Author’s Response to Speculum Review

A response to: Berthelot, Anne. Review of Jean-Bernard Elzière, Le décodage des chansons de geste et des romans courtois (XIIe et XIIIe siècles). Speculum 91/2 [2016]: 490-92; doi: 10.1086/675648.

The reviewer of my volume, Anne Berthelot, does not demonstrate in her review that she has understood that literary heroes such as“Arthur” and “Merlin,” who first appeared in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, were elements of coded allegorical narratives, that is, creations of authors using masks and narrating events contemporary to them for the purposes of celebration. According to my research, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s first two works were an allegorical treatment of the history of the Church in northern (Great) Britain – including notably the bishoprics of Durham, Lindisfarne, Glasgow and St. Andrews – at that time opposed, according to the author, to the Churches of York and Canterbury.  For  him,  “Arthur”  and  “Merlin”  actually represent,  as  my  research  suggests,  two  great  religious figures of his time, Waltheof (d. 1159) and Alwin (d. 1155), abbots  of,  respectively,  Melrose  (between  1148  and  1159) and  Holyrood  (between  1128  and  1151),  both  situated  in Scotland.

Throughout her review, Anne Berthelot discredits my book, which she calls “eccentric” (“might be considered the somewhat eccentric product”), “aberrant” (“all for a completely aberrant result”), and even says that it “may suggest to students or inexperienced readers that the contents are valid.”  Not content with this, she adds that “although this book may be an intellectual rarity, it is not, and may not be considered as, a serious or scholarly book.” These are nothing more than the impressions of someone who comes from an exclusively literary background, and who, unfortunately, lacks the capacity to discover the content and meaning given by the authors of these chansons de geste and courtly romances of the 12th  and 13th  centuries. I worked on a representative sample of these works: content and meaning were, precisely, the objects of my research.  To do this successfully – and it is a very complex process – one has  to  be  able  to  bring  into  play  a  wide-ranging understanding of history and geography and to possess real ability in the analysis of the facts, in the creation of matrices and in the treatment of iterative processes.

One would at least have liked to have her   pronouncements   on   my   general   approach   to   the decoding of the work   of Geoffrey of Monmouth (pp. 55 -135, 529 – 539 and 624 – 641 of my book).  Here, I set out a proposal for the restitution of the meaning and content of the work, and for the identification of the heroes “Arthur” and “Merlin” mentioned above.  She also fails to refer to  the  decoding  of  the  two  eminently  “Arthurian”  texts: Jaufré (pp. 197 – 219, 548 – 552 and 656 – 663) and Le Conte du Graal (pp. 137 – 167, 539 – 543 and 642 – 651)).  My analysis of this latter text is considered pertinent enough for the experts of the British Library to include my book in the Select Bibliography of the notice for their illuminated manuscript  of  Perceval.  This  list  includes  only  about  ten titles, beginning in 1878.

Not content to remain silent about what she should be discussing, Anne Berthelot further declares that “Elziere’s book might be considered the somewhat eccentric product of an amateur scholar publishing at his own expense the cherished work of his whole life.” In fact, since 1975 I have published several volumes about an important feudal family and its seigneuries as well as numerous articles, notably on the Middle Ages in the widest sense, of which some go back to the Merovingian and  Carolingian  periods.    A  number  of  these  publications have appeared in important scholarly journals, such as the Bulletin Monumental or the Congrès archéologique de France, and even in the context of international conferences, for instance  those  held  at  Saint-Guilhem  le  Désert  (for  all  of which see the websites “” and “worldcat”).  In addition, I only worked on decoding from 2004 – 2013, nine years of full-time work.  As I had never worked on this before, it cannot in any way be “the cherished work of his whole life.” Also, I decided to publish independently from the start.  I had done this successfully before, so as to be free of the many constraints imposed by a publisher’s deadlines, as well as to be able to have the length of text and number of illustrations I wanted, not to mention keeping the price as low as possible for the reader.

Anne Berthelot has also labeled my work “misogynistic,” because I state that, in many cases, the women quoted in the stories don’t represent women, “a claim that strikes me as misogynistic, as does the fact that he interprets almost all female characters as personifications of a church or an abbey”: but this is the case, as has been proved, for Morgan (the Vie de Merlin), Orable and Guibourg (the Cycle de Guillaume), Brunhild (the Chanson des Nibelungen), Clarmondine (in the Cléomadès) etc.  On the other  hand,  one  could  add  that  women  are  sometimes hidden behind the masks of men, since “Charlemagne” in Le Couronnement de Louis is in fact Eleanor of Aquitaine, whilst in Renaud de Montauban the same person corresponds with the regent Blanche of Castille.  She also misinterprets my reference to the Hitler’s ideological exploitation of scenes taken from La Chanson des Nibelungen.

What has she gained by pouring scorn in this way on both the work and the workman? And from the top of what pedestal does she think that she has the right to trash, without the slightest discussion, analyses which she doesn’t even deign to communicate to her readers?

Reviewer’s Response: It is Speculum‘s policy to print letters from authors of reviewed books together with a response from the reviewer. In this case, the reviewer (Anne Berthelot, University of Connecticut) chose not to respond.

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