Carol Symes

title.none: Geary, Readings in Medieval History (Symes)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.012 99.06.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Symes, Bennington College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Geary, Patrick, ed. Readings in Medieval History, second edition. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998. Pp. x, 801. $26.95. ISBN: 1-551-11158-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.12

Geary, Patrick, ed. Readings in Medieval History, second edition. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998. Pp. x, 801. $26.95. ISBN: 1-551-11158-6.

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
Bennington College

The premise of Patrick Geary's collection is admirable: he aims to provide students with a range of seminal documents reproduced, where possible, in their entirety, and to group them in such a way that the relationships between different sources and movements can be explored in depth. In addition, Readings in Medieval History gestures toward the inclusion of extra-textual evidence for the study of the period, reproducing the sketches made of artifacts discovered in the tomb of Childeric at Tournai (the originals were largely destroyed in the nineteenth century) and the plans from the relatively recent excavations carried out at Wharram Percy, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. As the editor explains in his preface, he has chosen materials that are not only of fundamental importance, but which "have been the object of significant scholarship in English" (p. v), and recent scholarship at that; hence his decision to include selections from Bernard of Angers' Liber miraculorum of Sainte-Foy and an excerpt from the register of the inquisition carried out by Jacques Fournier at Montaillou. Given that Geary stresses the importance of a deeper engagement with these sources and their reception by historians, it is odd that he does not include a brief bibliography for each; but perhaps this would be asking too much. The central message remains clear, and it is one with which I couldn't agree more: students should learn history by doing history. At its best, this sourcebook encourages the beginning student to dirty her hands by digging in the same fields that have sustained and challenged historians for generations.

The first edition of Readings in Medieval History (1989, reprinted with corrections in 1991) included a questionnaire addressed to professors and students, soliciting comments and encouraging respondents to designate each item dispensable or indispensable. Based on the tallied results, this second edition includes more material relating to women: the life of the Frankish queen Balthild (one of the few texts whose translation is beyond reproach), the transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc, and selections from the Dialogues of Catherine of Sienna. The only substantive subtraction was Martianus Capella's Marriage of Philology and Mercury; no regrets there, but I do mourn the loss of the cover art, an illuminated miniature from the travaux des mois of the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. And, speaking for my students, one could easily do with a much shorter excerpt from Jordanes' (or rather, Cassiodorus') History of the Goths; and many would agree that having access to all of St. Augustine's On Christian Doctrine might be preferable to having only part of this work combined with smatterings of The City of God. Of course, we all ride hobby horses, and each of us will miss favorite passages (no Caedmon's song in the selection from Bede, none of Gregory of Tours' more uproarious asides or disturbing reports). But this is inevitable. And despite my reservations concerning the translations, and my puzzlement over the methods of selection and abbreviation applied throughout, I assigned readings from this book with alacrity -- and I imagine that it will be especially welcome to those who, like myself, teach at smaller institutions with libraries and resources of corresponding size.

Geary's avowed intent is to avoid privileging any interpretation or school of historical inquiry. To that end, he presents a series of dossiers and encourages readers to look at sources within these categories, as well as to mix and match among them. Most dossiers are conceived as temporal ("Late Antiquity," "Church and Society in the 14th and 15th Centuries"), territorial ("The Empire," "Italy"), or both ("The Barbarian World," "Anglo-Saxon England"). Major ecclesiastical movements are also allotted separate sections, and some are characteristically eclectic. "Monasticism" is represented by a selection of charters from the archives of Cluny, excerpts from The Miracles of Saint Foy, St. Anselm's Proslogion in its entirety, the first three of Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs, and not quite all of the first book of Guibert of Nogent's memoirs. The section on "The First Crusade" is especially helpful, comprising four different views of the Crusaders' actions and motives: those of Fulcher of Chartres, Solomon Bar Simson (on the massacre of the Jews at Mainz), the Muslim historian Ibn Al-Athir, and Anna Comnena (an excerpt from the Alexiad). These are capped, somewhat suggestively, by the full text of the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council, held over a century later. Sources for the rise and influence of the mendicant orders are represented, and there is also a section "On the Eternality of the World," which models the conflict between faith and reason by excerpting the arguments for and against the acceptance of the Aristotelian view newly fashionable in thirteenth-century Paris, that the world was eternal and not created. St. Bonaventure prevents the perspective of Scripture, Siger of Brabant that of Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas attempts a synthesis.

A few rubrics are contrived or provocative; for instance, a section on "Early Italy" is included to round out the geographical picture of the early Middle Ages, but it consists only of the Rule of St. Benedict, paired with Book II of the Dialogues attributed to Gregory the Great. Another section, that devoted to "Lords and Vassals," assumes a neutral posture in its title, but its content provides a wry commentary on current debates by juxtaposing Fulbert of Chartres' letter to William V of Aquitaine with Hugh of Lusignan's eloquent complaint against the same William V, and with the first portion of Galbert of Bruges' account of Charles the Good's murder at the hands of the Erembald family. Of course, one could and will draw on other materials included elsewhere in the volume when discussing this topic: the charters from Cluny, the selected correspondence of Gregory VII and Henry IV, excerpts from the inquests held by Louis IX in Normandy, the snippet from Domesday Book's survey of Huntingdonshire, the Dialogue of the Exchequer, and so on. And such is Geary's intention: historical sources are not presented as a series of hermetically-sealed packages, but as the messy, half-digested morsels that they are. Thus, one can follow any number of threads through the volume: the changing fortunes of the common person, trends in sanctity or heroism, the increasing emphasis on documentation and its effect on medieval institutions, different ways of understanding the self; the list is endless. Putting students in the position to perform these conceptual exercises is to provide them with a powerful and empowering tool for the study of history.

In theory, one could teach a course -- or several courses -- on the Middle Ages using this one collection, augmented perhaps by a textbook or other materials, as one saw fit. Given that Readings in Medieval History is relatively cheap (about half the price of most of the standard textbooks currently available), one could also opt to use it as a supplement, since it does include a number of important documents that are not always readily available elsewhere, or which students would be reluctant to purchase in individual editions. Geary deserves praise for including the whole of Tacitus' Germania, St. Benedict's Rule, Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, Joinville's Life of Saint-Louis; the first three redactions of Magna Carta; and the transcript of Joan of Arc's trial at Rouen. Sadly, however, most of the texts appear in antiquated translations; in order to keep production costs down, the publisher has looked to editions now in the public domain -- and many are markedly inferior to those available under copyright. It is a shame that students will encounter the martyrdom of Perpetua or the life of Charlemagne in the clumsy versions provided here. And while they will find the generous excerpts of other sources useful, both students and teachers should note that the editor has performed these abbreviations with varying degrees of success.

Indeed, Geary does not always indicate which sources have been edited and which have not, or explain how and why he has excerpted a given text. He does reveal the principles underlying his choices in the introductions to the Theodosian Code, the histories of Gregory and Bede, and the records of the Florentine Catasto of 1427, and elsewhere. But such explanations do not accompany the excerpted Salic law or the laws of Aethelbert, the life of Alfred, the miracles of Sainte-Foy, the memoirs of Guibert, the record of Galbert of Bruges, or the book of Margery Kempe, among others. Moreover, a few of the already brief documents have been truncated in such a way that their utility is severely jeopardized. My favorite teaching text, the code of Aethelbert, is a case in point. It occupies two and a half of the double-columned pages of this edition, and in its entirety would have taken up less than four. Yet Geary cuts the central section, the list of compensations to be paid for injury to individual body parts, and omits even to note that he has done so. At the price of a single page, therefore, students would have been able to analyze the all-important structure of the entire code, the first set of laws redacted in a vernacular language, and to use its wealth of quantitative information to formulate hypotheses about the social structure and value system of sixth-century Kent. Inclusion of the whole would also have facilitated comparisons with the later codes, Alfred's Dooms and Theodore's penitential, which are given in full. Further confusion in this selection results from the reversal of notes 7 and 8, so that hamseyld is "generally taken to be a distinguishing feature of a free, as opposed to a bond, woman," while the long-haired freewoman of long-standing scholarly debate becomes "a fence around a dwelling" (p. 211b).

In certain cases, then, Readings in Medieval History can be more of a pedagogical hindrance than a help. My students and I were frustrated by the explanatory notes, which varied widely in quantity and quality depending on the source. For example, the charters from Cluny are accompanied by a veritable critical apparatus, including suggestions for further reading, information on family relationships and testamentary practices, references to lacunae or erasures in the manuscripts, detailed cross-references, and brief definitions of a range of terms or phrases unfamiliar to students: "mansus," "pagus," "agri," "villae," etc. Clearly, this particular selection benefited greatly from the editor's own expertise. Standing in sharp contrast is the excerpt from Domesday Book, of comparable length, which is augmented only by a brief description of hides and ploughs as units of measurement and a single note giving an incomplete definition of "soke." Whereas students could walk through the landscape of the tenth-century Maconnais on their own, or with judicious guidance from their instructor, those surveying eleventh-century Huntingdonshire quickly become lost in an undifferentiated wilderness of "messuages," "tenements," "demesne lands," "bordars," "boroughs," "burgesses," "villeins," "crofts," "tofts" with "sake" and "soke," "pannage," "seisin," and "reeveland." Unless they have access to the proper reference works, or to a professor with a secure knowledge of land tenure and its terminology in pre-Conquest England, students can derive little profit from this selection. And given that the volume as a whole is largely intended for use by beginners, and at colleges where lexical resources are scanty, this is unfortunate.

To be sure, most of what I found unsatisfactory in this volume is probably the result of painful sacrifices made by the editor and publisher in order to keep the book's price reasonable, and its size manageable -- and I am grateful on both counts. Still, the prospective user should be aware of these shortcomings, because they will have a direct impact on the kinds of investigations and analyses the students can viably carry out. One underlying assumption of the collection appears to be that prefatory materials yield little in the way of historical information: hence, we lack Bede's opening discourse on the island of Britain, Alfred's fantastic genealogy, Bernard of Anger's meditation on the importance of Sainte-Foy's cult, and Margery's description of the tortuous process that resulted in the preservation of her life story. Inclusion of these and other narratives would have allowed students to understand something of how medieval historians conceived their projects, and in my experience such an understanding helps to foster respect for the past and its different viewpoints. Another assumption that shapes this volume is a somewhat old-fashioned idea of genre, with regard both to historical genres and to the hard and fast distinction that used to be made between historical and literary artifacts. Some of us may find these unwarranted, but the fact remains that some method of categorization is both necessary and desirable.

In this regard, as in so many others, Geary's sourcebook provides fodder for fruitful discussion in class. After all, the delineation and arrangement of evidence are among the objects of historical inquiry.