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13.09.08, Agapitos and Mortensen, eds., Medieval Narratives between History and Fiction

13.09.08, Agapitos and Mortensen, eds., Medieval Narratives between History and Fiction

In the medieval era, the distinction between history and fiction was not clear. For instance, romances incorporated historical figures and events, while chronicles featured legendary and fabulous material interwoven with documented events. This has led to ongoing debate over when literary fiction as a genre arose. As the editors of Medieval Narratives between History and Fiction observe, that debate has, for the most part, focused on western European writings, mainly French and German romances of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. With the aim of broadening the field of inquiry, Agapitos and Mortensen have collected a series of essays on a variety of national literary traditions, including Greek, Latin, Byzantine, Old Norse, and Serbian, ranging from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, all with a focus on fictionality.

Agapitos and Mortensen have taken care to arrange the essays in an intentional manner, following what they call "a spiral motion in time: successive layers of time from antiquity to late antiquity and from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, with temporal spaces explored in the ninth and nineteenth centuries" (4-5). The editors' jointly-written introduction unifies the volume's contents, noting that they showcase Europe in the Middle Ages as a place of wide-ranging and discrete creative cultures, yet with shared emphases on certain literary conventions which question the connections between history and fiction. After reviewing the past two decades of work on the subject and certain shared characteristics of the works discussed in the essays, they state their hopes that their volume will "broaden the basis for the debate on fictionality and historicity in medieval narratives" (21) and encourage scholars to study texts comparatively.

The volume's journey across literatures opens with Tomas Hägg's "Historical Fiction in the Graeco-Roman World: Cyrus, Alexander, Apollonius." Beginning with the concepts of historia, fabula, and argumentum, Hägg discusses Xenophon's Cyropaedia, the Alexander Romance of Pseudo-Callisthenes, and Philostratus's Apollonius of Tyana as possible examples of historical novels, concluding that they might more profitably be termed historical fiction. Dennis H. Green's "The Rise of Medieval Fiction in the Twelfth Century," based on his 2002 book The Beginnings of Medieval Romance: Fact and Fiction, 1150-1220, opens with discussions of Ovid and Virgil and moves to a consideration of medieval translations of their texts, as well as commentaries. From here, Green moves on to the epics Ecbasis captivi and Ruodlieb then to chronicles, namely those of Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and finally to Chretien, who he sees as a bridge between Latin and the vernacular as fiction developed. Paul Gerhard Schmidt's "Fictionality in the Medieval Latin Novel" follows and expands on Green's work, moving from texts about Charlemagne and Roland to the Latin and Old French Dolopathos and then to a discussion of the Vita Haroldi and the Gesta Herewardi, seeing them as forerunners to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Charles Kingsley, and even Robert Harris. P.M. Mehtonen focuses on one text in "Speak, Fiction: The Rhetorical Fabrication of Narrative in Geoffrey of Monmouth." Comparing Geoffrey's narrative in his chronological expositions to the instances of direct speech in the Historia Regum Britannie, Mehtonen argues that the speeches are "embryos of techniques that serve overtly fictional and fantastic composition" (85). Studying the shifts between chronology and speech shows the differences in reading expectations and strategies practiced by medieval and modern readers.

Mortensen then takes us further afield in his essay "The Status of the 'Mythical' Past in Nordic Latin Historiography." Focusing on the Historia Norwegie and the chronicle traditions of Theodoricus Monachus, Sven Aggesen, and Saxo Grammaticus, Mortensen argues that the texts show a movement toward the formation of a "master-story" (129), influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Moving away from chronicles, Jonas Wellendorf discusses "True Records of Events that Could Have Taken Place: Fictionality in Vision Literature." Study of truth claims, authenticating devices, and moral truthfulness in Christian vision narratives suggests that these texts straddle the line between historia and argumentum. Else Mundal then examines "The Growth of Consciousness of Fiction in Old Norse Culture." Looking at a variety of Nordic sagas and myths, she concludes that fictional literature and the awareness of it did develop in the medieval era, albeit in a narrow framework. Next, Slavica Ranković expands the geographical scope in "Authentication and Authenticity in the Sagas of Icelanders and Serbian Epic Poetry." Admitting that, at first glance, such a comparison must seem surprising, she argues that the two traditions share much in common. Her comparative study of the two national literatures shows that they both serve to preserve the cultural past while dynamically balancing fact and fiction.

Agapitos' lengthy (132 page) study "In Rhomaian, Frankish, and Persian Lands: Fiction and Fictionality in Byzantium and Beyond" rounds out the volume. This masterful comparative piece takes the collection full-circle as it incorporates not only Byzantine texts, but also those from French, German, Arab, and Persian traditions. The aim of the discussion is to consider less-studied literary texts in an interdisciplinary fashion, with established support of more widely-studied examples. This, of course, is also the aim of the entire volume, and thus, Agapitos' study ably brings together not only the works he is considering, but all the essays as well.

This volume is one that exposes the reader to a wealth of literary texts; I found myself wanting to delve into those that I was not familiar with, and turning back to those that I was for another look. As a scholarly tool, it is well-documented, with each essay utilizing footnotes (no losing one's way turning to endnotes) and ample bibliographies. The general index is useful, though quirky in places; for example, modern authors are listed by last name, while medieval writers are listed by first name, so John Gower is under J. I noted only one typographical error: "narrrative" on page 283. Overall, this collection opens many fields for inquiry, and does not close any off with an overly narrow focus. It is a fine example of comparative literary methods, and will be useful to scholars of national literatures, historiography, narratology, and the like.