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1. Juggling across Print

© 2018 Jan M. Ziolkowski, CC BY 4.0

In these times of plenteous knowledge and meager performance, if we do not study the ancient work directly and learn to understand it, we shall find ourselves influenced by the feeble work all round us, and shall be copying the better work through the copyists and without understanding it, which will by no means bring about intelligent art. Let us therefore study it wisely, be taught by it, kindled by it; all the while determining not to imitate or repeat it; to have either no art at all, or an art which we have made our own.

—William Morris

The first two and a half decades of the twentieth century turned over a new leaf in the story of the tumbler or jongleur. In both Europe and North America, the tale is attested first and foremost in what might be called high culture. The ground for this interest, and for this specific mode of making the medieval modern, was readied in more than one way. In the initial stage, philologists from within the Germanosphere participated, alongside peers from other European traditions, by establishing the text of the French poem from the Middle Ages after its discovery. Augmenting their work, Gaston Paris promulgated appreciation of the original to a larger public in France, through concise but glowing praise of Our Lady’s Tumbler in his lectures and literary histories.

The next phase came thanks to the reception of Anatole France’s short story. His prose narrative would have been widely accessible to the educated, because French was the most esteemed language of culture in Europe and its colonies, both past and present. Beyond the cultured, the tale as translated into a host of other tongues was soon propagated to a worldwide readership. In due course, the musical drama of Jules Massenet arrived. It won a foothold through premieres in Monaco, Germany, and France, but attained runaway success only after Mary Garden became implicated. Her involvement coincided with the Golden Age of Opera in the United States when Oscar Hammerstein I ratcheted up the reach of such entertainment not only in a handful of major cities on the coasts, with Chicago added for good measure, but far beyond.

In the country of both Anatole France and Jules Massenet, an atmosphere burgeoned that favored the production and collection of medievalizing printed books and handmade manuscripts. The French nation became the world center for the production of artistic books. The short story by the Nobel prizewinner lent itself beautifully to medievalesque experimentation, within a context of other literature and art. The City of Light was the capital of this book culture, the heartland of the presses, binderies, and bookstalls, and the hub of the new bibliopolis. No major act took place in medievalism without paper and ink: in the Universal Exposition of 1900, the stage set of Albert Robida’s Old Paris exhibition, with its recreations of medieval architecture and its hordes of reenactors, was propped by guidebooks and ephemera galore, as Auguste Rodin’s stone sculpture of The Cathedral was followed eventually by his book on the Gothic great churches of France. Notre-Dame of Paris was part and parcel of the publication upturn. In its vicinity, the so-called bouquinistes in the first city of France plied their trade in selling used and antiquarian titles from green bookstalls that lined the quays along both banks of the Seine.

From the Franco-Prussian War through 1918, the fine presses of the metropolis turned out immense quantities of so-called deluxe and artistic tomes—in French, livres de luxe and livres d’artiste. Heavily illustrated, these volumes drew upon artists who sometimes restricted themselves to this medium but often also produced posters and paintings. In terms of stylistic movements, they drew upon classicism, romanticism, realism, symbolism, modernism, and, yes, medievalism. In technique, they took advantage of all that the newest technologies had to offer for color reproduction, while often enhancing the work of machines with additional coloring by hand. Almost inevitably, the process of image-making goaded them look to their roots in the lovingly penned and illustrated devotional codices of the Middle Ages.

In all countries, the gruesomeness of the Great War prompted some modernists of the interwar period to rebel against sentimentalism and romanticism. At the same time, the bad dreams of what had been a living hell of mutual slaughter and destruction primed others for a revival of the traditions that had been associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. For practitioners who were attracted to the second option, the ubiquitous romantic medievalism of the nineteenth century became a staging post. From it, they proceeded to particular brands of twentieth-century modernism that had ingrained in them the earlier reception of the Middle Ages. Was the medievalesque in the 1920s a conservative and traditionalist reaction to the calamities of the preceding decade—was it a futile reaching back in Europe to the belle époque in pricey books for connoisseurs?

In Germany, the original poem had been adapted into the national language first by Robert Waldmüller, who published under the pen name of Charles Edouard Duboc (see Fig. 1.1). A painter as well as translator and dramatist, and one of the top-level literati in Dresden in the second half of the nineteenth century, he had every reason to be predisposed to write in a medievalesque manner. In the late 1860s he became personally acquainted with Victor Hugo. During the same span, he translated works by Tennyson. Though the texts by the British author that he chose to put into German were not specifically pieces of poetry set in the Middle Ages, he could not have failed to know at least some of the medieval pieces. A quarter century later, in 1894, he demonstrated his absorption in the medieval period by adapting the French poem of the tumbler into German verse under the title “The Dancing Little Monk.” Here, Waldmüller put on unobtrusive display an easygoing acquaintance with the premodern literary context of Our Lady’s Tumbler. At the same time, he did not think twice about making the story his own by interjecting new elements.

Fig. 1.1 Robert Waldmüller [Charles Edouard Duboc]. Photograph by W. E. Hoffman, ca. 1900. Image courtesy of Getty Images. All rights reserved.

The first octave of his composition sets the action in the cathedral of Soissons, in the joyous aftermath of a plague staved off by the Madonna. The title character is a jongleur who entered the order as a gray-haired old man. Pained at having no votive for the Mother of God, he first engages in a bit of handwringing and then slips off to the crypt. There a worm-eaten wooden image of Mary lies wrapped in cobwebs in a corner. Before it, he performs his routine. Waldmüller describes the jig in detail, even interspersing French words and phrases to identify the specific moves the former performer uses. A mob catches him in the act and drags him before the bishop. The dancer’s forehead turns out to be dry as dust, while the rest of him swims in sweat. The explanation is that the good brother rested his brow against the wood statue as he brought it out, but the churchman takes the circumstance as a miracle performed by the Virgin. The prelate reminds the swarm of other wonders that Mary has enacted, for example the candle that she bestowed upon another entertainer at Arras. The clergyman draws the moral that people should not pay particular heed to liturgical formulas, but instead pray in whatever fashion they understand the best.

Afterward, the medieval French was paraphrased with reasonable accuracy by Severin Rüttgers, whose adaptation first came into print in 1914. Roughly a quarter century later, this German teacher and translator oversaw the efforts of the Nazis to warp children’s literature to their political purposes. Although generalizing too freely about his disparate publications would be unwise, two of his main preoccupations can fairly be identified. One could be called heroic narratives of Germany and Scandinavia. The other would be Christian legends, especially relating to Mary. After flaunting intellectual curiosities of a comprehensively eclectic sort through the 1920s, Rüttgers subsequently trained his sights ever more on supposedly Germanic folk literature. This narrowing view correlated exactly with his rise in influence during the National Socialist period. The quality of his scholarship degenerated, no doubt as a consequence.

Our Lady’s Tumbler led off a omnium-gatherum by Rüttgers of seven French Marian legends from the Middle Ages that were put into German prose. The other six tales in the volume were all translated loosely from Poquet’s 1857 edition of Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles of Our Lady. In a concluding note at the foot of the table of contents, the translator gave the impression that the original piece of poetry had itself been excerpted from the medieval French Life of the Fathers and that Gaston Paris had imprinted its title upon it. The German also invoked his scholarly predecessor approvingly as “the sensitive, subtle, and learned connoisseur of the medieval poetry of his fatherland”—meaning France. Finally, he quoted the French philologist’s portraiture of the poem as being “perhaps the masterpiece of the genre, thanks to its delightful and childlike simplicity.”

In Germany, learned interest in the original medieval French, generated and supported by the toils of Romance philologists, reached its height in the early 1920s. To look at scholarly versions, first came the edition of 1920 by Erhard Lommatzsch. In his scholarly lineage, this Romance philologist arrived at his inquisitiveness about the story naturally. In the first place, he had studied under Heinrich Morf, among others. At the turn of the century, Morf had lectured on Our Lady’s Tumbler at what would later become the university of Frankfurt; eventually Lommatzsch inherited his chair in Romance philology there. The surmise seems reasonable that Our Lady’s Tumbler would have been more than an occasional component of the curriculum in the city on the banks of the river Main.

After Lommatzsch published the original text, Curt Sigmar Gutkind brought out a verse translation in 1924 (see Fig. 1.2). This German version was lodged in an appendix to a book by Wilhelm Fraenger, who headed the castle library in Mannheim until his removal from office after the Nazis seized power in 1933. The study was devoted largely to the fascinating, life-sized human heads sculpted on the exterior of the great church of Reims. The combination of the art historian’s study and the philologist’s translation accords well with the photographs that the volume purveys of the strangely screwed-up faces of sculptures on the chief place of worship of the French city. Like much else in the metropolis, the carvings had been damaged badly in the shelling and fires of World War I. Fraenger presents the artworks in what seems meant as a progression from, roughly speaking, gentle-hearted melancholy through good and mellow humor to downright mad and diabolical zaniness. The sculpted heads, busts, and full figures are often called masks. Although a misnomer, the designation is too well established to be dislodged now. In any event, the stone effigies mostly serve as corbels or brackets to support architectural elements above them. Their exact origins and significance continue to stir debate. The visages, anything but stone-faced, attract and mystify much as the gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris do. A major distinction is that the so-called masks are medieval, whereas the Parisian statues are nineteenth-century medievalesque. Fraenger contended that “the pandemonium of grotesque grimaces” serves as a counterweight to the holiness of the sculptural figures in the portals.

Fig. 1.2 Front cover of Wilhelm Fraenger, Die Masken von Rheims, Die komische Bibliothek (Leipzig, Germany / Zurich: Eugen Gentsch / Erlenbach, 1922).

Inexplicably, the quirky miscellany omitted any mention that the cathedral of Reims had been badly damaged by the German military action in World War I. Readers are left to decide for themselves whether the omission came out of tact, skepticism, regret, patriotism, or a mixture of all four and more. At the same time, the publication embodies an effort to honor not just the great church of Reims but also the broader medieval culture of neighboring Picardy, which had suffered much wartime degradation. The tesserae Gutkind fitted into the mosaic of materials were verbal, but his pages as printed were illustrated. Our Lady’s Tumbler is presented as “a Picard legend.” Besides thirty-two black-and-white plates of whimsical sculptural chimeras from the house of prayer, the volume incorporates five line drawings, modeled on images found in the medieval manuscript sketchbook of the draftsman Villard de Honnecourt. This much-traveled thirteenth-century Gothic architect is identified as having been a Picard (see Figs. 1.3 and 1.4). Viewed from the safe distance of a hundred years, the line art selected to bracket the German verse translation of the medieval French poem accords well with expressionist concerns about the hopes and fears of individual human beings. At the same time, the statuary photographed speaks to the same cultural movement’s predilection for the grotesque.

Fig. 1.3 A kneeling male figure, tonsured. Illustration by Villard de Honnecourt, ca. 1225–1235. Reproduced in Wilhelm Fraenger, Die Masken von Rheims, Die komische Bibliothek (Leipzig, Germany / Zurich: Eugen Gentsch / Erlenbach, 1922), 15.

Fig. 1.4 A prostrate male figure, tonsured. Illustration by Villard de Honnecourt, ca. 1225–1235. Reproduced in Wilhelm Fraenger, Die Masken von Rheims, Die komische Bibliothek (Leipzig, Germany / Zurich: Eugen Gentsch / Erlenbach, 1922), 39.

The little works of Lommatzsch and Gutkind stood for more than a half century as the standard edition of the medieval French original and the most reliable modern German rendition, respectively. The piece of poetry from the Middle Ages retained a roost in high culture throughout the Western world, thanks to translations or adaptations into French, English, German, Hungarian, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and other modern tongues, and even including the artificial language Esperanto.

Printed Books as Pseudomanuscripts

The narrative has owed its popularity largely to a rebellion against the materialism that boomed in Europe and America during the Gilded Age and the belle époque. Yet the tale itself, for all that it intrinsically opposes material possessions, has been very much materialized in the physical guises it has been given. Among other things, it has been presented again and again in lovingly and sometimes lavishly printed, handwritten, or typed forms. It has been illustrated never-endingly. Our understanding of it is indebted to the durable fragility with which the paper and parchment of these books, manuscripts, and typescripts transmit knowledge and beauty across time. In the English-speaking world, the story of the jongleur attained a special niche in part because its brevity allowed it to be dished up in small volumes, either by itself or in company with other narratives from the Middle Ages. Although sometimes these publications could be barely more than booklets without any typographic adornment or illustrations, the norm was to furnish them with medievalesque features and flourishes. Nowhere are medievalesque traits more evident than in the New Medieval Library title Of the Tumbler of Our Lady and Other Miracles. A reviewer of the first three in this series, all translated from French by Alice Kemp-Welch, gushes in extolling the production quality of these dainty hardcovers. Such printing is truly magical, as befits a black art of ink on paper.

The items in the set embody a paradox of the nineteenth century. During the first three quarters of the century, a store of manuscripts from the Middle Ages existed for the well-off and scholarly to snap up. As the supply of the real thing dried up, these medieval treasures went from the auction block to the chopping block to be broken up. To stop the gap and sate the demand, codices were unbound (or “disbound”). Sometimes single leaves or quires were sold after such dismemberment. In other instances excisions were made from individual folios, to generate cuttings of miniatures. Although initially this abusive technique especially benefited the well-to-do, one avid American of more modest means refined it to a mass scale in the first few decades of the twentieth century. To fulfill his populist ambition, this self-defined “book-tearer” or “biblioclast” sought through his book-dealing, or rather through his piecemeal distribution of leaves from manuscripts that had been taken apart, to make art education more inspirational by enabling hands-on contact with at least pieces of the real items. Comparable treatment, probably profit-driven, was inflicted upon the parchment gatherings that contained the sole miniature to accompany the Old French of Our Lady’s Tumbler. The vandal who denuded the medieval folios of their ornamentation did his dastardly deed long before the US chop-shopper made a mini-industry of undoing these venerable artifacts.

Barbarism of these types notwithstanding, eventually the growth of a large-scale market with an interest in the Middle Ages outstripped the supply of new originals. Hand-produced imitations, of which a hardly negligible number deal in one way or another with the Virgin Mary, could not begin to compensate. At this point, in an irony that will be lost on no one, salvation came through new technologies. The industrial revolution brought equipment for mass production, including knockoffs of earlier artisanry. Such objects of cutting-edge manufacture were acquired by buyers who surrounded themselves with products meant to hark back to the mists of time and imagined good old days, perhaps especially medieval ones. Consumers wanted, and got, a ready-made version of long-ago times, when life was simpler, faith and miracles came more readily, and humanity was still in the flush of youth.

Although Anatole France’s adaptation never altogether displaced texts and translations of the poem from the 1230s, his Le jongleur de Notre Dame rapidly became at least as popular as Our Lady’s Tumbler had been. Deluxe illustrated editions were vended in the early twentieth century, with calligraphy and paper designed to counterfeit manuscripts from bygone centuries. The book-buying public’s appetite for medievalesque productions had been whetted by the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and others involved in movements that spun off from Arts and Crafts, all of them medievalizers who had shown a penchant for the purchase, study, and imitation of medieval codices. In the early 1870s, precisely when the original French of Our Lady’s Tumbler was first edited and discussed, Morris was scooping up parchment masterpieces from the Middle Ages to study, as he practiced lettering and illumination in emulation of their manner.

Anatole France himself had an amateur’s affection for painted manuscripts of yore. In reviewing the first edition of French Literature in the Middle Ages, he commented upon Gaston Paris’s observation that depictions from that era appear grotesque because they engage in anachronism, by representing the ancients in medieval garb. Going further, he even likened the book itself to a miniature. The small-scale paintings on centuries-old folios were much in the minds of France’s contemporaries. His readers and he miniaturized the past as they perceived it through medievalizing eyes. For the whole of the Middle Ages to be squeezed within two covers was not unreasonable, to their way of thinking. As the man of letters put it, “their world, by comparison with ours, was quite small.” In 1891, his fellow French novelist and critic Paul Bourget described a cathedral with the calculatedly self-contradictory analogy of a “gigantic miniature.” The reduced magnitude of that once-upon culture was the concomitant of its childlike nature. In effect, they saw the era as inherently scaled down—a little era for amusingly simple people of correspondingly diminutive size. In keeping with this preoccupation with its petite charms, France wrote elsewhere of miniatures and other pictures.

In spinning his medieval yarn, the story writer elaborated a strand-by-strand account of the devotion shown to Mary by a brother named Alexandre. To move from metaphor to fictitious reality, this monastic artist wielded his brushes to create images in a manuscript. The outcome of Le jongleur de Notre Dame would seem to put this virtuoso, like other brethren who have aptitudes more suited to a monastery, over a barrel in contrast to the entertainer, who after all merits the miracle of a personal gesture bestowed upon him by the Virgin. Yet, though it might at first seem paradoxical, the presence of such an artist within the tale made it an even more appetizing subject to illustrators of early twentieth-century printed books. The juxtaposition of the juggler or tumbler to the other monks enabled these modern painters not only to depict in freeze-frame style the physical movement of the title figure but also to portray the much different activity of their forbears, the medieval illuminators.

Image-Makers Go Mainstream

How times have changed! Typewriters were mechanical devices for composing in movable-type-like characters. Such gear was used throughout most of the twentieth century. The first desktop contraptions of this type to achieve commercial success were invented and produced in the late 1860s and early 1870s, just when the medieval jongleur of our tale was discovered. These machines took hold by leaps and bounds. Not necessarily true to form, they contributed to creating and recording a yearning for the past, especially for superseded writing technologies. The nostalgia can be discerned readily in a French trade card to advertise one brand of such products (see Fig. 1.5). The vignette depicts three tonsured monks in the white garb of Cistercians. One to the left, chin in hand, looking for all the world like a man reading a large-format newspaper over breakfast, studies an illuminated manuscript. Another, facing him to the right, is seated at a lectern at work on a broad piece of curling parchment, with paint boxes before him. Both are immersed in the equivalent of paperwork from hundreds of years earlier—long before the introduction of paper into Europe from the East.

Fig. 1.5 Lithographed trade card depicting medieval monks at work (Paris: L’Oliver Machine à Écriture, early twentieth century).

Soon after the original poem of Our Lady’s Tumbler was put into modern languages, books began to appear in which its text was presented typographically to simulate a medieval manuscript. Sometimes other features of bookcraft, such as bindings, incorporated traits imitative of the Middle Ages. Such simulacra had a long history already. In France, they had had their start at the latest in one specialized offshoot of the so-called troubadour style, a French expression of medievalism that was popular in the early nineteenth century. Its very name would have made it apt for a story of a jongleur, but the piece of poetry from the thirteenth century was not discovered until well after the style’s prime had passed.

In bookmaking, or less ambiguously manuscript-making, the most spectacular example of the style would be the 1844 Chambord missal. One folio side depicts the Virgin and Child atop a crescent moon (see Fig. 1.6). She is crowned, wears red, and is cloaked in a white, veil-like outer covering. Talk about niche skills: both mother and son are positioned within an elaborate architectural bay, like one on the façade of a Gothic cathedral, except that it and the remainder of the border are painted gold, against a blue background. This medievalesque margin allows a glimpse into a world that stood ready for then-contemporary redactions of medieval Marianism and its miracles.

Fig. 1.6 Virgin and Child standing on a crescent moon. Manuscript miniature from the “Chambord Missal,” 1844. London, Victoria and Albert Museum, MSL/1984/68, fol. 7r. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. All rights reserved.

The Gothic revival also comprehended codices. The nineteenth century witnessed a surge in interest in imitation of handcrafted books from the Middle Ages. In the second half of the century, decorative lettering and illustration became no longer elitist but mainstream. The passion of that phase remains entrenched to this day in the custom in many colleges of using medieval-like scripts or typefaces on diplomas. When in English, the wording on such certificates is often replete with Latinisms, and sometimes the text is presented entirely in Latin. Likewise, such copycat Gothic characters came into currency in newspaper nameplates, to connote age and seriousness. They stay in use to this day.

The revivalists, both professional and amateur, were like nonprofessional bakers who rejected grocery-store mixes and store-bought confections by making their own from scratch. They sought to resuscitate and revitalize medieval or medieval-style penmanship, miniatures and illuminations, binding, and other such trappings of old manuscripts. They had special incentive to direct their efforts to the transcription of writings by Anatole France and other like-minded writers who loved the Middle Ages. Doing so was only returning a favor, for although the centuries since the invention of the printing press around the mid-fifteenth century had not killed calligraphy and illumination altogether, those arts had beyond doubt declined. The full renascence of both happened in the production of actual codices, handwritten and hand-illustrated, as well as printed books, often in limited printings, designed to resemble their medieval precursors or at least to do homage to that medium.

The imitation rested on study that teamed up scholars and artists. To go further, the craftsmen were not just professionals, but even hobbyists. Among other things, amateur manuscript-making procured an opening for female handworkers, whose options at the time were otherwise sharply restricted. In France, the art of illumination enjoyed a uniquely vibrant revival in the interregnum preceding the turn of the century, from 1888 to 1900. A case in point would be The Image-Maker, a periodical dedicated to the publication of images and of studies on “image-makers” both medieval and modern. The review was brought out for only two years by the French symbolist writers and critics Remy de Gourmont and Alfred Jarry. In the fin de siècle, the makers of medievalesque manuscripts and books in France had not just one but two of their own magazines. One was The Illuminator: Art in the Family, the other The Color Illuminator.

In the latter journal, the essayist who composed an article on the Society of French Miniaturists and Illuminators quoted Anatole France’s praise of the group for rescuing a declining art that had attained excellence first in antiquity and again in the thirteenth century. In concluding, the journalist once more repeated verbatim words that the author of Le jongleur de Notre Dame had uttered in his speech to the professionals and hobbyists:

The Society of Miniaturists has understood that, for art to live, it must be connected to life. This is why it has welcomed efforts aimed at decorating everyday objects; I am not speaking only of fans or specimens on fine paper of our modern books, but also of menus or programs and all other objects of contemporary elegance. It is only when we no longer separate the industrial arts from what we call high art that we will be able to hope for a rebirth of taste.

The paid experts and amateur enthusiasts of these rejuvenated crafts owed much to the support that France and his peers gave them, as they sought to make replicas of items from the Middle Ages. In doing so, these artisans and artists manufactured objects that were adjudged to be authentically medieval-like, if such a periphrastic and paradoxical formulation is permissible. Retailers purveyed these items to a much broader public than could possibly acquire actual historical pieces—authentic antiques. In their sophisticated and studied ways, the nineteenth-century illuminators strove for the seemingly spontaneous and natural handicraft that they supposed had been the customary mode of primitive craftsmen a half millennium earlier. In this way, they participated in a more general nineteenth-century seditiousness, one that in its way fomented the various medieval revivals, in rebellion against industrial society and mass production. At the same time, they helped set the stage for a proliferation of illustrated, medievalesque books in the early twentieth century.

The Arts and Crafts movement in England, already fired up by the writings of John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin, achieved further propulsion from the ideas and products of William Morris. All three of these men drew upon the Middle Ages for themes as well as for techniques. Although the term Arts and Crafts did not gain traction until after 1887, the style of design flourished during the half century that began in 1860. It was closely related to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which took shape in response to an extended field trip that Morris and Edward Burne-Jones had made to cathedrals in northern France in 1855. Arts and Crafts sent out ripples throughout the West, but the wavelets lapped strongest on the shores of the British Isles and America.

In France, a key moment can be identified in the eclectic output of Eugène Grasset. Trained as an architect and an admirer of Viollet-le-Duc, he was also well-traveled in Egypt. Already by 1871, he established himself in Paris. There he drew favorable attention for his distinctive style, which fused elements of Japonism and pseudo-Merovingianism. His medievalism bears comparison with the Pre-Raphaelites as well as with the symbolists. Among nineteenth-century experimenters in the medievalesque, this Swiss-born father of art nouveau may be best known for chromolithograph posters that epitomize what has been called the color revolution (see Fig. 1.7). He produced one such work for an extravaganza of medieval theming called the Festival of Paris, which took place at the Opéra National in 1886. The belle époque was the heyday of the poster as medium, when a placard could succeed at once as an advertising vehicle and an expression of true art. Through commissions such as this one, the government of the Third Republic wanted to legitimate its rule by overtly linking medieval and modern France.

Grasset paid his dues and demonstrated virtuosity across a multiplicity of artistic forms, including stained glass, mosaic, typeface design, and calligraphy, but he may have left his most powerful and lasting mark in the book trade. He was enlisted for the landmark task of illustrating through a multicolor photo relief process a medieval chanson de geste entitled The Story of Aymon’s Four Sons, Most Noble and Most Valiant Knights (see Fig. 1.8).

Fig. 1.7 “Les Fêtes de Paris.” Chromolithograph poster by Eugène Grasset, 1886.

Fig. 1.8 Title page of Histoire des quatre fils Aymon, très nobles et très vaillans chevaliers, illus. Eugène Grasset (Paris: H. Launette, 1883).

Following the style and layout of an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages, the artist devised for this extraordinary livre de luxe 240 four-color watercolors that were reproduced through four-color printing. He devoted the better part of two years to the tome, which was published in 1883. What relevance does the stunningly beautiful, proto-art nouveau book of this designer hold for the reception of Anatole France’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame? A first observation, almost too unmissable at this point even to be committed to writing, is that in the late nineteenth century, a medievalesque style was not at all irreconcilable with a new and modern one. The production of the volume required Herculean effort and Daedalian innovation, with more than one thousand plates and the application of the latest and greatest printing techniques. Beyond that, this printed work inaugurates a convention of others that are not fakes, forgeries, or facsimiles, but that instead radically reimagine the Middle Ages to accord with changing reconceptions of the epoch. They modernize the medieval, even as they medievalize the modern. They belong to the same broader impetus as led to the institutionalization of medieval French philology and history and the popularization of fiction set in those long-ago centuries: such efforts to revive bookmaking and other decorative arts served to revive and remold national pride, badly battered after the Franco-Prussian war. More than ten years after its fabrication, the title was still being exhibited proudly not as old-fashioned for its medievalizing but as the latest and greatest for the modernity of the technology upon which it depended.

Conventions from medieval manuscript-making became solidly implanted within broader culture and commerce during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The specific facets and functions of Gothic revivalism differed from one nation to another, but everywhere the revival of medieval architecture and literature witnessed a similar intentness on the Middle Ages that manifested itself in decorative arts. Such medievalism found an ideal outlet in musical drama, which permitted its producers to conjure up buildings through stage settings and handwritten books through the mise-en-page of librettos, scores, and more. The lithograph placard by François Flameng for the 1901 musical drama Grisélidis encapsulates all these trends (see Vol. 4, Fig. 1.20 at The eye is drawn to a text box. There, the name and subgenre of the opera, authors of the libretto, and composer of the music are spelled out in medievalesque black-and-rubric script. The initials to the title and to Massenet are given their own boxed majuscules, attached by an elaborate ramifying border. Simple drawing and flourishes fill out interlinear blanks. Outside the frame containing the wording, the world of medieval faith (as commonly viewed back in the day) holds sway. A devil, more fascinating than frightening, looms above the long-suffering Griselda, a heroine true to her ineluctable epithet of “patient.” Between the antagonist and protagonist her son, Loÿs, stands pensively. Similar features, although more muted, are on show in the poster for Le jongleur de Notre Dame. In both cases, the imaginative hegemony exercised by the codices of the Middle Ages could not be better embodied—and the path could not be signposted more clearly to the manuscript-like publications that would soon follow, with modern French texts but medievalesque script and illustrations.

The librarian son of a bookseller, Anatole France knew both books and bookloving up close and personal. He wrote of bibliophilia for bibliophiles. Are we to marvel that in turn his fictions were taken up by calligraphers and illustrators who crafted art objects of his texts and their images?

Among early twentieth-century decorated publications of France’s tale, two especially splendid chefs d’oeuvre were brought out by François Ferroud. This publisher had launched, on the heels of Hugo’s death, a major new edition of his works, highlighting (of course) the novel Notre-Dame de Paris. Both forms of the later short story belong to a type known by the French term livres d’artistes, or “artists’ books.” Such volumes offered top-line production values. Often a single run would be broken down into different subgroups, by distinctions in quality of paper, format (for example, quarto or octavo), and stages of printing. These subdivisions would be numbered consecutively, and they would have gradations in rarity and cost. The highest-priced copies could incorporate one specimen or more of unique graphic material, such as the original gouache of one illustration. In effect, such products are manuscript-ed: they are customized for collectors by the addition of one-of-a-kind materials that are exclusive to the copy purchased.

The first of the two Ferroud versions was issued in 1906. By that juncture the genre of medievalesque books in France had a recent history that went back nearly a quarter century. The freestanding volume contained hand-colored engravings. It was the achievement of an artist legally named Henri Malteste but who signed his canvases Malatesta. Like a small number of others, he specialized in medievalesque calligraphy and illustration. In both, he consistently showed a genuine love for the beauty of the writings he illustrated, and for Gothic art, in manuscripts and stained glass.

In 1906, the same printing firm also brought out Anatole France’s “Saint Euphrosina” within its own two covers. This legend tells of a young lady in the fifth century who becomes a so-called transvestite saint. To escape an arranged marriage, this maiden of Alexandria feels compelled eventually to take the tonsure and to adopt a monk’s attire. Until her death, she lives for decades under the unforgettable monastic pseudonym of Smaragdus, a man’s name. The cross-dresser belongs to a cluster of saintly early Christians whose cults basked in a resurgence that played out in the revived spirituality of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. During that period, such ascetics became role models for nuns, anchorites, and other aspirants to sanctity. These paragons of virtue, in consonance with a common polarization in Christian culture that casts females as either saints or whores, were called both desert mothers and harlots, and included such wayward souls who eventually saw the light as Mary the Egyptian and Thaïs. Fascinatingly, the same trollops-turned-holy-women won renewed favor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The front of the book produced by Ferroud bears the story’s elaborate subtitle within a device designed to resemble a wax seal on a medieval manuscript (see Fig. 1.9). The fetching lass is portrayed as a dancing girl. France’s “Saint Euphrosina” matches closely with his Le jongleur de Notre Dame in the narrator’s assertion (here a jocose remark at the conclusion) that he has followed a medieval original. In reality, the headwaters for the short story were probably an 1874 collection by none other than Paul Meyer. In the scholarly work by Gaston Paris’s closest collaborator, the story of Euphrosina is preceded directly by the life of Saint Thaïs.

The opening page gives a good impression of the techniques employed throughout. A box contains a detailed illustration with a medievalesque border and a caption “beautiful maiden” in Latin (see Fig. 1.10).

Fig. 1.9 Front cover of Anatole France, Sainte Euphrosine, illus. Louis Édouard Fournier (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1906).

Fig. 1.10 Anatole France, Sainte Euphrosine, illus. with miniature by Louis Édouard Fournier, woodcut border by Edmond Pennequin (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1906), 1.

Likewise in 1906, Malatesta published Gustave Flaubert’s Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller as a “facsimile of a calligraphed manuscript, illuminated and historiated.” The tale had already been printed three times with heavy embellishment for bibliophiles, and it was illustrated repeatedly in years to come. The broader cultural ambit of the story’s influence extended ultimately to Massenet. The composer was evidently well versed in all of Flaubert’s Three Tales, published originally in 1877, with The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller being the centerpiece. The account relates that while hunting, the title character was reproached by a hart. The beast foretold that the young man would one day slay his parents. Eventually the son indeed killed his mother and father inadvertently. As penance, he and his wife established an inn for wayfarers and a hospital for the poor, alongside a river. In due course an angel, in the guise of a man afflicted with Hansen’s disease, subjected Julian to what might be called a leper’s spot test. By passing it, the penitent merited forgiveness for his crime. Flaubert’s treatment of Saint Julian the Hospitaller was among the first efforts by French authors in the late nineteenth century to appropriate and refashion the microclimate of medieval hagiography.

Malatesta’s volume contains the full fixings of a fine printed book, including a concise statement of the place and date of publication, with identification of the publisher. Such information, designated formally as a colophon, is here lovingly illustrated with an image of Saint Julian toting an oar in one hand and cradling the neck of a splendidly antlered hart in the other (see Fig. 1.11). The last illustration preceding this imprint amounts to an ingenious summa of the artwork in the tome (see Fig. 1.12). Occupying most of a textless side, it shows a Gothic lancet with elaborate colored panes. Taking the tale as starting point, the illustrator here envisaged a design for the fourteenth-century glass that inspired Flaubert himself (see Fig. 1.13).

Fig. 1.11 St. Julian with an oar and hart. Illustration by Henri Malatesta, 1906. Published in Gustave Flaubert, La légende de S. Julien l’Hospitalier (Paris: La société normande du livre illustré, 1906), 55.

Fig. 1.12 A stained-glass window, the imagined inspiration for Flaubert. Illustration by Henri Malatesta, 1906. Published in Gustave Flaubert, La légende de S. Julien l’Hospitalier (Paris: La société normande du livre illustré, 1906), 53.

Fig. 1.13 Stained-glass window depicting the life of St. Julien l’Hospitalier, Rouen Cathedral, Rouen. Photograph from Wikimedia, 2016, CC BY-SA 4.0,’Hospitalier_5_-_déambulatoire,_cathédrale_de_Rouen.jpg

The nineteenth-century author knew that his own conception of the artwork would take aback anyone who saw the actual window. In fact, he expressed the desire to have his story followed by a colorized reproduction of an engraving from 1823 that depicted the panel, so that readers could contrast the visual representation as a historical document with the verbal text that revealed what Flaubert wrought of it. The writer may have been the first, and was probably the most prominent, but was not the final medieval revivalist to see the world through stained-glass eyes. The translucent sheets, separated and supported vertically by the bars of stone or lead known as mullions, were only sometimes rose-tinted.

The page facing the pointed arch records the final words of the tale (see Fig. 1.14). Pictured in the illustration here is Gustave Flaubert himself with his left index finger held aloft toward the bottom corner of the medieval window. The depiction of the author in this guise is utterly appropriate. After all, he acknowledged having taken his inspiration from the stained glass in the northern ambulatory of the cathedral of Rouen. Facing Flaubert in the portrayal is another figure, the wealthy banker and passionate art collector Lucien Félix Claude-Lafontaine, who commissioned the original manuscript. The tastes of this patron can be gleaned from a portrait of him that contains in the background squares of stained glass set into the larger uncolored window of his study where he posed for the painting.

Fig. 1.14 Gustave Flaubert gestures toward a stained-glass window. Illustration by Henri Malatesta, 1906. Published in Gustave Flaubert, La légende de S. Julien l’Hospitalier (Paris: La société normande du livre illustré, 1906), 52.

Fig. 1.15 Frontispiece and title page of Le moine sacristain: Fabliau du XIIIe siècle, illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1912).

In the following decade, Malatesta tried his hand at decorating modern French renderings of medieval fabliaux. The first is the 1912 The Sacristan Monk: A Fabliau of the Thirteenth Century (see Fig. 1.15). This narrative, a macabre comedy, tells of a man and woman who are happily married, until they become impoverished. After learning of their circumstances, a member of a religious community offers the wife a large sum of money to sleep with him. The couple cooks up a plan to fleece the lustful brother, but it misfires and instead the husband accidentally kills him. The perpetrator hauls the mortal remains back to the abbey and deposits them on a toilet. A priest discovers the corpse and moves it to the house of the couple, in the hope of thereby deflecting suspicion for the manslaughter from himself. When they find the dead religious back on their doorstep, the married couple seek to bury him. While doing so, they chance upon a large ham that has been hidden by thieves. They replace the cold cuts with the remains, which the thieves find and carry back to their den. Upon realizing that they have a cadaver, the robbers take it back to the farm from which they stole the meat. When the farmer’s boy happens upon the body, he runs back to his father. They strap it to a horse, which gallops through the kitchen of the monastery before plummeting from a precipice to its death. A second comic tale in the series is the 1913 Of a Trumpeter Who Was Not Allowed to Lodge in His Customary Lodging-Place by the Lady of the House in the Absence of Her Husband, Illustrated with a Frontispiece, a Heading, a Tailpiece, a Fleuron in the Title, Ornamented Letters, Drawn, Colored, and Illuminated by Henri Malatesta (see Fig. 1.16). In this case, the wordy title truly says it all.

Fig. 1.16 Frontispiece and title page of D’un trompette qui fust refusé de loger à son logis ordinaire par la Maîtresse en l’absence de son Mari, illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1913).

In the verbal equivalent to Malatesta’s work as illustrator, Marie-Anne Glomeau made a specialty of editing, translating, and reconstructing short fictions from the Middle Ages. One such book of hers is from 1923, The Mystery Play of Griselda, a text partway between a miracle and a morality play (see Fig. 1.17). We have observed what Massenet shaped out of this story in his opera. Another of her volumes is the 1925 publication of Rutebeuf’s The Life of Saint Mary the Egyptian, followed by the Legend of Saint Mary the Egyptian by Jacobus de Voragine (see Fig. 1.18). Although the last-mentioned saints’ lives are medieval, the style favored by the illustrator is in a late wave of the Egyptian revival.

Fig. 1.17 Front cover of Marie-Anne Glomeau, ed., Le mystère de Griselidis, illus. Georges Ripart (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1923).

Fig. 1.18 Frontispiece and title page of Rutebeuf, La vie de Sainte Marie l’Égyptienne, trans. and ed. Marie-Anne Glomeau, illus. Léon Courbouleix (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1925).

The third in the series of anonymous humorous tales translated and illustrated by Malatesta is the 1914 Of Saint Peter and the Jongleur: A Fabliau of the Fourteenth Century, Written, Illuminated, and Historiated (see Fig. 1.19). In the original French, the archaic spelling of the participles at the end of the subtitle (escript, enlumyné et ystorié) diverges studiedly from standard modern forms (écrit, enluminé, and historié), lending the book a quaintly medieval air. The story here tells of a down-and-out performer (see Fig. 1.20) who dies and whose spirit is promptly grasped by a fiend who frogmarches him to the underworld (see Fig. 1.21). There the the not-so-dearly departed is entrusted with the safekeeping of damned souls. The saint turns up and gambles at length with the entertainer, who eventually wagers and loses all those doomed to hell (see Fig. 1.22). When the demons return to find what the jongleur has done, they expel him, severely punish their colleague who brought him into the infernal regions, and establish the principle of not allowing other such professionals to to darken their doors again (see Fig. 1.23). As for the hapless trouper, he goes to join Peter in heaven instead (see Fig. 1.24). The outcome of the story gives minstrels cause to rejoice forevermore (see Fig. 1.25).

Fig. 1.19 Title page of De Sainct Pierre et du jongleur: Fabliau du XIVe siècle, trans. and illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1914).

Fig. 1.20 De Sainct Pierre et du jongleur: Fabliau du XIVe siècle, trans. and illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1914), 7.

Fig. 1.21 De Sainct Pierre et du jongleur: Fabliau du XIVe siècle, trans. and illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1914), 9.

Fig. 1.22 De Sainct Pierre et du jongleur: Fabliau du XIVe siècle, trans. and illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1914), 16.

Fig. 1.23 De Sainct Pierre et du jongleur: Fabliau du XIVe siècle, trans. and illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1914), 17.

Fig. 1.24 De Sainct Pierre et du jongleur: Fabliau du XIVe siècle, trans. and illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1914), 18.

Fig. 1.25 De Sainct Pierre et du jongleur: Fabliau du XIVe siècle, trans. and illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1914), 19.

In 1921, the first year of the next decade, Malatesta’s brother Louis Malteste embellished The Legend of Saint Mary Magdalene. He took as his basis one of the final narratives in the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, a text from the Middle Ages that, as we have noticed, wormed its way deep into the hearts of the French in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first two illustrations, one the frontispiece and the other on the first page of text, are the most interesting (see Figs. 1.26 and 1.27). They put on display a Mary Magdalene who may stand at the interface of the medieval (like the initials), the ancient (since the actions take place in the time of Jesus Christ), and the modern (meaning in this instance the phase around 1920). The last element shows in the headgear of the saint.

Fig. 1.26 Frontispiece and title page of Jacques de Voragine, La légende de Sainte Marie-Magdeleine, trans. and ed. Claude Therni, illus. Louis Malteste (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1921).

Fig. 1.27 Jacques de Voragine, La légende de Sainte Marie-Magdeleine, trans. and ed. Claude Therni, illus. Louis Malteste (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1921), 7.

Fig. 1.28 Frontispiece and title page of Charles Nodier, Légende de Sœur Béatrix, illus. Georges Ripart (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1924).

Yet another volume to receive such treatment in the medievalesque vein was the Legend of Sister Beatrice, as adapted by Charles Nodier and illustrated in 1924 (see Fig. 1.28). Extraordinary favor was granted to this story in the early twentieth century, in fiction, on the stage, in cinema, and elsewhere. Among the major departures from the two accounts by Caesarius of Heisterbach and most that followed it, the author sets the events in the Jura, in a nunnery dedicated to Our Lady of the Flowering Thorn (see Fig. 1.29). In the telling by this adaptor, the nun’s seducer is not a cleric, but instead a knight who has been wounded and is taken to the convent to be nursed back to health (see Fig. 1.30). The silhouette of the story remains in a steady state, unaltered. The erstwhile Sister Beatrice descends into prostitution (see Fig. 1.31) before ultimately repenting and experiencing the boon of the miracle (see Fig. 1.32).

Fig. 1.29 Our Lady of the Flowering Thorn. Illustration by Georges Ripart, 1924. Published in Charles Nodier, Légende de Sœur Béatrix (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1924), 14.

Fig. 1.30 Beatrice and the wounded knight. Illustration by Georges Ripart, 1924. Published in Charles Nodier, Légende de Sœur Béatrix (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1924), 30.

Fig. 1.31 Beatrice becomes a prostitute. Illustration by Georges Ripart, 1924. Published in Charles Nodier, Légende de Sœur Béatrix (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1924), 38.

Fig. 1.32 Beatrice repents. Illustration by Georges Ripart, 1924. Published in Charles Nodier, Légende de Sœur Béatrix (Paris: Maurice Glomeau, 1924), 46.

With tight integration of text and image, Henri Malatesta crafts a gorgeous layout of Le jongleur de Notre Dame. His illustrations are splendid in their own right. His 1906 production earned the esteem of the Parisian cultural establishment for the kid-glove delicacy with which the artist calibrated his subtle visual satire of the actors and events to accord with the verbal finesse of France’s story.

The central portion of the title page features an aureate background. In the middle is an alcove with a pointed arch that is occupied by the name of the book (see Fig. 1.33). To the right of the archway stands the Virgin—or is it the Mother of God herself, who has come to life and vacated the recess now infilled by the Gothic lettering? She wears a golden crown over a white head-covering, red dress, and blue mantle, one edge of which she holds to wipe the juggler. Barnaby is tonsured, clad in a brown habit, and supporting his entire body weight on his left hand, with his right palm outheld in a gesture of petition. Aspects of the same stance are taken up in a historiated initial that appears later in the book (see Fig. 1.34), in which the entertainer performs before the Madonna and Child; and in a larger miniature, where Mary has descended the steps of the altar to mop off with a corner of her royal blue cloak the sweat dripping from the enraptured minstrel’s damp face (see Fig. 1.35). The artwork and text are executed with conscientious care and beauty throughout the whole volume. The first folio side is representative (see Fig. 1.36).

Fig. 1.33 Title page of Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1906).

Fig. 1.34 Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1906), 29.

Fig. 1.35 Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1906), 31.

Fig. 1.36 Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, illus. Henri Malatesta (Paris: F. Ferroud, 1906), 1.

Even more treasured among bookaholics, although less rare, is the Ferroud edition of 1924 (see Fig. 1.37). A shift from the 1906 book is evident, in that this new version engages in less pretense to being medieval. If anything, it makes an open secret of its adherence to the Art Deco style that won favor in the 1920s and 1930s. In the representation of the jongleur before the Virgin, the tonality of blues and yellows intensifies the powerful juxtaposition of curved and jagged shapes. The illustrator was Maurice Lalau. Even more than Malatesta, this later artist carved out a niche for himself by illustrating medieval and medievalesque texts. The modern French translations and adaptations of French and Latin tales from the Middle Ages that were a mainspring of Lalau’s career encompassed for example much of Chrétien de Troyes and the Golden Legend. He also produced illustrations for the anonymous The Fifteen Joys of Marriage and for the adaptation of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult by Joseph Bédier, who had studied under Gaston Paris and succeeded to the chair of the earlier philologist at the Collège de France.

Fig. 1.37 Frontispiece and title page of Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, illus. Maurice Lalau (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1924).

Even more relevant are Lalau’s illustrations for glories of medievalizing fiction from the late nineteenth century. In 1927, he turned to Gustave Flaubert’s The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller (see Fig. 1.38). In this case the artistry relies upon much the same palette as in his earlier Le jongleur de Notre Dame, with opulent colors that include a vibrant Palatinate blue background (see Fig. 1.39).

Fig. 1.38 Frontispiece and title page of Gustave Flaubert, La légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier, illus. Maurice Lalau (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1927).

Fig. 1.39 Julian realizes that he has slain his mother and father. Illustration by Maurice Lalau, 1927. Published in Gustave Flaubert, La légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1927), 51.

If the Flaubert comes closest in style to the 1924 form of the juggler’s story, Anatole France’s The Miracle of the Magpie makes the best match in content. Lalau applied his hand to the second in 1921. The tale, set in 1429 from Good Friday through the Wednesday after Easter, tells of an amanuensis and a lacemaker in Le-Puy-en-Velay. The scribe was once unequaled in his craft, of engrossing the Hours of Our Lady of Le Puy. Now he has fallen destitute thanks to a close-fisted creditor, who eventually foreclosed on the shop he had owned at the sign of the Image of Our Lady, under the choir buttresses of the Annunciation. Owing to his poor dress, the impoverished wretch is kept at arm’s length even by pilgrims with whom he hopes to share his deep expertise about the histories and stories of the Black Madonna of Le Puy. Eventually the desperate soul offers a prayer before the effigy, the raiment of which France describes with fond determinacy. Thereafter a magpie brings the scrivener a small purse containing twelve gold coins the miser had bestowed upon the Virgin. As this résumé conveys, France’s narrative The Miracle of the Magpie concentrates on the struggles of artists, devotion to the Mother of God, and the efficacy of prayers to likenesses of Mary. The account is set in the world of the late Middle Ages, which Lalau conveys through emphatically Gothic trappings. The frontispiece depicts the scarecrow-like copyist and the wimpled lacemaker set like statues within alcoves fit for a cathedral (see Fig. 1.40). The illustrations within the book proper resort regularly to traits of Gothic manuscripts, such as one that shows the professional writer kneeling before the Black Virgin. Behind him the sexton catnaps in a Gothic throne, flanked by lancet windows of stained glass. The whole vignette is fenced within a floriated border (see Fig. 1.41).

Fig. 1.40 Frontispiece of Anatole France, Le miracle de la pie, illus. Maurice Lalau (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1921).

Fig. 1.41 The scribe before the statue of the Virgin. Illustration by Maurice Lalau, 1921. Published in Anatole France, Le miracle de la pie (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1921), 31.

The tale of the bird as illustrated by Lalau looks less far adventurous than that of the jongleur that followed only a few short years later. The book of 1921 clings more firmly to the Gothic revival and art nouveau that preceded World War I than to the Art Deco that succeeded it. Yet in its leading female character, the story relates to a minor vogue of more than a decade earlier, when operas and silent films portrayed miracles that involved lacemakers and the Virgin. We will soon learn more about such phenomena. Both slender volumes, about the magpie and the minstrel, radiate affection and nostalgia for the Middle Ages, imagined much more positively than may commonly be the case today.

Missal Attack

A new Gothic building, or a new missal, is in reality little less absurd than a new ruin.

—John Constable

A medieval missal is a manuscript that aggregates prayers, readings, and chants spoken and sung by the priest in the Mass throughout the year. By design it serves the celebrant and those assisting. From the middle of the nineteenth century in London, this kind of handbook was felt to epitomize the Middle Ages. Whole brochures and even manuals were produced with instructions to guide young people, both in school and as hobbyists, and adult amateurs in how to handcraft their own liturgical codices. These texts occupied the minds too of those engaged in book-making.

By the time the score of Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame was printed, it was nearly inevitable that at least a few of the sides would be decorated. The urge to conjure up the atmosphere and aesthetics of a chant book from many centuries earlier would have been nearly irresistible. In any case, the half-title, dedication, and title pages are all ornamented. In the half-title, the initial of each word looks like a letterform from six hundred years earlier. The first three even hold true to the etymology of flourish, from the Old French verb meaning “to flower,” in having floral embellishment. The title page boasts an illumination of the Virgin with pseudogold leaf. A contemporary commented approvingly in 1904 on “the cover magnificently illustrated in color, in the form of a missal from the Middle Ages.” In 1905, a Boston publisher brought out Selections from the Gesta Romanorum as the second volume in a series called “Breviary Treasures.” Breviaries and missals are not identical, but from a nonexpert perspective they look close enough to be treated as next of kin. In 1906, an amateur calligrapher and illuminator completed a mass book in French and Latin on paper. Her homemade codex teems with illustrations. The colophon reports that she lived in a small city in Alsace “on the street of Notre-Dame facing the parish church.” Below this information a self-portrait captures the artist at work, while across from that depiction stands an image of the Madonna and Child in a Gothic architectural setting.

Whether translations or adaptations, whether literary, musical, or artistic, modern presentations of medieval material tended almost automatically to be graced with decorative features reminiscent of manuscripts. These undertones made excellent sense, since handwritten books belonged among the most familiar vehicles by which the culture of the Middle Ages had been handed down the centuries. Whether a given cultural product was consciously and deliberately designed to look handmade, anything set in the Middle Ages was likely to be examined through eyes conditioned by codices and cathedrals. The two art forms were regarded as similar, both spare and lean in many places but beautified in others with crockets, cusps, and foils, both regular but also improvised, both durable and delicate.

A reviewer of Le jongleur de Notre Dame wrote of Massenet’s opera as “a daintily illuminated leaf out of some dateless missal, or a mystical window, brilliantly colored, of our Gothic cathedrals.” Daintiness and mysticism, mass books and stained glass—all were rated highly in the medievalism of the day. A bit more than two decades earlier, the Englishman Austin Dobson published a ten-stanza poem “To a Missal of the Thirteenth Century” that begins “Missal of the Gothic age, / Missal with the blazoned page, / Whence, O Missal, hither come, / From what dim scriptorium?” First the poet(aster) fantasizes about the hypothetical scribe and illustrator of the volume. Then he contrasts hand-produced works of yore and printed ones of his own day: “Not as ours the books of old— / Things that steam can stamp and fold; / Not as ours the books of yore— / Rows of type, and nothing more. // Then a book was still a Book, / Where a wistful man might look, / Finding something through the whole, / Beating—like a human soul.” Nearly two decades later, critics professed to consider scenes in Yvette Guilbert’s Guibour (from 1922) as if they were tableaux vivants based upon illustrations from a precious mass book of the Middle Ages that had been brought to life. The other side of the coin was that a great church could be envisaged as an opening in a liturgical manual. The same French novelist and critic Bourget who had likened an Italian place of prayer to a gigantic miniature set the stage for his simile with another: “The town has no reason for existing except this sacred emblem, this kind of missal page erected in stone.”

The art historian Ruskin crowed over his very first acquisition of a medieval illuminated manuscript. In his words, it was “a little fourteenth-century Hours of the Virgin, not of refined work, but extremely rich, grotesque, and full of pure color.” Continuing, he described it as occasioning in him a child’s delight. His small book for the canonical hours of prayer was a machine for time travel to a period cherished for being childlike, one that would allow him to roll back the stages of life to childhood. Going further, we could infer that the parchment gave him a device that enabled him to bend his gender, from man to girl, and transcend geography, from West to East, in an orientalism powered by the Arabian Nights. Although Ruskin’s turn of phrase “fairy cathedral” for his prized purchase was particularly vivid, he had a predecessor in drawing a comparison between a medieval codex and a medieval cathedral. Before him, Adolphe-Napoléon Didron had done the same already in 1845. Furthermore, we have noted that in due course, calling a printed book in a medieval-like style a “pocket cathedral” would become common.

Already from Horace Walpole on, the Gothic style was perceived, mostly in favorable senses, as concurrently puerile and puckish. Bookishness in no way excluded these qualities. But more than a very general bibliophilism is at stake here. The antiquarianism had about it a scholarliness, which undergirded different disciplines within medieval studies as they emerged, and an aestheticism that informed the practices of then-contemporary artists and artisans.

Fig. 1.42 Front and back covers of Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (Paris: Eugène Renduel, 1836).

The nineteenth century could be called the century of cathedral books. French, English, and American bookbinding introduced the fashion of craftsmanship called cathedral binding, the most common expression of which featured stamped leather or leather-grained cloth, decorated with motifs that brought to mind the architecture of great churches. Because the houses of worship at issue were Gothic, a typical design presented a large window with a pointed arch (see Fig. 1.42), sometimes bordered by other elements well known from such architecture. Embossing of this sort attained its utmost popularity in the first half of the century. Within the relatively constricted ambit of the book trade, it expressed the broader Gothic revival, and partook of an irony that often shot through Gothicism, since this kind of imprint relied heavily on techniques of mass production. Although sometimes the images on the boards were made partly with finishing tools, often the pattern was done with metal die-stamps. Gold was common. Thus, a backward-looking surface provided comfort and consolation for the rapid changes ushered in by industrialization. As a general principle, the proverb urges us not to judge a book by its cover. Where cathedral bindings are concerned, we would do well to disregard the injunction. This sort of outer layer became a vogue for volumes of liturgy or scripture, or on archaeological and antiquarian topics. In the English publishing industry, these stamped coverings came ultimately and unsurprisingly to be associated with the fiction of Sir Walter Scott.

Fig. 1.43 Front cover of Auguste-Pierre Garnier, Les saintes gardiennes: La geste de Jeanne d’Arc, le mystère de sainte Geneviève, le dit de sainte Odile, illus. Maurice Lalau (Paris: Garnier frères, 1925).

Printed books such as Lalau’s reflect some of the same curiosities and values that were concretized in cathedral binding, but with the stylistic inflection points that would be expected to emerge after a multidecade evolution. A case in point would be his cover art for a volume entitled Guardian Saints: The Deeds of Joan of Arc, The Mystery of Saint Genevieve, The Poem of Saint Odile (see Fig. 1.43). The design is very much a mid-1920s equivalent of the nineteenth-century leather boards stamped with elements of church architecture. A threesome of lancets pictures Joan of Arc, flanked by the other two holy women. The triad is bracketed tightly between pinnacled Gothic columns or pilasters. Even the floral motif surrounding the first word in the title proper harks back to the flourishes in Gothic manuscripts.

The medievalesque books that rolled off the presses in the 1920s could bring a comparable delight to the fanciers who snapped them up. Indeed, Lalau’s illustrated version of Flaubert’s stories was published in a series called unequivocally the “Library of Amateurs.” Furthermore, publications of this sort rest upon a generalist appreciation for earlier cultures that sensitizes nonscholarly connoisseurs to the past, as is not the norm in all periods. For instance, in depicting a monastic sculptor at work on an image of the Madonna and Child, the illustrator reveals a close familiarity with medieval “thrones of wisdom” and their successors (see Fig. 1.44). The artist is not a whit less informed about the basic layout of Cistercian monasteries, when he portrays the abbey. The Cistercianism of course does not account for the weirdly vernal microclimate of the institution, in contrast to the wintriness the jongleur forsakes as he retires from the world outside (see Fig. 1.45).

Fig. 1.44 Monks carve the statue of the Virgin. Illustration by Maurice Lalau, 1924. Published in Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1924), 17.

Fig. 1.45 The juggler enters the monastery. Illustration by Maurice Lalau, 1924. Published in Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1924), 13.

In what may be Lalau’s most beautiful and memorable portrayal of a scene in the tale, the performer is shown as having a tonsure, sporting a monastic habit, and manipulating objects one-handed, while supporting himself on his free palm amid tapers burning in a circle. The Virgin, clad in a blue robe, wears a white head-covering surmounted by a crown. She and the juggler gaze raptly at each other, contrary to most versions of the story that leave him unaware of her presence (see Fig. 1.46). The illustrator heightens the intimacy of the moment, making it seem almost like a rendez-vous between two lovers. He depicts the monastic brothers who are spying as peeping Toms who eye them through the keyhole to the church (see Fig. 1.47).

Fig. 1.46 The Virgin descends to bless the juggler. Illustration by Maurice Lalau, 1924. Published in Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1924), 23.

Fig. 1.47 Spying monks. Illustration by Maurice Lalau, 1924. Published in Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1924), 27.

The same year of 1924 also saw issue from the presses of Ferroud a slim volume with The Legend of Saints Oliverie and Liberette by Anatole France. The color illustrations are by Gustave-Adolphe Mossa (see Fig. 1.48). Here as elsewhere, the art of this French painter is pervaded by medievalesque influences. The discursive fantasy of the author’s faux legend about two saintly virgins lent itself well to the artist’s tastes, which ran toward myth and fables. This wisp of trumped up hagiography stands up poorly when measured against Le jongleur de Notre Dame, but it shares the same central theme of apparently simple and sinless faith. Like “Scolastica” and “Saint Euphrosina,” the narrative is staged in late antiquity.

Fig. 1.48 Frontispiece and title page of Anatole France, La légende des saintes Oliverie et Liberette, illus. Gustave-Adolphe Mossa (Paris: A. & F. Ferroud, 1924).

The frontispiece and title page capture the main takeaways from the pseudosaint’s life. The precipitating event involves a dashing stranger named Berthauld. The devout Christian son of the king of Scotland, he put to sea in a coracle, without either sail or tiller. After a spell adrift, the unsafe little vessel was tugged by a swan to the mythical land of Porcin, occupied by pagans who worshiped the goddess Diana. There Berthauld crossed paths with the title characters, two young girls in whom he planted the germ of conversion. After he spent a long time as a hermit in the forest, a unicorn appeared miraculously that guided Liberette to him. First the solitary died and then Liberette. Afterward Oliverie survived ten years before herself passing away.

By the 1920s, the momentum to bring modernizations of medieval calligraphy and illumination before a readership of enlightened devotees had been building in French culture for more than three decades. Professional and amateur artistry that imitated illustrators of the Middle Ages had ramified to the point where it even infiltrated children’s literature. In 1912 an author, under the anagrammatized pseudonym of Nalim, published Duc Jean’s Illuminator. The story tells of a young man named Guy who ends up serving the Duke of Berry, known even today for the beautiful embellished manuscripts he commissioned. The illustrated tale includes a chapter “in which Guy makes a great sacrifice, and in which Our Lady the Virgin renders great joy to him.” The episode involving Mary at least partly inspired the cover art, which depicts a thoughtful boy-illuminator gazing upward from his writing-desk toward the summit of a great church, while a wimpled woman in blue, bearing a crown, hovers unseen beside him, with the lower hem of her cape billowing around both youth and furniture (see Fig. 1.49).

Nalim’s was not the sole example of a children’s book about such an artist. In 1921, a doctor with a strong side interest as an amateur in writing and the beaux arts came out with The Distressing Episode of the Glazier, the Illuminator, and the Gargoyle (see Fig. 1.50). When high art becomes kid stuff, the tide in a cultural movement is likely to be turning.

Fig. 1.49 Front cover of Amélie Milan (Nalim), L’imagier du Duc Jean, illus. Pichot (Paris: Maison de la Bonne Presse, 1912).

Fig. 1.50 Front cover of Paul Duplessis de Pouzilhac, La fâcheuse aventure du verrier, de l’enlumineur et de la gargouille: Légende de XIIIe siècle (Montpellier, France: Montane, 1921).

Handwriting the Medieval

Not only printed books expressed a yearning to conjure up the medieval period. Modern simulacra of codices displayed the same hankering and catered to it, by calligraphing and illuminating the text of the juggler story. Self-immersion in the Middle Ages through artisanry and artistry in a medievalizing manner began early. Near the end of the phase, Théophile Gautier’s 1832 short story of “Élias Wildmanstadius or the Middle Ages Man” recounts how the protagonist whittled minuscule cathedrals out of cork, illustrated miniatures in the Gothic manner, copied out medieval chronicles by hand, and painted portraits of Madonnas with gold-leaf haloes and aureoles. Such hobbyism slipped out of style only slowly. For example, on the market from another dealer early in the twenty-first century was an illuminated vellum manuscript of Our Lady’s Tumbler dated 1920, probably the work of an American, twenty-eight pages of text on vellum, with initials in black or blue and red, and with decorations in red.

Nor was the activity restricted to dilettantes. Professionals had a role in it as well. The Middle Ages, it turns out, held no exclusive rights to painted books. In 1924–1925, a young Swiss French painter fulfilled a commission to transcribe and illuminate two twenty-four page exemplars of the Anatole France story on vellum highlighted with gold. Named Robert Lanz, he devoted himself to fabricating the codices not long after he underwent a religious awakening in the aftermath of two failed suicide attempts. To judge by his work in decades to come, Mary played a fulcral role in the manuscript-maker’s recovery from despondency and turn to faith. In tandem with Maurice Vloberg, who had himself produced a popular retelling of the seven-hundred-year-old story, the artist later illustrated such Mariocentric, and oft-reprinted, classics as The Virgin and Child in French Art (1933–1934) and The Virgin, Our Mediator (1938). The lifelong Marianism makes small wonder that he met his maker on Christmas Eve.

Lanz’s illustration of the culminating moment in the short story fuses elements from the medieval tale with the rudiments of Anatole France’s (see Fig. 1.51). As in Our Lady’s Tumbler, the Mother of God has dispatched an angel to minister to the winded tumbler. Whether the oddly green spirit brings balm to the performer or not is unclear, but she definitely outfits him with a nimbus. Three hairless and bug-eyed monks look on and up with mouths unzipped in ovoid amazement. Although the creator of this scene may have been cognizant of the medieval poem, this manuscript adheres to the text of France’s The Juggler of Notre Dame. The turn-of-the-century tale is the primary inspiration. The seemingly pious content of the narrative, at least as interpreted by the devout, trumped the awkward fact that France’s entire oeuvre had recently been inscribed (or proscribed) on the Index of Prohibited Books, a list of works deemed heretical or immoral by the Catholic Church.

Fig. 1.51 Robert Lanz, Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame, 1924. Mixed paints on vellum, 20 × 17.75 cm.

In Lanz’s composition, the tumbler is unclothed from the waist up, but in tights from there down to his toes. He may witness the miracle as it occurs, with his neck craned to look up. Then again, he may have no energy or eyesight to spare for the margins, as he concentrates upon the six golden spheres he is juggling. From his early years in Paris, the artist demonstrated a commitment to manuscript illustration. The style of his artwork nods to the Middle Ages, but simultaneously typifies his own times thoroughly. His project falls squarely (or to be more accurate, curvily) within the ambit of art nouveau. As such, it supplies one lovely span from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a bridge leading from the Gothic revival that preceded it, especially as adapted by Arts and Crafts-like movements of the fin de siècle, to the modernism that followed. Artists lavished care upon decorative and applied arts that complemented architecture. The Swiss French artist experimented with both angularity and curviness in ways that typify art nouveau. He grants what may seem from today’s perspective to be concessions to vital Gothic elements. The parabolas, both whole and half, stylize pointed arches and their sides.

Not all new codices attained the artistry evident in Lanz’s illustrated masterwork. From an unspecified place and date, but likely to have been handcrafted more than ten years later, is an attractive illuminated manuscript in octavo done by an amateur who was worth her or his salt. The book, on handmade deckled paper, consists of an opening title page, which acknowledges the translation as Wicksteed’s, and twenty-two pages of text. Both the title page and the first one of the text proper are elaborately floriated, and the latter displays an initial capital I which is historiated as a column (see Fig. 1.52). Before this pillar, a tonsured tumbler in a white shift knocks out a grandstanding handstand, with his full body weight resting on one palm.

Fig. 1.52 Title and opening pages of Philip Wicksteed, trans., Our Lady’s Tumbler: A Twelfth Century Legend (MS copied by Mary O. Kneass [?], early twentieth century).

Although not by design, this manuscript renders credit as it is due to nonprofessionals and independent scholars, with a high proportion of women among them. These two types of craftspeople have found Our Lady’s Tumbler endearing in one or another of its many versions. In response, they have lavished their attentions upon the tale in the calligraphy of hand-produced manuscripts, typesetting and typescripts, or small-batch printing with hand-coloring. One notable example held in a rare book library is the 1942 Del tumbeor Nostre Dame, the work of the renowned calligrapher Irene Sutton.

For self-explanatory reasons related to the economy of scale, printed forms tend to outnumber handwritten manuscripts. Thus in 1923 Wicksteed’s translation was appropriated for a small publication in a private impression, created by an advertising service in New York City. In the colophon, the firm avows that they are motivated to bring out the edition mainly by their liking for books and the pleasure of designing them. They add jovially: “Of course, the tale itself may have some subtle significance: that is, as may be” (see Fig. 1.53). Viewed at a remove of one hundred years, an incongruity appears between the plights of the office-bound designers and of the itinerant physical performer; but if irony was intended, no remark was made on it.

Fig. 1.53 Front cover of Philip H. Wicksteed, trans., Our Lady’s Tumbler: A Twelfth Century Legend (New York: Privately printed for Stanford Briggs, 1923).

From a reckoning rendered by an English observer in 1925, we have testimony that the bureau was at the time a large and bustling commercial art studio. This presentation of Our Lady’s Tumbler as a trim hardback was itself tantamount to a flyer, presumably for distribution gratis to confirmed and prospective clients. It is a belletristic equivalent to samplers that the partners put together and distributed to promote the quality of their design. The main illustration of the tale presents what looks to be a Gothic crypt (see Fig. 1.54). As two monks look on furtively, the gymnast performs. Fully tonsured, he is in a state of extreme deshabille. He enacts his routine before a childless Madonna within an ogival embrasure. The narrative ends with a separate image of the Madonna in a more lancet-shaped window frame. Across the glass runs a jester’s wand, a scepter with belled tassels at the right end and a fool’s head at the left, with small bells attached (see Fig. 1.55).

Fig. 1.54 The monks watch the juggler. Illustration, 1923. Artist unknown. Published in Philip H. Wicksteed, trans., Our Lady’s Tumbler: A Twelfth Century Legend (New York: Privately printed for Stanford Briggs, 1923), 4.

Fig. 1.55 “Here ends Our Lady’s Tumbler.” Illustration, 1923. Artist unknown. Published in Philip H. Wicksteed, trans., Our Lady’s Tumbler: A Twelfth Century Legend (New York: Privately printed for Stanford Briggs, 1923), 31.

From England in the same era survives a printing of Anatole France’s story in translation. Resembling a handbill, it was created during the academic year running from 1909 into 1910. The title page for this iteration of Our Lady’s Tumbler: A Legend of Compiègne has at its center a elaborate monogram of the letters A and I, not for Artificial Intelligence but instead for the Aldenham Institute (see Fig. 1.56). At the bottom the page furnishes detailed information on the location of this facility in London. More important, it signals that the letterpress printing classes of said institution produced the booklet. The text was set as a collective exercise in typesetting. In its own way, the assignment grew out of the Arts and Crafts movement, and was ultimately engendered by guilds.

Fig. 1.56 Title page of Our Lady’s Tumbler: A Legend of Compiègne (London: Aldenham Institute Letterpress Printing Classes, 1910).

The first three words of the title as given here in English are customarily affixed to translations or adaptations of the medieval poem, whereas Anatole France’s version involves a combination of jongleur or juggler and Notre Dame. Yet although the late nineteenth-century French author is nowhere credited, these pages present a fresh Englishing of his modern prose short story (see Fig. 1.57).

Fig. 1.57 Our Lady’s Tumbler: A Legend of Compiègne (London: Aldenham Institute Letterpress Printing Classes, 1910), 1.

Typing a Translation

A unique application of handicraft to the tale of Our Lady’s Tumbler can be uncovered in a modest book, not printed but at the same time also not fully manuscript, from 1940. Its maker, Pierson Underwood, evinced a lifelong passion for composing poems that evidenced itself already in his undergraduate years at Yale. Sporadically thereafter, he brought out volumes of verse as well. His prose translation from the medieval French represents a reaction to the thickening thunderclouds that would build into World War II. “Escapism” would be an unsatisfactory and even unconscionable way to describe his embrace of the peaceful loveliness in the story. The narrative’s simplicity constituted a kind of antitoxin to the very real, more complex, bellicose worries of then-contemporary life.

Underwood graduated from college nearly twenty years later than Henry Seidel Canby, a fellow alumnus who received his bachelor of arts degree in 1899 from the same university in New Haven. Despite the gap of two decades, the younger Yalie too took part in what the earlier alumnus called “the Gothic Age of the American College” in the subtitle to his book Alma Mater. The experience with Gothicity during undergraduate education marked Underwood not only in his close companionship with other men (and perhaps especially Yale ones who had been classmates), but also in the sorts of medievalesque materials with which he opted to grapple in his literary and artistic production. He nurtured a romantic view of monasticism and cathedrals, as well as a religiosity that focused on Christmas and the Virgin Mary.

Fig. 1.58 “A Partially Finished Cathedral.” Drypoint by Pierson Underwood, 1928.

After taking his degree Underwood married, and in due course fathered two children. Even so, part of him remained ever after still cloistered in the all-male environment of Yale during the teens of the twentieth century. A dry point engraving of his from 1928 depicts a partially finished cathedral—but with its massive tower and lancet windows, it could as well have been a collegiate Gothic dormitory in New Haven (see Fig. 1.58). In 1936, Underwood brought out The Monk, the Little Bird and the Lord God of Heaven, a pamphlet offering an English translation of a medieval exemplum. So far as we can now ascertain, the narrative was employed first more than six centuries earlier in a French sermon by a late twelfth-century bishop of Paris. Eventually it migrated in every direction across space, time, and languages. The prelate, Maurice de Sully, is probably known best for having begun and nearly completed the construction of the cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris. At the same time, he retains a reputation also for his preaching.

Since the Romantic era, the short story of the monk and the bird has benefited from a luxuriant afterlife in literary adaptations. The tale tells of an unnamed monk in an equally nameless monastery. When the brother prays to have the splendors of the hereafter unveiled to him, an angel in avian form flutters onto the scene and sings. Disregarding the proverbial advice about a bird in hand, the cenobite leaves the cloister to listen in the gardens. When the fowl ceases chirruping, he returns to transact his monastic duties. Although he thinks that only a short moment has passed, he discovers that he has become unrecognizably old, because unbeknownst to him a full three hundred years have elapsed. In effect, the protagonist is a kind of tonsured medieval equivalent of the famous character in Washington Irving’s masterpiece of Rip Van Winkle.

Although not as widespread in its modern reception as Our Lady’s Tumbler has been, the account of the contemplative and the songbird, too, is documented far more extensively in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than it was earlier. In the Middle Ages, the illustrative anecdote was diffused in the same genres of vernacular poetry and exemplum literature, as well as in sermons. A German poem from around 1300 is entitled Felix the Monk, which gives the exemplum one of its conventional titles. With its unnamed monastic hero, and its story in which a single human being receives through his individual worship a unique boon from heaven, reasons can easily be identified why it could have tickled the fancy of a person who would later find Our Lady’s Tumbler attractive.

Underwood’s brochure is both disarmingly and frustratingly unscholarly. One page identifies the contents crisply as translated by him from Bishop Maurice. But the following one puts the reader on more equivocal ground about the source of the original-language text. In the end, the English looks like a very tardy expression of the late nineteenth-century amateurism that in general has formed a material part of medievalism and that has conditioned the reception of Our Lady’s Tumbler. By comparison, the French adaptations by Brun, who first retold the thirteenth-century original in any modern language, spring to mind.

Just three years later, in 1939, Underwood turned his attention to the medieval minstrel, completing a homemade book that preserves twenty-two pages of text. The typescript is embellished with initials that were penned in ink and that stretch down a full four lines. It transmits an original English version of the medieval French Our Lady’s Tumbler. The translator enjoyed wrestling with foreign languages, as his Englishing of other tales from French and Latin for holiday-season pamphlets makes evident (see Fig. 1.59). After he died in 1960, his widow circulated one of his poems at Christmas. Composed in that year, it celebrated the Nativity, with emphasis at the end on the Virgin (see Fig. 1.60).

Fig. 1.59 Front cover of Pierson Underwood and Lawrence Perry, Petit Noël: A Christmas Cantata for Treble Voices (New York: Chappell, 1942).

Fig. 1.60 Pierson Underwood, “Little Christmas Journey” (1960).

Medieval French for Amateurs

The only printing of the original French in pseudomedieval fashion was published in France in 1954. With hand-colored illustrations, it appeared in a limited edition (see Fig. 1.61). Although the text is through and through medieval, the book is entitled Le jongleur de Notre Dame. The illustration on the title page depicts in the foreground a juggler, in monastic habit that is pink pastel in color, with a Virgin in traditional country attire gazing down at him. To boot, the picture shows a lute-strumming angel and a vase of flowers to his left. A medievalesque effect is brought home by an empty banderole at the bottom of the scene, and by the floriated frame that surrounds it.

The artwork qualifies as sincere rather than distinguished. If subjected to hard scrutiny, it could be dismissed as religious kitsch. All the same, it was offered in a spirit of humility to bring joy to bibliophilic readers. The volume was printed for “The Messengers of the Book.” To all appearances these evangelists were a local group of nonspecialists, who would not have been a world apart from the provincial circles for which the first French studies and paraphrases of the story had been brought into print in the 1880s. The volume was intended to launch a series of writings by French moralists that would run in rough chronological order from the Middle Ages to Balzac. For better or worse, the ambitious scheme for publication was fast abandoned.

Fig. 1.61 Title page of Le jongleur de Notre Dame, vol. 1 of Les moralistes français, illus. Paul Dufau (Villeneuve, France: Les messagers du livre, 1954).

A One-Novel French Novelist

The jongleur may one day return in full vigor for performances before the mind’s eye of the reading public in the West, but only if brief fiction regains leverage in any dominant media. Since short stories cannot attain epic sweep or rounded character development, the medieval minstrel has failed to win purchase in enlarged forms that exist to benefit from longer scope. In these other genres, the simple tale of the simple performer suffers all the imaginable woes of overextension. Full-length novels and feature-length films suggest themselves at once as such “to be continued” types. The exception that proves the rule is the 1951 French-language The Tumbler of Our Lady, after Gautier de Coinci. Yet this telling, although not without its virtues, has had no detectable resonance in subsequent literary treatments of the theme. The height of its word count has far exceeded that of its impact (see Fig. 1.62 and 1.63).

Fig. 1.62 Front cover of Henri Marmier, Le bateleur de Notre-Dame, illus. André Hubert (Paris: H. Piazza, 1951)

Fig. 1.63 Title page of Henri Marmier, Le bateleur de Notre-Dame, illus. André Hubert (Paris: H. Piazza, 1951).

The printing history and reception are baffling. This curiosity first rolled off the presses in 1951. In its prime H. Piazza, the original publishing house, founded by a Frenchman of Italian origin, had brought out Joseph Bédier’s 1900 adaptation of The Romance of Tristan and Isolde. Between 1897 and 1984 it produced hundreds of volumes under its imprint. No library catalogue indicates that The Tumbler of Our Lady, after Gautier de Coinci has been printed other than in 1951, but perplexingly it went through at least twelve editions in that single year. Reconciling the critical silence (or at least quiet) about the book with the many reprints puts us on the horns of a dilemma. How and why would so many copies have been put into circulation without more notice in newspapers and journals?

The novel was composed by Henri Alphonse André Marmier. Born in 1894, and decorated for his military service in World War I, he later led a successful career as a magistrate. The decorative elements that adorned the fiction were by André Hubert. From this artist’s involvement, we can be certain that The Tumbler of Our Lady, after Gautier de Coinci was not aimed primarily at a devotional readership. Rather, it was pitched at not especially moneyed connoisseurs of medievalism and art books. The very title of this refashioning perpetuates an old misconception that Gautier de Coinci composed the original of Our Lady’s Tumbler. After maintaining the authentic medievalness of the tale through this ascription, the well-spoken author of the twentieth-century novel then elaborates and embellishes it with elegant excursuses. Along the way, he taps into a wide range of medieval literature and lore. For example, in a laudation of hell he draws upon a conversation between the lead male character and the Viscount in the Old French Aucassin and Nicolette. This medieval prosimetrum has been closely associated with the narrative of the jongleur since the end of the nineteenth century. Especially in English, the two works have been discussed and printed together more than once.

Marmier grants the tale primacy for “the charm of the primitive text.” This favoring of the medieval story for its enchantment and primitivism dovetails with a view of the Middle Ages as a time of love and charity, of hope for an afterlife to be achieved through prayer and humility, and of desire for miracles. By an unacknowledged interchangeability, the age of faith is automatically also that of cathedrals. The backdrop pullulates with Gothic architecture, and the juggler is linked implicitly to great churches. Intentionally or not, the author upholds the ecclesiastic censure that sought to expunge the contribution of Anatole France. In place of the disgraced (or at least disapproved) Nobel prizewinner, he invokes the philological pundit Gaston Paris and acknowledges the version by the devout Catholic Vloberg. The result of these choices is, to put the writer’s own words into English, “a reworked and expanded version … a fantasizing adaptation, a pastiche.” Sometimes his embroiled syntax and archaizing lexicon can become cumbersome, even overwritten. Even so, the novelist makes his mastery of French vocabulary everywhere evident in a richly textured poetic lexicon. Not unrelated to what can devolve into verbosity, he puts on show a firm command of medieval French literature and culture. The tumbler, Rudel, may live during the reign of an unspecified King Charles, but specific details about literature and lore are sprinkled everywhere in the novel. The appellation assigned to the jongleur by Marmier is identical with the second element in the name of the famous troubadour of the mid twelfth century, Jaufré Rudel.

Such rituals as the Feast of Fools, with all their potential for the carnivalesque, are present. We also encounter the comic medieval story of the snow child. A woman has a son who had to have been conceived while her spouse was absent on an extended business trip. To exculpate herself, she professes to have been inseminated when thirst once drove her to consume the white stuff. Saying nothing about this snow job, her cuckolded husband then goes off on another expedition and sells off the bastard into thralldom. When confronted about the disappearance, he claims the boy melted from the heat of the sun. Beyond this one famous joke, Marmier regales us incidentally with much lore about medieval saints, including the Faust-like Theophilus, whom Mary saved from a pact with the devil. In addition, we hear about Ithier, one of the two jongleurs from the miracle of the Holy Candle of Arras, and about the female sacristan of a convent, none other than sister Beatrice. Thus Marmier manages to refer casually to many major medieval miracles of the Virgin that bear comparison with Our Lady’s Tumbler. In a low-key way, driven partly by the need for filler, the novel becomes a summa of analogues and kindred tales. The book is not a tour de force, but it catches some of the original’s spirit—and that achievement redounds to the author’s credit.

French Language-Study

To appreciate the prominence of our miracle in twentieth-century America, we must ground ourselves in a world with a populace and culture that underwent constant, often vertiginous changes but that still differed radically from what envelops us today. Take the linguistic situation for starters. For most of the 1900s, French held sway in many parts of the US as the prestige living language for study in secondary schooling and universities. As a consequence, Anatole France’s story was popular fare in courses in both high schools and colleges. But at least in North America, the main mother tongue of France has lost its preeminence to Spanish. Furthermore, other modern vernaculars, most of them non-European, have saturated the linguistic market thanks to the changed demographics of immigration and to globalization.

Back in the day, circumstances could not have been more different—and not just owing to the vagaries that governed the distribution of first and second languages across the nation. Le jongleur de Notre Dame rode high on a cultural ascent for more than half the century. As the children’s book suggests, the French tale was not destined to remain forever or even for long a treat restricted to connoisseurs. On the contrary, it slipped incrementally into a broader and often less elitist orbit. Even before Anatole France’s adaptation was printed in a second edition by the Ferroud press in 1924, we find it serving as a school text for the study of French in the United States. In 1922 Josette Eugénie Spink slipped the legend into her reader, The Beautiful Country of France. An instructor at the University of Chicago, she operated in the heart of what in those days could have been styled “Mary Garden country.” That connection may go far in explaining why the French short story commanded the respect it did.

The version by this pedagogue cobbles together elements from Anatole France, Jules Massenet, and her own fancy. In her telling the jongleur is, like his country of origin, good-looking. The French author of short stories acknowledged his indebtedness to the medieval poet Marie de France (a near namesake of his) when he alluded to the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Following in his footsteps, the language teacher characterizes the entertainer as resembling the chirping insect. In a touch of her own, she describes him further as being free like swallows, migratory birds associated with the spring. The action takes place in May in Cluny. Lastly, the narrative ends with the Virgin embracing the performer, after having swabbed his brow with a serviette.

The volume’s editor may have felt at liberty to monkey with the tale because as the third decade of the twentieth century commenced, it had come to be regarded as almost in the common domain. The story of the medieval minstrel is elevated through its appropriation by a writer and composer who had reached the apogee of their reputations. At the same time, the account is understood to be anonymous and popular in its roots. From a no-nonsense perspective, not adhering to France’s text would have spared an anthologist the twists and turns of copyright, permission, and royalties. Such legalities have caused headaches since even before the nineteenth century.

Fig. 1.64 The juggler performs. Illustration by Sears Gallagher, 1922. Published in Josette Eugénie Spink, Le beau pays de France (Boston, MA: Ginn, 1922), 59.

In keeping with the minor liberties Spink took in constructing her narrative, the single accompanying illustration would appear, from the style of dress, to set the tale in the seventeenth century (see Fig. 1.64). But the story is inlaid in a section that is resolutely medieval. For instance, it spoon-feeds information on troubadours, the Song of Roland, and Bertha of the Big Foot. The narrative about the jongleur, especially in Anatole France’s version, continued to be incorporated for decades to come in anthologies of basic readings in French and in separate small formats. The account became canonical for a time, by being made a stock component of textbooks for instruction in the rudiments of French in Britain, the United States, and many other nations. Gaston Paris’s influence lasted so strappingly that his words of 1888 on its “delightful and childlike simplicity” could be quoted without attribution a full forty years later. It defies imagination today that a literary critic should achieve such ubiquity and longevity.

Eventually the canonization hastened the unmaking of Our Lady’s Tumbler as classroom material. Old favorites can stale in a twinkling if they are not reinterpreted and re-presented for new audiences of first-timers. Visionary moves were occasionally made to freshen the story’s appeal by contextualizing it differently. For instance, one compendium situated the tale near selections from the Golden Legend and from later biographies of Joan of Arc. But such gambits did not suffice to turn the tide. Even when sanctity enters the picture, a fine line separates the respectability of being oft-told from the tediousness of being too oft-told. The narrative was dislodged from its former pride of place and fell from grace as teachers grew jaded from teaching it again and again.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Le jongleur de Notre Dame could be called only with misplaced charity a twice-told tale. Umpteenth would be more accurate. Unmistakable exhaustion with the story begins to show among critics. For example, an assessment of a 1947 anthology comments that students will know the protagonist already through English translation. As a result, the reviewer proposes that these palling pages could be replaced by “works of equal value but of greater novelty.” In 1950, a language teacher evaluating an elementary French primer owns up that overexposure to the account of the medieval performer and other staples on the reading list has led to him to lose his appetite for reading or hearing about them. In 1951, a third assessor places the late nineteenth-century version among ones so old-hat as to risk being played out. He also questions the fit of the account among the other old chestnuts he has mentioned, since it is more recent. Nonetheless, he sees the narrative as guaranteed to spread “especially in the United States, where a sincere spiritualism flourishes despite the materialist atmosphere in which we live.” The same argument would have served well more than fifty years earlier earlier.

In Italy, the French title headlines a 1953 paperback volume with a potpourri of Anatole France’s fiction. The editor lauds the story for “simplicity, touching to the point of tears.” In the following decade, an article wrestles with the place of foreign languages in the curriculum for college freshmen and sophomores. The author faces new curricular tweaks. Compounding that pressure, he feels conscious of bearing a new onus as an American in the McCarthy era “in trying to break down provincialism and dispel xenophobia.” Despite the unprecedented cultural environment, the reading selections commence with three that transport us to the ambience of the late nineteenth century—an account of Saint Martin of Tours and other episodes from the Golden Legend, Anatole France’s story of the juggler, and two tellings of the life of Joan of Arc.

A late specimen of anthologizing exists from 1966. This book of literary extracts, now more than a half century old, presents the prose short story from 1890 in conjunction with photographs. These images, unprepossessing but serviceable, assimilate the Notre Dame of the title with the famed Parisian place of prayer. One drab snapshot shows the roof and most of the main spire, with the Seine behind. Another depicts a Madonna and Child, before a curtain with fleurs-de-lis, also from the great church in the French capital. The third photo pictures a gargoyle from the same building. The documentation and “little dictionary” focus on a word-for-word parsing of the text, rather than on any cultural or historical scene-setting. The homework assignments would have aimed at verbatim translation. The sort of presentation made in this elementary textbook would have furthered the well-entrenched proclivity of people to conflate the Nobel prizewinner’s concise fiction with Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. It speaks also to the tendency to equate the whole country of France with individual medieval houses of worship. The cathedralic predisposition is on display in the very first selection in the book, a few pages by André Maurois. The French author takes as his starting point a painting of the cathedral of Chartres by a countryman, Édouard Manet. A camera shot of the famous edifice surmounts the selection.

Anatole France’s story never mentions the central metropolis of the country. Nonetheless, it had been inevitable since the early twentieth century, as we have seen, that the tale from the Middle Ages as refashioned by him and as earlier entitled by Félix Brun would be misidentified with the preeminent Notre-Dame. In another anthology, the setting of the story is even spelled out as “Notre-Dame de Paris, a magnificent church of Gothic architecture, begun in 1163.” The American who in 2004 directed a revival of Massenet’s opera in Colorado made a confession to a reporter. He acknowledged that when asked to lead the production: “To be honest, I thought it was set in Notre Dame (Cathedral).” He had no cause for embarrassment. Reasons for the common conflation do not lie beyond modest guesswork. The Parisian Gothic monument is iconic internationally through untold touristic trinkets, is purveyed through incalculable adaptations of the Victor Hugo novel, and serves as shorthand for the city in all manner of advertising. A person who wants to evoke the City of Lights, the Middle Ages, or Gothic architecture could do no better than to show the façade of Notre Dame, as a medieval hieroglyph carrying all these meanings.