Tag Archives: mapping

Quantifying the Romance Epic (chanson de geste)

I just had an abstract accepted to present at the MLA 2016 (Austin, TX) for Société Rencesvals American Canadian Branch division panel “Digital Humanities and the Romance Epic: A New Approach?” organized by Paula Leverage. As my first post here suggested, I am interested in ways of visualizing as many texts as we can from the corpus of medieval French.  My MLA proposal is entitled “Visualizing Romance Epic Space-Time” and aims to examine variance of place name usage over time in romance epics (a.k.a. chansons de geste).

The chansons de geste seemed like a perfect use case for digital analysis.  The corpus is vast and the genre is highly repetitive (just think of Rychner’s 1955 landmark La chanson de geste: essai sur l’art épique des jongleurs).

I come back to the question of scale: just how many romance epic texts are there?  Rychner only looked at nine. The Wikipedia article on the chanson de geste claims there are “over a hundred” (accessed 8 April 2015).  Working with the entry on the “chanson de geste” at ARLIMA, and supplementing it with searches at IA, HathiTrust (my institution became a partner!), La Vie en Proses, along with ProQuest for more obscure titles, I have built a working handlist.  It seems that we can say with certainty that there are at least 185 unique texts.  There are, of course, so many versions for some texts: different meter, verse, prose, differing lengths, etc.  Using my rule of thumb of 60-70 place names per text on average, this means there are potentially 11000-13000 spatial data points for this genre.  The corpus will surely become clearer with more research.

I have some existing data from the VMP project from epic-inflected texts, so I decided to try a map.  The example below contains some 1800 place names (96% geocoded) from 22 different texts from across the 12-15th centuries.  (You can hover over the glyphs and see the place, the text and the supposed composition range).

I have used a choropleth map, with a multicolor ramp, to show progression over time.  Dark and light green glyphs indicate that the place name occurs in a text dated closer to 1200, whereas salmon and red glyphs point to a place name showing up around 1450.  A note of caution: some glyphs may actually be overlapping with others, masking persistence of the place name.

What I find most interesting about this initial exploration of the data is the flip-flop of the axes of the chanson de geste.  The earlier period tends to align on a NE-SW axis of France-Iberia, whereas the later period follows a NW-SE axis.  The most obvious guess for why we find such a large scale flip is perhaps a shift from the Charlemagne material and toward localizing epic form for other political (Mediterranean), military encounters.  Just a guess.

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How many texts were composed in medieval French?

The aim of this digital project to explore ways of visualizing place names occurring in medieval texts, in particular, in the language scholars commonly call “medieval French.” In later postings I will come back to the question of visualization and share some of the cleaned data and the results of the project.

Medieval French is often cited as the largest vernacular language of the Euro-Mediterranean, but here I would like to ask a basic question, one that to my knowledge is not addressed directly in the critical literature: how many texts were composed in medieval French?

A loaded question, I know.  What is a “text”? What is “medieval French”? Simply put, I am initially looking into literary and non-literary edited texts (not documents/witnesses) and in time from the 11th-15th century CE, and in space, over the arc from Britain to the Eastern Mediterranean. It is an expansive canon, far beyond the 100 texts one might closely read for PhD exams or even over the course of a career. I aim to include as many texts written in any variety of medieval French as I can. I am inspired by inclusivity of projects such as Fordham’s French of Outremer/French of Italy , MFLCOF, RIALFrI and Anglo-Norman Online Hub.

At the traditional scale of literary study, scholars seem to come up with reasonable estimates. Take, for example, Holtus’ essay “L’état actuel des recherches sur le franco-italien” that lists some 40 texts as making up the Franco-Italian corpus. When we scale up to the capacious category of “medieval French,” however, how do we go about quantifying textual production?

There are, of course, classic reference works: Gröber’s Grundriß (1888-1902), Holmes’ Critical Bibliography (1947) and Bossuat’s Manuel (published in 1951 and updated until 1991). According to one reviewer of Bossuat’s work in 1951, it contained 6000+ entries, compared to Holmes’ 2588.  A handy dictionary I used throughout pre-digital graduate school is the DLF by Bossuat, Pichard and Raynaud de Lage (1964), and especially the re-edition by Zink and Hasenohr (1992) that I will call the DLF2. The latter contains some 2000+ articles. Last year, I counted the works of interest in the DLF2 to give my co-authored DH2013 paper a quick subtitle: “How to use the fuzzy data of 550 medieval French texts?” A hasty, educated guess, but way off!  The problems with the numbers from these print reference works is that they lump together entries for genres, authors and themes. Furthermore, both Holmes and the DLF2 use the spatial borders of contemporary France, ostensibly driven by concerns of national literature, to justify (albeit uneasily) the inclusion of Latin and Occitan works.

Perhaps we could count the critical editions published in well-known series (ANTS, TLF, CFMA, SATF, etc.), but medieval French texts were edited all over, published on both sides of the Rhine, the Channel and the Atlantic, and often as dissertations.

Digital resources are another place to turn. In Heidelberg, the DEAF has published data (as of January 2014) about its bibliography that help us break down its composition (6628 sigla, 2585 titles, 1008 medieval authors, 7475 manuscripts). The upper boundary of 2585 titles must be qualified by two facts: first, the bibliography is full of modern reference works, so titles are not necessarily medieval titles, and second, the DEAF gives separate sigla to editions of different witnesses of a text, such as the four versions of Marco Polo’s Devisement (MPolGregP, MPolGregB, MPolGregM and MPolGregcO).  A safe assumption would be that there is one work per author, so the online DEAF does help us set a lower boundary of at least 1000 works.

There is also the growing digital bibliography of ARLIMA. In a recent tweet, ARLIMA informed me that as of 18 July 2014, 2702 French texts are recorded in their bibliography.

To me, this seems to be the clearest, most countable estimate of a number of texts written in medieval French that modern scholarship has brought together in one place. It reflects what has been edited and unedited, as well as documents which have been lost to the ravages of history. And, of course, this number will be revised in time…

That no one has quantified the number of texts written in medieval French points, for me, to a larger question about how much we actually know about the diversity of textual production  in our period of study. The wager of this digital project is that distant approaches (as proposed by Moretti in Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading) that expand the textual field we study could serve medieval French studies well. Having an idea of what is there will help us judge the extent of our conclusions when we speak about “medieval French texts.”

Printed Works Cited

Bossuat, Robert. Manuel bibliographique de la littérature française du Moyen Age (Melun: Librairie d’Argences, 1951).

Gröber, Gustav. Grundriß der romanischen Philologie (Strasburg: Trübner, 1888-1901).

Holmes, Urban T.  A Critical Bibliography of French Literature: the Mediaeval Period (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1947).

Holtus, Günter. “L’état actuel des recherches sur le franco-italien: corpus de textes et description linguistique » in La Chanson de Geste: Écriture, Intertextualités, Translations, Littérales 14(1994): 147-71.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees (New York/London: Verso, 2005).

—. Distant Reading (New York/London: Verso, 2013).

Zink, Michel and Geneviève Hasenohr, eds.  Dictionnaire des lettres françaises. Rev. ed. (Paris: Livre de Poche: 1992).