Hans-Werner Goetz

title.none: Partner, ed., Writing Medieval History (Hans-Werner Goetz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.006 05.09.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Hans-Werner Goetz, Universitat Hamburg,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Partner, Nancy, ed. Writing Medieval History. Series: Writing History. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005. Pp. xvi, 192. $32.00 (pb). ISBN: 32.000-340-80846-2 0-340-80846-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.06

Partner, Nancy, ed. Writing Medieval History. Series: Writing History. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005. Pp. xvi, 192. $32.00 (pb). ISBN: 32.000-340-80846-2 0-340-80846-2.

Reviewed by:

Hans-Werner Goetz
Universitat Hamburg

Writing Medieval History is an ambiguous title in so far as it could mean both "Writing History On the Middle Ages Today" (which, in fact, is suggested by its appearance in the series Writing History) and "Writing History In the Middle Ages." Actually the volume contains articles along both lines. While, according to the series, one should have expected theoretical and methodological reflections on this theme, most articles rather exemplify their approach in case studies. Considering the great variety of approaches and themes in medieval studies during the last four or five decades, rightly emphasized by the editor in her preface, the volume confines itself to just three. The first part ("Recognizing people in medieval society: the self") deals with an important aspect recently much dealt with: the individual. David Gary Shaw takes a look at two late medieval English examples (Richard Ferrour and Margery Kempe) in order to show how social history can be deferred from biography and how to discover a "social self," providing much information, yet without an explicit reflection of the historian's work. Using a completely different approach, Jay Rubenstein deals with Adam of Eynsham's Life of St Hugh of Lincoln, a text stemming from the twelfth century, as an example of writing biography in the Middle Ages and compares it with some autobiographical works of the same period (Guibert of Nogent, Peter Abelard). The twelfth century, this is his (provocative, but correct) observation, did not discover the self, but the tools of writing about the individual, which he attempts to explicate from his examples. His statement, however, that all biography is autobiography because it tells us something about the author, is in fact true for all medieval writings and should lead us to analyse these as sources about their authors and their way of thinking. Nancy Partner ("The hidden self") provides one of the few articles which actually deals with modern approaches in a theoretical manner by advocating the need of psychological interpretation in medieval studies (nevertheless based on general literature while neglecting what has been done in this field by medievalists so far) and exemplifying this by dreams and a case study on Christina of Markyate. While she presents a whole set of models of interpretation, to my mind, again, there still remains a great danger of misleading conclusions as long as we do not consider the medieval understanding of "self" first.

In the second section, "Literary techniques for reading historical texts," only the first article is devoted to modern approaches. This being the field of research of the reviewer, I may allow myself to dwell upon it a bit more thoroughly. Robert M. Stein ("Literary criticism and the evidence for history") discusses the relevance of the "linguistic turn" when dealing with medieval historiography, by regarding sources as documents, as texts and as texts in contexts which, in this sense, is not understood as the historical context but as a set of other texts (some unfortunate mistakes, though, may occur by thinking that historical contexts are irrelevant; Otto I, for example, can hardly have issued a charter in the year 1001 because he had been dead for 29 years by then): "every writing takes place in the context of other writing and every text makes its meaning intertextually, that is to say, in the context and subject to the influence of other texts." This, of course, is true, but when it is applied to practical methods (as is done here by the example of the Norman conquest) it turns out to be nothing more than inquiring into the author's perspective, which is extremely important, but far from being a new approach. And historians will no doubt go on to debate if their task, as Stein claims, is really that of a composer (or a novelist) rather than a search for the truth. The article provides a good insight (or introduction) into discourse analysis while the question if historians should follow this model will certainly be discussed further. The other articles in this section, contrary to the heading, are completely devoted to medieval techniques of writing. Sarah Foot ("Finding the meaning of form: narrative in annals and chronicles"), by "discovering" a seemingly new theme that in fact has been discussed for decades in continental historiography, tends to separate these genres from historia (a view long put forward by Karl Ferdinand Werner, but nevertheless misleading because it contradicts medieval terminology and conception). The conclusion that annals can equally be narrative is right but far from surprising, and more so if we take into consideration that medieval authors did not think in this way of separating genres, and the examples (e.g. Annales Bertiniani) do not seem to be well chosen because they are in fact chronicles (and not annals in a strict sense).

Nevertheless one has to support the author's important suggestion that we have to read the sources as an entity. The next article gives a similar impression: Monika Otter ("Functions of fiction in historical writing"), by inquiring into non-historical elements in chronicles (such as wonders) also follows modern concepts--in medieval understanding these elements were historical--, and she revives long refuted convictions when she classifies historia as a subsection of rhetorics. Again, the conclusion that William of Malmesbury failed in telling the truth means judging him by modern and not by his own criteria. And the fact that "fictionality enters medieval historiography quite easily" is not so much a result of fluid genre conventions, as the author thinks, but of different concepts of history (and historiography).

The third section ("Historicizing Sex and Gender") illuminates some aspects of gender history. Jacqueline Murray ("Historicizing sex, sexualizing history"), while rightly warning that "sex" is vulnerable to anachronisms, restricts herself to giving a survey of sexual offences in the Middle Ages and their punishments with rare new aspects, and to opposing modern opinions without naming their authors. Cordelia Beattie ("Gender and femininity in medieval England") provides a good introduction into gender history and its development ("from gender identity to gender norms"), concentrating on the differences between femininity and masculinity in the Middle Ages in three exemplary sources and reminding us that femininity here is defined by men, and that there are different discourses on this subject which are revealed most clearly when authors speak of effeminate men. Gender history, as a result, should not look for clichés but for competing discourses (though a discussion on clichés in the texts is missing). Compared to this clearly structured contribution I found the last and counterpart article by Derek Neal on "Masculine identity in late medieval English society and culture," exemplified on the case of husbandry, rather confusing and, again, completely determined by modern thinking. We should not forget that gender discourses represent our, not medieval, interests, and that masculinity as identity is a modern concept.

Admittedly, to combine a survey on modern approaches while at the same time dealing with medieval topics (and most articles seem to pursue this goal) is extremely difficult, and in this respect not everything in this book is convincing. On the whole, the volume provides some interesting case studies on modern approaches in medieval history and also on how to deal with these subjects today. However, methodological conclusions from these endeavours remain rare and results often seem to be less innovative than the authors assume. Most of the themes dealt with seem to be well-known and accepted by now. Nonetheless, some articles may be called inspiring in so far as they provoke contradiction. A number of misunderstandings might have been avoided if some authors had gone into medieval perceptions and concepts more thoroughly. We shall never be able to judge medieval historiography as long as we continue assessing it exclusively by our modern standards. It might also have been helpful if some authors had been able or willing to consult non-English literature. On the whole, the articles provide interesting insights and ideas, though hardly a representative discussion of the subject.