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Durham University

Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)

Event Archive

IMEMS Lecture: Romancing the Truth: Vernacular History and the Origin of Fiction

17th January 2017, 17:30, Learning Centre, Palace Green Library , Professor Simon Gaunt, (Kings College London)

This event is free to attend and open to all and will be followed by a drinks reception in the Courtyard Café, Palace Green Library. Please click here to register for this event and other IMEMS lectures.

Abstract: In her influential Romancing the Past, Gabrielle Spiegel argued that early 13th-c. vernacular prose played a key role in enabling a truly historical discourse to disengage itself from fictional writing. Her analysis often presupposes, however, definitions of ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ that do not map comfortably either on to medieval terminology, or on to medieval textual practice. The early thirteenth-century Histoire ancienne jusau’à César—one of Spiegel’s key texts—repeatedly offers or alludes to multiple versions of well-known episodes of its ‘history’ (such as the Trojan horse or Eneas’ descent into hell), in order explicitly to vaunt the verisimilitude of its own account in contrast to the fables in circulation.

This lecture will argue that texts like the Histoire ancienne thereby define ‘fiction’ far more clearly than they do ‘history’ and also that the transmission of the Histoire ancienne can be used to demonstrate that the fluid boundary between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ remains problematic—and fascinating—throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the category to which the various forms of writing in vernacular prose (whether ‘historical’ or ‘fictional’) are all committed is the truth, but how then is the truth to be told in the relatively new and unstable medium of vernacular prose?

Professor Simon Gaunt is Professor of French Language and Literature at King’s College London. His books on Old French and medieval Occitan literature include Martyrs to Love (2008) and Marco Polo’s Le Devisement du Monde (2013). He is co-editor, with Sarah Kay, of The Troubadours: an Introduction (1999) and The Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature (2008), and has recently translated, with Karen Pratt, The Song of Roland for Oxford Worlds Classics. Between 2009 and 2013 he was Principle Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Medieval Francophone Literary Culture outside France and he is currently Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded project The Values of French (2015-20).

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