Teaching Medieval Literature through Performance in the University Classroom

Logan E. Whalen (University of Oklahoma)

Anyone who has taught literature knows the challenge of bringing the written text to life in a classroom setting. Anyone who has taught medieval literature knows this challenge is even more significant, given the years and cultural differences that separate our society from that of the Middle Ages. This is one reason the website created by Evelyn Birge Vitz and Marilyn Lawrence at New York University, Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase, is such a pedagogical treasure for any teacher of any level of students, from elementary school through high school, from undergraduate to graduate level classes.[1]

I teach French literature at the upper-division undergraduate and graduate levels at a research institution that offers the BA, MA, and PhD in French. Therefore, my comments here on the website reflect my own personal experience in courses at these levels, but the effectiveness of incorporating videos from the website into any level of instruction is evident.

I first used the site in class in my graduate course Old French Readings in spring 2010. We were reading at that time the Lais of Marie de France, the first woman of letters to write in French toward the end of the twelfth century. As far as we know, Marie invented the genre of the narrative lai, relatively short texts composed in octosyllabic rhymed couplets in Old French, ranging in length from 118 verses (Chievrefoil) to 1,184 verses (Eliduc). There are twelve lais in Marie’s collection. At the time of this article, Performing Medieval Narrative Today featured performances of three of Marie’s lais: three videos featuring Ron Cook, a professional performer who made the harp on which he performs the lais in accordance with the representation of the instrument in medieval manuscripts, and one clip by Andrew Kahrl, a student in the Playwrights Horizons Theater School at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (2003).[2]

One obstacle to teaching narrative works, as opposed to lyrical works that were set to music and that were accompanied by musical notation in their manuscripts, is the difficulty students often have in grasping how these texts may have been performed at court, on the village square, along a pilgrimage route, or elsewhere. In other words, how they were brought to life for their audience. As a Marie de France scholar, I believe that one of the major contributions of Performing Medieval Narrative Today lies in the ability of the website to demonstrate to students the role that music may have played in the performance of Marie’s lais, texts that do not appear to have been designed to be sung (there are no indications to this end in the manuscripts).[3]

To show students how music may have been used to present Marie’s texts to a medieval audience, I chose for my course on Old French Readings the performance of Chievrefoil, a lai that recounts a brief tryst of the famous lovers, Tristan and Iseut.[4] Rather than attempting to set to music the words of the narrative, Cook instead introduces the text simply by playing the harp for a few minutes. This instrumental beginning establishes a peaceful ambiance for the love story to follow. Cook stops the music, then begins recounting the narrative. After reciting several lines, and at a point at which he felt that there was a natural pause in the story, Cook stops the narrative, then resumes playing the harp for a brief period of time. He continues in this manner, alternating between music and narrative, until he reaches the end of the tale, which he closes with an instrumental segment in the same way he opened it.

I have also used this same video of the harp performance of Chievrefoil in a senior-level undergraduate class on love and desire in the Middle Ages. This course is a capstone course that is required of all of our French majors and represents the culmination of their program. Since we read Tristan et Iseut and Marie de France that semester, viewing the performance of Chievrefoil in class was particularly meaningful. The students in this class, like those in the graduate course, were struck by the way in which the combination of music and narrative recitation created a new aesthetic appreciation of the text.

I am currently teaching the course Old French Readings again and while I am certainly using the video of the Chievrefoilperformance this time as well to demonstrate how the text may have been presented to its medieval audience, I have also incorporated into the course another video from the website: Nitzan Rotschild’s solo performance “Roland is fierce,” a dramatic and deeply passionate enactment of a famous episode in the Chanson de Roland, the first great epic work of France.[5] With simple props—only a sword and a chair in the classroom—Rotschild’s performance captures perfectly the emotion that permeates this part of the text as Roland fights for the honor of the French. Once again, the website brings the narrative to life in the classroom as students become the audience for a modern interpretation of a medieval work.

While my focus here has been on the way in which the website can be used to teach medieval narrative in a classroom setting, one must not ignore another aspect of this important pedagogical resource: its entertainment value. Indeed, it is impressive that Vitz and Lawrence have been able to assemble such a vast collection of quality performances on a single website. Medievalists, or simply those interested in performance in general, could spend hours on this site viewing hundreds of video clips of narrative performances from various literary genres in several languages.

Through their passion for storytelling, the medieval author and performer insured the transmission of a narrative tradition from one generation to the next, from one audience to another. Likewise, the performances assembled on the website Performing Medieval Narrative Today breathe new life into medieval texts that continue to fascinate a modern audience.

[1] Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase <http://www.nyu.edu/pmnt>.

[2] The lais performed by Cook are Chievrefoil (Goatleaf), under clip title “Goatleaf: Romanesque harp accompaniment;Laüstic (Nightingale), under clip title “Nightingale: Romanesque harp accompaniment;” and Fresne (Ash Tree), under clip title “Ash Tree: Romanesque harp accompaniment.” Kahrl performs Laüstic (Nightingale), under clip title “Nightingale.” I had the pleasure of being in the audience for Ron Cook’s performances of Laüstic and Fresne at the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

[3] I have consulted all the manuscripts that contain Marie de France’s lais.

[4] The performer uses as a base for his English translation the Old French edition of Jean Rychner, Les Lais de Marie de France (Paris: Champion, 1966). It should be noted that the spelling used on the website is Chevrefoil, which differs slightly from Rychner’s spelling, Chievrefoil, the one I use in this article.

[5] Under clip title “Roland: Roland is fierce.” “Rollant est proz e Olivier est sage” (“Roland is fierce, Oliver is wise”), beginning at laisse 87 in the edition of Ian Short, La Chanson de Roland (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1990).

Logan E. Whalen is Associate Professor of French at the University of Oklahoma, where he was awarded the Cecil W. Woods Award for Excellence in Teaching (2003) and the Good Teaching Award (2007). His publications include “De sens rassis”: Essays in Honor of Rupert T. Pickens (with Keith Busby and Bernard Guidot, 2005), Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory (2008), A Companion to Marie de France (2011), and “Li premerains vers”: Essays in Honor of Keith Busby (with Catherine M. Jones, 2011).


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 2, Fall 2012  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Fall2012/Fall2012University.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies