Talking to “ordinary people”. A medieval art
de Michel Zink
Cerf, 240 p., 20 €
To those who know how to observe it, the Middle Ages always reveal a more complex social richness than one might imagine. So it is with his way of considering the “simple”, this non-literate, hardworking population, living far from courts, universities and monasteries. A fine connoisseur of medieval literature, Michel Zink, professor emeritus at the Collège de France, devoted his last year of classes to this intriguing research: how was this society, unequal and hierarchical par excellence, at the same time traversed by an effort to addressed to “the simple people”.
In their relationship with “simple people”, the clerics could not fail to be obsessed with this verse from the Gospels where Christ exclaims: “I bless you, Lord of heaven and earth, for having hidden this from the wise and to the skilful and to have revealed it to the little ones” (Matthew 11, 25). Michel Zink shows all their ambivalences about simplicity, which evokes innocence, candor but also stupidity, while being valued for the humility and the absence of duplicity that it presupposes. “The vocabulary of simplicity is in itself pejorative. It reflects the feeling of intellectual and social superiority of those who use it,” he notes.
Concern for evangelization, however, forced scholars to address the people in a language they understood and to abandon Latin in order to conquer minds and hearts. As early as 813, the Council of Tours invited people to preach in the “rustic Gallic or Teutonic language”, in other words in the language of the peasants, French or German. Thanks to the efforts of the clerics, a literary expression took shape in Romance languages that were still in their infancy. These shape songs and stories, appropriate and develop a popular poetry far removed from ancient canons and hitherto despised, deploy a syntax simpler than the Latin sentence and a new art of eloquence.
Their sermons intended for the simple also have recourse to exempla, these anecdotes of daily life or little edifying stories, which the preacher inserts into his sermon to bring out the lesson in a clear and lively way. “It is the conviction that the story is in itself a literary form adapted to the simple, as opposed to analysis, demonstration, exegesis of course, and even exhortation”, underlines Michel Zink .
This book returns with erudition – and in a sometimes a little pointed way – on the literary discoveries of the clerics to spread the Christian message. Thus, for Jacques de Vitry (1160-1240), the sermon should not seek “refined and elegant remarks”, always a subject of rivalry between clerics. It must be adapted to each of the audiences (bourgeois, peasants, patients…) and in particular “treat the ignorant and the neophytes, not with severity, but with gentleness”. A rich chapter is also devoted to Maurice de Sully (1120-1196), bishop of Paris who launched the construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral, author of the first French sermonary in prose, which was used… until the 19th century!
Through its efforts to reach everyone, this Middle Ages proves to be incredibly close to our contemporary concern for popularization and equality. It is the art of Michel Zink to span the centuries in this way to make us feel this unknown relationship.