Neophilologus (2006) 90:197–208 DOI 10.1007/s11061-005-4233-2
MIDDLE FRENCH NARRATIVE TENSES: REVISITED ONCE AGAIN
CHARLES L. POOSER Humanities 332, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, 40292, USA E-mail: [email protected]
Abstract Since its publication, the analysis of Martin (1971, Temps et aspect: Essai sur l’emploi des temps narratifs en moyen fran1ais. Paris: Klincksieck) has been the standard reference with regard to tense and aspect distribution and use in Middle French prose. This article seeks to call into question that analysis, particularly with regard to the use of the Passe´ Compose´, principally functioning as a present perfect in Old French. Largely due to the more nuanced analytical framework exploited, this author does not observe a resurgence of the Passe´ Compose´ in the centrally narrative components of the chronicles used in this study, a central characterization of Middle French prose put forth by Martin. Based upon the demonstrable need for a new analysis of prose narrative from this period, the author also questions the validity and generality of Martin’s claims with regard to the function that the Passe´ Compose´ is assuming in Middle French prose narrative.
1. Introduction In this article, I hope to present convincing evidence for a reanalysis of the distribution of narrative tenses in late Middle French prose narrative. My plan is not to undertake a complete reanalysis at this time as this will require a lengthier forum than provided here.1 However, I do intend to demonstrate the need for such an analysis and discuss speciﬁcally at this time my observations on the distribution of the narrative present and the present perfect, or what will become at some point in French a true preterite tense2, the passe´ compose´. Of course, a reanalysis generally implies the exploitation of a diﬀerent analytical tool or framework than was used in previous analyses, which is indeed the case here. I will be using an analytical framework ﬁrst developed by Labov and Waletzky (1967), and then more fully exploited by Mirrer-Singer (1986) in an examination of evaluation in a Spanish chronicle and Fleischman (1990) in her work with earlier medieval tense and aspect. I have also used this framework myself as a basis for comparative claims involving
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13th century prose narratives (Pooser 1996, 2003). In a nutshell, I will be demonstrating that this narrative framework oﬀers a means of separating Middle French narrative prose into a limited set of basic narrative components. In contrast to what has been done in the past, the consideration of narrative tenses within the context of a componential narrative framework will allow for a more ﬁnely tuned analysis of the distribution and function of these tenses. Because each component is itself diﬀerently and distinctively deﬁned, one may anticipate that narrative tenses will function in diﬀerent ways in different component parts and will, as a consequence, distribute quite diﬀerently as well. 2. The textual sources The data presented here were collected as a part of a larger study of narrative prose, involving six different 13th century and 15th century prose chronicles. I will be focusing upon the 15th century narratives here, of course, and particularly upon the data derived from Commynes’ Me´moires, the reason for which will be explained below. The exclusive use of prose chronicles was decided from the outset in order to more fully characterize this speciﬁc prose genre and avoid potentially uncontrollable and/or unidentiﬁable factors or writing conventions that may be introduced by the inclusion of other prose genres. For each narrative work, two excerpts were chosen from different sections of an edited edition of the work, providing for a combined length of approximately 11,000 words of continuous text. This study did not include an analysis of reported speech, and, as a consequence, intervening passages of direct and indirect discourse were not included in the 11,000-word counts.3 The close attention to passage length is important, as it simpliﬁes the data presentation in many cases, allowing for direct quantitative cross-textual comparisons. The other 15th century prose narratives used in this study were: Chartier’s Chronique de Charles VII, Roi de France; Chastellain’s Chronique; Cousinot’s Chronique de la Pucelle; Molinet’s Chroniques; and Monstrellet’s Chronique. (I have included in Appendix A the bibliography for the edited volumes used as direct resources for these chronicles.) 3. Remarks on the narrative framework What will be termed here, for ease of reference, the Labovian narrative framework is not a complicated construct although its actual implementation does involve the reﬁnement of certain deﬁning criteria.4 Much as with other narrative analyses, the basic narrative divi-
Middle French Narrative Tenses
sion is between what can be roughly deﬁned background and foreground, or what are termed in this particular framework, ‘‘orientation’’ and ‘‘complicating action.’’ In addition, the analysis identiﬁes a third basic component, ‘‘evaluation.’’ Fleischman (1990) describes the evaluative component as the ‘‘various expressive strategies through which narrators comment on the propositional content of their stories and communicate their signiﬁcance’’ (p. 143). Evaluation is divided into two sub-classes, internal and external evaluation. Internal evaluative elements are those that are included directly in narrative time, such as a comparative or superlative structure, included in the class of evaluative strategies termed ‘‘comparators.’’ External evaluation, on the other hand, describes any textual interludes in a narrative when the voice that is conventionally identiﬁed as a narrator exits the time of the narrative to comment directly to the audience/reader. We will only be concerned with external evaluation here. Whereas the determination of external evaluation is a fairly straightforward process,5 the discrimination between the complicating action and the orientation is not always as clearly deﬁned as one would wish. Essentially, what the concept of foreground, or complicating action here, is trying to capture is that there are always certain elements of a narrative that ﬁgure more prominently than others. The process by which foregrounded elements are discriminated from orientational or backgrounded elements is generally known as grounding. Hopper (1979), among others, has argued that this distinction constitutes a universal narrative distinction: ‘‘It is evidently a universal of narrative discourse that in any extended text an overt distinction is made between the language of the actual storyline and the language of supportive material which does not itself narrate the main events.’’(p.213) However, diﬀerent researchers have deﬁned diﬀerent criteria for its determination. For the purposes of this study, the principal problem relates to the classiﬁcation of certain cases of subordination. The central deﬁning characteristic of a foregrounded event is that it advances narrative time and, therefore, maintains a temporal sequence with regard to those foregrounded events that precede and follow it. Furthermore, according to a more restrictive interpretation of grounding, only main clauses can act as foreground. Fleischman (1990) suggests that this correlation results from the conception of syntactic subordination as a ‘‘grammatical icon’’(p.170) of narrative subordination. It is interesting to note that there are cases in which subordinate clauses would form a part of the central temporal sequence of narrative events, and thus be identiﬁed as a part of the complicating
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action, but for their subordinate grammatical status. An example is provided in the following simple three-clause narrative: 1. He knocked her down. 2. When she got back on her feet. 3. She slapped him. The ‘‘when’’ clause here is temporally sequenced, but would not be considered a part of the complicating action or foreground in a more restrictive interpretation of grounding. The designation ‘‘new event’’ was proposed for this analysis in order to quantify these particular types of events as well, allowing the analysis to monitor both restrictive and less restrictive characterizations of foregrounding. 4. Previous characterizations of middle French narrative tenses The four most prevalent tenses in medieval French narrative, for whom the common names in modern grammatical descriptions are provided here, are the: (1) passe´ simple (PS), (2) the imparfait (IMP), (3) the pre´sent historique (PH), and (4) the passe´ compose´ (PC). The relative frequencies of these four tenses in Old French and Middle French narrative, as determined by Martin (1971), are indicated in Table 1 (Tense Distribution According to Martin, 1971). The predominant preterit tense in medieval French narrative is the PS. Whereas the modern PS is most often characterized as a tense of perfectivity, and thus the principal tense of sequenced narrative events, the PS in medieval narrative is also used in situations that are obviously durative in nature and frequently fall under the orientational category. In modern French, these cases would generally be morphologically encoded by the IMP. The use of this durative PS declines dramatically during the Middle French period, mirroring an increased use of the IMP in these contexts. The PH recalls the use of the modern-day historical present in relating central narrative events. However, this tense is also used, particularly in the early Middle Ages, in descriptive passages, leading Fleischman (1990) to refer to two distinct functioning PH’s, what she terms a visualizing PH and an active one. As with the Table 1. Tense distribution according to Martin, 1971. Tense
PS IMP PH PC
45.17% 17.61% 20.03% 5.06%
47.11% 23.54% 12.07% 7.74%
Middle French Narrative Tenses
orientational PS, this visualizing PH shows a progressive decline throughout the Old and Middle French periods with the extended use of the IMP. It is only those use of the PH as an alternative preterit that will be of interest in this article. As for the PC, it operates primarily throughout the medieval French period as a true perfect in Fleischman’s (1990) opinion, reporting past events retaining an immediate relevance to the narrator’s present. According to Martin (1971), it is not until the late 15th century that there is evidence of a PC in narrative texts reporting past events with no obvious link with the present. Martin’s (1971) seminal work Temps et aspect: Essai sur l’emploi des temps narratifs en moyen fran1ais remains today the most complete analysis of tense use in Middle French and, as such, is the standard reference for those working in this ﬁeld. It is Martin’s characterization of Middle French narrative that will be used in this study as a point of comparison and contrast. The basic corpus from which his description is derived consists of eight selected works from the 14th and 15th centuries. These works are divided among three Middle French periods: (1) the beginning of the 14th century, with two works providing passages for analysis; (2) the end of the 14th century, with four such works represented; and (3) the end of the 15th century, with another two representative works. This corpus is decidedly weak on 15th century materials, including only Commynes’ Me´moires and Le Roman de Jehan de Paris. It is, however, relatively strong in historical narrative, with passages from Joinville and Froissart included among the 14th century materials. Martin presents both compiled data reports (for the whole of the Middle French period) and individual ones from each of his source texts. The compiled data reports, at least with regard to the use of the PH and the PC, are not particularly enlightening, as these ﬁgures vary considerably among the three synchronic periods he examines. 5. Presentation of the data Initial discussion of the data for this study will concern only the complicating action component of the narrative. As can be noted in Table 2 (Clause Count in the Complicating Action), the total number of clauses in the complicating action of the narrative passages analyzed for this study separate the six manuscript into two groups: one group with approximately 37% of the narrative devoted to the central narrative storyline and the other group with approximately 24%. The designation ‘‘verb’’ in this table and those that follow refers exclusively to ﬁnite verbs that constitute the core of a clause.
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Table 2. Clause count in the complicating action. Text
Total number of comp. action verbs
Number of verbs in comp. action per 100 textual verbs
The distribution of what I have termed ‘‘new events’’, that is events in the narrative that are timeline sequenced but do not conform to a strict deﬁnition of foregrounding, is shown in Table 3 (Clause Count of New Events) for these chronicles, along with a comparative restatement from Table 2. As one would expect, the number of ‘‘new events’’ in these manuscripts is considerably lower than the number of events that can strictly be classiﬁed as complicating action. However, when the two are combined, as would occur in some analyses of foregrounding, they constitute a complicating action that approaches 50% in all but two of the chronicles, those of Chastellain and Commynes. Note that the count for Commynes is particularly low with a combined 26.2% of clauses devoted to the complicating action. These ﬁgures for Commynes are particularly signiﬁcant to the arguments put forth in this article in that this is the only chronicle that my analysis and Martin’s share. Turning our attention now to the distribution of the individual verb tenses of interest here, namely the PH and the PC, Table 4 (Distribution of the Pre´sent historique and the Passe´ compose) presents the ﬁndings for these six 15th century chronicles. Table 3. Clause count of new events. Text
Total number of new events
Number of new events per 100 verbs
Number of complicating action events per 100 verbs
Of these, all of the present perfect cases are found in the orientation component, while six of the instances of the present are orientational and the remaining cases are distributed between events in the complicating action proper (3 cases) and ‘‘new events’’ (6 cases). It is apparent, therefore, that the PS is basically the only verb tense in use in the foreground component of all of these chronicles.6 These ﬁndings contrast in dramatic fashion with those of Martin (1971) as shown in Table 1. According to these ﬁgures, the use of the PH and the PC was signiﬁcantly higher than that observed in the 15th century chronicles examined here, with the level of use of PH recorded at approximately 12% of the total distribution of verb tenses in Middle French narrative. Of course, Martin’s study involves text excerpts from a much broader expanse of time than the texts I examined, but the fact that this characterization is oﬀered for the two-century Middle French period certainly leads one to question the usefulness of these ﬁgures. Since his study included only 2 chronicles from the period covered by my study, I would submit that my data are certainly more representative of 15th century trends than his, at least with regard to prose chronicles. Fortunately, as mentioned above, Martin does provide individual data on the various chronicles in his study as well, and the incorporation of Commynes’ Me´moires in both his analysis and my own allows for at least one point of direct comparison. The data compiled from his Commynes extract can be found in Table 5 (Narrative Tense Distribution in Commynes from Martin, 1971). It is clear that the incidence of PH use is entirely in line with my own ﬁndings: extremely rare. Where our ﬁndings diverge, however, is in the use of the PC. In my study the instances of the PC are equally negligible, but in Martin’s study they represent more than 6% of all verb tense use.7
Charles L. Pooser
Table 5. Narrative tense distribution in Commynes from Martin, 1971. Narrative Tense
PS IMP PC PH
725 729 111 1
What is the origin of this discrepancy in the recorded use of the PC? The principal source of the discrepancy comes, no doubt, from Martin’s indiscriminate inclusion of all instances of PC, regardless of the functional context. As a case in point, I have purposefully excluded instances of direct and indirect discourse from the analysis of narrative in my study and instances of extended external evaluation from my examination of narrative tense use since these contexts all represent moments, in my opinion, in which narrative time is interrupted, either in order to ‘‘allow’’ individuals within the narrative to speak in non-narrative temporal space or to address commentary to the reader directly, again in non-narrative temporal space. In order to provide a more comprehensive image of 15th century chronicles, I have included in Table 6 (Quantity of External Evaluation and Reported Speech), a comparative quantitative analysis of the external evaluation and of the combined total of indirect and direct speech found in the various 15th century chronicles that I examined. Even though the two measurements are not exactly comparable, it is still clear that, of all the 15th century chronicles that I examined, Commynes shows the largest percentage of non-narrative time interruptions from both external evaluative comments and the inclusion of reported speech. As such, Commynes can hardly be considered a Table 6. Quantity of external evaluation and reported speech. Chronicle
External evaluation (percentage of total narrative clause count)
Combined indirect and direct discourse (percentage of total narrative word count)
representative 15th century chronicle, if such a chronicle does exist. Furthermore, there is indeed a sizeable number of non-narrative time contexts in Commynes in which the PC could appear. And in fact, an informal count of instances of PC in external evaluation and reported speech passages yielded 55 examples, considerably closer to the 111 ﬁgure in Martin’s verb counts. What is much more signiﬁcance than simple discrepancies in frequency of tense usage between Martin’s and my study, however, is the implication that Martin derives from this patterning. Over the course of the Middle French period, Martin observes that the use of the PC at ﬁrst diminishes and then demonstrates a resurgence during the 15th century. He attributes the initial reduction in its use to a concomitant reduction in the use of the PH: ‘‘En fait cette e´volution est fortement tributaire de celle du PH. Une des fonctions les plus caracte´ristiques du PC, la` ou` s’emploie le PH, est de signiﬁer l’accompli par rapport a` ce temps grammatical’’ (Martin, 1971, p. 393). Thus when the PH is used as a replacement preterit, the PC in its function as a present perfect simply tags along for the ride. However, the increase in the use of the PC that he observes in the 15th century is not correlated with an increase in the PH, which he submits is evidence of a disconnect between the functioning of the PC in the past and that in evidence in the later Middle French period ‘‘ou` l’on de´couvre a` ce temps grammatical des vertus narratives jusque-la` peu exploite´es.’’ (p. 394) In fact, he sees this re-emergence of PC use in the late Middle French period as evidence of a PC that is beginning to extend itself into the realm of a narrative preterit. ‘‘Il est vrai que la souplesse dont fait preuve le PS va diminuant au cours de la pe´riode du moyen fran1ais, et de tels eﬀets de sens se perdent peu a` peu, les uns au proﬁt du PQP [plus-que-parfait], les autres au proﬁt du PC. Progressivement, en eﬀet, le PC gagne du terrain sur son rival.’’ (Martin, 1971, p. 393). Of course, the evolution of the PC toward that of establishing itself as a true preterit tense and its eventual replacement of the PS in general every-day, particularly oral, contexts is indisputable. However, in the light of this reanalysis, Martin’s claim simply does not hold for the most central of narrative components in the 15th century prose chronicle, that of relating the events of a story and providing the orientational background needed to interpret them. Certain other narrative components, such as external evaluation and reported speech, may indeed have increased their usage of the PC and thus provided some fuel for his claims.8 Just as conceivable, however, is the idea that the two 15th century chronicles he
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examined are simply inordinately weighted with these non-narrative time components. This is arguably the case for Commynes, which, of all of the 15th century chronicles I examined, shows concurrently the smallest percentage of time-line events recounted and the largest percentage of text devoted to non-narrative time elements. 6. Concluding remarks It has been my central purpose here to argue for the need of a re-analysis of narrative tenses in Middle French. I hope to have shown that there are glaring inadequacies in the work of Martin (1971), which has serve as the standard description of Middle French tense usage for more than 30 years. I would argue that an analytical tool that is much more responsive to the inter-relationship of the various components of a narrative, such as the expanded Labovian framework employed here, will not only provide a clearer picture of the way narrative tenses were actually being used at the time, but will also tell us much more about the relative signiﬁcance of the tense distributions attested for explaining future evolutionary paths. The ‘‘re-emergence’’ in the 15th century of the PC presented in Martin’s study was not attested in the core components of narrative, the complicating action and the orientation, but in components for which narrative time had been interrupted. Although these components are also part and parcel of a fully-formed narrative, they are not what normally come to mind in a consideration of narrative structure. As a result, Martin’s ﬁndings discussed here are misleading and lead to statements that are unwarranted, at least when applied to historical (chronicle) prose narrative. Furthermore, as shown through comparative data drawn from several 15th century chronicles, Commynes’ Me´moires, one of the two manuscript upon which Martin bases his claims, is far from representative of 15th-century trends in narrative construction. Of course, any description of chronicle narrative prose cannot be presented as a characterization of all narrative prose of the 15th century. As mentioned initially, it was never my purpose to oﬀer such a general characterization. It would need to be shown that conceptions of narrative prose across genres were highly similar. However, chronicle prose narrative provided a signiﬁcant chunk of the data analyzed in Martin’s ‘‘deﬁnitive’’ study, and, as such, I hope it is obvious that much more work in the description of Middle French tense distribution and usage remains to be done.
Middle French Narrative Tenses Appendix A: Bibliography of Chronicles Used in this Study
Chartier, Jean. Chronique de Charles VII, Roi de France. Ed. Vallet de Viriville. Paris: Jannet, 1858. Chastellain, Georges. Chronique. Ed. Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove. Brussels: F. Heussner, 1863. Commynes, Phillippe (de). Me´moires. Ed. Joseph Calmette. Paris: Champion, 1924. Cousinot de Montreuil, Guillaume. Chronique de la Pucelle. Ed. Vallet de Viriville. Paris: Adolphe Delahays, 1859. Molinet, Jean. Chroniques. Ed. Georges Doutrepont & Omer Jodogne. Brussels: Palais des Acade´mies, 1935. Monstrellet, Enguerran (de). Chronique. Ed. L. Douet-D’Arcq. Paris: Jules Renouard, 1857.
1. A more complete reanalysis is in the works, however, in book form. 2. Note that my use of the term ‘‘tense’’ here, refers to its traditional use in French grammar to delineate between the diﬀerent ﬁnite verb forms at operation in French. As such, the term’s use will cross over boundaries that generally separate tense and aspect in formal linguistics. 3. The potential for reported speech to operate in such a diﬀerent manner from general narrative was thought to be too problematic for the bounds of this study. Furthermore, previous exploitations of the framework do not oﬀer any insights into how reported speech could be treated eﬀectively. 4. In order to be as succinct and straightforward as possible, I will restrict these remarks to the essentials required for the understanding of the data and arguments presented in this article. 5. For the broader study from which the data presented here were derived, it was, in fact, necessary to develop a set of criteria for the formal identiﬁcation of external evaluation. 6. Interesting enough, Fleischman identiﬁes some uses of a narrative imperfect, that is a use of the imperfect for encoding an event in the complicating action. This is a use of the imperfect that largely dies out in manuscript sources toward the end of the medieval period, and any cases even remotely identiﬁable as reﬂecting narrative imperfect use in these manuscripts were extremely rare. 7. Martin’s total verb count, including instances of other verb tenses, such as the conditionnel, is 1795. 8. The implications of PC use in reported speech and external evaluation that can be shown to reﬂect a new more preterit PC in operation are most interesting. A preterit PC in these, more conversational, elements of a narrative would seem to be an even more compelling indicator of future tense use than Martin’s less discriminating characterization.
Charles L. Pooser References
Fleischman, Suzanne. Tense and Narrativity. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990. Hopper, Paul. ‘‘Aspect and Foregrounding in Discourse,’’ in Discourse and Syntax. Ed. Talmy Givon. New York: Academic Press, 1979, pp. 213–241. Labov, William and Waletzky, Joel. ‘‘Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience,’’ in Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts. Ed. Helm J. Seattle. WA: University of Washington Press, 1967, pp. 12–44. Martin, Robert. Temps et aspect: Essai sur l’emploi des temps narratifs en moyen fran1ais. Paris: Klincksieck, 1971. Mirrer-Singer, Louise. The Language of Evaluation: A Sociolinguistic Approach to the Story of Pedro el Cruel in Ballad and Chronicle. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1986. Pooser, Charles. ‘‘Thirteenth Century Oral Resonances: The Case of the Valenciennes Chronicle.’’ Working Papers in Linguistics 3: 2 (1996). Pooser, Charles. ‘‘A Comparative View of Early French Historical Prose: Implications for Compositional Orientation.’’ Romance Notes 43 (2003): 313–322.