The Production of Medieval Life Forms in the Work of Gumbrecht

One of the main challenges of understanding medieval literature is that it is not “literature” in the modern sense: in fact the challenge is precisely to get to its existence or actuality. Medieval “literature” is strange and distant in terms of its forms and transmission. We have to deal with the historical reconstruction of fragments, of everyday and ritualized life situations. How do we make sense of it while giving these “texts” and “forms” life? How do we avoid relegating them to didactic meaning?[1]

While we know that Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is someone who has approached all kinds of texts from various periods, his work on medieval literature serves as a model of what he would call “riskful thinking,” in that he has performed close analyses of medieval texts while relating it to most significant questions about why we study literature in the first place. A central concern that runs throughout his career is the development of better descriptive typologies of phenomenon such as “subjectivity” and related to this, literary histories of subjectivity: from the first witnesses of textual cultures that show a distance from everyday life, all the way up to this specific media age in which subjectivity exists in a digital cloud.[2] This concern has led him to highly original work on medieval texts that I will address in the short limited time I have on this wonderful occasion.

In his article “The Transgression(s) of the First Troubadour” published in the Stanford French Review in 1990, Gumbrecht posed a provocation.[3] In that article he writes that “figures of intellectuality who write cultural history often designate these prototypes of modern subjectivity: ‘the scholar who isolates himself from all the urges of everyday life, the political theoretician who reflects on distant ideals, the minstrel who accepts his marginalization” (140). Gumbrecht responds to this challenge of looking for other prototypes of modern subjectivity through a study of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, the first attested troubadour active in the beginning of the 12th century. He looks to what I call “medieval life forms” to address in a more profound and complex manner the history (or as Gumbrecht would say, histories) of subjectivity.

I see as medieval life forms what Gumbrecht describes in this article as “functional “potentials”(124): potentials created through typologies and constellations of medieval art forms and texts, horizons of knowledge, and the everyday life of a historical situation. By using ‘The first troubadour’ William IX as his case study, he analyzes the documentary evidence of this arrogant, witty, urbane, dissolute feudal lord next to our encounter with a poetic “I” who plays various roles: a knight falling asleep on a horse, a speechless pilgrim, a crude boaster of sexual prowess to his companions. From this material, he asks what constitutes the spark of his transgression as a poet and feudal lord? In other words, what gives these texts life? It cannot be simplified to biography nor a formal analysis of his texts as artifacts, and the life must be animated rather than determined by the historical and social texture of 12th c. Occitania. That is to say, Gumbrecht succeeds in a dazzling way to reconstruct and reproduce the dynamic quality of transgression through a sophisticated method that enlists philology and communication studies.

This unique and creative approach of describing medieval life forms is informed by various scholarship and moves beyond it. For instance, Hugo Kuhn’s investigation of the “objectivity of the medieval form” in essays he published in the 1950s—in which he describes how troubadour and Minnesang lyric is essentially free of content and exists as a ritualized lament of deprivation—forms the groundwork for the alterity of medieval literature in Gumbrecht’s analysis.[4] This critical tradition also undergirds Gumbrecht’s editorial involvement in the remarkable groundbreaking Grundriß der romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters, a series that gave us an encyclopedia of the forms and epistemological horizons of medieval genres, making their functions visible from the intersection of two descriptive axes.[5] With his scholarly background in Romance philology and in particular Medieval Iberian literature—see his Eine Geschichte der spanischen Literatur, ‘A History of Iberian literature—, Gumbrecht was, as far as I know, the first person to combine these (often neglected in the North American academy) theories on medieval aesthetics with reception and communication/media studies based on the work of, among others, Niklas Luhmann.[6]

Through this analytical lens, Gumbrecht sets up his analyses of William IX by describing the function of troubadour poetry as “a form of a socially exclusive communicative game.” “Medieval literature” consists of a creating a play world in contrast to the everyday world, one in which ‘play’ strengthens the limits between the two worlds. For medieval art forms and rituals such as Carnival, one is aware of the rules of the game – what Freud would call “situations of licensed excess” that make possible what is forbidden in everyday life (118). Every play makes the boundary between everyday life and play more secure.

Anyone familiar with troubadour poetry knows it is not simply about a ‘world upside down’ of Ovidian carnal excess, nor about the desire for a real inaccessible high born woman in an adulterous situation; rather it is a life form produced through the tension between everyday norms (feudal conduct and Christian morality) and fantasy (physical erotic fulfillment). The tension is accomplished through the creation of a complex high art form of word and sound—an artistic discipline of desire.

As Gumbrecht explains, if the “function” of this poetry consists of “a change in the preknowledge of the public brought about by reception of the text” then it follows that we must recognize that poetic performances of troubadours consisted of different notions of “fictionality” and “literature” (121, 123-24). William’s poetry effected a change within this historically specific situation of the game. It is from this analytical context that we must ask: “what is the transgression of the first troubadour?” Gumbrecht’s brilliance here is to create—reproduce?—the life form, the spark of William IX through typologies that take into account the communicative situation of the troubadour: his everyday role, role of the performer, and role of the textually immanent ‘I’. William does not merely create play that is opposed to the everyday world; the spark resides in the suspension of both worlds in tension. It happens in this song:

Farai un vers de dreit nien
Non er de mi ni d’autra gen
Non er d’amor ni di joven
Ni de ren au
Qu’enans fo trobatz en durmen
Sus un chivau.
Fait ai lo vers, no sai de cui;
Et trametrai lo a celui
Qu lo.Ÿm trametra per autrui
Enves Anjau
QuŸ.m tramezes del sieu estui
La contraclau.

I’ll do a song about nothing at all;
It won’t be about me nor about others,
It won’t be about love nor about happiness
Nor about anything else,
For it was composed earlier while (I was) sleeping
On a horse.
I’ve done the song, about whom I don’t know;
And I’ll send it over to the one
Who will send it for me through another
Toward Anjou
So that (she) might send me a copy of the key
To her coffer.
(ed. and trans. Bond)[7]

Gumbrecht is interested in a transgressive “execution of the communicative situation” that neutralized the scandal and aggression of William’s poetry and attested actions through its “hyperbolic” quality (131, 133). Gumbrecht sees this quality in the song’s execution of “purely recursive negation” (125). To paraphrase him: it is a negation of the mere possibility of meaning that ends up with a negation of all negations. The first strophe performs a negation of moral and feudal custom expected of someone with his status as lord and knight. The end strophe or tornada gestures that sense is possible—there might be a key that unlocks this song’s sense, the contreclau. But we end up with no key to the meaning of a poem that is about the negation of meaning. Says Gumbrecht: “Every meaning is possible and/because every meaning is impossible.” In my view, this is where we see the emergence of the transgressive life form of William IX. Gumbrecht recognizes the historical facts and the communicative situation of the troubadours: the body and spirit or intellect (Occitan word “cor(s)” could mean all these things) were not separate from one another in the execution of poetic performance. Indeed, “poetic composition meant constituting a text (as text) and realizing the text with the voice, indeed the whole body” (123). Gumbrecht takes these preconditions and allows us to see, through his typologies of the everyday/play worlds, the suspension created between meaning and sense, between William as a historical figure and poetic persona that occurs in the life form of the troubadour song through this recursive negation. We experience the spark of the ‘event,’ or the presence of the song – this is precisely what gives William IX’s life an afterlife, a reoccurring ‘spark’: Gumbrecht shows us a limit case and with it the engine that is behind the recurring genesis of subjectivity going forward.

Another example of how Gumbrecht works within the specificity of medieval culture in terms of textuality and engages us in the demands of historical imagination occurs in his work on Castilian late medieval cancioneros.[8] In a collection of essays that signaled “The New Medievalism”—studies that aimed to enrich the formalist approaches of Daniel Poirion and Paul Zumthor—Gumbrecht examines textual configurations in these songbooks that can be adapted at any given time to “certain types of situations at the court and can define the structure of the interactions constituting such situational types” (310). He shows how these songbooks created a new potential of medieval life forms through different configurations of texts within the songbook. Cancionero intertexuality inaugurates a modern reception of medieval literature in that the playfulness with text types—genre, author figures, courtiers, and topics shows “textually immanent roles and reception attitudes suggested by the texts” (308). I mention his work on the cancioneros to emphasize the reach and depth in which Gumbrecht has been able to develop a nimble and productive approach to a distant culture, an approach that reproduces their vitality of medieval life forms within a granular view of historical and sociological conditions. At the same time he elegantly moves back and asks important questions about the life of these life forms– the evolution of potentials between everyday/play world in a genre such as the cancionero. In these two studies alone, one gets just a glimpse of the potential of Gumbrecht’s imagination and curiosity.

[1] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Making Sense in Life and Literature, trans. Glen Burns (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[2] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, The Powers of Philology: Dynamics of Textual Scholarship (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

[3] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “The Transgression(s) of the First Troubadour,” Stanford French Review 14.1-2 (1990): 117-141.

[4] Hugo Kuhn, “On the Interpretation of Medieval Artistic Form,” in Spatial Practices: Medieval/Modern, ed. Markus Stock and Nicola Vöhringer ([Göttingen]: V&R unipress, 2014), 253-266, originally published as “Zur Deutung der künsterlichen Form des Mittelalters,” Studium Generale 2 (1949): 111-21, translated by Christopher Liebtag Miller.

[5] Grundriß der Romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters. Ed. Hans Robert Jauss, Erich Köhler, et al. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1968– .

[6] Eine Geschichte der spanischen Literatur, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1990); Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System, trans. Eva M. Knodt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). Originally published as Kunst der Gesellschaft, 1995.

[7] The Poetry of William VII, Count of Poitiers, IX Duke of Aquitaine, ed. Gerald A. Bond, Garland Library of Medieval Literature 4A (New York: Garland, 1982), 14-17.

[8] Intertextuality and Autumn/Autumn and the Modern Reception of the Middle Age,” in The New Medievalism, ed. Marina S. Brownlee et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 301-30.

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On Being a Medievalist and More

This Colloquy originated in the "After 1967" conference of 2018 in which we celebrated the work of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. It is concerned with Gumbrecht's relation to medieval literature, his original field of interest.


The core of the Colloquy is three items from the conference, which I describe briefly here. However, we welcome contributions on how the field of medieval literature has changed over the past fifty years and how philosophy, media studies, and performance studies have catalyzed medieval studies, as well as the more circumscribed topic of medieval studies at Stanford. 

In an interview that marks the centerpiece of this Colloquy, I drew Gumbrecht out on a series of questions about the influence of medieval studies in his intellectual biography and the presence of medieval studies at Stanford from the time of his arrival in 1989 to the present day. Starting our discussion with how the difficulty of the medieval period nourished new ways of approaching literary texts, we also covered foundational experiences and encounters. We spoke about the influence of Hugo Kuhn and media studies and its translation to American Humanities, the Grundriss der romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters in the age of electronic media, the inspiring otherness of medieval culture and how it has productively shaped his work on presence, athletic beauty, and other phenomena—work that seeks to "conjure the past in a non-narrative way." I was fascinated by Gumbrecht’s encounters (both personally and intellectually) with Kuhn, Paul Zumthor, and certain epistemological genealogies concerning performance, media studies, and semiotics via medieval studies. He describes colloquia where he, Zumthor, Jean-François Lyotard, Niklas Luhmann and others were pursuing the "anti-hermeneutic effect," that is, "dealing with cultural artifacts or cultural phenomena that are not circumscribed to the attribution of meaning." He also describes in candid detail the convergence of an intellectual milieu at Stanford—a "technical" university in the best sense of the word, e.g. with "vibrations from computer science, engineering"—whose intersection was medieval studies. A core group of scholars cultivated a Stanford style of humanities, where "medieval studies mattered," Gumbrecht explains, because it "could never be taken for granted as with other universities."  This was a time when Michel Serres, René Girard, John Freccero, Brigitte Cazelles, Jeffrey Schnapp, and Robert Harrison in the French and Italian department were publishing major works on medieval topics and authors that registered an impact in all spheres of humanities. 

As Gumbrecht puts it, "performance creates its own situation. Like in our conversation." And this is true for the interview: people past and present, events local and international, colloquia, and publications came together as a story about medieval studies at Stanford and beyond in the course of the conversation. As part of this colloquy, you will also find two presentations given at the "After 1967" conference: my paper on "The Production of Medieval Life Forms in the Work of Gumbrecht" and "The Medieval Beginnings of Italian Poetry Today" by Heather Webb. These two papers describe the consequences of Gumbrecht's scholarship in our respective fields of medieval French and Italian, and touch on the motifs of his thinking such as mood, performance, and transgression.

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