03.01.09, Rider, God's Scribe

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Carol Symes

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.009


Rider, Jeff. God's Scribe: The Historiographical Art of Galbert of Bruges. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America, 2001. Pp. viii,360. ISBN: 0-08132-1018-6.

Reviewed by:
Carol Symes
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The story of the murder of Count Charles "the Good" of Flanders is familiar to every student of medieval history, and Galbert of Bruges' account of the circumstances leading up to this event, and its aftermath, is one of the primary sources on which many of us cut our first scholarly teeth. Jeff Rider's book should therefore be of interest to almost all readers of this review, as well as to their students. I myself have relied for many years on a now limp and much-scored copy of the classic translation by James Bruce Ross (originally published in 1959 by Columbia University Press, reprinted in 1967 by Harper & Row, and still widely available thanks to the Medieval Academy of America's Reprints for Teaching), but Rider's meticulous study calls for a thorough rereading and revision of that text. In fact, I hope that he plans to cap his achievement by publishing a new translation and commentary, which will allow us to bring his expertise directly into our classrooms.

God's Scribe: The Historiographical Art of Galbert of Bruges is the analytical sequel to Rider's fine edition of the extraordinary history known as De multro, traditione, et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum, available as volume 131 of the Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio mediaevalis (Turnhout, 1994). Its purpose is to showcase the development of Galbert's peculiar methodology, and to reconstruct the process whereby he gathered and assembled his data, shaped it into a series of descriptive units, recast it as the tale of Count Charles' martyrdom, and later revised it in the light of his contemporaries' subsequent actions and his own changing conception of how God's will is made manifest in the pattern of human affairs. The novelty of Rider's approach is quickly discerned. For if we have relied upon Galbert to inform us about everything from the conduct of court cases to the ceremony of homage to the rise of urban institutions to the early intervention of the king of France in Flemish affairs, it is precisely because his chronicle has appeared to be transparent, artless, and immediate: the plain-spoken tale of a "simple, naive man who had never thought much about the kinds of issues raised by Charles's assassination and the succession to the county" (3), or the journal of a well-placed and cultivated cleric whose supposedly unedited record can be taken at face value. As Rider demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.

In his introduction, Rider summarizes scholarly opinion on Galbert's history, which continues to occupy historians of medieval Flanders and its modern successors. The first chapter then outlines the events described in the history, and summarizes what can be known about Galbert from other sources (very little) or from the history itself (quite a bit). Chapter Two begins the real work of the book, following Galbert as he makes notes on wax tablets "in the midst of such a great tumult" and looking over his shoulder "in the longed-for moment of peace" that allowed him to begin transcribing those notes onto parchment (29-29). Rider carefully differentiates among Galbert's sources of information, which are further enumerated in one of the book's many helpful appendices. These sources include Galbert's own eyewitness, oral testimony (as distinguished from rumor), written documents cited as "litterae," and messages. This last category is deemed worthy of special notice, given "[t]he elision between a written message and its oral performance, or at least the oral message accompanying it" (36), and Rider will later offer some compelling analyses of the many speech-acts seemingly recorded (but really composed) by Galbert. Finally, this chapter attempts to reassemble the skeletal structure that would have emerged when Galbert was able to put his notes in order during the late spring of 1127.

The product of this first phase in the development of the history was a descriptio, a relatively straightforward attempt to organize the data collected in the weeks immediately following the count's death. The second phase resulted in the redrafting of a more complex narrative, executed over the course of the following summer. Rider argues in Chapter Three that this new version was written with a particular audience in mind, the burghers of Bruges, and was the result of Galbert's decision to transform "a description of the siege and punishment of the traitors [in]to a passio Karoli, a description of Charles's life and death and the punishment of his assassins" (51). It was at this time that Galbert added a substantial prologue and introduction, and began to look for ways in which the modus operandi of a just God could be discerned in recent, troubling events. Hence the title of this chapter, "The Comfort of History."

Chapters Four ("The Art of History") and Five ("God's Scribe") delve more deeply into the inner workings of this authorial process, and are the most fascinating sections of the book. In them, Rider shows us how to "look behind the scenes" at Galbert's artistry (87), as he adds layers of meaning through the careful construction of vivid narrative vignettes, performs feats of historical exegesis, and creates verisimilitude through the careful accretion of detail. We watch as leitmotifs are introduced and woven into the existing account, listen as dialogues are scripted and speeches conned, and witness Galbert's mimetic sleight-of-hand in the staging of the ceremonies that marked William Clito's election and entry into his new domain. There are some brilliant readings here, and it is both exciting and disquieting to re-examine, through Rider's lens, one's favorite episodes -- and to recognize that the drama in those set-pieces is largely the product of Galbert's imagination, the special genius of the historian who is also "a natural actor" (123). Rider's own literary acumen is considerable. Better yet, it is intelligible: jargon is conspicuous only by its absence. Critical theory underlies and sustains his detailed examination of the text, but I have seldom encountered so sophisticated an analysis expressed in such plain language.

In his final chapters, Rider turns to the entries added by Galbert in the spring and summer of 1128, when the public rejection of William Clito -- hero of the history's previous redaction -- forced Galbert to become his own revisionist historian (Chapter Six, "The Tyrant"). At the same time, Rider shows that Galbert also began to distance himself from his Flemish countrymen and the citizens of Bruges, with whom he had so closely identified when he was revising his notes the year before, by adopting the superior tone of a latter-day prophet (Chapter Seven, "Sapiens"). This accounts for the series of addenda and notanda that close the history, passages that the author may have intended to work into a further draft that would articulate his new position. But this was never produced, and the De multro as we know it remains a work-in-progress.

A glance at Rider's earlier edition of the text reveals that even the history of its manuscript transmission is far from straightforward. Galbert's autograph did not survive, and the later twelfth-century copy that was edited by the Bollandists in the seventeenth century is now lost; the edition of Henri Pirenne, like the corrected edition prepared by Rider, is based on a handful of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscript copies. The provenance of these manuscripts, in Bruges and Arras and Antwerp, testify in turn to a renewed interest in the history of medieval Flanders, and its continuously vexed relationship with France and the Empire. Excerpts of Galbert's history also constitute the first items in a diplomatic treatise entitled "Traittez entre la France et la Flandre" now in the Bibliothèque nationale, while a partial French translation was in existence by the fifteenth century and found its way to the Niedersaechsische Landesbibliothek in Hanover. A summary of that translation turns up in another manuscript from Bruges, under the rubric "Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas." There is something strangely apt about this renewed process of annotation, revision, and adaptation, a trajectory mirroring that revealed in this skillful investigation of Galbert's evolving historiography.

A group of papers delivered at the most recent meeting of the Medieval Academy ("Galbert of Bruges Stages 'Our Town,'" a session organized by Sarah Foot and featuring presentations by Mary Agnes Edsall, Nancy Partner, and Robert Stein) offered a timely introduction to Galbert's use, manipulation, and suppression of evidence in his history. Rider's impressive anatomy of the artifact and its author materially advances such inquiries, and is itself an exemplary work of historiography -- in large part because Rider combines the talents of the linguist and literary critic with the training of an historian. I was reminded of Joaquín Martínez Pizarro's A Rhetoric of the Scene (Toronto, 1989) and its delicate dissection of early medieval narratives or Steven Justice's re-reading of documents generated by the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in Writing and Rebellion (Berkeley, 1994), monographs which illuminate well-known historical materials by subjecting them to a scrutiny that digs beneath surfaces long since strip-mined for facts. Yet Rider's approach is also fully informed by the historical method, precisely situated within the long tradition of historical scholarship that surrounds the De multro, and firmly grounded in historical philology. The result is radical in the best sense, a kind of intellectual archeology.

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Author Biography

Carol Symes

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign