09.03.13, Kooper, ed., Medieval Chronicle V

Main Article Content

Chris Jones

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.013


Kooper, Erik, ed.. The Medieval Chronicle V. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. Pp. ix, 225. ISBN: 9789042023543.

Reviewed by:
Chris Jones
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

For much of the twentieth century the chronicle enjoyed a poor reputation in comparison to other members of the pantheon of historical sources. While providing the researcher with the occasional amusing anecdote or stray fact, the chronicle could not, it was often implied, offer the depth of insight into medieval society that might be gained from the study of--to take just three examples--charters, writs and inquisition records. The humble chronicler was often treated as a slightly embarrassing relative at a family gathering: while his presence was grudgingly tolerated, he was required frequently to sit quietly in a corner while historians interrogated those clerks and lawyers who had become their favoured sons. In recent decades the chronicler has, however, begun to enjoy a renaissance of interest in his work. A new audience of historians are determined to listen to his version of the past more attentively and to ask, in particular, how he assembled his account of it. And, as the fifth volume in the series The Medieval Chronicle reminds us, the chronicler's perspective and the process by which his work was constructed can shed more than a little light on our understanding of medieval society.

The fifteen articles (eleven in English; four in French) that comprise The Medieval Chronicle V are largely the product of papers presented at a conference held at the University of Reading (UK) in July 2005 (an event this reviewer should note he had the great pleasure of attending). The Reading conference was the fourth in a series of on-going tri-annual events that have taken place since 1996 under the International Conference on the Medieval Chronicle banner, and which are now held under the auspices of the Medieval Chronicle Society. The original conference was the brainchild of Erik Kooper, the editor of not only this volume but also of the four that preceded it. These conferences have been intentionally broad and their yearbooks intended "to provide a representative survey of the on-going research in the field of chronicle studies" (cover blurb). As Kooper summarises in a one-page preface, the series of which this volume is a part seeks to explore five basic themes: 1) The chronicle: history or literature?; 2) The function of the chronicle; 3) The form of the chronicle; 4) The chronicle and the reconstruction of the past; 5) Text and image in the chronicle. The essays presented here certainly touch upon all of these.

With the exception of two plenary lectures, which are placed at the beginning of the volume, the contributions are organised alphabetically. Although Kooper has wisely eschewed attempting to impose any further organisational structure on the volume and there is no formal introduction, the one theme that loosely unites this collection is that all the contributions are to some extent concerned with the process by which medieval chroniclers constructed and organised their works. While there is great variety in the way in which this process is explored there are also three sub-themes that emerge particularly strongly in certain of the essays. One of these concerns deliberate selectivity on the part of chroniclers in their use of sources, a second, the important impact nineteenth-century academic practices have had--and continue to have--on our understanding of chronicles and, a third, the wealth of information about the wider social and political structures of medieval society to be gained by studying a chronicle's manuscript tradition.

In one of the most interesting contributions to the volume, Margarida Madureira begins by considering the ways in which the late-twelfth- century chronicler of the Latin East, William of Tyre, tailored the language and structure of his history to the interests of an audience of aristocrats and high ecclesiastics based in the Latin states of Outremer. The most striking aspect of this article comes in Madureira's successful demonstration that the anonymous early- thirteenth-century translator responsible for a French version of William's work introduced key changes to its structure and language in order to make it much more appealing to a lay aristocratic audience living in western Europe. Madureira identifies, in particular, the translator's introduction of terminology that evoked a wider sense of Christian community, rather than simply the community of Levantine Christians that were the focus of William's original efforts. Although Madureira does not raise the issue, there are interesting comparisons to be drawn between the careful adjustments and intentional selectivity of William's translator and the work of a much more famous thirteenth-century translator, Primat, the man responsible in the 1270s for transforming the Latin chronicles of Saint-Denis into the base text of what would become the Grandes Chroniques de France. In any case, Madureira's article highlights the creative role a translator might play in the transmission--indeed re-invention- -of a text or, to put it another way, "d'un certain point de vue, le traducteur est, lui aussi, un 'historien'" (168).

Wojtek Jezierski's contribution highlights intentional selectivity in two tenth-century chronicles, Æthelweard of Wessex's Chronicon Æthelweardi and Widukind of Corvey's Res gestae Saxonicae. The author's argument, however, that the approach of medieval chroniclers can be compared to that adopted by the modern heritage industry is, while interesting and provocative, not entirely persuasive. Nor is a convincing explanation for the suppression of information relating to the Church in both chronicles offered (107), although Jezierski does reflect usefully on Widukind's approach to Saxon-Frankish conflict and Æthelweard's use of Bede. More satisfying is Anti Selart's discussion of one of the key sources for the early history of the expansion of Christendom in north-eastern Europe, the thirteenth-century chronicle of Henry of Livonia. Selart convincingly demonstrates that Henry used his chronicle to present a defence of the rights and role of the church of Riga in the Baltic region, and that he did so by minimising the importance of internal conflicts--such as those between the bishop of Riga and the Sword Brethren--and passing over in silence less positive incidents that might detract from an image of Rigan leadership and independence. The existence of traces of alternative historical accounts originating in the region, elements of which survive in Cistercian chronicles compiled as far away as Champagne, tends to reinforce Selart's point that, "[i]n writing his chronicle, Henry made a selection, which was not at all unintentional" (203). Henry's chronicle is also discussed as part of Linda Kaljundi's considered and thought-provoking exploration of the role of the "other" and "otherness" in four chronicles written by clerics from the archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen. Particularly notable for its discussion of the representation of space, Kaljundi's article argues that concepts of "otherness" derived from Roman, Biblical and hagiographical models--and, in later accounts, crusading models--were employed as a "rhetorical tool" (118) in a process that sought to legitimise the conquest of north-eastern Europe and to establish a sense of common identity in the northern bishoprics.

Medieval chroniclers were not the only ones who could adopt a selective approach to their presentation of information. In an important contribution to the volume Paul Trio highlights the problems that nineteenth-century academics can bequeath to their successors. In 1835 Jean-Jacques Lambin prepared an edition of a chronicle for the years 1377 to 1443. He attributed the work to Olivier van Diksmuide, describing it as a history of Flanders. The work has been used subsequently to reinforce the view that the region, despite its flourishing towns, did not produce specifically "urban" histories but rather works that adopted a wider focus. Lambin's edition became all the more valuable when World War I added the only manuscript of the chronicle, along with the rest of the town archive of Ypres, to its list of casualties. And yet, as Trio demonstrates, Lambin's edition has distorted fundamentally our view of this chronicle by excluding approximately twenty pages of material relating to the town of Ypres, material that can be restored from a nineteenth-century transcription and other sources. As Trio makes clear, our understanding of this chronicle, its authorship and possibly the entire historical culture of fifteenth-century Flanders are in need of revision.

Per Förnegård's examination of the work of the late-fourteenth-century Benedictine of Laon, Jean de Noyal, highlights another nineteenth- century legacy. Jean's lack of originality, tendency to repetition and failure to establish a clear chronology led to his chronicle being largely dismissed by nineteenth-century scholars. Förnegård, consciously echoing Bernard Guenée, reminds us, however, that there is still much that may be learnt from a study of Jean's approach to compilation. If a criticism is to be made of the subsequent analysis, it is that Förnegård does not demonstrate sufficient awareness of recent research concerning what he considers to be one of Jean de Noyal's principle sources, the French version of Guillaume de Nangis's universal chronicle in Paris, BnF MS français 10132. Important contributions to the study of this text and the so-called abridged chronicle of Guillaume de Nangis have been made by Richard and Mary Rouse [1] and Isabelle Guyot-Bachy, the latter in the second volume in this series [2].

Andy King and Julia Marvin's analysis of Sir Thomas Gray's selective use of the Anglo-Norman Brut in compiling his fourteenth- century Scalacronica reminds us that medieval chroniclers might have good reasons for intentionally misleading their readers concerning their use of sources. It is also a reminder of another problematic legacy of earlier scholarship: cataloguing errors. This particular article highlights a slip by the prodigious M. R. James when compiling the 1895 catalogue of manuscripts in the possession of Jesus College, Cambridge, one that resulted in a version of the Brut being mislabelled as a copy of the Scalacronica for nearly a century.

King and Marvin certainly succeed in highlighting the master of the English ghost story's cataloguing oversights but this volume's most in-depth engagement with manuscripts comes elsewhere. In a contribution rich in detail, Marigold Norbye charts the evolution of the genealogical chronicle A tous nobles, a history of the kings of France that enjoyed particular popularity in the fifteenth century. Identifying three key textual families among some sixty-five manuscripts, Norbye focuses on the role of remanieurs, those who selectively remodelled the chronicle very probably to suit the tastes and political persuasions of various lay nobles. A vibrant portrait of historical culture amongst the fifteenth-century aristocracy of western Europe is reinforced by the second article to focus on manuscript tradition, the plenary lecture of Laurence Harf- Lancner. This latter considers the relationship between text and image in certain manuscripts of Froissart. Harf-Lancner convincingly demonstrates the extent to which the choice of incidents to be illuminated could be illustrative of, among other things, political agendas: the portrayal of the battle of Crécy in manuscripts produced for a pro-English Burgundian audience, for example, were markedly different from those produced for a French audience in Paris. We are left in no doubt that the illuminator, just as much as the translator discussed by Madureira, could play a key role in re-interpreting a text.

While a number of the essays in this volume consider the organisational principles that shaped chronicles, few do so more effectively than Graeme Dunphy's discussion of the Middle High German Kaiserchronik. Historians have tended to dismiss the inclusion of three theological disputations in this twelfth-century work as a mere curiosity. Dunphy convincingly argues that these disputations are the key to understanding the structure and purpose of the chronicle, each marking a turning point in an account whose "momentum...is the triumph of the Gospel" (83). This article reminds us of the importance of assessing chronicles on their own terms. Isabel de Barros Dias's discussion of the construction of the encyclopaedic historical projects set in motion by Alfonso X of Castile is similarly stimulating. She identifies the tensions that arose when compilers who sought to be comprehensive faced issues of contradictory or otherwise problematic sources and successfully accounts for the approaches used to incorporate them.

Interesting, if less successful, discussions of the factors that shaped chronicles appear in Alison Williams Lewin's exploration of the influence of chivalric literature on the Sienese chronicler Bindino de Travale, Teresa Amado's examination of the rhetorical techniques employed by the fifteenth-century Portuguese chronicler Ferno Lopes and in Cristian Bratu's efforts to situate early-thirteenth-century chroniclers of the Fourth Crusade within the model of a "Gothic- Scholastic" mindset originally sketched by Erwin Panofsky [3]. Bratu, in particular, raises potentially interesting ideas but does not develop them in sufficient depth to establish them convincingly. He does not, for example, demonstrate that any significant change took place in the approach of early-thirteenth-century chroniclers as no comparisons are drawn between their works and those of earlier writers. Nor does he account adequately for the improbable awareness of complex philosophical and architectural concepts he assumes on the part of the chroniclers discussed [4]. Building on his 2004 book [5], Chris Given-Wilson offers a more convincing portrait of an aspect of the evolution of historical writing in one of the plenary lectures that begin this volume. Here he considers the role played by English monastic chroniclers as disseminators of "official" history, their decline in the early-fifteenth century and their replacement in this role by secular histories sponsored by royal and noble courts. Two criticisms might be levelled at this otherwise wide-ranging and considered article. Given-Wilson adopts a somewhat uncritical acceptance of Gabrielle Spiegel's assessment [6] of the evolution of historical culture in France when (laudably) seeking to situate English developments in their wider context. The article also displays a tendency to assume monastic chroniclers largely lacked their own agendas and acted primarily as passive regurgitators of information.

Featuring articles penned by academics based in institutions in the UK, France, Portugal, the USA, Germany, Sweden, Estonia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Finland, this collection is undoubtedly wide- ranging not only in terms of subject matter but also contributors. While there is a valuable focus on often overlooked areas such as Iberia and north-eastern Europe, two omissions are notable, one a matter of time, the other of space. Firstly, the contributions are concerned almost exclusively with the later Middle Ages. As striking as the absence of any articles dealing with the early medieval world, however, is the omission of any concerned with the Muslim or Byzantine worlds. In the latter case this will doubtless be remedied in future volumes, the fifth tri-annual conference having taken place in 2008 under the sponsorship of the Institute of Byzantine Studies of Queen's University, Belfast. These omissions aside, this volume nevertheless repays careful reading by anyone interested in the history of the chronicle. My own research interests lie in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France and had I not been invited to review this volume I may not have chosen to read many of these essays. Not to have done so, however, would undoubtedly have been a missed opportunity as there is much here to reflect upon and to stimulate future research.

-------- Notes:

1. Richard and Mary Rouse, Manuscripts and their Makers. Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500, 2 vols (Turnhout: H. Miller, 2000).

2. Isabelle Guyot-Bachy, "La diffusion du Roman des roys avant la Guerre de Cent Ans: le manuscrit de Pierre Honoré, serviteur de Charles de Valois", ed. by Erik Kooper in The Medieval Chronicle II (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2002), 90-102; "La Chronique abrégée des rois de France de Guillaume de Nangis: trois étapes de l'histoire d'un texte", ed. by Sophie Cassagnes-Brouquet, Amaury Chauou, Daniel Pichot and Lionel Rousselot in Religion et mentalités au Moyen Âge. Mélanges en l'honneur d'Hervé Martin (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2003), 39-46.

3. Erwin Panofosky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (New York: Meridian Books, 1957).

4. Bratu does not, oddly, reference his own earlier article of the same title (albeit in English) on this topic: Cristian Bratu, "The Aesthetics of the Chroniclers of the Fourth Crusade and the Gothic Scholastic Episteme", Reading Medieval Studies, 31 (2005), 3- 25.

5. Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2004).

6. Gabrielle Spiegel, The Chronicle Tradition of Saint-Denis: A Survey (Brookline/Leyden: Brill, 1978); Romancing the Past. The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Article Details

Author Biography

Chris Jones

University of Canterbury, New Zealand