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Reading the Juggler of Notre Dame

Happy to have had the chance to review this new volume for The Medieval Review:

Ziolkowski, Jan M. Reading the Juggler of Notre Dame: Medieval Miracles and Modern Remakings. Cambridge, UK: Open Book, 2022. Pp. xvi, 452. ISBN: 978-1-80064-368-0.

Reviewed by Richard J. Utz

Georgia Institute of Technology

In his six-volume The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity (2018), Jan Ziolkowski offered the community of medievalists and numerous other readers the most comprehensive reception history of any medieval text ever produced. Geared towards a mixed audience of specialists and non-specialists alike in style, tone, and scholarly apparatuses, they offer a uniquely rich resource on modern European and world medievalisms in high and popular culture, scholarship, the arts, music, and media. The free access to Ziolkowski’s academic research via Open Book Publishers, an independent open access publisher for the humanities and social sciences, makes his publication an enviable example of how medievalists might reach audiences beyond academe.

Reading the Juggler of Notre Dame adds textual resources to Ziolkowski’s multimodal megaproject, particularly for those of us who might be interested in teaching courses on literary medievalisms, but realize how difficult it is to bring together original texts, modern translations, and numerous examples of reception, all in one place, and accessible in print as well as online.

In a first step, Ziolkowski provides his own modern translation (“Our Lady’s Tumbler”) of the earliest (c. 1230) Old French manuscript containing the juggler narrative. As with so many medieval texts, this one had disappeared for hundreds of years before it was brought (back) into circulation right after the Franco-Prussian War, a time ripe with nationalist medievalisms and also the founding period of academic medieval studies. The modern version stays fairly true to the original, but without making the English translation sound antiquated. Like TEAMS editions of medieval texts, the endnotes (links in the online version) offer helpful explication for those without a formal education in medieval studies, and I would be comfortable to have undergraduate students peruse this text to reach a thorough understanding of content and context.

The translation is followed with important contexts that medievalists may no longer take for granted among their students, biblical and apocryphal analogues to the Old French narrative that offered impactful associations for the nineteenth- and twentieth-century reception: “The Dancing of David before the Ark,” “The Dancing of Mary before the Altar,” and “Widow’s Mite;” sections from The Lives of the Fathers. These contexts are then deepened by narrative overviews and/or sections from Cistercian miracles related to the value and transformational powers of physical work as well as to the Virgin Mary; and three miracles surrounding the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, including one rendering in Galician-Portuguese by Alfonso X the Wise in the thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa María.

A longer section at the center of the volume is dedicated to Latin, Old French, Galician-Portuguese versions of the wondrous tale of “The Jongleurs of the Holy Candle,” which originated in and around the city of Arras, when the Artois region was plagued with ergotism, a kind of poisoning caused by consuming contaminated grains. According to these narratives, it is only by the intercession of the Virgin, who appears and offers a miraculous candle, that the afflicted find relief and healing. Two jongleurs, who assist the Virgin, later commemorate the miracle by founding a kind of guild, the “Confraternity of Jongleurs and Townspeople,” which offered support with healthcare and funerals. Ziolkowski notes how in this regional tradition the stories surrounding jugglers increase in narrative granularity and individualization, reveal their creators’ intent to resolve “the longstanding division of society among ecclesiastics, knights, and peasants,” and demonstrate “that jongleurs were a cause of anxiety, as other classes sought to control them or appropriate their perquisites, while they endeavored to defend themselves and their interests” (89).

Other related short or more substantial analogues of medieval, early modern, and some modern folktales in which jugglers (or similar performers) play a role come from Italy (“The Fiddler and the Holy Face of Luca”), Germany (“The Fiddler and the Bearded Lady;” “The Dancer Musa;”), Persia (“The Old Harper”), Hungary (“The Fool”), France (“Péquelé”), and include Spain’s Saint Paschal Baylon, Italy’s Saint John Bosco and Sister Anna Nobili, American dancer Ruth St. Denis, France’s ballerina Mireille Nègre, and the Hasidic tale of The Little Whistle.

The second half of Ziolkowski’s anthology-cum-commentary focuses on providing readers with essential materials exemplifying the reception of the thirteenth-century poem from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth century, specifically in fin-de-siècle France and North America. After giving credit to Romance philologists Wendelin Foerster and Gaston Paris for bringing the medieval poem to the attention of modern academic readers, he shows how the poem may well have remained behind the philological firewall of learned journals if it had not been for the efforts of one Félix Brun, who decided to publish an abridged and adapted prose translation in a public-facing booklet in 1883. In the introduction to the 1890 edition of his volume, he distinguished himself in the same way in which medievalists at the time began to demarcate themselves from non-academic enthusiasts, stating that, while academic institutions formed “medievalists,” he was only a “medievalizer” (in French: médiévistes vs. moyenageux). Ziolkowski muses that Brun was proud of his role in sharing the medieval story with broader publics, and that this pride might well have been a form of solidarity with the simple juggler in the story, whose unconventional service to the Virgin is at least as valuable as that of the formally educated choir monks and lay brothers (222).

Even Brun’s efforts at promulgating the juggler narrative might have failed, had it not been for a literary version of the story crafted and published by Anatole France, one of the most famous Frenchmen of the fin-de-siècle. Poet, journalist, and widely read novelist, he was in the habit of adapting numerous aspects and themes of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages for his own day and age, including saints’ lives and miracle tales, with a preference for those including the Virgin Mary. His short story, “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” was published in the newspaper Le Gaulois, and in May, 1890, pretty much like one of the devotions made to the Virgin during that month by Catholics all over the world. The literary quality of the story as well as its author’s cultural and historical impact (France would receive the Nobel Prize in literature in 1921) helped the story become widely known, not only in the Francophone world, but in English translations worldwide, and especially in the United States. Another well-known French “medievalizer,” composer Jules Massenet, who parsed many a medieval subject matter for the modern operatic stage (El Cid, 1885; Esclarmonde, 1889; Griséldis, 1901), produced his 1891 version of The Jongleur of Notre Dame (fully included by Ziolkowski in English translation). The play made it to Monte Carlo and later to the Manhattan Opera House of New York, when impresario Oscar Hammerstein was in charge there.

The volume ends on exemplifying the early twentieth-century American literary reception, mostly with examples from shorter poetic adaptations, including by Wellesley professor Katharine Lee Bates, philosopher-historian Henry Adams, poet Edwin Markham, children’s book writer Violet Moore Higgins, radio narrator John Booth Nesbitt, and five mid to late twentieth-century poets: Patrick Kavanagh, W. H. Auden, Virginia Nyhart, Turner Cassity, and Virginia Hamilton Adair.

Jan Ziolkowski’s volume commands the admiration and gratitude of anyone who has ever even dabbled in reception history. Revealing first the first version and analogues of the premodern textual history, then the successful survival of the thirteenth-century miracle of the Virgin in the downright Darwinian competition among freshly discovered medieval literature in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, is a major feat of archival research, translation, and cultural contextualization. Reading the Juggler of Notre Dame is also an eloquent caveat for those who might erroneously believe that medievalisms in the modern world are all malevolent, radical abuses of the medieval past for postmedieval sexist, racist, and white supremacist purposes. The path of the juggler narrative related by this volume invalidates such essentializing predispositions and shows, instead, reimaginations of or analogues to the Old French poem that include multiple genres (poetry, short story, drama, opera), diverse responses to spirituality (Catholicism, secularism, Buddhism), and dozens of unique regional and national traditions (from France through Galicia, Germany, Persia, and North America).

Descriptors: Medievalism, médiévalisme, medievalismo, Mediävalismus, Mittelalterrezeption, juggler, jongleur, Notre Dame, Virgin Mary



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