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Review of  Le Texte dans le texte

Reviewer: Monica Vasileanu
Book Title: Le Texte dans le texte
Book Author: Annie Combes
Publisher: Classiques Garnier Numérique
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 25.401

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This volume gathers the proceedings of two colloquia, one of which took place in 2010 (September 24th) at Paris 3 University, and the other in 2011 (February 11th) at the University of Liège. The book focuses on the phenomenon of interpolation, analysed in the context of medieval literature. The volume contains an introduction, which sets the theoretical framework, and 13 chapters that analyse certain medieval texts, challenging the definition and the limits of the main concept ‘interpolation’. All the papers are written in French and the examples are quoted only in their original form, that is, in old French, thus making it clear that the studies are destined for specialized readers who are interested in textual criticism and other domains it intersects: medieval literature, book history, linguistics.

The first chapter, “Introduction. Qu’est-ce qu’une interpolation?” (‘Introduction: What is an interpolation?’, pp. 7-14), which is probably written by the editors, Annie Combes and Michelle Szklinik (this chapter is not signed), defines the concept of ‘interpolation’ and depicts its main characteristics. The starting point of this chapter is the definition provided by F. Vielliard and O. Guyotjeannin (2002: 212), who characterize interpolation as ‘a voluntary transformation made by a copyist, a reviser or an editor to a text of whose transmission he is supposed to take care’ (our translation); the reasons for this transformation are diverse, such as improving the text or passing new elements under the authority of the first text (p. 9). Three main characteristics of an interpolation are presented here: i. it is a conscious and voluntary intervention of a certain person upon a text; ii. the text onto which that person operates is not his own; iii. it is a different text from the initial one. Therefore, in order to label a piece of text as an interpolation, one needs to distinguish two texts and two authors. Moreover, certain characteristics are stated about the limits, the size, and the integration of an interpolated fragment in a work, thus distinguishing interpolation from other types of transformation such as continuation, compilation, quotation, degradation, correction, ‘borrowing’ (pp. 11-13).

The second paper, “De la chimère au mirage. L’interpolation et la critique textuelle” (‘From Chimera to Mirage. Interpolation and Textual Criticism’, pp. 15-29), written by Richard Trachsler, is a sample of textual criticism applied on “The Second Continuation” of “The Story of the Holy Grail”. The author compares two fragments extracted from two different manuscripts in order to find out which one has been revised and which one represents the earlier ‘state of the text’ (i.e. ‘état textuel’). A specific fragment that can be found only in one of the two manuscripts, although only a few lines long, makes a huge difference between the two texts since it states the virginity of Perceval, the hero of the entire story. Trachsler analyses the other love-making episodes in the story and concludes that the manuscript that explicitly states the virginity of Perceval has been revised both by interpolating a few lines explicitly stating the hero’s virginity and by suppressing other lines that describe his relations with other ladies. The revision of the text aimed at rendering coherence to a character at the level of the entire text, with the risk of losing coherence at the level of the smaller text. The Second Continuation contains allusions to Perceval’s relations with other ladies. Explicitly stating the hero’s virginity makes this text less coherent. Trachsler’s verdict is confirmed by comparing the two manuscripts to the other variants of the Second Continuation.

In the third paper, “‘Foucon de Candie’: microscopie et macroscopie de l’interpolation” (‘Foucon de Candie’: Microscopic and Macroscopic View of Interpolation’, pp. 31-40), Paola Moreno analyses the variants of a medieval ‘best seller’, “Foucon de Candie”. After analysing the many versions of the ‘chanson de geste’ (i.e. ‘medieval epic poem, usually related to the Charlemagne cycle of poems’) and describing the main parts of the text, Paola Moreno challenges the definition of interpolation accepted by the editors of the present volume, proving that in practice, it is difficult to distinguish between different types of textual transformation.

The fourth paper, “De la première redaction de la partie octosyllabique longue du ‘Roman de Rou’ à la seconde. Étude des procédés d’interpolation” (‘From the First Version of the Long Octosyllabic Part of the ‘Roman de Rou’ to the Second Version. A Study of Interpolation Techniques’, pp. 41-61), is a fine-grained analysis of the interpolation techniques employed in “Roman de Rou” realized by Françoise Vielliard. The versions of this medieval poem belong to the same author, Wace. The author of this article, F. Vielliard, groups and labels the different versions, brings evidence to support Wace’s authorship regarding a short and a long version of the poem, attempts a chronology of the transformations undergone by “Roman de Rou”, and suggests the motives that could have underlaid these different transformations. This paper also challenges the definition of interpolation accepted in the Introduction since the author of the original text and the interpolator are one and the same person.

In the fifth paper, “La glose et le texte. L’exemple de la ‘Bible historiale’ de Guiard des Moulins” (‘Gloss and Text. The Case of the ‘Bible Historiale’ of Guiard des Moulins’, pp. 63-83), Pierre Nobel analyses a medieval translation of the Bible’s historical books, “Bible historiale” (1291-1295). This translation joins the biblical text and fragments from Petrus Comestor’s “Historia Scholastica” as a means of explaining the biblical text, therefore, as glosses. Even though in the preface Guiard des Moulins states that the two source-texts are distinguished by the size of the characters used, in fact, the distinction is less obvious and the two layers blend with a third layer formed by the translator’s own glosses of obscure words. This blending is destined to fool the copyists of the “Bible historiale”, who tend to include glosses in the main text. Pierre Nobel shows that the Bible was a particular case of interpolation in the Middle Ages.

The sixth paper, “Bible et romans. Quelques contacts à la faveur d’interpolations” (‘Bible and Romance. Some Contacts in Favour of Interpolations’, pp. 85-104), by Bénédicte Milland-Bove, focuses on the two-way relation between the Bible and medieval romance. Referring to two manuscripts, a Bible of Herman de Valenciennes and another one containing the “Story of the Holy Grail”, Milland-Bove shows how fragments from the romance “Joseph d’Arimathie” are pasted into the Bible, whereas fragments from the Gospels are quoted or simply inserted in the “Story of the Holy Grail”. However, the Gospels that are quoted in the romance had been themselves interpolated. This paper proves that interpolation should be regarded not as forgery, but as a means of creativity, and should be studied not only in the context of textual criticism, but also in the domain of poetics.

The seventh paper, “Entre interpolation et emprunt. Réflexions autour du ‘Roman de Perceforest’” (‘Between Interpolation and Borrowing. Reflections on the ‘Romance of Perceforest’’, pp. 105-121), written by Noémie Chardonnens, deals with the terminological difficulties of textual criticism. The author discusses the complicated situation of the “Roman de Perceforest”, which contains fragments from other medieval romances. This situation calls for a distinction between interpolation and borrowing (i.e. ‘emprunt’).

The same terminological problem is discussed by Anne Rochebouet in the eighth paper, “L’interpolation, entre insertion et compilation. La traduction des ‘Héroïdes’ dans la cinquième mise en prose du ‘Roman de Troie’” (‘The Interpolation, between Insertion and Compilation. The Translation of the ‘Heroids’ in the Fifth Prose Version of the ‘Romance of Troy’’ pp. 123-139). It is difficult to label the status of the fragments from Ovid’s “Heroids” pasted in the “Roman de Troie” since none of the concepts of ‘interpolation’, ‘compilation’, mere ‘insertion’ and ‘borrowing’ (the best choice) can satisfactorily cover such a complex situation. However, Anne Rochebouet stresses the poetic needs that underlie this textual transformation.

An atypical situation is analysed by Andrea Valentini in the ninth paper, “Quand un text devient intouchable. Ou n’interpolez pas le poème de Jean de Meun!” (‘When a Text Becomes Untouchable. Or Do Not Intepolate Jean de Meun’s Poem!’ pp. 143-161). Most medieval texts have reached us in many variants, having been rewritten several times. However, the “Roman de la Rose” became a stable piece from the beginning of the 14th century, a situation which can be explained only through the authority of Jean de Meun, the author of a great part of the text. Later, copyists and revisers of the text attempted only small transformations and carefully distinguished their interventions. Their explicit notes show that they recognized the author’s authority and that, after all, authorship was not such a fluid concept in the Middle Ages (although it has been unanimously accepted that in the Middle Ages concepts such as ‘authorship’ and ‘plagiarism’ were less clear-cut than they are today).

The tenth paper, “La ‘Fille du Comte de Ponthieu’ dans les ‘Estoirs d’Outremer et de la naissance de Saladin’” (‘The ‘Fille du Comte de Ponthieu’ in the ‘Estoires d’Outremer et de la Naissance de Saladin’’ pp. 163-179), written by Catherine Croizy-Naquet, turns our attention to historiography, which, in the Middle Ages, is blended with literature. Croizy-Naquet shows how interpolation was used as a propagandistic tool, as the interpolating fragment sheds a different light and adds a different meaning to the original text. The interpolated fragment constructs an imaginary descent of Saladin -- the victorious leader of the Muslims over the Crusaders -- from a European family, related to the family of count Ponthieu. Thus, the virtues and the victories of Saladin over the kings of France are claimed by the northern French nobles, with whom the Ponthieu family is associated, who had difficult relations with the French monarchs. Thus, a chronicle of a Crusade is turned into a propagandistic tool at the hands of the dissident French nobility.

In the eleventh paper, “Interpolation ou citation? Le dialogue entre le ‘Roman du comte d’Anjou’ de Jean Maillart et le ‘Roman de Fauvel’” (‘Interpolation or Quotation? The Dialogue between Jean Maillart’s ‘Roman du comte d’Anjou’ and the ‘Roman de Fauvel’’, pp. 181-195), Madeleine Jeay tries to distinguish two rewriting techniques, ‘interpolation’ and ‘quotation’. The “Roman de Fauvel”, chosen to illustrate these concepts, proves to be a controversial example, as it quotes texts that had been interpolated before, so that the romance can be represented as a nested doll: a text within a text within a text, with interventions from interpolators at different levels. If one quotes a text that had been interpolated, does that make him an interpolator? The distinction between interpolation and quotation is necessary, but sometimes it is not sharp.

The twelfth paper, “Le scribe-éditeur du Paris, BnF, français 2455. Le créateur d’une version particulière de ‘l’Estoire del Saint Graal’” (‘The Editor-Scribe of the French Manuscript BnF français 2455, Paris. The Creator of a Particular Version of the ‘Story of the Holy Grail’’, pp. 197-213), written by Carol Chase, emphasizes the complex work of a scribe in the Middle Ages. The copyist of the manuscript under discussion did more than copy and interpolate, he also rephrased and modified existing episodes. Taking into account these data, Carol Chase suggests that BnF français 2455 should not be considered just an interpolated manuscript of the long version of the “Story of the Grail”, but rather a different, divergent version.

In the thirteenth paper, “Pour un nouveau tombeau de Merlin. L’interpolation à l’oeuvre dans un manuscript cyclique du ‘Lancelot-Graal’ (‘For a New Grave of Merlin. Interpolation at Work in a Cyclic Manuscript of ‘Lancelot-Grail’’ Paris, BnF, français 98)” (pp. 215-234), Nathalie Koble analyses the work done by the copyist of a cyclic manuscript of “Lancelot-Grail” and reflects on the role of the medieval interpolator: he acts as a passionate reader who leaves his traces in the text he reads, but also as a professional editor, philologist, and poetician who tries to make the text more coherent.

In the last paper, “Adjoindre, disjoindre, conjoindre. Le recyclage d’ ‘Alixandre l’Orphelin’ et de l’ ‘Histoire d’Erec’ dans ‘Guiron le Courtois’ (Paris, BnF, français 358-363)” (‘Adjoining, Disjoining, Conjoining. The Reclycling of ‘Alixandre l’Orphelin’ and of the ‘Historie d’Erec’ in ‘Guiron le Courtois’’, pp. 235- 247), Barbara Wahlen presents an illuminated manuscript and analyses the rewriting process undergone by the story of Guiron le Courtois, a romance of the Arthurian cycle that underwent many transformations: integration in a series, ‘cyclification’, continuation, and interpolation. The paper gives a snapshot of the mobility and complications arising in relations in medieval romances.


The main merit of this volume is rehabilitating the notion of interpolation. The term had been employed in textual criticism with a pejorative meaning: it was understood as a degradation of an original text, a forgery, and as an obstacle to finding original texts. All the papers in this volume integrate interpolation into the larger field of rewriting techniques, thus considering it a means of creation. The mobility of medieval literature needs to be understood not as a shortcoming, but as a fascinating domain of poetics, or an expression of the readers’ vivid spirit and their active collaboration in the creation of the text.

The book’s Introduction sets the terminological framework. Interpolation is defined and distinguished from other related rewriting techniques, and this is another important merit of the book.

If the Introduction seems to clearly set up terminology, the following papers prove that theory and practice do not always overlap and that what seemed unambiguous in theory is not so obvious in practice. Paola Moreno and Françoise Vielliard prove in their papers that certain textual interventions can hardly be labelled with the notions discussed, thus blurring the borders between ‘interpolation’ and ‘continuation’ or ‘interpolation’ and ‘correction’, for example.

The many problems posed by the concept of ‘interpolation’, which had been widely used in textual criticism, show that there is still a lot of work to be done. Further research should expect to test the terminological framework set by this volume and to help incorporate the variety of rewriting techniques used in the Middle Ages in a coherent theoretical framework.


Vielliard,Françoise & Olivier Guyotjeannin, 2002, “Conseils pour l’édition des texts médiévaux”. École nationale des chartes, fascicule II, Paris, p. 212
Monica Vasileanu is a scientific researcher at the 'Iorgu Iordan - Al. Rosetti' Institute of Linguistics in Bucharest, Romania, where she is currently working in projects such as 'Dicţionarul limbii române' (the comprehensive dictionary of Romanian) and 'Dicţionarul etimologic al limbii române' (the etymological dictionary of Romanian). She defendend her PhD in 2012. Her main interests are in the fields of historical linguistics and of critical text editing. Monica also teaches Romanian language to non-native speakers at the University of Bucharest.