Intimacy and the Late Medieval Taste For Consolation: Machaut’s Confort d’ami in BnF manuscrpit 994
Presenter: Rachel Geer, University of Virginia
BnF manuscript fr. 994, in which an abridged version of Machaut’s Confort d’ami appears alongside various religious and moral texts, presents a somewhat jarring array of content that nevertheless constitutes a coherent reading experience, one that is decidedly oriented towards the practical, the moral, and the devotional.
Fabricated in the last few years of the 14th century, shortly after Machaut’s death and a good 40 years after the political upheaval that occasioned the composition of the Confort d’ami, 994 presents a particularly illuminating view as to the reception and use made of the Confort by lay readers in the decades following its composition, both because of the way in which it was excerpted and by its juxtaposition with the other works in the manuscript. Thus we read in the prologue to Nicolas d’Oresme’s Livre des divinacions that the treatise is a simplified vernacular translation by Oresme himself of work that he had already composed in Latin, and that the purpose of this re-working is to decline a theoretical rejection of astrology in favor of a moral guidance on the right and wrong uses of this science. There is also a vernacular gloss on the mass, with its stated purpose of heightening the reader’s devotional experience by rendering the liturgical performance more intelligible, or Machaut’s Confort, which, cleansed of all courtly, Ovidian, and Boethian content, instead appears as an intimate and imminently practical consolation piece that pairs biblical examples with a laundry list of advice in the style of a mirror for princes. Manuscript BnF fr. 944 thus evinces a marked concern for moral conduct across a spectrum that encompasses the sacred and secular. Furthermore, a brief survey of the images and notae in several of the other manuscripts with copies of the Confort, which often emphasize precisely the biblical and mirror for princes sections of the poem that appear in 994, indicates that Machaut’s poem did not so much undergo a process of suppression and excision in 994 as much as it underwent a process aimed at rendering the text more widely appreciable. Thus perhaps the most interesting point of contact in the manuscript context of 994 comes out of Jean Lefèvfre’s Respit de la mort, which, according to Genevieve Hasenohr, underwent a similar process of abridgement in order to make it more widely applicable. Rebaptized by a later, secondary hand in 994 as the “Orloge de la mort” in the style of the common devotional genre of ‘horloges’, Lefèvre’s text, like Machaut’s poem, represents an intimate, personal response to the experience of suffering, yet both are abridged so as to be less specific and more widely applicable in their versions in fr. 994. Paradoxically then, the wider circulation of personalized, consolatory poems such as these created versions of the texts that maintain their intimacy while also being more depersonalized. Thus while Machaut’s long literary shadow may be overcome by the devotional framework of the manuscript BnF fr. 994, the fact that a secular, literary poem such as the Confort could be abridged so as to widen its availability for use fundamentally complicates our understanding of its reception, as well raising questions about the networks of text diffusion that thrived on such usefulness of literature.