NEH fellow brings medieval text to 21st century

Literary archeology is one way to describe the work of Joan Grenier-Winther, an associate professor of French in the department of foreign languages and cultures.

With a focus on the poetry of French knights of the 14th and 15th centuries, her job is to identify all known copies of a particular work, use a variety of methods to verify authorship and date of origin, and then bring her skill and training as a paleographer to bear on creating a “best” version that will withstand the rigors of critical analysis.

Grenier-Winther’s current focus is on the lyric poetry penned by Oton de Granson, a Savoyard knight who lived from 1340 to 1397. Working from 23 different manuscripts preserved in libraries and museums around the world, she transcribed and edited 103 of Granson’s poems, varying in length from 16 to 2,476 lines, and compiled them into a 350-page critical edition that will be published in Paris later this year. Her publisher is Editions Honoré Champion, the world’s primary publisher of French medieval works.

Grenier-Winther is also continuing work on a project she began last year as part of a six-month National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. Long a user and advocate of educational technology, Grenier-Winther’s NEH project was to create a prototype online scholarly literary edition with a searchable database.

 “When you do (literary editions) online you have absolutely no limitations on what you can do,” Grenier-Winther said. Instead of a traditional scholarly text with footnotes and endnotes explaining variations and the editor’s choices, an online version allows almost complete transparency, with the user able to view all versions and compare line-by-line readings, among other features.

For the prototype, Grenier-Winther decided to use an anonymous 15th century French poem that might be Granson’s, but has also been attributed to a better-known poet, Alain Chartier. At, a domain Grenier-Winther owns, she has created some of what she envisioned, but it is slow going because it requires extensive expertise in website design, XML markup of the text and database programming. Her fellowship ended in December, but she is continuing to add to her website as she has time.

At some point, Grenier-Winther said, she needed to decide whether her time was better spent on computer programming or her real passion — transcribing and editing medieval French manuscripts, particularly poets such as Granson.

Granson was a contemporary — and perhaps even a friend — of Geoffrey Chaucer, the English author of “The Canterbury Tales.” Among the contemporary poets of France, Granson is the only one Chaucer mentions by name, calling him the “flour of hem that make in Fraunce.” Indeed, while Chaucer was writing, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,” Granson was writing his own style of love poetry in Middle French, a language equally removed from modern French.

Grenier-Winther has considered translating Granson’s work from Middle French into modern French, and then into English, but for now her focus is on the detailed and painstaking work of transcribing and editing the poems, some of which have never been transcribed before.

“You really have to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb,” she said.  After collecting microfilm or photocopies of every version of whatever poem she is working on, she spends many hours transcribing them word for word. But, she said, anything from sloppy photocopying to water stains and worm holes can distort what she sees on the reproduction, so she always needs to see the original.

 “You definitely see things differently (in person),” she said. While the majority of manuscripts of Granson’s works are in France, particularly Paris, Grenier-Winther has also pored over copies at Westminster Abbey, the Vatican library and libraries in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain and the U.S. The oldest manuscript, dating from approximately the 1390s, is owned by the University of Pennsylvania, she said.

Once she is confident her transcriptions are accurate, she must compare the various versions word for word to determine which is most likely closest to the original and which presents the most satisfactory reading of the work. Since scribes rarely signed or dated their work, she uses catalogs of watermarks to date the manuscript when paper was used; in the case of parchment, dating is a bit harder. But, she said, the oldest versions aren’t always the most accurate, so she’s always checking and cross-checking inconsistencies to try to make sense of the genealogy of the manuscripts she is using for her edition.

“She’s very good at what she does,” said Lionel Friedman, University of Washington professor emeritus of medieval literature of Romance languages. Friedman, who was once an instructor of Grenier-Winther’s and has since become a colleague, said, “She’s bright, she has linguistic ability, she has good sense and she’s industrious.”

Grenier-Winther’s work on Granson’s poems represents years of hard work, Friedman said. “It’s like a child’s game of whispered messages,” he said, and Grenier-Winther’s job is try to figure out what the original meaning was, if not the exact words.

A major challenge to working in this time period, he said, is that both spellings and grammar were changing rapidly, with the result that scribes felt freer to make changes to better address new audiences. Trying to figure out which changes were purposeful and which accidental is painstaking work.

Website opens access to poem
But Grenier-Winther enjoys challenges, whether they involve the 14th century or the 21st.
She spends her time immersed in texts that were penned 100 years before the Gutenberg press was created, but she is no Luddite.

In 1996 one of the first two entirely online courses at WSU, and has been an advocate for educational technology. So, it seemed the next logical step when she applied for an NEH grant to create a scholarly literary edition of a medieval poem.

Because of her deep understanding of Oton de Granson, she decided to use a poem titled “La Belle dame qui eut mercy” (“The Beautiful Lady Who Had Mercy”), a poem of 378 lines whose authorship is a mystery, but which had been variously attributed to both Granson and another poet, Alain Chartier.

Developing content for the site was challenging and intriguing, she said, because not only is the authorship a mystery, but the poem is a bit of a mystery as well. The first 18 stanzas read very much like a Granson poem, with the merciless lady refusing the advances of her suitor in stanzas of eight lines each. At stanza 19, however, the poem abruptly changes structure, and we find another 18 stanzas, this time of 13 lines each, not a normal occurrence in late medieval French poetry.

What is more remarkable than this change in stanzaïc and metrical form, however, is that at the end of this second group of stanzas, the lady parts company with other of Granson’s female poetic voices and suddenly becomes a merciful lady, granting her love to her suitor. It seems likely, according to Grenier-Winther, that “La Belle dame qui eut mercy” is two poems joined as one in the manuscripts at a point in the Middle Ages when the voice of a merciless lady was not desirable and a scribe added a happy addendum to an existing poem of a merciless lady.

This example shows how the editor of a critical edition, beyond simply providing an accurate presentation of the literary infrastructure (words, lines, stanzas), can also point out ways in which structure, meter, rhyme and other stylistic devices can inform the thematic interpretation of a work. In this case, Grenier-Winther said, the knight gets his lady and we are a bit closer to understanding the dynamic of the love lyric in the Middle Ages.

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