03.10.04, Althoff, Fried and Geary, Medieval Concepts of the Past

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Elisabeth van houts

The Medieval Review baj9928.0310.004


Althoff, Gerd, Johannes Fried and Patrick J. Geary, eds.. Medieval Concepts of the Past: Ritual, Memory, Historiography. Series: Publications of the German Historical Institute. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 353. ISBN: 0-521-78066-7.

Reviewed by:
Elisabeth van houts

This is a collection of fourteen papers presented at a conference organised by the German Historical Institute at Washington in September 1996. The colloquium, entitled "Image, Ritual, Memory, Historiography: Concepts of the Past," aimed to bring together medievalist historians from Germany and the USA to exchange ideas about the methodology of research and teaching on the Middle Ages in Europe and the New World. In a most interesting introduction the three editors remark on the evolution of the study of the Middle Ages. Although born amongst the Maurists in eighteenth-century France, the first scientific studies emanate from the circle around the Monumenta Germaniae Historica project set up in the early nineteenth century to collect and publish all medieval narrative and documentary sources for the German Middle Ages. They readily admit that the flourishing of medieval studies in the USA owed more initially to the influence of the French medievalists with the result that giants such as Charles Homer Haskins, one of the American representatives at the Peace of Versailles, concentrated on Norman history rather than on any German topic. After the Second World War cordial relations were reestablished between the American and German scholarly worlds. Quite rightly the editors see as a culmination of this process the remarkable convergence of ideas on liturgy, commemoration, and historical memorial traditions in the 1980s and 1990s exemplified in the work of Patrick Geary in the USA and in that of Gerd Althoff and his circle in Munster.

By bringing together scholars from the two countries and two traditions the conference organisers, and now editors of this volume, hope to bridge the gap between the two. The persistence of the gap is partly due to the language problem. As long as medievalists write primarily in a language, German, that cannot be readily accessed in the English-speaking world they are doomed to a certain isolation. However much we all encourage our students to learn languages other than our mother tongue, those whose mother tongue is English need extra encouragement to be persuaded that scholarship can be conducted in other languages apart from English. Conversely, those whose mother tongue is not English, maintain quite rightly that they cannot be expected to write easily in a language that is not their own. The reason that I dwell on this point is that despite the good intentions of the conference organisers/editors, the German contributions abound in references to German (and Latin) texts, whereas the American contributions contain mostly annotation consisting of references to English language books. Thus the volume, meant to bridge a perceived gap, ironically highlights one of the main problems it is meant to overcome. Nevertheless, the intention is to be applauded. We need many more such collaborative ventures to enable scholars to look beyond their own national boundaries and to sample foreign ways of scholarship.

The collection is an very interesting one. The first cluster of essays deals with the importance of ritual as a tool of politics and display of authority. In a stimulating contribution Gerd Althoff (Chapter 3) explains how indebted historians, and especially medievalists, are to the work of sociologists and anthropologists, while Hannah Vollrath (Chapter 4) applies some of these interdisciplinary methods to the functioning of custom and exercise of justice by kings. Most of our sources focus not surprisingly on monarchs and their court ceremonial and they are sensitively explored with relation to Henry II (of Germany) by Stefan Weinfurter and John Bernhardt (Chapters 1 and 2). The second cluster is devoted to aspects of textuality and the formation of historiographical traditions in the Middle Ages. How do oral traditions lead to written narratives? Can we divorce one from the other? Can we generalise about the memories that get lost in the mist of time? And how did medieval people guard themselves in the fight against oblivion? These questions are discussed for the tenth century by Patrick Geary (Chapter 5) who has made the concept of oblivion such an important area of research for the early Middle Ages. Philippe Buc interestingly explores the case study centered on events in Rome in the year 864 (Chapter 6), while Hans Werner Goetz (Chapter 7) with characteristic magisterial flair discusses concepts of time over two centuries in the medieval German speaking world. Not surprisingly given his oeuvre, he stresses the centrality of the present day as the point of departure for all writing about the past. This point is also taken up by Bernd Schneidm├╝ller (Chapter 8), who analyses the various ways in which institutional histories are written from the perspective of present day crises. No drama in the twentieth century has been deemed worse than the persecution of the Jews during the Second World War. The modern historian David Nirenberg (Chapter 13) throws new light on the contemporary accounts of the Jewish persecution in the Rhineland in the late eleventh century by drawing interesting parallels between the twelfth-century and twentieth-century written traditions. There is of course a strong memorial aspect to the representation of two such traumatic events.

The last cluster of the book is devoted to the theme of commemoration and in particular commemoration within the family or kin group. By its very nature such memorial traditions are usually very localised, a point well made with respect to France by Amy Remensnyder (Chapter 9), and for northern Italy and southern Austria by John Freed (Chapter 11). In the latter's contribution we find a fascinating study of the so-called Codex Falkensteinensis, which records the claims by the Falkenstein family to family possessions a long way removed from their main base. That memorial traditions were gendered in that both men and women were considered responsible for guarding the family estates is beautifully illustrated in one of the manuscript's illuminations, printed in the volume on p. 235. Count Sigiboto IV, his wife Hildegard and their two sons are pictured holding, all four of them, a scroll with an exhortation to remember; "Sons, bid your father farewell and speak respectfully to your mother. Dear one who reads this, we beseech you, remember us. All may do this, but especially you, dearest son."

Two other contributions single out the commemorative tasks of women in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages in particular. Berhard Jussen (chapter 10) devotes a fascinating paper to the notion of the faithless widow who neglects her tasks based on a study of patristic literature, while Felice Lifschitz (Chapter 14) explores the function of tombs in early Christian communities. Her contribution is to be commended as the only one, as far as I can judge, whose work contains literature that has been published later than the conference and therefore bridges the considerable gap of six years between conference (1996) and publication (2002).

One chapter (12) sits oddly in this collection and that is a study entitled "The strange pilgrimage of Odo of Deuil." Presenting an unorthodox view by arguing in favour of falsification, Beate Schuster makes an attempt (not very successful) to discredit Odo of Deuil's well known account of the Second Crusade. According to her interpretation the text as we know it was constructed at the end of the twelfth century by an anonymous author who pretended to be Odo of Deuil, abbot of Saint-Denis. Consequently the narrative is a fictitious concoction without any contemporary value. Unfortunately, Schuster does not give any reasons why this unknowable person would have gone to the trouble of doing this. Her main argument for falsification, it seems, is that the sole manuscript dates from the late twelfth century. I remain not only unconvinced, but I also despair about the trend that every decade or so someone stands up and declares a perfectly innocent chronicle to be a falsification. Such a suggestion then inserts itself as sane into the historiography from which it cannot be dislodged for at least twenty odd years. We Anglo-Normanists had to live for more than twenty-five years with the untenable notion that the Song of the Battle of Hastings (Carmen de Hastingae Proelio) was not a contemporary poem of the famous battle of 1066 but a school product of the 1120s. In that case too the main argument put forward was that the most important manuscript could be dated as late as the early twelfth century. In an otherwise stimulating and thought provoking collection, the Schuster thesis is an unfortunate "blip" of insensitive hypercriticism unworthy of association with the stars of German and American medieval scholarship, whose work is so splendidly celebrated in this volume.

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Elisabeth van houts