A Q&A With Ron Akehurst
Professor Ron Akehurst combines legal and literary research in fascinating ways. A renowned scholar of the medieval troubadours who has taught in the Department of French and Italian since 1968, he also received a law degree from the University of Minnesota. His research areas include Medieval French and Occitan language, literature, and law. He is active in the vibrant Center for Medieval Studies and a founder of the International Courtly Literature Society and the Association Internationale d'Etudes Occitanes. Currently on phased retirement, Professor Akehurst sat down with writer Linda Shapiro to talk about his life and work.
Your scholarly interests encompass a wide range, from old French legal texts to the poems of medieval troubadours. What attracted you to these seemingly dissimilar areas of inquiry?
RA: They are not really so different. Both involve the use of the languages of medieval France. I specialized in Old French and the Old Occitan [Medieval Provençal] language at the University of Colorado where I became a medievalist, then eventually went to law school here. After I finished law school, I discovered there was quite a lot of law written in Old French. People in the law frequently quoted a particular author whose name was Beaumanoir, and it seemed to me that the people who quoted him either didn't understand the Old French very well, or they didn't understand the law very well. I eventually translated the book into English and published it. A lot of poets from the French Medieval period were actually lawyers. Many of the noblemen who were poets also knew some law because they had to administer their estates and deal with people. There were lots of legal metaphors and discussions in the poetry and drama, rather like the Perry Mason shows on television. The poets assumed their audience would know something about the law. I have been able to explicate some of the poems in that respect, which would otherwise have remained opaque. The law is a foreign language one must learn. That's one of the ways that lawyers protect themselves and bamboozle their clients. I once gave a paper on the legal background of the troubadours. I wrote a little play about a legal procedure called novel disseisin, in the time of Henry II, which was a procedure for people to get back land that had been unjustly taken from them while the king was away in Normandy. I took the part of the king, and other people performed it with me. At one point, I had the king interrupted by the troubadour on whom I had written my dissertation, Bernart de Ventadorn, singing outside the window. The king was annoyed at this caterwauling and sent someone outside to tell him to shut up. A colleague, Elizabeth Aubrey, was playing the role of the troubadour, and she refused to shut up. They had to tell her three times!
Why did you decide to go to law school?
R.A: I wanted to become a lawyer because my wife was in graduate school at the time, and I needed something more portable than a PhD in French. In a Civil Procedure class, I once cast a case about the United Mine Workers as a Greek tragedy. I wrote an epic poem about it in meter, threw it on the professor's desk, and walked out. He read it and liked it so much he had copies made for everyone in the class. I remember a line about Prometheus that went, "...who was condemned to lie upon a rock/ with liver eagle-torn each day anew."
You travel to France every summer for research purposes. What are some of your most interesting experiences and discoveries?
RA: One summer I visited the castle where Bernart de Ventadorn was born. It was said that Bernart was the son of the woman who cooked. In the kitchen, I found a piece of flat stone and thought that possibly his voice had actually impinged this stone. I put it in my office, and later gave a paper where I claimed that I'd taken the stone to the physics department and they had found vestiges of a voice from the 12th century. Then I made up some stuff for Bernart to say. Another time, Alison Stones, a friend and art historian, had heard about a manuscript in Old Occitan not far from her home in France. We drove down to the library and saw the manuscript, very rare because it was illustrated. We took slides, and I transcribed what had been an official [14th-century] law code for the district. There was a page called the swearing page with a picture of Christ on the cross on one side, and Mary with Christ on her lap on the other. If you were going to swear, you placed your hand on this page. We had records to say who had sworn on this page, and one of them was the Black Prince. So I've had my hand where the Black Prince had his hand.
You recently completed entering the text of all the troubadours' poems onto a CD-ROM. Could you talk about the history of that project?
RA: I gave a paper at the MLA (Modern Languages Association) meeting in 1970 about the theme of madness in the troubadours. They use variations of the word madness a lot because they go mad for love. I had read several hundred poems, pencil in hand, looking for the word folia, which means madness. Then I discovered there was another word for madness so I had to go back and reread them. Later, I found a concordance for the Song of Roland, one of the great poems in French literature. Using the concordance, I could find all the references to folia in about 20 seconds. I thought how useful this would be for people who study the troubadours. At one time I had over 100,000 key-punched cards. But then it got easier to store things. I can now put all 2,500 poems on my computer in something like 10 megabytes. A friend in England undertook to put them all on a CD and have someone write a retrieval program, which has since been published.