The first text: a matrix-text?

The first text of BNF fr. 837 has a more elaborately decorated initial than the other texts in the codex.

Paris, BNF, fr. 837, f. 1ra Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Paris, BNF, fr. 837, f. 1ra
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

It is not unusual in medieval manuscripts for the first initial to be bigger and more embellished than the rest. As we discuss here, the image in this historiated initial (?) could offer information about the codex’s original patron.

However, it also poses an interesting question of textual interpretation.

Does this mean that the first text is particularly important or significant? Should we consider it as having a higher status than the other texts in the manuscript?

Some critics, such as Yasmina Foehr-Janssens, have argued that the Dit du Barisel can be seen as a matrix text for the whole codex: all the other texts in the manuscript should be seen through the lens of this one text, and interpreted in its light. In other words, it becomes the key to understanding this diverse and wide-ranging codex, and represents a microcosm of the whole book.

The Dit du Barisel recounts the transformation of a unrepentant reprobate into a pious and humble man. There are many other stories in the codex that share the same themes of confession, repentance and the rehabilitation of sinners. Indeed, the first stories in the collection of works by Rutebeuf share these themes. Skip to our spotlight on Rutebeuf to find out more.

Like the Dit du Barisel, the majority of items in BNF, fr. 837 are relatively short. This has left scholars wondering if the codex was intended to be a manuscript of short texts. You can find out more about the question of length in BNF, fr. 837 by clicking here.


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