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The fantastic in the Middle Ages (S. Sadaune)

The imaginary universe of the Middle Ages has always occupied a prominent place in the vision of the times of the world and its mentalities. Between the natural and the supernatural, medieval man lived a daily life populated by wonderful manifestations, miracles, monsters and fabulous heroes, both divine and demonic appearances. This universe thus gave rise to a prolific medieval artistic, iconographic, architectural and literary production which continues to nourish our own today. Samuel Sadaune suggests that we return to these sources through a book The fantastic in the Middle Ages.

Structure and historical interest of the work

The fantastic in the Middle Ages, with a very beautiful and often unrecognized iconography, is divided into four parts. First, Samuel Sadaune addresses questions of definitions, contexts and sources. By going through an essential explanation of the mainly ancient but also biblical and Nordic influences nourishing this “fantastic” in the Middle Ages, he explains it very precisely by the term of “marvelous” before briefly glimpsing the main outstanding texts of the time. . In the following chapters, the author can thus engage in a vast and complete illustrated presentation of the components of this marvelous medieval through three themes: the terrifying Beyond, the Unknown Elsewhere and the monstrous Other.

The Terrifying Beyond proposes above all to explore the geography of the other world with Hell and Paradise without forgetting Limbo or Purgatory, places often overlooked but whose importance in the marvelous medieval is fundamental. The author then presents the main figures inhabiting these spiritual worlds where God and the devil clash.

L’Ailleurs inconnu deals with these places fantasized by medieval man, places that travelers like Marco Polo tell us about. This chapter also enlightens us on the conception of the world that the scholars of the time had, on the conception of their planet which they believed in the continuity of Greek philosophy as at the center of the universe, at the center of the cosmos.

The Monstrous Other draws up an interesting list of all the beings who do not correspond to the standards of medieval society and who could de facto qualify as "monster". Fairies, dwarves, giants, wizards, dragons, werewolves, etc., are on the program for this chapter.

This book is presented above all as a beautiful book and not as a history book even if it remains very well documented. The texts are clear, precise and undeniably of quality but often far too concise. Their synthesis can sometimes leave the reader-spectator unsatisfied, the author often remaining too on the surface, limiting himself to presenting this marvelous medieval without explaining its ins and outs. There is also a lack of analysis of the illustrations. Let us simply remember - and this is the most important - that it brings little-known or ignored knowledge within the reach of the general public and contributes to the discovery or rediscovery of real visual treasures of medieval art.

The vision of a time still so dark

Fairly recurrent in popular works dealing with this historical period, Samuel Sadaune does not avoid the pitfall of falling into an undeniably dark - too dark - vision of the Middle Ages. He is not shy about it. It suffices to refer to the qualifiers of the three themes he discusses: the terrifying beyond, the unknown elsewhere and the monstrous other. However, the medieval marvel is just as much composed of a reassuring Beyond, a magical Elsewhere and a divine Other, both in iconography and medieval literature. For example, when the author evokes Dante and his travels in the Hereafter, it is with the help of quotes and illustrations on Hell that he does so and not on Heaven (the work by Dante, The Divine Comedy, dating from the beginning of the 14the century consists of three parts: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven). When he speaks of the fabulous animal that is the unicorn, symbol of purity par excellence, it is through violent and bloody iconography far from the calm and appeasement of representations such as the tapestries of Lady and the Unicorn.

We can thus regret that through this fresco of the medieval marvelous, it is mainly turned towards a vision of fear and death, a vision where Hell, the Devil and his evil creatures take precedence over Heaven, God and its pantheon of holy figures. This vision is reinforced by the predominance of iconographic documents dating from the XIVe and XVe century, two particularly harsh centuries for medieval man prey to wars, famines and epidemics and who saw the development of new religious mentalities with a more personal piety, a withdrawal into oneself of which the artistic production of the time was made the echo. This work thus exposes a very dark marvelous medieval which does not reflect the reality of the literary and artistic productions of the time.

What to remember? A vast and splendid painting of the medieval “fantastic”.

In the end, Samuel Sadaune paints a simple but fascinating picture of the marvelous in the Middle Ages. Through magnificent iconographic documents, this work is above all intended for a large audience wishing to discover this medieval imagination, to glimpse the dreams and above all the fears that may inhabit the men of this time and to explore a universe that continues to grow. fascinate.

The fantastic in the Middle Ages by Samuel Sadaune. Editions Ouest-France, October 2009.

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