provided further parallels for lyric ordering in manuscripts associated with Blois. These are nuances of presentation, however, and in no way vitiate the book's substance.

Arn describes her study as "an aid to literary scholars" (16). This it undoubtedly is, but it is much more besides. It is a valuable example of good codicological practice, which both novice and experienced medievalists in all related disciplines may consult with profit. It offers important insights into fifteenth-century book culture. In a broad sense, it is a major work of literary scholarship in its own right. Finally, it is a powerful statement of the fascination and the value of codicology.