Kathy Krause

title.none: Stein, Reality Fictions (Kathy Krause)

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.003 08.03.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathy Krause, University of Missouri, Kansas City,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Stein, Robert M. Reality Fictions: Romance, History and Governmental Authority, 1025-1180. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. 294. ISBN: $30.00 0-268-04120-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.03

Stein, Robert M. Reality Fictions: Romance, History and Governmental Authority, 1025-1180. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. 294. ISBN: $30.00 0-268-04120-2.

Reviewed by:

Kathy Krause
University of Missouri, Kansas City

Robert Stein's Reality Fictions offers an important political rereading of the rise of secular narrative in eleventh and twelfth century England and France. Considering both Latin and vernacular historiography as well as romance and epic, Stein argues that, "...the provocation to romance writing is the same as the provocation to history:...that is the need to make the secular world intelligible as driven by secular imperatives..." (2). In doing so he challenges two "classic" generic paradigms of literary history, namely: the separation of historiographical from "fictional" narratives and the idea of a linear development from epic to romance. Although his focus is clearly political, he emphasizes that his project is not concerned with narrating "the trajectory of political change in itself" but rather he is interested in "the pressures on modes of representation that are correlative to changes in the structure of political power" (2). It is this last statement that is the key to Stein's analysis.

The book presents itself very much as a "literary" study: it is structured as a series of close readings of "exemplary" texts. After a relatively short Introduction, the first two chapters consider historiographic texts: Chapter 1 examines the Gesta episcoporum Cameracensum and Chapter 2 looks at a series of histories written after the Norman Conquest, focusing first on the narration of King Harold's death and second on the figure of Earl Waltheof of Northumbria. Chapter Three turns to romance, examining in turn Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Brittaniae (and briefly Wace's Roman de Brut), Chrétien de Troyes's Chevalier au Lion, and Marie de France's Guigemar and Chaitivel. Finally, Chapter 4 analyzes several classic "epics of revolt", in particular the chansons of Raoul de Cambrai, Girart de Roussillon and Girart de Vienne.

Although overall I find Stein's choice of texts compelling, I must quibble with one of his criteria for choosing these particular works. He states, "I take my texts from borders rather than political centers, and always from contested or ambiguous territory. [...] these margins of sovereignty are the centers of narrative innovation" (6). Although it is a commonplace of medieval French literary history that the French royal court was an extremely conservative literary milieu in the late twelfth century (and indeed into the early thirteenth century), such an argument does not hold for England at the same time. Indeed it is just the opposite, for example, the Roman de Brut was written under the patronage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. In addition, the distinction between center and margins is not terribly useful even in France; for example, Champagne may well have been on the border with the Empire, but its counts and countesses were very much at the center of French royal politics of the era, not to mention that Chrétien de Troye's patroness, Marie, was a royal princess. Oddly, Stein here appears to recreate a modern "statist" bias, one in fact he decries a few pages earlier.

This caveat aside, however, there is no question that Stein has chosen a fascinating selection of texts, and ones that provide ample fodder for his generally cogent and illuminating analyses. Among the highlights for this reviewer was the analysis in Chapter One of the Gesta episcoporum Cameracensum. Stein details the text's construction of the bishop's power and authority through its writing of "history." Thus, for example, the bishop, Gerard I not only has the chronicle written, he also commands that the archives necessary for the writing of the chronicle be compiled, and where lacking, written/invented, including the vitae of several key saints. These texts then serve as authorities for the chronicle, as if they were "ancient and venerable" (18). Throughout the chapter, Stein carefully unravels the seemingly "innocent" selection of anecdotes, offering close readings that demonstrate to just what extent the narrative choices serve to paint a picture of divinely sanctioned episcopal authority, and the concomitant dangers to anyone who challenges it. Many of Stein's close readings are truly excellent, in particular those of the beginning of the chronicle (the use of the "primitive" myth) and of the strain placed on the hagiographic form in the vita of St Aubert by the historical work it is trying to accomplish (49-50). Thus, although Stein's historical presentation is somewhat sketchy and he tends to simplify the political situation in Cambrai in the early eleventh century, this does not negate in any substantive way his argument that the bishop wanted to ground his authority in history via the composition of the chronicle; Stein's readings of the text are not dependant on his analysis of the reasons behind the bishop's politics.

Where the first chapter analyzes what is essentially a single text, the second looks at a varied set of chronicles of English history, focusing on their narration of two particular episodes: the death of King Harold and the rebellion and death of Earl Waltheof of Northumbria. The first half of the chapter considers the accounts of the death of Harold in a variety of chronicles including Guillaume de Poitiers, the Carmen de Hastingae proelio, and Waltham Abbey's De inventione sancte crucis, before focusing on the "alternative" version (in which Harold is not killed at Hastings but lives a life of wandering and penance) as found in Aelred of Rievaulx's Vita Edwardi confessoris et regis, Wace's Roman de Rou, Gerald of Wales's Itinerarium Cambriae, and the thirteenth century Vita Haroldi. The second half examines the presentation of Waltheof in, among others, the chronicles of William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis. I did not find this chapter overall as compelling as the first, in part because the vaguely post-colonial approach to the Norman Conquest with which Stein begins has become a bit overdone of late, and in part because the multiplicity of texts allowed less time for the deep, insightful readings that are his forte. Despite this, there are illuminating moments, such as his discussion of William of Malmesbury, and in particular the section where he highlights the significance of the gaze upon and desire for Waltheof of both characters and narrator (97).

Chapter Three, the chapter on romance, has a split personality. The first half, on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia is some of the best work in the book. Focusing on the Arthurian sections of the text, the analysis is dense and complex, and as such I cannot do it justice here. Stein ties together the issue of desire with a discussion of the relationship between historiography, hagiography and romance, thus weaving together strands from the first two chapters into a complex argument. In the end, Stein demonstrates how the romance, individualistic elements introduced into the narrative serve the performance of political power even as political events are repeatedly transformed into private, familial experiences. As a result, "the atrocious warfare that...brings the Arthurian realm to an end can be read as the emptying out of all transcendental ways of asserting historical meaning: what remains looks like a set of personal ethical motives and behaviors and their respective violations--loyalty and affection on the one hand, betrayal and vengeance on the other--and these alone act as the motor of historical change" (116).

In contrast to the masterful analysis of the first half, the second half's examination of Chrétien's Yvain and Marie's Lais feels forced. Stein's argument about Yvain--focusing on what he sees as the unsatisfactory resolution to most if not all the adventures in the text--is intriguing, but his analysis is too rushed, his readings too lacking in nuance, to build a convincing argument. The discussion of Marie de France is similarly frustrating. Moments of real interest quickly gave way to critical jargon, and jargon that lacks any substantiating analysis. I found particularly troublesome Stein's utilization of binary oppositions between the masculine (public life, writing) and the feminine (desire, pleasure, orality), which slipped without comment from analysis of the world of the text to the extratextual, to Marie's act of writing ("Marie's texts, made from reminiscences of the stories women tell... [159], my emphasis). Compared with the nuanced analysis of other sections, the use of such a hackneyed critical topos is unfortunate.

Happily, Stein's last chapter avoids such pitfalls and provides a mostly cogent discussion of the political in the chanson de geste. Particularly appealing is the section on the figure of the emperor (or king) in the epics of revolt. Reconnecting with the fruitful analysis of the tension between private and public he first raised in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stein demonstrates the conflicting political desires at work in the chanson de geste, which seeks to portray the king or emperor as simultaneously transcendent, receiving his political authority from God, and the first among equals, with his authority residing in his nobles' recognition of his position. Stein also argues for reading the chanson de geste as a written genre and a product of the twelfth century, rather than an older, oral production only later put into writing. The point here is to ground his argument that the epics reflect twelfth-century political concerns, and that they project these contemporary concerns back onto history. He ends the chapter (and nearly the book, for there is not conclusion just a short "epilogue") with, "...epic composition uses the past--we should better say, it creates the past--as a contemporary self-representation in an effort to recuperate the power of a class becoming conscious of itself as such at the very moment of its own transformation, a transformation that appears to be an entry into permanent crisis. This is its historiographical impulse" (206).

Although I find Stein's analysis of the chanson de geste generally convincing as literary analysis, this is the chapter where the historical and political context is the most important to Stein's larger argument, and his discussion of that context is too often lacking in specifics. Again, I do not feel that this obviates Stein's argument, but rather that a deeper, more developed discussion of the political context would have strengthened it, would have permitted it, perhaps, to make more convincingly his larger arguments about the imbrication of political change and secular narrative.

In sum, as a literary analysis of how issues of power and authority are played out in the narratives it examines, Reality Fictions is generally excellent, and often brilliant, however the larger picture is somewhat obscured by the lack of historical detail and depth. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that I, a scholar of French medieval literature found the discussions of Chrétien de Troyes and of Marie de France the least compelling of the book; as readers we are most critical about that which we know best and we feel the lack of depth where we understand what depths are possible. Stein's book is not without its flaws, some quite tangible, but overall it is an extremely well written study that provides illuminating and often magisterially original political readings of a fascinating group of texts.