Felice Lifshitz

title.none: McKitterick, History and Memory (Felice Lifshitz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.012 05.08.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Felice Lifshitz, Florida International University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: McKitterick, Rosamund. History and Memory in the Carolingian World. Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 337. 70.00 0-521-82717-5. ISBN: 27.99 0-521-53436-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.12

McKitterick, Rosamund. History and Memory in the Carolingian World. Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 337. 70.00 0-521-82717-5. ISBN: 27.99 0-521-53436-4.

Reviewed by:

Felice Lifshitz
Florida International University

A decade ago, I argued as part of a guest presentation in a graduate seminar at a European university, that early medievalists must preferentially utilize manuscript codices (rather than printed editions of texts) as their fundamental sources. This argument met with not a little ridicule, and indeed occasioned the accusation that I might have some sort of manuscript fetish. I admitted to a love of traveling to manuscript collections, but not to any fetish, and I countered with what was then my favorite pithy quote, from John Dagenais: "Medievalism, as it has been practiced over the past two centuries, is the only discipline I can think of that takes as its first move the suppression of its evidence." [[1]] This spot-on apercu formed part of Dagenais' justification for his decision to study the Libro de Buen Amor on the basis of its extant manuscript witnesses. In 1994, such justification was necessary to explain such a radical departure from the methodological conventions of Medieval Studies. A decade after the publication of Dagenais' study, younger scholars are publishing manuscript-based studies of medieval texts with no hint of the need for justification or even explanation. To take but one recent example, for Catherine Emerson, the serious study of the Memoires of Olivier de La Marche could not begin until she had fully explored (with no need to comment on why) the manuscript witnesses, transmission and reception of the text, and critiqued the multiple ways in which the available printed editions are misleading. [[2]]

Manuscript-based studies have indeed been popping up all over, not only among late medieval literary specialists such as Dagenais and Emerson, but even in the field of early medieval history, many of whose practitioners were themselves trained on a steady diet of the MGH, the AASS, the PL and other runs of printed texts. Witness, for instance, Luis A. García Moreno's recent study of the role of claims to Visigothic ancestry (for Hispano-Christian rulers) in the legitimation of their political power.[[3]] And now, Rosamond McKitterick's History and Memory in the Carolingian World has made the case for manuscript sources with the definitive force of an atomic bomb. History and Memory in the Carolingian World further develops the project begun with McKitterick's ground-breaking Carolingians and the Written Word (1989), which trained a spotlight on the centrality of books (and by extension manuscripts) in the Frankish world. In producing her current study of Carolingian historical writing, the author has been able to benefit from a decade and a half of individual manuscript-based studies produced in the wake of her 1989 monograph, much of it done by her own students and (above all) by the students of Walter Pohl (including Richard Corradini, Maximilian Diesenberger, Karl Giesriegl and Helmut Reimitz). It is thanks to the existence of this large body of detailed scholarship (both published and unpublished) on Carolingian texts and manuscripts, as well as thanks to interaction with its authors, that McKitterick has been able to arrive at the profound understanding displayed in this volume. And the book is, indeed, profound.

Contrary to the expectations of our nineteenth- and early twentieth-century forbears, the best sources for understanding the European Middle Ages are not modern printed books but rather the actual artifacts of the time and place under consideration. McKitterick's study of Carolingian-era historical writing is based not on the chimerical ideal-types of purportedly stable "texts" (such as the Liber historiae francorum or the Annales regni francorum) but rather on a series of manuscripts, each embodying and conveying slightly different versions of and perspectives on Frankish history. This gently persuasive study eschews harangues against those who have customarily ignored manuscript evidence. The non-polemical mildness of McKitterick's tone may enable her to convince even the most adamant of manuscript skeptics that early medieval history written without any attention to the manuscript dimension of the evidence is (in my considerably less gracious formulation) fatally flawed.

But there is far more to History and Memory in the Carolingian World than a methodological position on the use of manuscript sources. As noted above, the manuscripts discussed by McKitterick all embody and convey slightly different versions of and perspectives on Frankish history. But the author has discerned, beneath all the variations, a crucial commonality; seen together, the annals, biographies, chronicles and other writings represent "a concentrated effort on the part of a group of associated members of an elite to deploy history in the service of politics....I say 'associated members of an elite' because all the major historiographical sources of the Carolingian period produced in the century between 780 and 880 can be linked with the royal court in one way or another....These texts are the voice of the elite....they articulate a clear ideology of political power and a very particular presentation of the past..." (130- 131). For McKitterick, however, historical writing does more than merely express the ideas of the elite; indeed, "the exploitation of written culture provided the means for contemporaries at the time to define themselves as an elite" (7) and "...the texts and extant manuscripts constitute the self-defining action of an elite" (22).

There is, unfortunately, some fuzziness to this strand of the argument, as McKitterick tends to use the phrases "the elite" and "the Franks" (or "the Frankish people") almost interchangeably. For instance: "I am concerned with the construction of a past by the Franks...and the degree to which such a construction constitutes the formation of the collective memory of the newly formed Frankish people under Carolingian rule" (23); the Annales regni francorum represent "the formation of the collective memory of the newly formed Frankish people under Carolingian rule" (118); "The Franks defined themselves in terms of their history" (283). It may be that, in McKitterick's view, "the Franks" are, by definition, the elite of the Frankish-dominated world, but no such notion is explicitly articulated in the volume. If, however, the "Frankish elite" and "the Frankish people" are two distinct (albeit overlapping) groups, it must be said that McKitterick has failed to elucidate the mechanisms whereby the histories constructed by and in the service of the elites could have become the memories of, and permeated the identities of, the Franks in general. Indeed, she has not even demonstrated that the historiographical constructs of the Frankish elites did penetrate the consciousness of the broader population to any appreciable degree. The closest she comes to tackling the issue is an extremely truncated, virtually oracular expression of astonishment (largely buried in footnotes to boot) that scholars such as Michael Richter have failed to recognize how "literacy was indeed central in Carolingian society" (173). Any attempt to understand the process whereby the non-elites of the Frankish world were persuaded to accept the perspectives of the elites would presumably have required the exploitation of a totally different group of sources from those examined here, namely those texts associated with the ruling elite's attempts to communicate its values to the broader population, above all sermons, saints' lives and miracles, the liturgy of public Christian worship, and certain sectors of the visual arts such as monumental architecture and mural painting (to name a few possibilities).

Yet, it is a measure of the extraordinary strength of this book that its quality is only negligibly negatively impacted by the fuzzy treatment of its overarching theme. History and Memory in the Carolingian World is bursting at the seams with important subsidiary themes, only a few of which will be noted here.

In Chapter Three, McKitterick argues that Paul the Deacon's Historia langobardorum may have been commissioned by Charlemagne, and produced in association with the court of Pippin of Italy (a "Franco-Lombard court context") with the goal of persuading both Franks and Lombards "of the essential rightness of the joining of the Frankish and Lombard kingdoms, the legitimacy of Carolingian rule and of the strength of Lombard identity" (83).

Chapter Four contains a brilliant discussion of annals, which McKitterick argues did not (as is widely believed) originate from the practice of making annalistic notes on Easter tables. Instead, she shows, Easter-tables-cum-annals are more likely to be an adaptation of the idea of annals, whereas annals per se "belong to the extraordinary revolution in historical writing to be observed in the Carolingian period" (99). Furthermore, annals are not the result of year-by-year observations and record-keeping but rather are crafted retrospective depictions of blocks of time organized in a particularly rigid, controlled format (namely according to the annual cycle of the liturgical year). Finally, McKitterick suggests that individual batches of entries circulated piecemeal, in libelli, an insight which would explain the patchwork quality of the complex of surviving annals, whose interrelationship has always been noted but never understood (108).

Chapter Six addresses the events of 751, and the ubiquitous, widely-reiterated story-originally found in the Annales regni francorum--of how pope Zacharias declared the Carolingian mayor of the palace, Pippin, more deserving of the title "king" than was Pippin's Merovingian royal lord, thus leading to a dynastic change in Francia. McKitterick very persuasively argues that the entire story of the intervention of Zacharias is an invention of Frankish historians writing long after the Carolingian coup d'etat. Now that McKitterick has opened the door for a complete rethinking of the constitution of Carolingian royal power, it will probably take several years for specialists to understand the function of this particular "fiction of power." However the annalist intended the story to function, it was "a crucial element in the collective memory of the newly formed realm under Frankish and Carolingian rule and constitutes a vital element in the self-perception of the Carolingian secular and ecclesiastical elites" (154). How far down the social scale this "collective memory" penetrated-and by what routes-is not made clear.

Yet another brilliant argument appears in Chapter 10. There McKitterick argues that the legacy of Eusebius's Historia ecclesiastica, and of the many later works modeled on it, was to construct the Christian past in terms of books and authors: "the history of Christianity is presented as the history of written authority, of the formation of the scriptural canon and of its essential continuation by the fathers of the church [and later authors] in their writings" (232). In other words, by the Carolingian period, the history of the church was effectively textual history, more than it was a history of events, and Christianity itself was in many ways essentially a collection of authoritative texts; all of that helps explain why books mattered so much and so deeply to contemporaries, such that "books and writing became...essential elements of Frankish identity and their sense of the past" (244). In so far as the elites are concerned, McKitterick makes a solid case; however, it is unclear how far down the Frankish social scale a literary self-conception is likely to have penetrated.

A few other points are also in order. McKitterick makes an impressive argument that cartularies, confraternity books (the latter also known as libri vitae or libri memoriales) and canon law collections are forms of historical writing, and therefore worthy of discussion in the context of Frankish historical memory and identity. She devotes Chapters 7 and 11 to such texts. In the context of McKitterick's self-consciously inclusive approach to defining the category of historical writing, the complete absence from her radar screen of biographies and miracles of saints is all the more striking. Due to that lacuna, the book remains an incomplete treatment of Frankish historical thought and writing, particularly since attention to those texts could have helped her bridge the gap between elite historians and the broader population. McKitterick also continues to misrepresent (here pp. 238-239) the importance of Isidore of Seville's De viris illustribus.[[4]] Only three manuscripts of Isidore's work survive from before the tenth century, and those witnesses do not-contrary to McKitterick's assertion-indicate a widely dispersed transmission. [[5]] This small correction does not affect the substance of her argument-based on the existence of 114 manuscripts of Jerome-Gennadius-that the history of Christianity came to be seen (by the elites) as a history of textual composition. However, Isidore's treatment of early Christian authors was not a significant aspect of this phenomenon. The book has also been imperfectly edited; witness the repetition of a description of Hraban Maur on pp. 189 and 281. Finally, McKitterick's conclusion that "The Franks' interest in history is distinctive in early medieval Europe as a whole" (265) strikes me as premature; there is still much work to be done digging through the manuscripts of early medieval Europe, and only time will tell what we will eventually find. But despite these quibbles, both large and small, I recommend this book with unbridled enthusiasm, and hope it finds a very wide readership.


[[1]] John Dagenais, The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture. Glossing the "Libro de Buen Amor." (Princeton, 1994). p. xviii.

[[2]] Catherine Emerson, Olivier de La Marche and the Rhetoric of Fifteenth-Century Historiography. (Woodbridge, 2004).

[[3]] In XXX Semana de Estudios Medievales. Estella, 14-18 julio 2003 (Pamplona, 2004).

[[4]] Compare McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word, pp. 200-205, especially p. 201.

[[5]] Isidor of Seville. De viris illustribus. Edited by Carmen Codoñer Merino, El "De viris illustribus" de Isidoro de Sevilla. Estudio y edicion critica. (Salamanca, 1964), pp. 87-88 and 126-127.