contributor.author: Raymond Cormier

title.none: Spiegel, Romancing the Past

identifier.other: baj9928.9502.004 95.02.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Raymond Cormier, Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Spiegel, Gabrielle M. Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France. Series: The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, 23. Berkeley Los Angeles Oxford: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. 422; Index, Bibliography. $50. ISBN: ISBN 0-520-07710-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.02.04

Spiegel, Gabrielle M. Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France. Series: The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, 23. Berkeley Los Angeles Oxford: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. 422; Index, Bibliography. $50. ISBN: ISBN 0-520-07710-5.

Reviewed by:

Raymond Cormier
Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC

Professor Spiegel (GS) has crafted a passionate yet coolly scientific analysis of a significant phase of medieval French vernacular literature and its historical background. She argues cogently and persuasively for the importance of prose historiography in the development of monarchical power and in the decline of aristocratic influence in the early 1200s. This ground-breaking work explores how the past was exploited, and "romanced," by French aristocrats—as patrons of a new form of historical writing, the prose chronicle. She contends that history and prose at once took on crucial ideological and social functions, in an anxious search for justification by barons crushed by royal authority.

Her study focuses not, as perhaps one might expect, on the better-known French prose Crusade chronicles of the same period, but rather on three principle vernacular texts, the Faits des Romains, Jean de Thuin's Hystore de Jules Cesar, and the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle. GS uncovers in these works signs of aristocratic patronage, so that the prestigious distant past in the texts becomes a locus for status and political autonomy. This mainly northern French elite turned to prose as an ideological defense against the threats to their historical legitimacy by the royalty— principally in the person of Philip Augustus. Thus, GS proposes, Old French vernacular chronicle came to exist, a genre distinct from earlier epic and romance, announcing eventually a whole new vision for the French nation.

The six chapters (each fifty-odd pages) begin with the context and background and end with a pointed explication of the significance of the Battle of Bouvines for Philip's royal hegemony. Indeed, her concluding pages lead directly back to The Chronicle Tradition of Saint-Denis (published in 1978 by GS). Chapter One reviews, somewhat hastily, it must be noted, the status and activities of the Flemish and Vermandois nobility at the end of the 12th century. GS concludes:...[T]he writing of history in Old French prose constituted more than a search for a usable past. It also represented a profound shift in the discursive practices of the French nobility. The distinguishing feature of the early vernacular chronicle lies in its militant insistence on prose as the necessary language of history and its critique of the mendacious tendencies of verse historiography, hitherto the sole language of lay history. If [...] the French aristocracy turned to history as a form of ethical reassurance and political legitimation at a moment of social and political crisis, it seems logical to conclude that the emergence of prose was, as well, functionally related to the transformations occurring within aristocratic society. (54)

The next chapter, on the "proto-national" Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle leads GS to object to the simplistic categorization of this immensely popular text, with its complex multiform manuscript tradition, as merely an awkward anticipation of "...sentiments of devotion to the national ruler that were fully voiced only later." (78) Her careful probing of the probable intentions of the patrons for such special translations suggests that the mise en roman of this period represents, first of all, a rejection of or at least impatience with twelfth century courtly romance in octosyllabic verse, and, no less important, a 'romancing' of the" past, a search for the missing term, a quest to recover a lost, idealized world of chivalric potency and aristocratic valor, the memory of which haunts the pages of the Pseudo-Turpin chronicle. Like the Chansonde Roland the Pseudo-Turpin recounts an epic of defeat spiritually transcended, a military rupture overcome in moral triumph, memorialized and thus perpetuated for all time as a literary artifact, transforming a socially absent past into a living vocal presence. (81)In the rejection of ornamental verse and support for real and natural prose GS surmises an ideological signal of crisis and anxiety, a response to the centralization of royal authority. Just as the Carolingians had done before with the legends of Troy (and, it must be recalled most urgently, as did Henry II Plantagenet and Eleanor in the mid-twelfth century), genealogical claims for aristocratic partisanship were grounded by the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle authors "...in a particularized memory of an ancestral past that underwrites the aristocracy's claims to greatness and autonomy." (93)

Arising out of the Romances of Antiquity tradition, the hugely popular Histoire ancienne jusqu' Cesar survives in forty-seven manuscripts, of which eight are of the thirteenth-century. The Faits des Romains comes down to us in fifty-nine manuscripts, of which eleven are of the thirteenth century. GS devotes a longish Chapter Three to an analysis of these texts—which derive from the Latin of Lucan— and which she coins "histories of antiquity." It is a discussion that a) unfortunately ignores the problem of topoi; b) could benefit from the comparative data found in early Ireland's analogous "history of antiquity," the Lebor Gabala Erenn ("The Book of Invasions," or "The Book of the Taking of Ireland"), which provides ancient Irish tradition with a biblical genealogy, and c) could have benefitted, historiographically speaking, from greater instruction in the "Liar School of Herodotos" (see BMR 94.4.13, Pritchett, The Liar School of Herodotos). But the essential analogy she finds in this area between Rome under Caesar and the crisis of the early thirteenth-century aristocracy remains valid and significant.

"The Question of the Heroic in Translations of Lucan's Pharsalia" is Chapter Four, which runs over sixty pages. Here once again we encounter the Faits des Romains, and the Hystore de Jules Cesar, attributed to Jean de Thuin. GS abjures her thesis somewhat in the myriad details and explications, and also reveals findings not announced at the outset. For example, she writes:The inability of the Faits des Romains to sustain a heroic model of Caesar offers compelling testimony to the inherent contradictions in aristocratic life and ideology in thirteenth century France. Rather than validate chivalric ideals, the history of Caesar, in the end, discloses the incapacity of the past to offer emotional sustenance and political legitimacy to a class in the process of losing its functional authority and political autonomy. (183)In her exploration of the chivalry topos GS's reach exceeds her grasp in the summary of self-realization and interiorization, failing, I think, to distinguish as well between "primary" and "secondary" epic, a still useful idea.

Chapter 5, "Contemporary Chronicles," covers writings by the Anonymous of Bethune: the Chronique des rois de France, the Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des rois d'Angleterre, texts dating from the 1220s and which GS links to the nobility of Bethune. Seen as anticipating the work of chroniclers like Jean Froissart, the role of the Anonymous as challenger to royal legitimacy is surveyed; GS investigates his presumably first history, the Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des rois d'Angleterre (from ca. 1220), analyzes his Chronique des rois de France (ca. 1220- 1223), while urging that the dual histories aim to characterize the Norman arrival on the scene as an intrusion (234). She selects contrasting images of rulers and the ruled in these texts (242-267). The work of the Anonymous, she concludes, inaugurates "...a tradition of historical writing devoted to the narration of real events and actors...[, and] sheds novel light on the essentially contested character of historical production in the Middle Ages, a process often masked beneath the valorized images of past and present that typify the tendentious and legitimizing narratives of much medieval historiography." (267)

"Royal History: Disengagement and Reconciliation" leads GS to her final chapter, in which she scrutinizes the ethical and political significance of a hitherto ignored text, the anonymous Chronique des rois de France, as found in a Chantilly manuscript (Musee Conde MS 869), by detailed comparison with the Vatican version (MS Reg. lat. 624). Drawing on the lifelong work of R. N. Walpole, GS demonstrates some of the sources for this text, which dates from the late 1220s, then suggests that its final portion translates the Latin verse Philippide of Guillaume le Breton. The textual complexity here calls for some kind of summary or chart to bolster the technicalities of her arguments.

Hidden beneath the surface of this crucial text GS discloses a severe critique of the courtly ethos and a stern warning for Philip Augustus: his excessive pride and unrestrained valor are no longer admirable courtly traits, but rather dangerous both in battle and in government. Indeed, it is the dramatic frenzy and flourish of Richard the Lion-Hearted that the anonymous translator exploits in order to illustrate how advantage ( preu) can be recklessly abandoned for the sake of honor, how rash rage consumes, and how the seductive chivalric code can lead to "self-deceit and blind failure" (303). This section would have benefitted from a closer reading of Stephen Jaeger's Origins of Courtliiness and his study "L'Amour des rois," published in the journal Annales (see now also his Envy of Angels, (esp. pp. 278-324).

The argumentation of GS becomes a little dense in the end, almost casuitic or paradoxical one might say. She seems to side with the poor aristocracy who came to be displaced by "base-born men and arrivistes", namely Walter the Chamberlain, Barthelemy of Roye, and Guerin of Senlis (308), the king's trusted confidants, ultimately managerial planners who vouchsafed the defeat of the aristocracy at Bouvines. Thus the ethical, moral, and spiritual world of feudal society "...was revealed as "dysfunctional" in a new era of monarchical consolidation and authority." (309) But, in the end, Philip ignored the "mirror for the prince," which extolled clemency, when he condemned the famous recidivist traitor Renaud of Boulogne.

It is incumbent upon the writer to address the fifteen or so pages that GS devotes to the problem of anachronism (103-118).. Let me say first of all that her remarks seem to me quite vital and persuasive. She sees in the anachronisms of medieval French romance a program or historical strategy that was as deliberate as it was ideological (also the conclusion of Aime Petit, whose work GS ignores). She writes, It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of time itself to this cultural agenda, for it was precisely the antiquity of ancient history that made it such a powerful symbol of authority in a society accustomed to look to the past for legitimation. (110) Her observations remain profoundly true, except that one should recall that what GS observes in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century "romances of history," namely the "nobility's attempt to connect itself to a universal past of unquestionable power and authority, effected through its attachment to the great deeds of antiquity, a response to the diminution of its political authority" (112), occurred, I suspect, several years earlier under Henry II Plantagenet. Close reading of the ethos of a text like the Roman d'Eneas suggests a similar clerical strategy, considering the final message of episodes like the Judgment of Paris, the adultery of Mars and Venus, and the final duel between Turnus and Eneas.