The Roman Middle Ages: Aspects of Late Antique-Medieval Cultural Continuity in Old French Hagiography

Chekin, Peter, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ogden, Amy, Department of French, University of Virginia

Using three Old French hagiographical texts recorded between the late tenth and thirteenth centuries, this dissertation demonstrates a continuity of identity between Roman late antiquity and the francophone high middle ages. Calling upon a range of historical evidence and modern linguistic, poetic, and cultural theories, I argue that medieval francophone culture, as a direct outgrowth of the common Latinate culture of the Roman world, retained traits of that world’s common identity. This Romanity is reflected in medieval francophone texts’ self-identification with the Roman past, as well as in a conscious continuity of spoken language between Late Latin and Old French that they reveal. Moreover, I provide reasons why hagiography as a genre, unlike aristocratic literature such as chansons de geste, would have been the vehicle best suited to convey such a Roman identity.
The first chapter proposes a historical re-contextualization of the Vie de saint Alexis using a thirteenth-century manuscript version (Paris, BnF fr. 19525), transcribed and translated into English in the Appendix. In the light of oral-poetic theory, I argue first that the available evidence should not lead us to consider the Vie to be a translation of a Latin prose text as previously assumed. Second, I show that its narrative details accurately describe the poem’s late Roman setting in a number of ways anachronistic to the high medieval context in which it was composed. The two paths of inquiry then join, linking the Vie de saint Alexis’ orality and its subject matter under the umbrella of ‘cultural memory,’ wherein the poem’s audience identifies with the past that it portrays.
The second chapter demonstrates that the Vie de saint Laurent, found in the same manuscript, reflects a continuity of language between medieval Francophones and the Roman world. Inspired by diachronic linguistic research that suggests that Latin and the vernacular first began to be distinguished only after Carolingian educational reforms brought Latin out of line with spoken practice, I situate the Vie de saint Laurent within this emergence of new linguistic paradigms, whose developed forms are theorized in Dante Alighieri’s De vulgari eloquentia. I argue that the Vie de saint Laurent uses the vernacular and Latin as complementary and related modes of expression in a way that identifies Old French with the common spoken language of the Roman world.
The third chapter synthesizes the approaches of the first two with the aid of one of the earliest extant Old French texts, the Vie de saint Léger, which is preserved in a single late tenth-century manuscript. Here, I examine the ways in which a Roman-based identity would have negotiated the period of Frankish rule (496-843), when Romanity contended with a new and inferior sociopolitical role. Seeing in the Vie de saint Léger the descendant of a mostly unwritten popular oral-poetic tradition, I claim that it uses the memory of St Leudegar’s martyrdom (c. 679) to discuss sociopolitical questions in a situation where a legally subordinate ‘Roman’ population could most readily find recourse with the episcopate. The poem reflects an undercurrent of Roman identity throughout the Frankish period and beyond, an identity maintained and expressed in vernacular hagiographic poetry.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
cultural memory, diachronic Romance linguistics, hagiography, medieval identity, Old French poetry, oral poetry, Vie de saint Alexis, Vie de saint Laurent, Vie de saint Léger
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