Le Voyageur infernal médiéval : émergence d’une subjectivité auctoriale.

Juliette Bourdier, University of Colorado at Boulder


From the 5th century on, written accounts of journeys to the nether world spread throughout Europe and ended up constituting a sizeable body of Christian literature whose aim was to promote teachings regarding the salvation of the soul. Some of these Latin texts were translated into the vernacular. Whereas most of the Latin texts have been edited and commented, especially by Claude Carozzi who appreciated their richness, only a limited number of the versions in dialects of French have received the attention they deserve and this generally took the form of transferring the deductions drawn from the former onto the latter. The object of this study is to examine medieval notions of crime and punishment on the basis of a collection of adaptations of journeys to hell, in Old French, Anglo-Norman and Provencal, all taken from the productive period of translations from Latin originals, namely from the second half of the 12th to the end of the 14th centuries.

In the first three chapters, in order to illustrate my analysis, I looked more closely at some of these re-writings, chiefly Le roman de la résurrection of André of Coutances, inspired in 1198 by the Evangelium Nocodemi, a selection of the Descentes de Saint Paul reworked between 1170 and 1290 from the Visiones Sancti Pauli Apostoli (11th - 12th ), a selection of Visions of Tondale composed between 1270 and 1320 and based on the Visio Tungdali (1149), two Traités des peines d'Enfer drafted between1350 and 1470, Li erre seint Brandain produced in 1121 by Benedeiz following the Navigatio Brendani and lastly the Espurgatoire Seint Patriz of Marie de France adapted in 1190 from the Tractatus of 1175.

The critical reading of this body of work uses the perspective of the genesis of an authorial subjectivity in the way the traveler to hell is treated. This traveler is taken as a literary character evolving in a space characterized by a variable geometry whose dimensions, rather than reproducing those of the earthly world, are fashioned in line with the soteriological scenario that is adapted to the redemption of the hero. The flowering of this literary figure which transcends its origins, also and in tandem, espouses that of the author, who, in this way, puts forward his right to invent.

In order to understand the fascination exerted by the hell of literature from the 11th to the 14th centuries it is essential to explore its conceptualization as a cosmological space-time dimension which opposes the human to the divine, and which, when appropriated by Christianity, is naturally submitted to the economy of salvation that justifies its implantation in human communities. The historiography of the journey to hell underlines this ambition of Christian writers to materialize the places of hell, to give a body to its souls and to reify the torments inflicted on sinners. It is the generalization of this materialization that allows the traveler, as literary character, to exist. In a purely divine and immaterial next world, the transport could only have been spiritual and the visionary seraphic. It was therefore necessary to construct a tangible space which could be crossed in real time by an actor of flesh and blood capable, in a manner of speaking, of actually feeling the torments of hell. By adapting the testimonies of supposedly real travelers to hell to a soteriological formulation, the authors used the template of the human and terrestrial values of their communities and by then opening the door to sacred places, they produced a literary character with an ambiguous role.

After having studied the vernacular archetype of the traveler to hell and its visionaries, I specify the role that this genre has played in the reorganization of Hell and its implantation in the popular imagination. I maintain that it was only possible to preserve the sacred dimension of hell by splitting it. Over time it came to show a temporary and purgatorial kingdom whose urbanized space was devoted to the redemption of souls that could be saved while burying deep below the earth an eternal and damnatory pit whose wild space was reserved for the damned and their prince, Satan. Purgatory was open to visitors through clerical mediation, it became a porous fictional space, defined as the crossroads of the next world, one in which each literary character could try and escape the grip of the earlier rigorous modeling of the journey to hell.

It was giving a body to the soul of the traveler in the texts dealing with hell that constituted the fundamental step that allowed the author to establish some symbiosis with his writing. By analyzing the identity quest that triggered his personal involvement in the development of the story, I show the growing autonomy of a heroic figure which imposes itself on the process of redemption as well as the progressive liberation of the vernacular author ostensibly moving away from his Latin sources. I argue that this dynamic singularly and globally alters the clerical formulaic structure of the journey to hell. It is a movement that orientates him towards a writing that privileges discursive digressions which allow for a real management of the lay audience, and, in the final analysis, can promote the emergence of a new authorial subjectivity.

Hell is born of literature and the Middle Ages domesticated its geography, its operations and the access to it. By placing itself behind a soteriological mechanism which over time motivated a new reading of the infernal space, the author has linked various medieval literary genres in order to allow an emblematic character to blossom. Once the borderline of the religious text was crossed, the poet was able to promote an intimate exploration which led to an affirmation of his own singularity.