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Transformations of Memory and Forgetting in Sixteenth-Century France

Marguerite de Navarre, Pierre de Ronsard, Michel de Montaigne

Nicolas Russell

This book proposes that in a number of French Renaissance texts, produced in varying contexts and genres, we observe a shift in thinking about memory and forgetting. Focusing on a corpus of texts by Marguerite de Navarre, Pierre de Ronsard, and Michel de Montaigne, it explores several parallel transformations of and challenges to traditional discourses on the human faculty of memory.

Throughout Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, a number of influential authors described memory as a powerful tool used to engage important human concerns such as spirituality, knowledge, politics, and ethics. This tradition had great esteem for memory and made great efforts to cultivate it in their pedagogical programs. In the early sixteenth century, this attitude toward memory started to be widely questioned. The invention of the printing press and the early stages of the scientific revolution changed the intellectual landscape in ways that would make memory less important in intellectual endeavors. Sixteenth-century writers began to question the reliability and stability of memory. They became wary of this mental faculty, which they portrayed as stubbornly independent, mysterious, unruly, and uncontrollable—an attitude that became the norm in modern Western thought as is illustrated by the works of Descartes, Locke, Freud, Proust, Foucault, and Nora, for example.

Writing in this new intellectual landscape, Marguerite de Navarre, Ronsard, and Montaigne describe memory not as a powerful tool of the intellect but rather as an uncontrollable mental faculty that mirrored the uncertainty of human life. Their characterization of memory emerges from an engagement with a number of traditional ideas about memory. Notwithstanding the great many differences in concerns of these writers and in the nature of their texts, they react against or transform their classical and medieval models in similar ways. They focus on memory's unruly side, the ways that memory functions independently of the will. They associate memory with the
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University Press Copublishing Division / University of Delaware Press
Pages: 218Size: 6 1/2 x 9 1/2
978-1-61149-054-1 • Hardback • April 2011 • $74.00 • (£49.95)
Nicolas Russell is a faculty fellow in French at Colby College.
Part I: Marguerite de NavarreChapter 1: Remembering the Fall
Chapter 2: The Ethics of Forgetting
Part II: Pierre de RonsardChapter 3: Mnemosyne and Lethe
Part III: Michel de MontaigneChapter 4: Paper Memory
Chapter 5. Remnants of the Past
About the Author
Examining in close detail how the mental faculty of memory was understood in Renaissance France, Russell (Colby College) neatly demonstrates the ways in which understanding this faculty in this period was no longer identical to medieval conceptions of memory and yet still different from 20th-century and contemporary conceptions of it. He argues that although 16th-century understanding of memory as a mental faculty shows continuity with certain notions dating to ancient Greece and Rome, this period of transition produced some important innovations--and these innovations are his focus. Russell's primary sources are the works of the three canonical writers mentioned in the book's subtitle. He builds his argument from a close examination of the applications of terms related to memory and forgetting, both metaphorical and more literal, solidly supporting his study with references to other scholarly works. The footnotes and bibliography are extensive, the writing style is clear, and the argument well organized. Even readers less familiar with French Renaissance literature should have no trouble following his discussion.

With the idea of transformation, “the reworking of traditional ideas, attitudes, and discourses related to memory and forgetting in sixteenth-century France,” (pp. xi-xii) along with his shrewd synthesis realized between the works of the authors analyzed, Russell carves out a significant niche for himself in the domain of memory studies and the criticism of Marguerite de Navarre, Pierre de Ronsard and Michel de Montaigne. In fact, Russell owes the success of this volume to the multiple original and meaningful close readings of primary texts that he performs in each of his five chapters. Multifaceted and flexible in its approach to the idea of memory, Transformations of Memory and Forgetting in Sixteenth-Century France is a text that remains faithful to the humanistic conceptions of the theme espoused by the authors it treats and, as it draws on historical and cultural context, merits the academic attention of those interested in the interplay between key literary figures and the dynamic evolution of a most prevalent concern in Renaissance France.
H-France Review

Basing his enquiry on an intriguing model that distinguishes the categories of procedural, semantic and episodic memory, Nicholas Russell argues convincingly enough that the move from a medieval sense of memory as a tool that empowered the individual's intellect to a more complex view whereby it emerges as an independent and involuntary agency, and reliant on print culture rather than mere mental skill, becomes one of the many ways in which Renaissance authors problematize their sense of the individual.... Russell's arguments are grounded on an intriguing investigation of modern theories of memory and backed by many effective close readings of his three chosen authors.
Oxford Journals