Interview: Prof. Michel Zink, Collège de France [fr]

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Photo: LaDepeche

Prof. Michel Zink, Chair of Medieval French Literature at the Collège de France, is one of the most well-known professors in the world for his prolific work. April 7th and 8th, Prof. Zink will present two lectures at Tulane University on La Chanson de Roland and La Chanson des Femmes. The lectures are in French and open to the public.

We asked Prof. Zink a few questions on his visit to Louisiana and why medieval literature is still important:

1. As a professor at the Collège de France, you’ve spoken in the greatest universities around the world. Is this your first time presenting your work in Louisiana?

I had planned to lecture at Tulane, at the invitation of Elizabeth Poe,
and in Baton Rouge, at the invitation of Alexander Leupin, in October 2002, while
I was in New York as a Visiting Professor at Columbia. Unfortunately, a tornado threat
(even though it was exaggerated) prevented me from coming at the last moment. I
bitterly regretted it and I look forward to finally discovering Louisiana after such a long time, which means so much to both a French person and for those who love American literature, from Tennessee Williams to A Confederacy of Dunces to John Kennedy Toole (be it said without any offense!).

2. Have you always been passionate about medieval literature, and how did this passion come about?

Yes, I have always been attracted to medieval literature: first a childish taste for story tales, then an adolescent taste for the poetry of the troubadours and courtly love (l’amour courtois). With this, a taste for popular literature, which I considered, as romantics do, that it had its roots in medieval literature and an interest in religious issues. This knowledge guided me through an era where these issues are so present everywhere.

Finally, it seemed to me - and it always seems to me - rewarding to make the journey from the beginnings of our literature to our contemporary literary sensibility: in the literature of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves the same and, at the same time, very different. This helps to measure and understand how, even in our time, other civilizations are different and, yet, close around us.

3. How do you explain the unfailing success and popularity of The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland), an epic medieval poem (chanson de geste), in the 21st century? What about this tale makes it still relevant?

La Chanson de Roland has been since the Middle Ages a founding work of French literature. It has spawned a great number of other epic works. In the nineteenth century, at a moment of rediscovery of medieval literature, epic poems, and especially the La Chanson de Roland, were the subjects of both scientific and nationalist quarrels: French and Germans argued the Carolingian heritage and, according to the chosen hypothesis concerning their origins, the chansons de geste could be claimed by one or the other. In France, the Chanson de Roland became a national emblem as soon as they found, in 1835, the manuscript from Oxford that proved to be the oldest and most beautiful version in print. Roland, sacrificial hero, both conquered and conqueror, was felt as a symbol of France which, several times during its history, has known disaster followed by an unsuspected jolt when all seemed lost: during the Hundred Years War, in the reconstruction that followed the defeat of 1870, early in the war of 1914 and, of course, after the disaster of 1940.

4. The Song of Women (La Chanson des Femmes) is a work less known to the greater public. Are its main characters women? The title sounds intriguing to our readers!

The chanson des femmes is not a work, but a literary form. These are love songs placed in the mouths of women or related to a love felt by women. This lyrical type, spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, is very old. Indirect or fragmentary evidence shows that it is the first manifestation of the romantic lyricism in romance language (languages derived from spoken Latin like French, the langue d’oc, the languages of the Iberian and Italian peninsulas). Later, it is likewise dominated by the poetry of the troubadours and their imitators, who invent courtly love, which is essentially masculine. But the songs of women survive throughout the Middle Ages, in the face of la poésie courtoise, as a counterpoint. It has a tone that often has something popular or archaic about it. Besides, the genre has survived long after the Middle Ages in popular song.

You can find more information and details on Prof. Zink’s lectures in New Orleans at BeFrench.org.

Last modified on 01/05/2015

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