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Les Espirits et les morts: Croyances medievales.

Claude Lecouteux and Philippe Marcq, Collections Essais (Paris: Honore Champion, 1990). 2Z5 pp. ISBN 2-852.030-99-3. F. fr. 132. No price given.

As a contribution to |l'archeologie mentale', this is potentially a valuable addition to an excellent series. It is basically an anthology. MM. Lecouteux and Marcq have translated a judicious and interesting selection of Latin texts -- exempla, faits divers, extracts from chroniclers; most of them are briefly introduced and analysed in a pan-European and multilingual perspective, drawing together analogues from Edda and French romances, theologians and modern folklorists. Claude Lecouteux has made a speciality of mediaeval folklore (Melusine et le Chevalier au Cygne (1982); Les Monstres dans la litterature allemande du moyen age (1988); one has every reason, therefore, to hope for a usefully encyclopaedic mise au point.

But no: this is a quite infuriating book. In the first place, it is quite inexcusably careless: there are misprints and misspellings everywhere (see, for example, p. 28), and constantly misplaced footnotes (on p. 46, footnote 1 is in fact footnote 3; p. 33 has two footnotes numbered 1). Italics are used according to some arbitrary incomprehensible system. There are constant references to works whose full details do not appear in the bibliography (A. Maury, p. 18; Mircea Eliade, p. 42), or to mysterious authorities to whom no reference of any sort is given (p. 51 refers to a certain Murigen, footnoted 2; footnote 2 when consulted gives details of a book by Markale), or to indecipherable abbreviations (on p. 213, how is one supposed to interpret |FFC 14.49'?). Information is frequently inaccurate (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is fourteenth-, not thirteenth-century (p. 63)), and far too many of the extracts are undated (see chapters iii, iv, v, vi, etc.).

What is much more serious, however, are certain annoyingly consistent habits. The first is an apparent inability to suppose that any of the technicalities of folklore studies might need explanation. On p. 9, the authors (unsurprisingly) cite one of the major contributors to thinking on European myth-patterns: |Les esprits relevent essentiellement de la troisieme fonction, selon la classification de Georges Dumezil'; fair enough, but unfortunately at no point does he give the slightest indication what this troisieme fonction might be, or even where one might find out about it (no references are given at any point to Dumezil). The second may be simply stylistic: the use of tantalizing little half-references. On p. 44, for instance, the authors remark: |Une etude lexicale des termes designant devins, mages, magiciens, sorciers ... revele que leur seul pouvoir veritable est de troubler les sens des humains'; is this a specific etude, and if so which? Why would such a conclusion arise from an etude lexicale? And the third habit, I am afraid, makes this book close to unreadable. On p. 157, for instance, the authors speak of |le chateau vide, par exemple, qui n'est pas sans rappeler Chef d'Oire, celui de la fee Meliur dans le Partenopeaus de Blois. Le vent comme moyen de transport fait songer au role de Zephir dans le conte d'Apulee Amour et Psyche.' This torrent of undigested proper names is referenced only to Lecouteux's Melusine (see above), and this, I think, is the clue. The editorial content of this book consists largely of a collage derived from the authors' previous publications, and the present book is only clearly to be understood if it is read with these latter firmly in one hand.

The result, I fear, is something whose target audience is unclear; the general reader will find it far too allusive for comfort, and the mediaevalist (even perhaps the folklorist) will find it inaccurate and misleading.
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Author:Taylor, Jane H.M.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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