Intimations of Ambiguity in Some Initial Images of the Chevalier de la Charrette
[a scholarly essay of about 7500 words]
The late Karl D. Uitti, one of the great scholars in the field of medieval philology in the latter half of the twentieth century, was my Princeton colleague for many years. Our approaches to medieval studies were rather different, and we did from time to time have our public differences of opinion. Still I greatly admired his energy and his learning. Most of all, perhaps, I was struck by Uitti’s ability to attract a never-failing succession of brilliant doctoral students, several of whom are now among the most distinguished French medievalists in the world.
At a fairly advanced stage of his career Uitti launched the “Charrette Project,” an electronic archive relating to manuscripts of the romance of Lancelot by Chrétien de Toyes, the most famous French writer of the twelfth century. This book is sometimes called simply the Lancelot, but probably more often (following the manuscript traditions) Le Chevalier de la Charrette—The Knight of the Cart. This title reflects an early episode in the poem in which the hero, out of desire for his adulterous lover Guinevere, mounts a common cart or tumbrel, the form of conveyance used to transport malefactors to the site of punishment or execution. It would be shameful enough for a knight (chevalier in French) to surrender his horse. An old joke asks “What is the most important thing about a chevalier?” Answer: the cheval! Mounting the cart raises the stakes, dramatizing in the most poignant way possible the classical moral dilemma made famous in American popular culture by Gary Cooper in High Noon: whether to choose twixt love and duty!
Karl Uitti included many of his graduate students in the Charrette Project, and they continued its direction after he withdrew. Thus it was wonderfully fitting that after his death that several of them—under the leadership of Professors Gina Greco of Portland State College and Ellen Thorington of Ball State University—designed around Chretien’s romance of the Chevalier de la Charrette a memorial volume in Prof. Uitti’s honor.
I myself felt honored to be invited to contribute an essay suitable, I hope, for the occasion. This essay is for specialists in medieval literature, not for the “general reader”, but it does advance a point of general cultural interest. The modern attitude toward artistic ambiguity is on the whole affirmative if not enthusiastic. We don’t want to be “judgmental” as readers, and we don’t much like “judgmental” authors. Classical and medieval attitudes were often very different. Authorities like Quintillian and Augustine considered ambiguity “the enemy of truth”, an intellectual difficulty to be confronted and worked through, not simply admired. No small part of the modern controversy about the interpretation of early literature is related to the difference between those two views.
The volume itself will be called Dame Philology’s Charrette: Approaching Medieval Textuality through Chrétien’s Lancelot, Essays in Memory of Karl D. Uitti, and will be published in the series Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS) at Arizona State University, Tempe. Lord knows when, exactly, it will actually be published, but probably within the next year or so.
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