12.09.25, Beech, Solving Some Enigmas of the Middle Ages

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Constance H. Berman

The Medieval Review 12.09.25

Beech, George T.. Solving Some Enigmas of the Middle Ages: The Historian as Detective. Lewiston, NY:The Edwin Mellen Press, 2011. Pp. 468. ISBN: 978-0-7734-1538-6.

Reviewed by:

Constance H. Berman
University of Iowa

We medievalists often see ourselves as slogging through masses of material to arrive at what to all appearances are simple and minor conclusions that will not change the major discourse. These articles, particularly as presented here, will do so. I once thought that I knew George Beech's work well, but these are all are new articles to me and it has been a pleasure to read the explanations of how historians follow faint traces to solve enigmas in this volume of reprinted articles, but with explanatory comments, by George Beech, occasionally with Beatrice Beech.

The collection presents an itinerary of the Beeches' travels to and from Paris and to meetings of professional societies over the last quarter century. Each article or set of articles considers an historian's puzzle. Thus in deciphering a mysterious word we see a world of trans-Pyrenean contacts in "The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase, William IX of Aquitaine, and Muslim Spain," (originally published in Gesta 32 (1993): 3-10), and "The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase: Its Origins and History to the Early Twelfth Century," from Ars Orientalis 22 (1994): 69-79. Similarly insightful in tracing literary historians' errors back to their source is "Troubadour Contacts with Muslim Spain and Knowledge of Arabic: New Evidence Concerning William IX of Aquitaine," published in Romania 113 (1992-95): 14-42, and "The Attribution of the poems of the Count of Poitiers to William IX of Aquitaine," Cahiers de civilization médiévale 31 (1988): 3-16.

Art historical interests are at the heart of a discussion of whether there were copies of the Bayeux Tapestry, or just that it moved around in the later middle ages, in three articles that lay the groundwork for an entire book by Beech. Thus we find "Saint-Florent of Saumur and the Origin of the Bayeux Tapestry," from Francia 33/1(2006): 17-32; "Could Duke Phillip the Good of Burgundy have owned the Bayeux Tapestry in 1430?" from Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire 83 (2005): 355-65; and "An 'old' Conquest of England Tapestry owned by the rulers of France, England and Burgundy," from that same journal and volume, Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire 83 (2005): 1017-27. So are those published with Beatrice Beech, "A Painting, a Poem, and a Controversy about Women and Love in Paris in the 1530s," in The Sixteenth Century Journal 34 (2003): 625-52, and "'Les Obseques d'amour': a Poem of 1546 and a Parisian Controversy about Women and Love, " in La Revue du seizième siècle (2005): 237- 256.

Its gaze on the historian at work, the historian wrestling with evidence like a detective is something I want to try to share with my grad students and I certainly will expose them to one of these enigmas in the fall, but which of these examples should I choose? Why and when did the French begin to call that country across the channel "Angleterre"? That is the subject of "The Naming of England 1014-35," History Today (Oct. 2007): 31-38 and "How Angleterre came to be the French country name for England in the eleventh-century," Beitrage zur Namenforschung 43 (2008): 289-99. The interactions of England and Aquitaine and Anglo Normans are discussed in a series of articles: "Queen Mathilda of England and the Abbey of La Chaise- Dieu in the Auvergne," Frümittelalterliche Studien 27 (1993) 350-74; "England and Aquitaine in the century before the Norman Conquest," Anglo-Saxon England (1989): 81-101; "Aquitanians and Flemings in the Refoundation of Bardney Abbey in the later Eleventh Century," The Haskins Society Journal (1989): 73-90; "The Participation of Aquitanians in the Conquest of England, 1066-1100," Anglo-Norman Studies (1987): 1-24; "The Norman-Italian Adventurer in the East, Richard of Salerno, 1097-1112," Anglo- Norman Studies (1993): 25-40. Similarly we see the relationship between history and the Bible in "The Biblical David as Role Model in the early eleventh-century Latin narrative, the Conventum of Aquitaine," Foi chretienne (Limoges, 2004): 253-69.

As Beech puts it himself, "These articles present a number of different kinds of problems or mysteries...The subjects under investigation vary considerably in nature, ranging from works of art...to the identity of an unnamed English queen and the author of some famous poems." The volume contains seventeen articles, each introduced by a brief reflection on its origins and significance. All are reset with page numbering continuous throughout, and at least one is the English version of something presented in another language. The selections are presented in roughly chronological order for the topics themselves, rather than in order of publication, so that their significance one to the next is more easily seen. Nineteen illustrations, maps, chart and family trees are incorporated without page numbers between pages 254 and 255 at the center of the volume, and there is an index with a full page of references to "Williams."

Beech's conclusions about Aquitaine and the Aquitanians in particular suggest that more collaborative detective work is needed to unravel the mysteries of a region too often neglected--perhaps because it was at the time neither France nor Britain. There is much inspiration in this volume for all of us willing to follow in George Beech's footsteps in carefully deconstructing and disrupting traditional assumptions. An excellent model of keen scholarship and a good read. Bravo!

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Constance H. Berman

University of Iowa