12.12.06, Maxwell, ed., Representing History

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Beth Williamson

The Medieval Review 12.12.06

Maxwell, Robert A.. Representing History, 900-1300: Art, Music, History. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 278. ISBN: 978-0-271-03636-6.

Reviewed by:
Beth Williamson
University of Bristol

This imaginative collection of essays is the result of a conference at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006. Penn had collaborated with The Index of Christian Art at Princeton to produce a four-day "diptych" of conferences. The first two days were at Princeton, where the discussion focussed on art-historical issues, and the papers from that session have already been published (Colum Hourihane, ed. Romanesque Art and Thought in the Twelfth Century, 2008). The second phase of the event, in Philadelphia, considered "representations of history," and this book is the result of that. Robert Maxwell at the University of Pennsylvania was the driving force behind the Philadelphia leg of the event and is the editor of this volume. The Penn conference sought, according to Robert Maxwell's Preface, to demonstrate how related modes of historical thinking occupied medieval artists, composers and writers alike.

The study of history writing in the medieval period has become part of the modern canon of historiography, with the works of Gabrielle Spiegel (who provides the volume's Introduction, and who offered closing remarks at the original conference), being prominent in that field. Medieval attitudes to the past, and the historicity of medieval writings have been the subject of historical studies for some time. The early phase of medieval historiographical study, however, focussed (as Spiegel points out) upon writings and categories of text that medieval authors and their audiences might have categorised as explicitly "historical," or "about" history, "texts that self-consciously pointed to themselves as historical writings concerned with reporting and explicating some segment of the past" (Spiegel, 2). A later phase of study began to subject medieval historical texts to some of the critical literary analysis that had formerly been reserved for texts categorised as "literature," as opposed to "history." This book (in common with its originary conference), attempts to continue that analysis in several ways. On the one hand it continues the examination of "representation," "imagination," and "creativity" within "historical" texts by placing these texts in juxtaposition to, and in dialogue with, other forms of cultural production in which the place of imagination and creativity have been more explicitly recognised and for longer, such as the visual and material arts, and music. This juxtaposition and dialogue further encourages the recognition of the creative, and literary, character of medieval historical writing.

In addition, though, such a juxtaposition also encourages us to seek out the historicity of these other forms of production. In the essays in this volume we see how visual and musical material can be interrogated as having a historical "agenda," seeking to put forward particular views of history in their own right, in similar ways to the texts whose particular and contingent historical agendas we have long been taught to seek out. This point brings me to some thoughts about terminology. The title is "Representing History," and the subtitle is "art, music, history." The Preface indicates that the intention was to bring the disciplines of music and art history into dialogue with historical studies (Preface, ix), so the "art, music, history" of the subtitle refers, one presumes, primarily to different approaches and different disciplines. However, the Preface also highlights the "intersection of three specific areas of cultural production--music, the visual arts, and history" (Preface, ix), so that the "art, music, history" of the subtitle also appears to denote different genres of source being examined. An observer might then wonder why the third term chosen here was not something else, perhaps "text." For the use of "history" to describe those sources that are not musical or visual appears to imply to some extent that these, the textual sources, are normatively historical, and regarded as "history proper," whereas the musical and visual sources might be understood "as if" they were history, but only "as if." In fact, the essays within the book, and the way in which they are put together, makes very clear that this type of distinction is not what is intended, and that the musical and visual examples chosen should be considered as every bit as self-consciously historical as the textual sources. So, to that extent, the subtitle might set up an erroneous expectation in readers which seems to run against the intentions (and the actual achievements) of the volume. One might wonder whether the third term ought to have been "text," in order to avoid appearing to suggest that musical and visual sources might be less "history" than written historical sources.

But this brings us to a related point (also about terminology, what it denotes, and the expectations that it sets up). The second term in the trio of source categories, "music," actually describes here, for the most part, liturgical sources. Although most, if not all, of the liturgical texts analysed in the essays by Margot Fassler, Susan Boynton and James Grier would have been sung, they are analysed primarily through their textual content. Their musical aspect, in terms of the sound of these texts as performed in their liturgical context, is hardly considered. Now, of course, the idea of isolating the "sounding" aspect of music and separating it from other aspects of the wider cultural phenomenon and concept of music, is a complicated and contested issue. Nonetheless, in terms of considering this volume's contribution to the field as an intervention in method, and as a prompt to different ways of considering medieval sources, it is interesting that the sound of the liturgy is not really confronted. It may be that this would be difficult to achieve, and that is a valid question which could be explored. But the lack of attention to actual sound in the essays by liturgical scholars, does beg the question as to whether "music" is actually, or at least wholly, the right term for the category of sources examined here. So what else could it have been? Addressing the problem of "history," one could have "art, music, text," but that would be unsatisfactory because that it would have seemed to separate "music" and "text" in an unhelpful manner. To use "art, liturgy, text," without "music" would not have included all of the material considered, and to have "art, music, liturgy, text," would only compound the difficulties, by appearing to demarcate "music" from both "liturgy" and "text." And to avoid a subtitle altogether would not have indicated to potential readers the unusual richness of material to be encountered here. So "art, music, history" it is, and if that raises questions about "demarcation" of categories of source, and indeed categorization as a whole, this is all to the good. I do not intend these points about terminology to be negative or critical, and I hope they are not excessively fastidious. I mention them as part of the attempt to convey the complex sets of concepts and ideas raised by this collection of essays, both deliberately and explicitly but also implicitly, and by extension. All medievalists will find the varied subject matter of the essays fascinating and intriguing, and will find the questions addressed by the volume extremely stimulating.

To turn to some individual elements of the collection: Gabrielle Spiegel's Introduction gives a précis of each essay, in the context of an assessment of the issues raised by the collection overall. It also analyses, supports or contends with some of the individual authors' main points. This analytic aspect makes the Introduction a particularly welcome addition to the collection, since it does not content itself merely with setting out the subject matter and argument that a reader can hope to encounter in each essay, but provides a perspective on the essays from the point of view of a respected scholar of medieval historical writing. The Introduction also assists in presenting the collection as a genuine whole, which makes a real contribution to the advancement of historical research. At this moment when, in some quarters, collections of essays are undervalued in comparison with individually-written monographs, it is important to highlight a collection like this. Such a collection shows how the organisation of a conference with very detailed and focussed aims, and the bringing together of the intellectual products of that conference in a volume that is very definitely more than the sum of its parts (notwithstanding that the parts themselves are all very satisfying and stimulating), should be recognised as a significant research effort on the part of the organiser/editor.

Given the scope of Gabrielle Spiegel's Introduction, and given that the Table of Contents, and that Introduction itself are both very sensibly made available on the publishers' website, I do not propose to give an overview of each of the essays in the collection, nor even to list them. I will conclude with some more detailed remarks about two of the essays that I found particularly thought-provoking. Like Spiegel, I found some of the most provocative and innovative work--and that perhaps most likely to stimulate new directions of research--to be the material concerning medieval music and liturgy. Among these, Ardis Butterfield's essay ("Music, Memory, and Authenticity: Representing Sound in History") is the only one in the collection that deals with musical sources outside of the context of liturgy, in the shape of the "May Songs" inserted into Jean Renart's "Roman de la Rose" (Vatican, Bibl. Apost. Vaticana, MS Vat. reg. 1725). Butterfield considers in detail the nature and status of these songs within this text. She considers their existence as texts, noting that perhaps to examine this kind of music is to "cheat a little" in that "this is not 'pure' music but music with a linguistic advantage over 'pure' music." This linguistic advantage allows these songs to be considered textually, and as performances of language, and thus brings them into closer proximity with other texts.

Butterfield confronts the lack of musical notation which causes these songs to lie silent on the manuscript page and asks what the absence of written music might mean in this text. She proposes that before we seek to give them sound by attaching them to music drawn from other sources (as other scholars have done), "it is worth pausing over what this silent narrative means as a context for these songs" (28). Thus Butterfield considers, in a positive vein, the potential significance of the text-only aspect of these popular songs in this context. Furthermore, and importantly, she does not argue for understanding such songs as "just like" other texts; on the contrary, she asks us to consider the ways in which other texts might actually be like these songs. She argues that the absence of notated music from the manuscript of Renart's Rose in fact makes us "realize that language is only apparently transparent" (30). According to this analysis, then, the non-notated songs here invite the reader to "look for," to call to mind, the absent music, in order to help make sense of the text on the page. This confronts effectively--at least in this instance--the problem of sound's evanescence, and asks us to think in different ways about the impossibility, or not, of recovering sound, or sound's effects. It may be that we cannot hear, physically, the sound of these particular songs being sung. But it might be the case that we are being asked to attend to a deeper and wider understanding of sound, which takes in the silence of imagined or remembered sound, or sound that is referred to or evoked.

Butterfield's analysis helps to point out, or to problematize, the non-transparency, or the complexity, of other types of written text, rather than allowing the reader to consider text as transparently meaningful and definitive. Music, then, helps to emphasize that language has an evanescence of its own, and that text, as a record of language, therefore has a lack of transparency of its own. This layer of the argument, among others, makes this essay a particularly stimulating part of the collection. It is true that the ways in which Butterfield's essay relates to the overall stated aim of examining the ways in which different types of source "represent" history is complex. Gabrielle Spiegel points out in her Introduction that, actually, these songs are "historicizing," but perhaps they do not self-consciously "represent" a specifically contemporary version of "history." This is as may be, but this essay nonetheless asks the reader to consider what it is to read, what it is to understand, and what it is to see and hear (as well as, perhaps, not to see or hear, or to look for something that is implied or referred to, but not visible or audible). It thus makes address to some fundamentally important ways of thinking anew about medievalists' common (and not-so-common) sources and objects of study, and makes us think about the ways in which we encounter time and history when engaging with those sources and objects.

Another especially valuable and thought-provoking essay is that by Margot Fassler. As Spiegel says, it is "impossible to rehearse the richness of argument in Fassler's presentation, which offers a full review of earlier scholarship on the question of the place of liturgy in history and other "representational views of the past" by medieval scholars" (15). This essay continues in the vein of Fassler's other work, by pointing out to medievalists the value of liturgical sources for deepening our own understanding of medieval social, cultural and religious history. In addition, though, it also highlights the value of these liturgical sources for our consideration of the ways in which medieval individuals and communities understood their own place in time and history. Fassler's essay not only makes clear how important it is that medievalists take seriously the insights that can be gained from serious study of the liturgy, but it also shows how various these insights can be, and how they could range across much wider terrains of historical scholarship than is often realised. Besides a consideration of "Liturgy and the Medieval Sense of Time," and an outline of recent trends in liturgical studies, Fassler's essay offers a overview of different types of liturgical source that could be mined in future research (including calendars, the Mass and Office, necrologies, processions, dramas and festivals, and architecture), and of different kinds of individuals who had important functions within a liturgical framework of understanding, such as cantors (who often also recorded and compiled institutional histories), exegetes and hagiographers, sacristans and bishops and abbots. The further study of such people and such areas as outlined by Fassler would greatly expand and extend our understandings of the medieval liturgy. It would also further highlight the enormous importance of the liturgy and of liturgically-influenced or liturgically-structured thought and practice in the medieval period. Such extended understandings would be of tremendous value for our study of medieval history, and of medieval conceptions of history alike. By opening up this set of approaches to history, and by extending the range of materials that could be used to consider these questions, this volume does great service to the medieval studies across a wide range of disciplines and is highly recommended.

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Author Biography

Beth Williamson

University of Bristol