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One of the world’s leading publishers of French literature from the Middle Ages and Renaissance has released a groundbreaking critical-edition book by Olga Anna Duhl, associate professor of foreign languages and literatures, about a late medieval “fools’ play.”

Sotise A Huit Personnaiges [Le Nouveau Monde] (Sotise Played by Eight Characters [The New World]) was published by Droz in Geneva, Switzerland. Duhl spent six years on the project, receiving support from a Lafayette grant and research assistants Gabriela Martins ’03 (Wyckoff, N.J.), who graduated with a B.S. neuroscience degree and an A.B. with a major in French, and Richard Lear ’06 (Stroudsburg, Pa.), a Marquis Scholar and double major in French and government & law. The students proofread the manuscript while working with Duhl in a number of research projects through Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program.

(In other news, the French Ministry of Education has selected Lafayette to conduct a workshop July 11–22 for some of its high school teachers who teach English.)

Duhl’s book is a significant contribution to medieval French literature because it brings to light one of the best plays of the sottie genre, corrects a mistake in the subtitle (created by a printing error that caused the play to be misnamed for centuries), refutes the accepted identity of the author, and locates the play in Toulouse rather than Paris.

“The sottie was a satirical play that used characters dressed in fools’ costumes, which protected the actors from their verbal audacity,” says Duhl. “This was a way of protecting actors from censorship and from being pursued by authorities in the big cities of France.”

Farce and morality plays, the other two genres of French comic theater, were never as bold in their criticism as the sottie, according to Duhl.

Sottie was a relatively short play where actors expressed freely their opinions, mostly about politics and religion, but also about social and gender themes,” she explains. “The content was much more dangerous [for the actors] than the farce. They attacked pretty much anybody, including the king and the pope.”

The particular play addressed by Duhl contains eight characters, each representing a needed component of society in a new world. But the pillars of this new world are built on vices, which eventually cause its destruction.

“It is a parody of Genesis in which a ‘new world’ is populated by fools,” explains Duhl. “The message is that no political change is necessary, no religious change is necessary. During this time (the play was written in 1507) there was antagonism to the discovery of the New World. For many decades into the 16th century the idea of the New World was seen with critical eyes.”

The sottie was the most sophisticated form of comic theater, and this play is particularly so, according to Duhl.

“It is a combination of several genres [comic and non-comic], all intertwined in a very astute fashion to give the impression that it is a comic play. It is a combination of comic and tragic elements. From a literary perspective it is extremely sophisticated as it also includes poetic forms that were cultivated by the best poets of the time.”

In her book, Duhl presents a long analysis of these poetic forms because of their complexity.

“The poetry itself is very difficult. That was the most challenging part of writing the book; it took a year to isolate the poetry, figure out the rhyme schemes, identify the respective genres, and make the necessary references to the respective poets who used the particular genres,” she says.

Her analysis also contributes to the study of French politics.

“I think this play is one of the best examples of how literature could be used for political purposes,” Duhl notes. “It was written during the time of Louis XII, who was the first French king to use theater as a means of propaganda. He used it in a very positive way (he encouraged satirical theater to find out what the people felt about him) and I demonstrate that the play belongs to a tradition of satirical writing that includes pamphlets and plays written by the best known authors of the time to support the king in his policies against the pope.”

Duhl matched the Le Nouveau Monde subtitle to the play, which had been missing since the original printing in 1510 or 1512. She found that another play, which had absolutely nothing to do with a “new world,” had a Le Nouveau Monde subtitle. Duhl argues that during the original printing from a manuscript form that no longer exists, the printer made an error and switched the titles of the two plays. Since the early 1900s, when a well-known scholar began revisiting the genre of the sottie, no one had picked up on the printing error.

The most controversial aspect of her critical edition is its refutation of the play’s accepted authorship. Generations of scholars have maintained that it was the work of court poet, André de LaVigne, but Duhl presents compelling evidence to the contrary.

Although Duhl does not give a definitive answer to authorship, she suggests it was the work of noted poet and university professor Blaise d’Auriol.

“He was a very well-respected professor at the University of Toulouse who had poetic aspirations,” says Duhl. “I came across a lot of similarities between this text and other poems that are attributed to him – the rhymes, words, rhythms, and themes – and he represented so well the ideology of this play and the ideology of the conservative university that, in my mind, there is enough evidence to prove he was the author.

“But there isn’t definitive proof, just a hypothesis, because I have gone through all the archives that have anything to do with the play and there isn’t any textual proof.”

Duhl’s critical edition also challenges the accepted setting of the play, citing Toulouse, in the south of France, rather than Paris.

“I discovered very important references to the city of Toulouse,” she says. “I went there to look at two different archives and found a lot of evidence that confirmed my theories. I had been to the archive sources in Paris numerous times in prior years but there was nothing relevant about the Paris connection.”

Duhl’s other recent scholarship includes a contribution to the landmark Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She authored an article on influential 16th century scholar and court jester John Pace.

She received a grant from the Renaissance Society of America for her research on La Grant nef des folles (The Ship of Fools) and has engaged several students in her work on the project, including Lear, neuroscience major Daria Szkwarko ’06 (Berkeley Heights, N.J.), and Meredith Terlecki ’03 (Littleton, Col.), who graduated with a B.S. behavioral neuroscience degree and an A.B. with a major in French. Terlecki presented her findings at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Duhl has mentored Lafayette students in other research projects as well, such as an independent study by Emily Katz ’06 (Staten Island, N.Y.), a double major in history and French, that followed up on four weeks spent on the grounds of artist Claude Monet’s estate in Giverny, France.

Duhl joined the Lafayette faculty in 1992. She is the author of Folie et rhétorique dans la sottie, published in 1994, also by Droz, Geneva. She has written numerous book chapters, book reviews, articles, and translations, including publications in Fifteenth-Century Studies, Sixteenth-Century Studies, Le Moyen Français, Romance Quarterly, Studi francesi, Réforme Humanisme Renaissance, and Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance. She is on the editorial board of Revue d’études françaises.

Duhl also is editor of Le Théâtre Français des Années 1450-1550: État Actuel des Recherches (French Theater between 1450-1550: the Current State of Research), a collection of essays published in 2002 by University of Bourgogne Research Center in Dijon, France. Originally presented at an international colloquium organized by Duhl at University of Bourgogne in November 1999, the essays are by leading specialists in the fields of French medieval and Renaissance history, literature, text edition, and culture.

She is also the editor of Quêtes spirituelles et actualités contemporaines dans le théâtre de Marguerite de Navarre (Spiritual Quests and Contemporary Issues in the Theater of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre),Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme Special Issue, XXVI (4), 2002.

Duhl has given papers and lectures at International Conferences of Middle French Studies, Montreal, Canada; Renaissance Society of America Conferences, Vancouver, Canada, and Bloomington, Indiana; the International Conference on French Women Writers during the Ancien Régime, St. Louis, Mo.; the Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference, St. Louis, Mo.; the Thirteenth Annual Medieval and Renaissance Conference, New York; and other events.

Her awards include a Pro-Cultura Grant for the Humanities, 1998; research grants in 1993, 1994, and 1997, Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Faculty Lecture Award, and Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Faculty Award, Lafayette; Mellon Foundation Grants in 1996 and 1998; a Marandon Fellowship for Research in France, 1990; a University Fellowship, Rutgers University, 1990-91; and a Marion Johnson Fellowship, Rutgers University, 1989.

Duhl holds a master’s degree in French from the University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and a doctoral degree in French from Rutgers University.

Categorized in: Academic News, Medieval and Renaissance Studies