John Ott

title.none: Verbeke, Milis, and Goossens, eds., Medieval Narrative Sources (John Ott)

identifier.other: baj9928.0702.006 07.02.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Ott, Portland State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Verbeke, Werner, Ludo Milis and Jean Goossens. Medieval Narrative Sources: A Gateway into the Medieval Mind. Series: Mediaevalia Lovaniensia, 34. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 310. $117.50. ISBN: ISBN-10: 90-5867-398-7, ISBN-13: 978-90-5867-398-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.02.06

Verbeke, Werner, Ludo Milis and Jean Goossens. Medieval Narrative Sources: A Gateway into the Medieval Mind. Series: Mediaevalia Lovaniensia, 34. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 310. $117.50. ISBN: ISBN-10: 90-5867-398-7, ISBN-13: 978-90-5867-398-5.

Reviewed by:

John Ott
Portland State University

The editors of the thirteen essays which comprise this volume intend the collection to establish a "gateway" between various intellectual enterprises and concerns, some medieval, others undeniably modern. The authors, contributions cluster, sometimes quite loosely, around the subject of monastic historiography, and, in the words of Ludo Milis, around the issue of "how and to what extent medieval religious people paid attention to the world outside and how this attitude and mental scope were related to their life choice" (ix). One of this collection's thematic focal points is the link, or portal, between the medieval cloister and the world beyond its walls. Another of its goals is to bridge the divide separating disciplinary methodologies and literary genres. Once routine academic distinctions and assumptions about the nature and differences between hagiography and historiography, history and literature, oral and written sources, "fact" and "fiction" are regularly taken to task in the essays.

Still another ambition of this compilation is to acquaint its readers with the wider world of texts catalogued in the superb on-line bibliographic database, The Narrative Sources from the Medieval Low Countries ( The Narrative Sources database is implicitly and explicitly the real star of the show here, and this book is intended to be its showcase. A co-operative venture since 1996 between the Universiteit Gent, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, Narrative Sources from the Medieval Low Countries currently contains over 2,100 cross-indexed and fully searchable records of medieval texts. Its sources span the period from 600-1500 C.E. and originate in the Southern and Northern Low Countries, the modern Dutch provinces of Limburg and Brabant, and the (medieval) diocese of Liege. The essays of Medieval Narrative Sources are introduced by Renee Nip's survey (1-20) of the database's antecessors in late nineteenth- and twentieth- century Dutch scholarship, and they are bookended by Jeroen Deploige's introduction to the modern database.

As its title suggests and as the individual essays corroborate, the breadth of material covered in this volume is extensive. Of those articles which directly concern monastic historiography, Steven Vanderputten contributes two: "From Sermon to Science: Monastic Prologues from the Southern Low Countries as Witnesses to Historical Consciousness (10th-15th centuries)" (37-54) and "Une iconographie de l'historiographie monastique: realite ou fiction?" (251-269) Read in tandem, they function quite well as a complementary pair. In the first, Vanderputten charts the rhetorical-structural development of prologues to monastic narrative sources with examples dating from about 1000-1400. He argues that, in spite a strong streak of conservatism in monastic historiography, prologues over this time stressed the value of historiography in changing ways and often provide our only window into the author's intentions in writing a work of history. Like mini-sermons, they wished to convince their audience of a work's moral value, and, especially from the eleventh century, of its pragmatic value as a record of the collective memory and identity of the community--an aim paralleled in contemporary, non-monastic historiography (45- 52). Monastic historiography's moral arguments for its utility failed to correlate with the changing social uses of history, and monastic historiography, Vanderputten suggests, began to look increasingly archaic and outmoded toward the 1500s. He notes a similar conservatism present in the iconographic programs extant in monastic historiography. Vanderputten's rapid survey of manuscripts containing images connected to historiographical texts nets eighteen examples from a total of 265 manuscripts of the Southern Low Countries from the ninth through fifteenth centuries (see the table on p. 253). From this, Vanderputten draws two conclusions: that monks seldom made recourse to images to augment the historical texts they wrote, and that monastic iconography never developed a body of images which acceptably illuminated their historical writing (as opposed to their sacred writing). Vanderputten's conclusions are therefore negative: monks in the Southern Low Countries simply did not develop or employ an iconography that illustrated secular histories.

One of the few Flemish monastic manuscripts that did contain images of secular events was Abbot Gilles li Muisis's Tractatus quartus, a text studied in revealing detail by Pieter-Jan de Grieck in his "L'image de la ville et l'identite monastique dans l'oeuvre de Gilles li Muisis" (139-162). As abbot of Saint-Martin of Tournai from 1331-1353, Gilles wrote four treatises (designated primus, secundus, tertia and quartus) between 1347 and 1353. The third and fourth tractates contain his historical work, a chronicle of Tournai and Flanders from the end of the thirteenth century to 1352. In them, de Grieck shows, Gilles demonstrated a generally positive outlook toward the city's municipal government, its economic and commercial enterprises, and its military service to the king (146-49, 155). His moralizing writing, found in the Tractatus secundus, struck more traditional chords of monastic withdrawal and strict observance apart from the tumults of lay society (155-59). The abbot was thus capable of extolling what have been termed "civic" virtues and demonstrated a "mentalite bourgeoise" (160) alongside Benedictine reticence about monks' involvement with affairs outside the cloister. De Grieck's contribution to the larger historiography of lay-religious relations in the urban environment, then, is to suggest that at least one Benedictine author felt just as strong a connection to urban life as his mendicant confreres.

Essays by Paul Bertrand, Janick Appelmans and Thomas Kock move us into what I might term the "house tradition" of historiography in three monastic communities. In "Reformes ecclesiastiques, luttes d'influence et hagiographie a l'abbaye de Maubeuge (IXe-XIe s.)," Bertrand revisits the so-called Maubeuge cycle of vitae investigated by, among others, Leon van der Essen, Aline G. Hornaday, and Anne-Marie Helvetius. The subjects of the cycle are the beata stirps of Aldegonde (ca. 630-684), Maubeuge's foundress and first abbess; Waldetrude, her sister and foundress of Saint-Waudru of Mons; and Waldetrude's daughters Aldetrude and Madelberte, who served as the second and third abbesses of Maubeuge, respectively. The biographies of these holy women were composed and rewritten over a period ranging from the eighth to the twelfth century. Bertrand explores the texts produced in the middle of this period, all of which are interconnected. His stated intention for doing so is to find reasons for their composition other than those given by, inter alia, Helvetius, who saw them largely as reactions to external political pressures on the abbey. Bertrand emphasizes rather that internal pressures stimulated the rewriting of the abbey's sacred history, including its domination by a lay abbot or abbess in the ninth century and the conversion of its male monks (Maubeuge was a double monastery) and later its nuns to canonical rule after 816. This shift in focus to the house's internal affairs leads Bertrand to revise the dating of a couple of the vitae proposed by Helvetius.

With Appelmans' "The Abbey of Affligem and the Emergence of a Historiographic Tradition in Brabant (1268-1322)" we move to the later Middle Ages and to monastic historiography about secular rulers, the dukes of Brabant. Brabantine ducal history emerged rather late on the scene (164-65) compared to the genealogies and histories of the counts of Flanders, Boulogne, Guines, etc. The texts in question here consist of four ducal genealogies, all redacted between 1268-1288; a dynastic Chronica de origine ducum Brabantiae (finished by 1298); and a continuation of Jerome's De viris illustribus (written 1270/73) (165, 170-71, 174-75). Appelmans debates the authorial attributions of two of the works, and, in a somewhat digressive section sure to be confusing to non-specialists (173-74), presents an analysis of the relationship between the Latin Cronica and the Dutch Rijmkroniek van Brabant-B. Of note is the author's identification of the author of the De viris illustribus as Henry of Brussels, a monk of Affligem, rather than the theologian Henry of Gent (175-80). Henry of Brussels may also have composed the Cronica de origine ducum Brabantiae.

This takes us to the last of the essays to consider a "house tradition" of historiography, Thomas Kock's "Selbstvergewisserung und Memoria in der Devotio Moderna: Die Traditionscodices der brabantischen Augustiner- Choreherrenstifte." We are again in Brabant for a consideration of tradition books--part communal history, juridical collection, necrology, and memorial list of donors and friends. They were living records, augmented by different authors over time (181-82), and a source of communal self-perception (193). Kock devotes most of his essay to examining the constitution of a little-known Traditionscodex from the priory of Ophain (Bois-Seigneur-Isaac). Its details about the history of Ophain, the miracles associated with it, the community's leaders, benefactors and dead were then circulated and incorporated into the Traditionscodices of associated brabantine communities following the devotio moderna (196-203). In a nicely illustrated discussion, Kock depicts the circulation of manuscripts, copies and translations of the Ophain codex and the interconnectedness of the houses that made use of it, as well as their shared connection to the religious history of Brabant.

The contributions of Brigitte Meijns on "The 'Life of Bishop John of Therouanne' by Archdeacon Walter (1130) and the Bishop's Pastoral Activities" (77-90) and Werner Verbeke on "La 'Vie de Saint Amand' par Gillis de Wevel et ses modeles" (107-137) present close readings on little studied texts produced in particular clerical circles. Walter's "Life of Bishop John" is the most extensive narrative description of this important twelfth-century prelate (r. 1099-1130), and has the added interest of having been written by his contemporary, co-worker, and friend. Meijns examines how Walter represents the bishop's pastoral activities (79). What she shows is that Walter gives us a very limited selection of his activities to consider, and little on his actual pastoral activity among the laity. What interests Walter is John's reform of religious communities and his relationship with other ecclesiastics, chiefly canons, and he goes out of his way to show the close personal bonds between John and the other bishops and abbots of his day, particularly those within the same social and political circles (83).

Verbeke explores layers of intertextuality in the Middle Dutch "Leven van Sinte Amand" (finished in 1367). The poem exists in a single manuscript from about 1440 and reveals the "grand hagiographic tradition" (109) in which Gillis wrote. Its dependence on the Dutch Spiegel historiael (1285-1310), translated from Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum, is notable throughout. Verbeke enumerates Gillis's borrowings from the historiographical tradition present in the Spiegel/Speculum; Gillis makes liberal use of scenes and images from Gregory the Great's Dialogues, the dossier of Martin of Tours, the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, and several vitae. These textual incorporations share parallels with the Merovingian Vita Amandi's own base sources, and so demonstrate the consistent use of literary authorities in one hagiographic tradition over many centuries (135- 36).

Two contributions in the volume explore narrative texts from the perspective of literary scholars. Rudi Kuenzel's engaging "Oral and Written Traditions in the Versus de Unibove" explores the eleventh-century poem's connections to oral and written narrative traditions and motifs (219-20). The stories surrounding the resourceful peasant One-Ox and his trickery are thick with irony, and suggest, as Kuenzel details, how learned audiences (the monks of Gembloux, possessors of the sole surviving ms.) and the text's author engaged with durable oral and written motifs in producing comedic literature. Their engagement was multidimensional. Peasants come off in Unibove looking both vile and avaricious as well as cunning and resourceful (216-18). The poem itself suggests how multiple literary currents and oral traditions could land in the same text, blurring the lines between lay and monastic, literate and non-literate cultures. Geert H. M. Claassens' wry "The 'Scale of Boendale': On Dealing with Fact and Fiction in Vernacular Mediaeval Literature" presents the author's case that "vernacular texts should not be judged differently in their relationship to historical truth than Latin ones" (231). Medieval authors of historia and literature did not make fine distinctions between truth and falsity when they wrote; modern readers do (232). Several examples from Middle Dutch literature demonstrate Claassens' thesis. "Boendale's Scale"--so named for the Brabantine poet Jan van Boendale (d. about 1351)--posits that truth and falsehood represent extreme ends on sliding scale in which medieval texts positions themselves in different degrees (245). Where a medieval listener or reader might locate texts on a scale of "truthfulness" comes across, not surprisingly, as a highly subjective choice. So, too, would be an assessment of a written work's apparent referentiality to historical event (249 and n. 55). One person's historical truth may be another's fabrication; some readers could be expected to catch references, others not. Nevertheless, Claassen notes, the author's prologue to a text may offer clues about where the author himself wished to situate his work on this sliding scale.

The final two essays rounding out the volume only tangentially and tenuously touch on the volume's stated thematic purpose and regional focus. Elisabeth van Houts explores a handful of instances in which elite women attached to the Norman ducal and royal household engaged in prophesy. The author delineates broadly what she identifies as the gendered nature of prophesy in Norman narrative sources, and its frequent connection with childbirth and dynastic concerns around the court of Henry I. The link of Norman prophesying with Dutch historiograpy is tenuous at best; Adeliza of Leuven, Henry I's barren second wife, and a manuscript relating the so-called seventh generation prophesy from Saint-Valery are the fastest connections (35-36). Goodich examines the record of oral testimony in the dossiers of two late medieval canonization inquests into the miraculous exploits of saints Philip, archbishop of Bourges, and Thomas, bishop of Hereford. The dossier of Thomas of Hereford has been well-discussed by Andre Vauchez, notably in his Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages (1981/1997). Here, Goodich analyzes the depositions of witnesses connected to two miraculees, one from each dossier, and the testimonies of the healed women themselves. Positioning himself within the "microhistorical" historiographical tradition of Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg, Goodich finds in the accounts of their travails (in both instances the women suffered anxieties and illness linked to pregnancy and childbirth) an authentic "ring" of actual laymen's testimonies before the inquisitorial board, despite the many layers of clerical interpolation through which their words passed before being recorded (96, 104).

As the work offers no final chapter summarizing its findings, it falls to the reader to consider the conclusions and cohesion of the collection as a whole. What can we determine about the attention medieval religious people paid to the world outside their cloisters? What kind of "gateway" do the studies presented here offer their readers? We might take a reminder from the Google (TM) searches we're increasingly dependent upon to find information on-line: no matter how good one's filter, even the most narrowly defined searches can still yield a mixed bag of information. And so it is here. For example, what may we conclude here about the "medieval mind"? Somehow, "it's a complex thing" feels unsatisfactory, yet that is perhaps all that we can vaguely decide. Without full studies of the manuscript traditions and the surrounding texts in which our narrative sources are contained, should we feel comfortable making assumptions about the mind-set of their authors, let alone their audiences? Those essays which furnish the thickest textual context, to my mind Kock's and de Grieck's, come closest to revealing the cultural and social attitudes of their authors and patrons, while Kuenzel and Claassens challenge us to depolarize the categories of oral and literate, nonfictional "truth" and fictional "untruth." Elsewhere the inter-relationship between monastic historiography and other historiographies is less clear-cut. Monks were at best inconsistently influenced by external trends in Vanderputten's findings. The works of Gilles li Muisit never appeared to reach a lay audience, despite the secular world's influence on the abbot's own outlook (158). On the other hand, an atelier at Bruges produced images found in a Rooklooster tradition book. And at Affligem, monks showed a keen interest in secular historiography.

We are left with Kuenzel's concluding observation about the Versus de Unibove (229), which could stand for this anthology as a whole: "On a micro-scale--if one examines the text in itself--...[we are presented with] an intriguing mixture of extremely heterogeneous components. Viewed on a macro- scale--in light of more comprehensive contexts in time and space--there is once again a perception of heterogeneity, ambiguity and multiplicity."