E. M. C. van Houts,

title.none: Tyler, Narrative and History (E. M. C. van Houts, )

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.008 07.10.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: E. M. C. van Houts, , Cambridge University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Tyler, Elizabeth M and Ross Balzaretti, eds. Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 16. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. 265. $60.00 (hb) 2-503-51828-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.08

Tyler, Elizabeth M and Ross Balzaretti, eds. Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 16. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. 265. $60.00 (hb) 2-503-51828-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

E. M. C. van Houts,
Cambridge University

Elizabeth Tyler and Ross Balzaretti are to be congratulated in having brought together an inspiring collection of essays discussing the inseparability between narrative and history. All contributions are concerned with the question to what extent modern theories of narrative developed by literary scholars might elucidate the way in which medieval authors, and in particular medieval historians, used writing as a means of recording the past. This is a hugely important topic on which surprisingly little has been published.

Ross Balzaretti importantly studies the recording in writing of the oral element of legal court cases. In particular he draws attention to the role of peasants as a social group about whom we have relatively little information in historical sources. Medieval peasants, to put it crudely, do not first appear in the early fourteenth-century Montaillou dossier, we can trace them as far back as the ninth century Italian placita.

Sarah Foot returns to a topic close to her heart, Anglo-Saxon history and record as contained in charters. Picking up on an important article by Marjorie Chibnall (not used) she stresses how charters are indeed narratives or legal action. David Bates in his edition of the charters of William the conqueror (OUP, 1998) has made some important comments on the vulnerability of such documents; as time passes records are continuously updated in the light of new developments. The monks who compiled them, therefore, did the same to records as they did to historical narratives such as chronicles or annals. If we can agree, why have historians for so long put their faith in charters in preference to chronicles?

Julia Barrow's main object is to wonder about William of Malmesbury's extensive use of forgeries. Did he know he relied on forgeries? The answer is 'yes.' Why did he rely on forgeries? Because he is testing his audience. The appendices are brilliantly useful, listing all WM's uses of letters, charters, papal documents in his Gesta regum Anglorum and his Gesta Pontificum. There is an additional reason why I like Barrow's research. She rightly underlines the sense of humour and, on occasion wickedness, in William's writing style, but has failed to identify the Flemish hagiographers, Goscelin of St.Bertin in particular, whom William explicitly singles out as his source of inspiration.

Regino of Prum's chronicle is analysed by Stuart Airlie who points out that Regino's portrayal of the Carolingian dynasty is that of a dynasty as done and dusted. The whole narrative is written from the perspective that the Carolingian dynasty has died out by a monk who is both narrator and political actor in the story told. The centrality of Prum as Carolingian foundation is stressed as is the strong link with hagiography.

Interestingly, the famous paragraph in which Regino reports how kinglets have sprung up everywhere is based on the assumption that kingship can only descend in the male line. Inheritance through daughters in his time did not count. Although Airlie does not comment on the period after Regino it is remarkable that from the mid eleventh century onwards in western Europe Carolingian descent in the female line is often traced and remarked upon in a sort of fairy tale reminiscing by historians who know that such knowledge does not really have any political cloud.

The article on Eusebius of Vercelli (d. AD 371) by Nick Everett is partly an exercise in source criticism and partly an enquiry into the origin of the Life. Why did it take three centuries to produce a Life of this important Roman church official? Might the existing text go back to a now lost version? The discussion of narrative versus history throws a new light on an old problem: why do hagiographers compose texts, and how do they use the available source material?

Elizabeth Tyler's intriguing study takes the narrative of poetics as its centre. How do poets use the conventions of writing poetry, in her case Old English poetry, to convey contemporary messages? And how should modern historians interpret the use of archaic language? If it is customary to describe treasure in terms of gold and silver, can we take such expression literally and assume that, say, tribute to Vikings really contained objects or coins in gold even if non literary texts suggests the primary use of silver for treasure? Even though Tyler's exercise is as important as her conclusion, which warns us against reading ad verbum, as an historian I'm just not entirely convinced by her argument.

Judith Jesch' dissection of one skaldic poem "Head-Ransom" by Ottarr (on Ottarr's request for mercy to king Olaf Haraldsson) and its saga context allows her, not for the first time, to warn medievalists against a too simplistic reading of contemporary praise poetry and the later interpretations of this genre by saga writers. She argues convincingly that Viking poetry can be analysed by using analytical tools of modern narrative. The poet flattered the king, saved his own neck but in the process also recorded a past event for posterity. Two further articles by Joaquin Martinez Pizarro and Elaine Treharne remind us of the importance that verse and prose are important mediums to record the past.

Finally, I was particularly interested in Catherine Cubitt's discussion of her ongoing research on orality and the writing of history in Anglo-Saxon England in the light of modern theories of folklore, which brings us neatly back to Balzaretti's work on Italian peasants. How can we assess the contribution of social groups, who do not normally feature in the writings of the landed classes, the relatively poor labourers, servants, small landholders (and their wives and children!) to the formation of historical traditions that record events of the past? And when we find traces of what we may identify as folklore what do they tell about perceptions of the past and the means of preserving tales and stories about past events? I recommend this volume as a stimulating and ground breaking collection of essays on a topic that has only just begun to be researched by medievalists.