The Medieval Review 10.05.11

Gunn, Vicky. Bede's Historiae: Genre, Rhetoric and the Construction of the Anglo-Saxon Church History . Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 256. $95 / 50 GBP ISBN 9781843834656 . .

Reviewed by:

Sharon Rowley
Christopher Newport University

In this book, Vicky Gunn sets out to examine the extent to which issues of genre and rhetoric impact Bede's historical writings, including his Ecclesiastical History, History of the Abbots, Greater Chronicle and Martyrology; she concludes that none of them should be considered primary historical sources (187). Rather, Bede's histories are webs of carefully deployed textual allusions designed to present literary ideals rather than history. Any sense of historical reality found in the texts is proof of Bede's artistry as a writer not his skill has an historian. According to Gunn, Bede was "consciously rewriting the historical record to maintain the superiority of his own community" (183). While Gunn's discussions of Bede's History of the Abbots, Greater Chronicle and Martyrology provide important contexts and precedents of these under-studied texts, problems of evidence, as well as a general lack of engagement with recent scholarship and theory detract from the overall usefulness of the book.

Gunn draws heavily on Walter Goffart's Narrators of Barbarian History, and sees her work as extending the ideas of Calvin Kendall and Roger Ray in rhetoric and genre studies by exploring issues of "inventio developed from an immersion in late patristic (not classical) texts" (19). Chapter 1, "Understanding Bede's Audience" engages a dialogue with Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints, reasserting, contra Brown, that the distinction between "popular" and "intellectual" should be maintained in relation to early medieval sources, especially the highly intellectual and literary writings of Bede. She then moves on to a brief discussion of Bede's intellectual contexts and the literacy of his audience.

Chapter 2, "The Historical and Contemporary Context of Northumbrian Hagiography and Historiae Production," argues that Bede's writings should be understood as part of a battle for status and patronage between Northumbrian monastic houses. Drawing principally on textual sources, including the Ecclesiastical History (hereafter, EH) and the Lives of Wilfrid and Cuthbert, Gunn sees the rift between Ionian and Roman factions as the driving force in textual production in the seventh and eighth centuries. The conflict between Roman and Irish power and influence remains dominant through Chapter 3, "Bede's Agenda Revisited: Monastic Superiority in the EH," as does the sense that conflict and the desire for power motivated literary production more than any question of religious belief. Gunn disagrees with both Goffart and Alan Thacker's readings of Bede's treatment of Wilfrid and the Irish in the EH, arguing that Bede "deliberately set out to undermine the spiritual authority of Iona" (73). She also draws on the History of the Abbots (hereafter, HA) here to argue that the cult of the saints was primarily a monastic affair, and that hagiographical writings were designed to assert the superior orthodoxy of Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Chapter 4, "Bede's Approach to the Genre of Historia," moves away from the Roman-Irish conflict and begins to explore issues of genre by looking at Bede's sources. Gunn never actually defines "genre," though she points out that "what Bede meant by historia is the great conundrum for post-modern historians" (95). She seeks to identify the meaning of the term by looking at Bede's sources, especially Eusebius, Isidore, Jordanes and Cassiodorus, in relation to his practices. Problematically, as Gunn admits, it remains unclear whether Bede had access to the historical works of Isidore, Jordanes or Cassiodorus (100). Nevertheless, generic precedent, for Gunn, presents as important a consideration when it comes to the study of history as political bias does for Goffart. She looks at Bede's EH in relation to Gildas to argue that Bede focused on presenting positive examples in history, so as to "inspire through example rather than teach purely by threat or fear" (106). She examines the differences between Bede's EH and the Greater Chronicle included in the De temporum ratione, to demonstrate that the chronicles focus on events while historiae focus on "the people in the events" (112). Bede innovates by focusing more heavily in his historiae on the acts of people worthy of imitation.

Chapters 5 and 6 move on to examine Bede's other historical writings in relation to genre. Chapter 5, "A Case of Discomfort: Bede's HA," observes that Bede's HA falls outside the generic boundaries of both history and hagiography. Gunn compares Bede's work to the Liber Pontificalis and the Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium, noting a similar focus in these texts on the ways in which each abbot enhanced the material wealth of the church. She considers Bede's HA to be more of a "prototype" gesta abbatum (129), and suggests re-naming the text.

Chapter 6, "A Case of Innovation within Generic Boundaries: Bede's Martyrology," compares Bede's work with the martyrology traditionally ascribed to Jerome. Gunn presents ample textual evidence from Bede's Greater Chronicle and the martyrologies to show that Bede moves beyond the generic boundaries of his predecessors. In Bede's hands, the martyrology becomes less cyclical and more like "a 'chronicle of saints'" (143). Although Gunn seems to want to claim that Bede was uncomfortable with his innovations in the HA, she demonstrates innovation in each case.

Chapter 7, "Bede's Compositional Techniques in the Genre of Ecclesiastical History," asserts the primacy of intertextuality and allusion over historical reality in the EH. In this chapter, Gunn argues that the historical evidence in the EH amounts to proof of the depth of Bede's library and his skill as a writer, rather than proof about any actual events in Anglo-Saxon England. She discusses Bede's accounts of Aidan, Acca and Æthelthryth to show how "sections of the EH that might seem to relate to actualities but are, in fact, merely allusions to other sources used in the narrative to enhance the associations between historical events of the Anglo-Saxons and the Christian literary past" (151). Gunn draws on the Life of St. Radegund, the Bible and the Aeneid to demonstrate Bede's use of topoi and allusion, followed by a discussion of composite imagery in Bede's accounts of Edwin, Oswald and Oswine. Gunn presents much of this chapter as being in dialogue with the writings of Stephanie Hollis and Clare Stancliffe.

In her conclusion, "The Implications of Bede's Approach and Methods," Gunn reasserts the literary nature of Bede's historical writings. She separates her argument from William McCready's Miracles and the Venerable Bede, in that she believes that Bede saw allusion to authoritative literature as the truth, rather than as being a kind of justified lying. Bede, for Gunn, was "a product of a newly literate segment of aristocratic Anglo-Saxon society" (187). He used the power of the written word to ascribe taint to monastic houses he considered unorthodox and to enhance the authority of Wearmouth-Jarrow.

I found Chapter 6 to be the most valuable and persuasive chapter in this book. Gunn provides clear examples of the differences she is discussing, and presents a clear and thorough case as to how, exactly, Bede brings chronicle and martyrology together to create something new. It seemed to me that Gunn also demonstrates the ways in which Bede innovates--or at least breaks from generic precedent--in his HA, as a proto-gestae abbatum, and in his EH, with its focus on positive examples, though Gunn herself backs away from making these claims explicit. Rather, at the opening of Chapter 5, she refers back to Chapter 4, where she claims "it was also stated that if a text did not fit into a particular generic tradition it became a source of unease" (117), but I cannot find any such statement in that chapter. In the other chapters, Gunn either places the bulk of her evidence in the End Notes or relies on references to other sources, not all of which are universally known or available. This becomes deeply problematic in Chapter 7, first, with her discussion of Æthelthryth and Radegund, and again where Gunn claims that Bede uses "verbatim sentences and phrases" (168), but never presents a single example of Bede doing so. A few of Bede's allusions to the Aeneid are quite famous, but Gunn does not quote them. Instead, in her discussion of Edwin's virtues, she asserts the similarities between Bede's text and the anonymous Hiberno-Latin treatise De duodecim abusiuis saeculi. One must turn to the notes to read the evidence: "contigere prae magnitudine uel timoris eius auderet uel amoris uellet" (EH, II:16; Gunn 220 n.102) and "nisi enim ametur dominus et metuatur, ordinatio illius constare minime potent" (De duodecim 160; Gunn 220 n.103). While these clauses express similar ideas, they cannot be considered verbatim. Gunn's argument in this chapter cannot stand given the absence of evidence and the allusiveness of her own textual strategies.

Chapters 1-3 over-emphasize the rift between Roman and Irish practices; indeed, Gunn's own counter-arguments and acknowledgments of the vagaries of dating begin to weigh down, if not outweigh her arguments about the trajectory of Romanization in Northumbria. Nicholas Howe and Susan Irvine have recently reiterated the importance of Rome in Anglo-Saxon England, along with Bede's role in transmitting knowledge about figures like Gregory and Wilfrid, but Gunn does not make reference to these, or other, more recent studies. [1] Jean-Michel Picard's work on this topic goes unmentioned. [2] Furthermore, a close examination of the EH itself shows that Bede works on a case-by-case basis when it comes to praising or condemning the practices of people and monastic houses. In his treatment of Aidan in Book III, for example, Bede carefully distinguishes practice from practice so as to praise what he sees as Aidan's virtues, then criticizes what he sees as problematic. Gunn's insistence that we can read these controversies as generalized political biases proves to be an exercise in frustration, as she doubles back over her own arguments repeatedly.

Finally, despite the clearly literary and textual emphases of this study, Gunn refuses to engage directly with either contemporary literary criticism or any late 20th-century historical theory. Hayden White, Paul Veyne and Dominick LaCapra have, rather famously, written important theoretical works examining the ways in which historical narratives operate in language, and other scholars of Bede have actively applied these ideas to a variety of Bede's writings. [3] Gunn's discussions of literacy and audience are also thin and fail to reflect the dynamic advances in those areas made by Franz Bäuml, George Hardin Brown and Ursula Schaeffer, among others. [4] While I would still recommend the core chapters of Gunn's book as providing important contributions to the study of Bede's HA, Greater Chronicle and Martyrology, her treatment of the EH is not fully substantiated and her treatment of historical textuality is insufficiently theorized.

-------- Notes:

1. Nicholas Howe, "Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34.1 (2004): 147-172; Susan Irvine, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the idea of Rome in Alfredian Literature,"Alfred the Great: Papers from the Eleventh-Centenary Conferences, Timothy Reuter, ed. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 63-77.

2. Jean-Michel Picard, "Bede, Adomnn, and the Writing of History," Peritia 3 (1984) pp. 50-70.

3. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); Paul Veyne, Writing History: Essay on Epistemology, trans. Mina Moore-Rinvolucri (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984); Dominick LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Context, Language (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983). In relation to Bede specifically, see S.M. Rowley, "Reassessing Exegetical Interpretations of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum," Literature and Theology 17.3 (2003): pp. 227-43; Jan Davidse, "On Bede as Christian Historian," Beda Venerabilis: Historian, Monk, Northumbrian (Mediaevalia Groningana 19) ed. L.A.J.R. Huowen and A. A. MacDonald (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1996), pp. 1-15. Gunn cites Huowen and MacDonald's collection once, when citing Alan Thacker's essay, but does not fully address the extent to which the collection addresses concerns similar to her own.

4. Franz H. Bäuml, "Varieties and Consequences of Medieval Literacy and Illiteracy," Speculum 55. 2 (1980): 237-265; George Hardin Brown, The Dynamics of Literacy in Anglo-Saxon England. The 1994 Toller Lecture. Published by the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England, 1995; Franz H. Bäuml, Ursula Schaefer, and Edda Spielmann, eds., Varieties and consequences of literacy and orality: Franz H. Bäuml zum 75. Geburtstag=Formen und Folgen von Schriftlichkeit und Mündlichkeit (Tübingen: Narr, 2001); Michael Richter, The Formation of the Medieval West: Studies in the Oral Culture of the Barbarians (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994). I would like to thank Dr. Raeleen Chai-Elsholz for discussing some of these sources with me; I take full responsibility, of course, for all aspects of this review.