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Whilst it is reasonably assumed that there extended from the Merovingian period a long tradition of oral poetry in France which embraced the lyric, hagiography, epic and drama, a tradition which drew on Indo-European traditions, more localised folklore, and historical events, it is certain that vernacular French literature (i.e. what has been set down in letters) owes its emergence entirely to the church. It is doubtful whether the romana lingua of the Strassburg Oaths (as sworn by Louis the German and Charles the Bald in June 842) can really be called French, but the short Sequence of Saint Eulalia (c. 881–2) from the area of Valenciennes is certainly French, as are parts of the Sermon on Jonah, also produced near Valenciennes, towards the middle of the tenth century. A Passion narrative and a Life of St Ledger copied c. 1000 have been preserved in the south-west of France, whilst in the following century we have fragments of Occitan and, from Normandy, two literary masterpieces, the Vie de Saint Alexis and the Chanson de Roland. With the exception of the last two we are dealing with works written in a supra-dialectal koiné or scripta, designed to find favour with supra-regional audiences who could not tackle whatever Latin originals were available. Secular French literature written in a relatively standardised language (ultimately identified with that of the Ile de France) is the product of the twelfth century. It was preceded in England by the curiously precocious literary productions that owed much to the patronage of Henry I and II.
Among German poets of the early thirteenth century there emerges a new literary self-consciousness which manifests itself in references to the author's own person in the body of his poem and in allusions to other writers and their work.
Such references to other poets may be implicit. That is the case, for example, when the narrator in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (c. 1210) claims in 436, 4ff. that Sigune's love for the dead knight Schionatulander was such that, if the couple had been married, lady Lunete (a character in Hartmann von Aue's Iwein, c. 1200) would have been more reticent in advising Sigune to remarry than she was towards her bereaved mistress Laudine. The critical comment on the behaviour of Lunete, who presses her mistress to remarry on the very day of her husband's death, remains at the level of a playful critique of a character in another poem (as distinct, say, from being a comment on Hartmann's character motivation). By the contrast between his own characters' behaviour and that attributed to the characters of another fictional work Wolfram's narrator claims a special seriousness for the qualities of triwe (‘fidelity’) and minne (‘love’) displayed by Sigune (and later also by the hero Parzival); he marks out the divide between the values of his own literary world and those of ‘traditional’ Arthurian romance. At the same time the author establishes a relationship between the ethical constructs of his literary fiction and the real world, the world in which the composition and reception of Iwein and Parzival is to be situated.
‘Translation [translatio] is the exposition of meaning through another language [expositio sententiae per aliam linguam]’, claims Hugutio of Pisa in the Magnae derivationes which he compiled between 1197 and 1201. That sentiment, which is rooted in grammatical theory, makes it abundantly clear that medieval ‘translation’ does not mean merely the production of a replacement text: exposition, exegesis, interpretation (however one wishes to denote hermeneutic process) is involved as well. Hence in a twelfth-century gloss on Priscian interpretatio is defined as the exposition (expositio) of one language through another, and in his Summa super Priscianum Peter Helias describes interpretatio as ‘translatio de una loquela in aliam’. Such theoretical discourse is echoed in one of the most widely disseminated vernacular prefaces of the later Middle Ages, Jean de Meun's introduction to his French Boethius (c. 1300). If he had ‘expounded [expons] the Latin by the French word by word, Jean explains, the book would have been too obscure for laymen’ and clerks of moderate learning would have found it difficult to understand the Latin from the French. Therefore he has opted for a freer form of translation – an activity which, quite clearly, remains inseparable from expositio.
The activities of expositio or interpretatio and translatio were complexly interrelated. This chapter seeks to explore some of those relationships, with reference to late-medieval English, French, German and Spanish literary traditions. It will range from quite pedestrian vernacular renderings of standard glosses along with the texts which they expounded, to exceptionally sophisticated exploitations of the techniques – and the scholarly prestige – of commentary in the valorisation of texts composed anew in the emergent European languages.