Leah Shopkow, Indiana University

title.none: Blacker, The Faces of Time

identifier.other: baj9928.9609.008 96.09.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Leah Shopkow, Indiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Blacker, Jean. The Faces of Time: Portrayal of the Past in Old French and Latin Historical Narrative of the Anglo-Norman Regnum. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Pp. xvi, 263. $40. ISBN: ISBN 0-292-70808-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.09.08

Blacker, Jean. The Faces of Time: Portrayal of the Past in Old French and Latin Historical Narrative of the Anglo-Norman Regnum. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Pp. xvi, 263. $40. ISBN: ISBN 0-292-70808-4.

Reviewed by:

Leah Shopkow, Indiana University

In the past two decades, an increasing number of medieval scholars have begun to look at medieval histories as a species of literature, rather than pure sources of information. Jean Blacker's study of eight medieval histories belongs in this tradition. All of the histories were written in the second or third quarter of the twelfth century in England or Normandy (sometimes termed the Anglo- Norman Regnum). Four were composed in Latin (the Historia Novella and Gesta regum Anglorum of William of Malmesbury, the Historia ecclesiastica (HE) of Orderic Vitalis, and the Historia regum Britanniae (HRB) of Geoffrey of Monmouth), while the others were composed in Anglo-Norman French (the Roman de Rou and Brut of Wace, the Histoire des Engleis of Geoffrey Gaimar, and the Chronique des ducs de Normandie of Benoit of Sainte-Maure). Blacker examines these histories from three perspectives in three chapters: how the historians viewed their craft and their responsibility to tell the truth, as well as something about each historian's methods; how the historians modelled their characters and by extension, what their characterizations reveal about their politics and ideology; and the relationship between the historian, his patrons or dedicatees, and implied readers, as well as the ends to which each of these histories might have been written.

All of these are worthwhile questions to ask about past historical writing. However, Blacker's discussion of these points is fragmented, so that the book does not hang together well. Absent from the book is an overriding inquiry into the writing of history that would have granted her often useful insights coherence.

For one, the selection of works seems arbitrary. Blacker excludes works like Jordan Fantosme's Chronicle because of their narrow focus, and yet the kinds of issues she treats in the course of her study certainly could arise from these more limited histories. On the other hand, Henry of Huntingdon's comprehensive Historia Anglorum is not included. Robert of Torigni and Etienne of Rouen, both of whom, like Orderic, wrote on the Norman side of the channel, are excluded as well. Given the varied audiences, subjects, and languages of the histories that Blacker does include, more clearly enunciated criteria for inclusion and exclusion would seem to be necessary.

While all the works Blacker considers can be termed "histories," Blacker does not explore what that term meant in the twelfth century, or whether it was the same for vernacular and Latin writers. She tends to assume that history was a coherent genre. Other scholars, however, have suggested that ideas about history were shifting in the twelfth century. (See Bernard Guenee, "Histoire, memoire, ecriture. Contribution a une etude des lieux communs," Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Comptes rendus (1983), who uses the commonplaces in historical prologues to illustrate these changing notions.) Even historical truth was not uncomplicated. By the late eleventh century, historians both protested their own honesty (sometimes too much) and made snide remarks about the veracity of others. (On some of these issues, see Jeanette Beer, Narrative Conventions of Truth in the Middle Ages (Geneva, 1981).) Blacker does mention that medieval attitudes toward certain historical practices--the documentation of information, the role of the historian as an interpreter, the nature of translation--were different from ours, but she does not extend that understanding to a more general discussion of what the parameters of history might have been in the twelfth century.

The need for such a careful analysis is nowhere more evident than in Blacker's discussions of Geoffrey of Monmouth's HRB. While it is true that few of Geoffrey's contemporaries explicitly condemned his work as fiction, Blacker seems reluctant to decide whether Geoffrey was consciously inventing his material and whether, if he did so, he could nonetheless have believed himself to be engaging in acceptable contemporary practice. Yet this is a critical question. To the degree that contemporaries did accept Geoffrey's work as fitting within their parameters for truth, the HRB was a history "their from perspective," and it is worth asking what made it historical. However, if Geoffrey was consciously breaking the "rules" of history, one cannot consider the HRB a history "from Geoffrey's perspective," and one then has to ask what he was up to. John Ward ("Gothic Architecture, Universities and the Decline of the Humanities in Twelfth- Century Europe," Principalities, Powers and Estates: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Government and Society; Adelaide, 1979) places Geoffrey in the context of the new curial class, which invented new and composite literary forms, many of them satiric; this raises the possibility that Geoffrey's history was in fact a history parody. However, the real point is that Blacker needs to tackle rather than avoid the problems created by Geoffrey's text.

A further difficulty is that Blacker presents her authors, their texts, and their audience only in highly attenuated and formulaic contexts. Much is presupposed about what it meant for Orderic to be a monastic writer, for instance, and yet monastic writers produced remarkably varied histories. As Blacker herself notes, we cannot generalize about what people were interested in because of their gender or status, that, for example, the vernacular was used primarily by and for women or for lay people or that vernacular history was written largely for women. Yet the context which would permit us to understand these works is not used to shed light on them, even when we have considerable information about the writers and the development of their work. William of Malmesbury came as close as anyone came in the twelfth century to being a professional historian, and yet his self-consciousness "as a historian" is not sufficiently explored. Nor does Blacker do much with the evolution of Orderic's HE, a well-documented process that transformed a narrative cartulary into a universal history as Orderic's ambitions grew.

Blacker's discussion of audiences and patrons similarly could use a deeper context. Blacker refers to the "Anglo- Norman" nobility and their need and desire for a validating account of their past. Some scholars have concluded that as a cross-channel phenomenon, an Anglo-Norman nobility and an Anglo-Norman culture may have had only fleeting existence. (For discussion of many of these issues, see England and Normandy in the Middle Ages, eds. David Bates and Anne Curry; London, 1994.) However, even if one is talking primarily only of the nobility on the English side of the channel, a fuller portrait of this group as readers of all kinds of works would illuminate their possible interest in history. Blacker's observation that in England the use of French was a status marker is not developed or applied to reveal the consciousness of the English nobility. In reference to this group, Blacker sometimes refers to the individual context of the patrons, but not the large social system in which they operated.

This is also true with reference to royal patronage of history. Blacker notes Wace's assertion that Robert Curthose and not Henry I was the rightful heir of England and suggests that this opinion (shared by Etienne of Rouen) might have offended Henry II. However, in the twelfth century male primogeniture was being normalized in many parts of Europe. Henry might not have been offended at all at a simple statement of a social norm of his day. On the other hand, he might well have been offended by another part of the message: the implicit discouragement for partitioning his lands among his sons. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth made a particular point of discussing the weaknesses engendered by internal divisions (and Etienne of Rouen explicitly urged Henry II not to divide his lands), some discussion of the larger socio-political context again seems called for.

Finally, the texts themselves need more context. Medieval writers learned to write by reading and imitating, a point Blacker acknowledges when she discusses the influence of Suetonius on William of Malmesbury's notions of characterization. However, this matter of influence could be quite complex and could go well beyond the individual writer. Blacker notes some of the ways Dudo of Saint- Quentin's Deeds of the Norman Dukes influenced Benoit of Sainte-Maure (although she misses that Dudo, like Benoit, depicted the dukes as sacralized figures). Benoit, however, was not alone in returning to Dudo's vision of Norman history. Benoit's contemporaries Robert of Torigni and Etienne of Rouen were also part of the Dudo revival. Why did Dudo's work suddenly have new currency toward the end of the twelfth century? Why might Benoit (and the others) have been drawn to this, and not another, account of the past?

Similarly, Blacker does not set vernacular histories in the context of the larger field of vernacular literature. Suzanne Fleischmann ("On the Representation of History and Fiction in the Middle Ages," History and Theory 22 (1983)) has argued that the main differences between fiction and history were an author's intention to write history or fiction (granted, no easy matter to judge) and the author's making of a truth claim. If vernacular histories and fictions shared conventions of narrative and characterization, how does this affect our understanding of vernacular history and its relationship to Latin history?

It may seem that I am churlishly complaining about what Blacker has not done, but in this case, the questions not asked mean that Blacker cannot provide a full or satisfying understanding of what it meant to write history in the twelfth century. She can only provide an introduction to the writings of six individuals.