The Face and Faciality in Medieval French Literature
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your book The Face and Faciality in Medieval French Literature! Can you please begin by giving an overview of your book?
The book is about the motif of the face in medieval French verse narrative – and in a few manuscripts. I look at how the face, as both a visual motif and a broader concept, works to structure representation in these texts, and at how it is a surprisingly complicated idea. For instance, we consider the face to be ‘readable’, and to be able to tell us something about the person to which it is attached; but in these texts this is not always the case, and there is often a significant disruption of the relationship between the expectation we place on the face, and what the face does – or does not – tell us.
You must have found some really great faces, can you tell us about some of your favourites?
Yes, one of the best aspects of this project was searching for faces! People knew I was working on this and would send me images of faces they found in all sorts of different contexts. I think my favourites are probably the ones that ended up in the book, in chapter 2. The fact that no one knows who they are or what they do is something I find endlessly compelling. We are so used to seeing faces and assuming they are synonymous with a person – more so than any other body part – that when this isn’t the case it really messes with some of our most deep-rooted assumptions. A favourite that didn’t make it into the book was one from a manuscript in Carpentras that a colleague sent to me: the face is drawn inside a large ‘O’ and is frowning in a very comedic, cartoonish way.
The time period you explore is 1170-1390, how was this period chosen? Are there certain time periods that have more material for research? Why is that?
The reason for this is that I wanted to focus on the period of exponential growth of verse literature in French in the middle ages, which took place roughly from the mid twelfth-century. I wanted to look at some quite canonical texts – Yvain and the Roman de la Rose for instance – and see if focusing on the face could lead us to thinking any differently about how representation works in these texts. It also seemed to me that Chrétien de Troyes was a good place to start, as the world of knights and duels is, of course, full of faces, face-offs, face coverings, mis-recognition and identity swapping, all of which is grist to my mill! The end point is roughly the date of the latest manuscript I looked at in detail, and I wanted to try to keep my corpus fairly focused in terms of the time-frame, while also allowing for enough diversity of genre and material.
You specifically look at medieval French literature, do you know if doodles and faces were popular in other literatures as well?
This is, for me, one of the most intriguing things about the face: it is as close to a universal motif as I think is possible. So yes, there are doodles and faces absolutely everywhere! And the interesting thing is that faces appear in other literatures both as a specific focus and, of course, as incidental elements. You’d be hard pushed to find a text that didn’t feature faces and, at the same time, there are texts that foreground the face. In Science Fiction there is, for instance, plenty of this; L.P. Hartley’s Facial Justice is a good example.
Did you have to narrow down your research? If so, how did you decide what to keep?
Yes – for the reason given above! I wanted to end up with a book that looked at different texts that could be easily considered as a coherent group, so that there would be value in comparing the different approaches to the face. But I also wanted some variety, so that part of the analysis would be of how faces work in different genres and media. I hope that’s what I’ve arrived at, but with a topic such as the face there is an endless amount of material.
Are all faces and doodles significant in one way or another?
I think so, yes. Not because they tell us about the person ‘behind’ the face, but because they tell us about our own expectations of knowledge, and about how we have created this universal motif that nonetheless has the capacity to refuse to tell us what we expect of it. Of all the theorists I talk about in the book, Levinas is the most interesting to me, as he managed to articulate the possibility of a face not acting as a way of gathering knowledge about another person. Being able to see this possibility then allows us to think otherwise about the face and to see it as a cultural and social phenomenon that tells us about how we relate to the world around us.
Is this a topic you’ve always been interested in?
Yes I think so. I’ve certainly always been interested in trying to see beyond things we take for granted, and the face is the perfect example. I think I have become increasingly aware of the social and cultural weight we place on the face as we rely more and more on facial recognition technology and other biometrics. FRT seems to me to be based on the assumption that faces are neutral, reliable markers of identity, which I don’t think is the case. I wanted to look at a formative period in the history of Western culture and literature to see what the precedent is for this understanding of the face.
Your cover is really great! Can you tell us about it?
Thank you! This is a detail from an illumination in a 15th-century manuscript copy of the Roman de la Rose. It shows Jealousy’s castle, in which the rose is imprisoned, and Danger guarding the castle from the ramparts – you can just about see that he is holding a set of keys. I think this image is startling in how it addresses the viewer so directly via Danger’s face. He looks straight at us with a deeply enigmatic expression. Again, it plays into my fascination with faces that we cannot read: we are clearly and directly addressed by his gaze, but the message is unknown and unknowable. I wanted to talk more about this image in the book, but it didn’t work out that way for various reasons, so I was delighted to be able to give it the attention it deserves in a different way!
What do you have planned next?
I’m currently working on a project about digital medievalism and how we relate to the middle ages through the medium of the screen.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Sadly we’re all still living and working through a pandemic, one consequence of which has been the shift of conferences from in-person to online. Have you been taking part in virtual conferences? What have been your experiences?
I have! It’s been really quite different from in-person conferences, but not altogether worse. I certainly miss the incidental and serendipitous nature of conferences that bring people together and allow them to talk in an unstructured way, but I also find speaking online a little less nerve-wracking and have been able to be a little bit more experimental in the papers I’ve given, which has been very helpful in terms of the comments they’ve elicited.
SPECIAL MEDIEVAL HERALD
USE CODE: BB939
Also Available from the Gallica Series
Save 40% with your Medieval Herald discount
ALICE HAZARD teaches in the Department of French at King’s College London