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03.12.24, Deliyannis, ed., Historiography

The Medieval Review

03.12.24, Deliyannis, ed., Historiography

This fascinating and instructive book on Historiography in the Middle Ages, edited by Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, is part handbook, providing a wide-ranging survey of the varieties of medieval historical writing from their origins in Universal History in the fourth century to the emergence of urban historiography in the later Middle Ages, and part polemic, directed towards a new exploration and, she hopes, partial rehabilitation of the idea of genre as a concept governing the production of history throughout the medieval period. The two aspects are linked, since it is through the extensive survey of a huge number of medieval historical texts that the concept of genre is both tested and refined. One gets the feeling reading through the chapters that the various authors were explicitly asked to consider the question of genre and its viability with respect to their assigned topics, and that the authors themselves, while rarely accepting the idea that genre as such informed the efforts of the writers they study, made a good faith effort to understand its place in, and possible utility for, the analysis of medieval historical writing. No author accepts unproblematically the idea that genre governed historiographical praxis at any time throughout the Middle Ages, but all endeavor to trace its partial impact as it appears to be at work in framing the subjects and rhetorical modalities employed in treating them that the collection's authors discern within their respective bodies of texts. The result, overall, is one of the most informative and sensitively developed surveys of medieval historiography to date, a book that can usefully be consulted by specialists and non- specialists alike.

The introduction by Deliyannis clearly lays out the underlying agenda of the work, which seeks to answer the question "whether it is possible to generalize about the ways in which historical texts can or should be meaningfully categorized, subdivided and discussed," a taxonomic project that can be treated either from the point of view of modern scholars and the conventions they use to group what goes by the name of historical writing in the Middle Ages, or, more difficultly, by surveying the entire body of medieval historiography in order "to see patterns, paths of influence and similarities that allow us to draw conclusions about the function and meaning of the texts" (2). From the latter perspective, the question becomes: "did medieval authors themselves notice such similarities; did they categorize the products of their scholarship in the same ways" (2). Behind these questions lies the issue of "whether or not the nominal terms used by and about medieval historians, such as historia, chronica, annals, gestae had particular meanings that were commonly understood over time" (5). Because Deliyannis sought to resolve the issue of genre from both perspectives, she elected to present the most capacious survey of the extant body of texts that could reasonably be analyzed within the covers of a single book, with each author addressing the question of genre in his or her own manner, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, resulting in non-symmetrical, but nonetheless helpful discussions. As Deliyannis herself acknowledges, the weight of scholarly opinion suggests that genre was not a constitutive force governing medieval historiographical texts, although she insists that such a survey does allow us to "see what entities were considered worthy of having their histories written, which conventions and genres were considered suitable for them, and thus ultimately [to] understand something about historical genres as well. At certain points we can see that a genre has developed, with assumptions and rules, and based on a recognized model" (10). This is a serious and honest approach, one whose utility is validated in the body of the book.

The book is divided into two parts, the first covering Early Medieval Historiography (300-1000), which contains chapters on 1) Universal History by Michael I. Allen; 2) Ethnic and National History, by Joaquin Martinez Pizarro; 3) Local and Institutional History by Michel Sot; and 4) Christian Biography, by Thomas J. Heffernan. Part two recapitulates these categories, but makes place for the enormous increase in historiographical production and the growing diversity of historical topics and forms that characterized the High and Late Middle Ages, due to the increasingly diverse and complex nature of medieval society itself. To do justice to this phase of medieval historiography (stretching from 1100-1500) requires twice the number of chapters as in Part One. The section takes up developments in 1) World Historiography in the Late Middle Ages, by Rolf Sprandel; 2) High and Late Medieval National Historiography by Norbert Kersken; 3) Dynastic History, by Leah Shopkow; adds chapters on 4) Contemporary and "Eyewitness" history by Peter Ainsworth; Later Medieval Institutional History, by Bert Roest; 10) Medieval Urban Historiography in Western Europe, by Augusto Vasina; 11) Biography, by Michael Goodich and concludes with a survey of "Legendary History" by Peter Ainsworth that explores the growing interconnections between the emergence of vernacular literature in the twelfth century that imaginatively treats "historical" -- that is legendary topics such as King Arthur, Brut, and the like -- and the appearance of vernacular historiography proper, which drew upon the literary practices of romance literature but eschewed its use of poetry and adopted prose as the language of history in the thirteenth century.

It is impossible in the space allotted here to do justice to the achievements of all the authors with a full treatment of the topics outlined above, but a few general characteristics can be noted. To begin with, despite the absence of a chapter devoted specifically to hagiography, several contributions, notably the two on biography (but not only those two) are centrally concerned with the writing of saints' lives. Thus, Thomas J. Heffernan analyzes the rise of medieval biography as a new, and specifically Christian, genre by demonstrating its reliance upon the imitation of Christ in a paradigmatic moment on the cross, when Christ cries out in seeming agony, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me." Heffernan shows how this cry, a quotation of Psalm 22:1, would have instantly sent readers and hearers to its source in the Psalms, and thus to interpret it as the consolation of an innocent victim, made to suffer but then delivered, moving away from the image of Christ on the cross to that of a triumphant, messianic Jesus (123). Thus, he argues, Christian biographies, in sharp contrast to Classical texts, depended on a particular kind of mimesis that operated through recursive structures (such as sending the reader/auditor to Psalm 22), which might appear as anecdotes, metaphors, events or even exact language from Scripture, whose general tendency was to subordinate the particular subject being written about (the human Jesus on the cross) to a theological or moral historiography. Henceforth, he argues, all Christian sacred biography and history "will ever after seek to root the particular in the general, even when constructing the most apparently unique moments." Similarly, Michael Goodich's chapter on biography, although addressing a period when a much greater variety of persons presented themselves for consideration, focuses almost exclusively on the continued growth and increasing diversity of hagiographical writings, which expanded to meet the challenge of the new orders, the appearance of female orders and even lay saints in the High Middle Ages. Although Goodich is aware of and notes writings like Suger's Vita Ludovici Grossi and the numerous regnal histories of kings that were produced in the high Middle Ages, the chapter pays them scant attention by comparison with the focus on hagiography. More surprisingly, the chapter on Later Medieval Institutional History by Bert Roest, after a brief survey of monastic and episcopal histories in the period, centers on developments in hagiography connected to the emergence of the new orders, especially Franciscans and Dominicans, where institutional history came packaged in the lives of the saints and their companions that led to their establishment.

I confess that, as someone who has spent the greater part of my scholarly life examining royal and aristocratic historiography in both Latin and Old French, I was surprised by the dominance of ecclesiastical texts over secular ones in the treatments of historical texts offered throughout the book. Thus Michel Sot's chapter on "Local and Institutional History" in the early Middle Ages elaborates the formal development of the gesta episcoporum, and indicates how the Liber Pontificalis became the paradigmatic form of local and institutional history throughout the early Middle Ages. However, Sot adds, because the history of the Bishops of Rome was also the history of the Church as a whole, paradoxically local and institutional history, as least from the 3rd to the 10th centuries, always possesses a universal dimension (114), complicating once again the notion of genre. Bert Roest comes to a similar conclusion in his discussion of local and institutional history in the later period.

Such resonance between chapters is a hallmark of the book, producing interesting echoes as one moves through it. For example, the creation of Christian Universal History by Eusebius and Jerome reappears as an underlying model, though modified in its eschatological goals (largely abandoned later on) for ethnic and national Histories written both in the Early and High Middle Ages, as Pizarro and Kersken demonstrate. In this way, the treatment of novel topics, such as the appearance of new gentes in the early Middle ages, draws on traditional models as ways of coming to grips with them, inserting them within a larger Christian understanding of human history. Thus, more often than one might have expected, when medieval writers of history were faced with novel social developments, such as the rise of towns and urban communities beginning in the twelfth century, the first impulse was to assimilate their histories to traditional frameworks, such as the gesta episcoporum, which functions as the template for "local history" in the Middle Ages. Only in the Po Valley, argues Vasina, do we find texts evincing a genuine "consciousness of civic identity manifested especially in politically advanced states and urban societies." (325), in large part because civic consciousness there was nurtured by the need to defend communal autonomy and "liberties" against imperial Hohenstaufen domination. Among the book's sixteen chapters, only three are exclusively concerned with secular texts (albeit written for the most part by clerics), those, not surprisingly, that deal with dynastic history and with vernacular histories, whether contemporary, such as the eyewitness accounts of the Crusades by writers such as Villehardouin or legendary, both topics sensitively handled by Peter Ainsworth.

Leah Shopkow's wide-ranging chapter on Dynastic History provides as good a test as any of the force of genre in medieval historiography, since many of the known dynastic histories were rooted in genealogical texts that were, as she states, "clear in their form" (220). Addressed first to aristocratic patrons, and subsequently to royal houses, dynastic histories deployed genealogical information and consciousness but in ways that partook more of serial biography than genealogy, in large part because dynasties changed lines repeatedly (the Capetians being the exception to this rule) and thus could not trace blood descent throughout the course of their histories. Indeed, she argues, most royal history did not take dynastic form -- French royal history as exemplified by the Grandes Chroniques de France once more proving the exception -- and later developments are exemplified by Robert of Torigni's decision not to continue writing dynastic history (as part of his continuation of Orderic Vitalis) but instead to write a universal chronicle. In the end, Shopkow persuasively argues, most dynastic histories display little of their putative debt to genealogical consciousness; rather, they grow out of institutional history and are more concerned with rulers and the peoples they rule than with family per se. Genre here, as virtually everywhere throughout Historiography in the Middle Ages, offers a perspective on the writings produced, but cannot be maintained as the dominant influence on the forms eventually taken by individual texts.

To say this, however, does nothing to detract from the high quality and utility of the present collection, which goes far beyond its modest aim of providing a handbook of medieval historiography in the subtlety of its argumentation and extraordinary range of the material covered. This is a book that can be usefully read by anyone interested in medieval historiography.