12.06.31, Rosenthal, ed., Understanding Medieval Primary Sources

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Michael Burger

The Medieval Review 12.06.31

Rosenthal, Joel T.. Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources to Discover Medieval Europe. Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources. New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. x, 262. ISBN: 978-0-415-78073-5.
ISBN: 978-0-415-78074-2.

Reviewed by:
Michael Burger
Auburn University Montgomery

How to teach students how to use primary sources? Different instructors answer this question differently. So one should not be surprised that a volume like this, whose contributors were asked to write essays introducing students to sources of medieval history, would produce diverse responses. Indeed, the book's editor says that he allowed each essayist to, in his words, "do her or his own thing" (x). The result is an uneven collection, uneven not in the sense of varying caliber--although there is some of that--but varying approaches to the problem. One variation was baked into the book from the start. Some contributors were asked to write about a particular class of sources, such as wills. Others were asked to write about various sources that illuminate a particular topic, such as medieval women. Students are thus presented with two directions from which to approach sources: from a kind of source "out" to topics, and from topics "in" to sources. Joel Rosenthal, the volume's editor, notes that the book skews toward England, although there is certainly plenty of discussion of continental material as well.

The first approach--starting with a class of source--can tempt one to try to cover everything. When the genre of source is "royal and secular biography" (Ralph A. Griffiths), the result can be a little breathless (a problem, it must be said, also faced by writers of reviews of collections of essays). Griffiths takes readers on a rapid, roughly chronological, tour of examples of the genre, with some of the classics (e.g., Anna Comnena, Joinville) coming in for relatively extended treatment and quotation. Griffiths aims to give students a taste of the variety of such sources and stop there, rather than show students how some historians have used such sources. Lister M. Matheson deals with "Vernacular chronicles and narrative sources of history in medieval England" by applying a taxonomy to such works, one that embraces medieval views of them. The result is even more breathless than Griffiths' discussion. The essay would be of interest to those with some sophistication, but it is not for beginners. Some of his allusions, e.g., to the New Criticism and Aristotle's Poetics, underline that point. This is unfortunate because Matheson's brief discussion of manuscripts--what one can tell from the fact that particular works were bound together--would be good reading for students.

Anne T. Thayer's "The medieval sermon: text, performance and insight" cogently identifies topics illuminated by sermons and points to some larger theoretical issues of interpretation. She also helps out students in other ways, by, for example, directing them to J. B. Schneyer's Repertorium of Latin sermons, with warnings as to its reliability. That kind of consideration, albeit in a more diffuse way, also marks Shona Kelly Wray's and Roissin Cossar's discussion of "Wills as primary sources," which informs students about what kinds of archives hold wills (which helps advanced students only) but also directs them to the Institute for Historical Research's "British History Online" website for translations of English ones. Wray and Cossar provide examples of how historians have used wills as well as a couple of sample wills in translation. They also discuss how the legal regimes of the Middle Ages influenced wills--in particular distinguishing the notarized versions of southern Europe from the sealed ones of the north. Students will need, however, to be warned off the statement that "the English church courts dealt exclusively with questions of the inheritance of land, not moveable property or chattels" (68).

As the above discussion of wills suggests, some contributors deal with how medieval conditions shaped the sources themselves. Joel Rosenthal's treatment of "Letters and letter collections" is especially good on this, telling students about the ars dictaminis that influenced so many medieval letters (and limits to that influence) and pointing out that the collectors who put together medieval letter collections were not neutral archivists but had agendas that affected what letters got preserved and what did not. He also gives a fine account of the variety of letters, from administrative form letters to the personal missive.

Although Rosenthal categorizes them as sui generis, two other essays also work from primary evidence "out." These essays concern aspects of material rather than written evidence. Sara Lipton examines "Images and objects as sources for medieval history." Some of her discussion sets these sources in the context of historiographical developments, in particular a "visual turn" in cultural analysis in the 1990s. Students can get a sense of the variety of images that survive from the Middle Ages. Lipton also gives students a useful series of warnings accompanied by examples: that it is not always clear what an image is an image of (are faces with pointed hats those of Jews or of bishops?); that images cannot be assumed to reflect physical reality; that the meaning of images could change over time; that images can be "argumentative" rather than reflect a general cultural consensus. Lipton also discusses some of the uses to which images can be put, such as tracking iconographic change over time or reading against the grain (although she does not introduce students to that expression). Students also get a taste of different theoretical perspectives that have been brought to the study of images--Marxism, feminism, semiotics, and deconstruction. In addition, Lipton deals with formal analysis and style (e.g., how the transmission of style can help uncover trade connections) and other matters (e.g., how the sizes of objects can reveal how itinerant people were). Regrettably, unlike the rest of the collection, no list of further readings accompanies this entry, although the notes are fuller than for most other essays. Paired with Lipton's piece is one by David A. Hinton on "Medieval archaeology," which deals largely with England. Hinton very clearly reminds students that the whole of the physical remains of the past is fodder for archaeologists, not just what is dug out of the ground, and not just artifacts. So he covers, for example, still-standing buildings and bones. After discussing how some physical remains survive and others do not, as well as issues of excavation and recording, Hinton deals with some very large interpretative issues: human agency, the relationship between physical and written evidence (sometimes the latter has been good for archaeologists, sometimes bad) and some medium-sized issues (changing interpretations of castles and of peasant houses).

Mark G. Pegg assesses what can be gleaned from inquisition testimony in "Historians and inquisitors: testimony from the early inquisitions into heretical depravity." By outlining the historiography of the use of these sources, he alerts students to subjects such sources might be used to address. Pegg also explains some of the problems these sources pose. For example, testimony was influenced by the concerns and assumptions of the inquisitors and also--a point easily forgotten- -the agendas of witnesses who came before them. Moreover, the language of the record is not that of the witnesses. For these reasons, the truth of the ideas or behavior that the testimony was about is liable to be obscured. Extensive quotations from these sources help Pegg work through these points. Some students may, however, be thrown by bits of untranslated Latin and allusions to schools of anthropology. I confess that I myself am still unsure of what "narrative innateness" (106) means, although the context of Pegg's discussion helps.

In "Coronation rituals and related materials," Jinty Nelson uses cognate sources to rehabilitate the value of coronation ordines as sources for what actually happened at coronations, thus countering the skepticism of Philippe Buc on the subject. Chronicles, she finds, generally confirm the ordines. Students will benefit as Nelson takes them by the hand through the controversy, with generous translated quotations from the sources. This is a nice way of showing how different categories of sources can be used to address an historiographical controversy. Bernard S. Bachrach's "Writing military history from narrative sources: Norman battlefield tactics, c. 1000" has a similar feel, as Bachrach uses some sources to check others in order to establish that Dudo of Saint Quentin projected the tactics of the early eleventh century back onto the early tenth. Although Rosenthal puts this essay in his second category (from a topic "in" to the sources), one can read Bachrach's contribution as a microstudy of one source (Dudo) for one problem. Similarly, Nelson's essay is arguably focused less on coronations than on one class of source (ordines), and Pegg's less on heresy than on inquisition testimony.

The essays concerned with the multifarious sources pertaining to a particular topic range widely, from narrow subjects to broad ones. The broadest, and the most elegant, is Katherine L. French's "Medieval women's history: sources and issues." French brings coherence to what could have been an unmanageable survey by examining first descriptive, than prescriptive, sources. For each category (more systematically regarding descriptive sources) she provides a thumbnail sketch of some analysis that has been done using a class of sources and refers to the historian who did it (e.g., charters and Amy Livingstone, testimony regarding miracles and Sharon Farmer). She then brings these discussions together, arguing that the gap between medieval expectation and practice showed that women had agency (could there be other explanations--e.g., rival norms that do not survive so well in the sources?) and discussing the interaction between normative standards and actual behavior. This essay could have served as a model for the collection.

But there are more riches to be had. Philip Slavin lucidly surveys "The sources for manorial and rural history," distinguishing between sources concerned with demesne and sources concerned with peasants, noting that these categories often overlap. He thus covers manorial accounts, manor court rolls, manorial surveys of various kinds, inquisitions post mortem, charters, tax assessments, tithe receipts and accounts, literary sources, and archaeology. Slavin also gives examples of their use. Students will learn, too, in what periods and places these different kinds of source are more common, and be directed to handlists of some of them. The next time I ask students to study peasants, I'll assign this essay. This contribution does concern England only.

Aside from some nearly token discussions of the continent, Hannes Kleineke's "Sources for representative institutions" is also limited to England. Kleineke argues that Parliament's procedures and its occasional nature shaped the survival of the sources it produced. He identifies various classes of sources that have been used for various purposes, and nicely serves up case studies in which different classes have been brought together to solve specific problems (e.g., understanding the conflict between a secular college and its pensioners in the fifteenth century). This attention to sources as an organizing principle fades, however, in Carole Rawcliffe's discussion of the "Sources for the study of public health in the medieval city," which reads more like a very good textbook on the subject with some attention to sources rather than a piece on the sources themselves. Rawcliffe, it should be noted, provides a lot of continental coverage. Maryanne Kowaleski's "Sources for medieval maritime history" has something of an English accent, but gives attention to the continent too, proceeding according to categories of sources and giving readers nice samples of specific conclusions drawn from this or that source. Caroline M. Barron's "Sources for medieval urban history" is similar, although less historiographically minded. Students get a quick sketch of urban history from the fall of Rome to ca. 1000, but Barron is concerned with towns only after that point.

Instructors who use this book will probably assign different essays for different purposes. I suspect few instructors will have students read the collection cover to cover. It is, nonetheless, a very valuable collection--all the essays are worth reading. This value is not just intrinsic; nothing else quite offers students what is on offer here. Consider some alternatives. The series Typologie des sources is, of course, excellent, but not enough in English, collectively too long, and mostly not for beginners anyway. G. R. Elton's England 1200-1640 is a memorable introduction to sources for that time and place, but certainly dated (e.g., no women but queens to be found). R. C. van Caenegem's Guide to the Sources of Medieval History is similarly dated and also essentially bibliographical. The recent collection The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources, edited by Jason Glenn, provides students with a number of accessible and illuminating riffs on particular sources, but does not do the other kind of work performed by the volume under review. It may, in fact, be impossible to come up with a fully satisfactory single volume to introduce students to medieval sources--no one, I suspect, is fully satisfied by any such collection of sources themselves either--but in Understanding Medieval Primary Sources instructors now have a valuable collection for the classroom. And their students sent off to write a paper using medieval sources should certainly take the advice Thayer gives readers when it comes to sermons: "Read, learn, interpret, consult, re-read, revise and enjoy!" (55).

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Michael Burger

Auburn University Montgomery