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13.11.08, Spence, Reimagining History

13.11.08, Spence, Reimagining History

An impressive host of recent studies have focused on how present concerns intrude upon and shape historians' representations of the past, especially in chronicles produced in England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. John Spence builds upon this scholarship to offer a cogent appraisal of the portrayal of the past in Anglo-Norman prose histories produced during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. These range from national and universal chronicles to histories commemorating local gentry families. Following the precept formulated by Gabrielle Spiegel that translation and adaptation are acts of interpretation, Spence examines material that was translated or adapted from earlier works to show how these Anglo-Norman prose authors manipulated their sources by adding, omitting, or reshaping material in order to reinvent the past for national, religious, local, or personal ends.

Spence begins by explaining why thirteenth- and fourteenth-century chroniclers chose to work in Anglo-Norman and delineating the contours of his project. After addressing the debate over whether Anglo-Norman was a true vernacular or a second learned language in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, he details its increasing use as an official language in English government and argues that regardless of whether Anglo-Norman was a living vernacular, it was a flourishing technical language and that there was a strong interplay between Anglo-Norman prose histories and official documentary culture during this time. He argues that "the Anglo-Norman chronicles of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries employed the lineaments of this new documentary language to create authority for their texts" (5). They did so by peppering their histories with phrases drawn from legal documents and charters, by including numerous references to documents, and sometimes by including transcriptions or translations of entire documents. This set them apart from earlier Anglo-Norman verse histories that made no effort to mimic official language. He also points out that cartularies (collections of documents) from this period often included fragments of these prose histories as further evidence of this interpenetration.

Spence's decision to limit his study to prose histories produced during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is due to his belief that "prose was deliberately chosen for its echoes of an authoritative documentary culture" during this time (23). He also notes, quoting Ad Putter, that Anglo-Norman was also commonly used for love letters, business, and the affairs of noble households, making it a language of "intimate familiarity" as well as official documentation, and thus a "uniquely adaptable and liberating medium" that was perfect for rewriting history (7-8). While Spence is entirely correct about the versatility of the language, a fuller explanation of how the official and intimate incarnations of Anglo-Norman prose interacted with one another and why these features made it particularly suitable for rewriting the past would have been welcome.

In his first chapter, Spence examines the rhetoric of confidence in the prologues to Anglo-Norman prose chronicles. Like their verse predecessors, the prologues of Anglo-Norman prose chronicles lack the modesty topos that was practically a requirement (regardless of its sincerity) in Latin histories. Instead of protestations about the inferior quality of the work or the author's limited abilities, we find bold assurances about the value of history writing, its didactic utility, and the accuracy of these works. Spence focuses on the prologue to Thomas Gray's Scalacronica, which he takes as the high point of authorial confidence in Anglo-Norman prose chronicles. Gray's prologue is indeed unusual and compelling; it includes a dream vision featuring Sibyl the Wise who leads Gray up a ladder revealing five doorways with a different chronicler at work in each one. The sibyl then advises Gray to use their chronicles in his own history. After adroitly exploring the multiple resonances of all three elements (the dream vision, the sibyl, and the ladder), Spence concludes that these elements enhance the status of the Scalacronica in a special way. "Gray is not just writing a history at the command of a female guide in a dream vision: the greatest pagan prophetess, who foresaw the coming of Christ, has taken the trouble to bring his work into being" (39).

Complicating this claim to confidence is the fact that the authors of many of the Anglo-Norman prose histories are anonymous (Gray includes a riddle that reveals his name, but most of the prose authors do not reveal their identities). This is in distinct contrast to the earlier Anglo-Norman verse histories whose authors, Wace and Benoît de Sainte- Maure, clearly proclaimed their authorship and carefully constructed their own authority in their prologues. Spence argues that the prose authors' lack of emphasis on claiming authority for themselves makes their claims "to authoritativeness seem less self-aggrandizing and more assured than those of earlier prologues" (32). They certainly appear less self-aggrandizing, but as Spence points out, the prose authors apparently still feel compelled to insist upon the value and veracity of their work and they emphasize the need for histories in Anglo-Norman to serve a vernacular audience, features that could indicate a continuing need to justify their work rather than a greater confidence. Indeed, it could be argued that Gray's inclusion of the dream vision and the sibyl is designed to ward off potential criticism of his project by casting his decision to write a history as divinely inspired. It is also entirely possible that these defenses of vernacular historiography were simply borrowed from earlier Anglo- Norman verse histories and that they had developed into tropes by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

In the remaining chapters of the book Spence applies his considerable exegetical skills to examining how certain historical and legendary events were transformed in these prose histories: in chapter two, Spence analyzes their treatment of the legendary history of Britain; chapter three examines their inclusion of English heroes; chapter four explores their portrayal of the Norman Conquest, and chapter five discusses the mixture of history, legend, and romance in family chronicles.

In chapter two, Spence shows that much of the legendary history of Britain (including Arthur's reign) is often elided in the earliest Anglo-Norman prose histories. When such material is included, the authors focus on obscuring the rupture between British and Anglo-Saxon rule, deliberating conflating Britain and England, making claims to British rule over all of England, Scotland, and Wales, and asserting that Arthur was a great king who had most definitely died after his final battle (and hence would not be returning to lead any Welsh rebellions). However, Arthur's narrative appeal and political utility proved too great to resist; he resurfaced as an important figure in the histories written during and after Edward I's reign. Importantly, these histories display skepticism toward the more outlandish Arthurian legends while portraying Arthur as overlord of the Scots and once (in the Petite Bruit) as having three sons to whom he bequeaths England, Scotland, and Wales. Spence convincingly ties the reemergence of Arthur in these histories to efforts to advance English claims of suzerainty over Scotland in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Arthurian material was also included in local and family histories like Fouke le Fitz Waryn in order to enhance the prestige of their main subjects, and in Gray's Scalacronica, where Arthur's reign is idealized to reflect "Gray's own views on the proper relationships between kings and their knights" (73).

Chapter three explores the treatment of heroes from the Anglo-Saxon period whose stories are not found in the canonical Latin sources used by the Anglo-Norman prose chroniclers. Spence argues that this heroic material functioned in a different manner from the politically charged Arthurian material covered in the previous chapter, and that these stories were included as a means of addressing "the circumstances of Anglo-Saxon history which these chroniclers found most challenging to recount--England's origin from a fragmented island; its defeats at the hands of invaders; and its paganism" (76).

Faced with the daunting history of multiple, warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the heptarchy, some chroniclers chose to provide some unity for English history in the guise of a legendary founder of England. Hengist fulfills this role in the prose Brut, while it is a Breton named Engel in the Petit Bruit and the Saxon Ingil in the Scalacronica. Spence convincingly explains the variation in these contradictory origin stories as the result of different local legends and emphasizes that their primary appeal was to provide a "unitary origin for a divided Anglo-Saxon England" (82).

Spence then shifts to exploring the inclusion of heroes from Anglo- Norman romances in these chronicles. He argues that Guy of Warwick's battle with the Danish giant Colbrond is presented as part of the ongoing antagonism between Anglo-Saxons and Danes, and that the inclusion of Havelok the Dane is often driven by a desire to explain the later Danish conquest of England by presenting him as having a legitimate claim to England through his wife. While Spence convincingly argues that the material relating to Havelok and Guy demonstrates an effort to grapple with Anglo-Saxon and Danish conflict, his inclusion of Bevis of Hampton in this chapter seems out of place. There is a short reference to Bevis' exile found in a single work (the Brute Abregé), which Spence argues functioned to "enhance the Anglo-Saxon past with an aura of heroism" (87). However, the only element that links Bevis to Havelok and Guy is the fact that Bevis is also a hero of Anglo-Norman romance.

Finally, Spence turns to the portrayal of Constance, the legendary figure who reintroduced Christianity to England, in Trevet's Chronicles. While Trevet's version of the Constance legend was used by both Chaucer and Gower, their versions have received far more scholarly attention than Trevet's own. Spence argues that the enormous length of the Constance story highlights the significance Trevet accorded to the reintroduction of Christianity to England, and reflects his concern with placing English history within the larger framework of Christian history.

Spence's most important insight in this chapter is that heroes like Engel, Havelok, and Constance are not English natives, but they do embody or introduce aspects of Englishness. The Anglo-Norman prose chroniclers "present a vision of English history in which Englishness can be renewed and redeemed by foreigners" (104). Spence alludes to the political utility these heroes might have had for the descendants of the Norman conquerors of England, but does not clearly articulate how these ideas might have been applied to the Normans. Could the Normans be seen as analogous to Constance, as having renewed English religion as many earlier pro-Norman historians had insisted? Was William the Conqueror meant to be viewed, like Havelok, as having a legitimate right to the kingdom? These potential resonances are not explored.

In chapter four Spence offers the first survey of accounts of the Norman Conquest in these Anglo-Norman prose histories. Spence rehearses the debate over possible evidence of continuing English hostility toward the Normans in the fourteenth-century Middle English verse chronicles discussed by Thorlac Turville-Petre and Douglas Moffat, before joining Thea Summerfield and Joyce Coleman in warning that we cannot draw sweeping conclusions about popular attitudes from comments lamenting the effects of the Conquest in Middle English chronicles, and that we cannot take these texts as evidence that the English were still nursing grievances against the Normans. Following Coleman, Spence points out that the Middle English verse chronicles are primarily translations of earlier French and Latin works (implying, but not stating, that they may have simply imported their criticism of the Normans from these earlier works). Indeed, he demonstrates throughout the chapter that Anglo-Norman prose chronicles also contain echoes of these laments derived from their shared sources.

Spence then turns to examine the representation of Norman and English relations in the Anglo-Norman prose histories on their own terms. He argues that their conflicting portrayals of Edward the Confessor's designation of William as his heir, Edgar Aetheling's right to the throne, and Harold's reign reveal that "despite the strong desire to depict the Norman Conquest as a legitimate transfer of power, no consensus had emerged on how to represent it" (123). The same might be said of William the Conqueror's reign. As Spence points out, most of the national histories minimize William's reign in order to disguise the rupture caused by the Conquest, while the histories with religious affiliations criticize William's treatment of the Anglo-Saxon clergy but generally portray him positively, and the family histories feature lists of the Conqueror's companions in order to stress that William's achievements hinged upon the cooperation of his men.

Returning to the debate over ongoing tensions between the Normans and English, Spence notes that both the Anglo-Norman prose chronicles and the Middle English verse chronicles almost always present the Norman Conquest as justified by portraying William as the rightful heir to the throne and emphasizing Harold's perjury in framing him as a usurper. Spence argues that it is, in fact, an Anglo-Norman prose chronicle, the exceptional Brute Abregé, that presents the Conquest in the worst light by plainly calling it an act of "vilainie." He concludes that "both the Middle English and Anglo- Norman writers look back to the Conquest not as the point of origin for a continuing grievance, but with an empathy for the suffering of earlier generations" (140).

Spence turns to examining the representation of the past in family chronicles in chapter five. Like the national histories, these family chronicles absorbed elements of legend and romance, but they often had a quite practical purpose: recording a family's claim to ancestral land. As he points out, the family chronicles do not record the past so much as they reconstruct a past, usually glorifying the family, giving it a prominent place in national history, and insisting upon its rights in the process. Importantly, he argues that the most fantastic of these family chronicles, Fouke le Fitz Waryn (which features a demonically-possessed giant, multiple disguises, damsels in distress, and a man-eating dragon), does not represent a move away from history writing, but an effort to enhance the prestige of the Fitz Waryn family by portraying its members as heroically as possible. Like the other family chronicles, the main objective of Fouke le Fitz Waryn is to emphasize the family's claim to disputed lands.

Reimagining History will be valuable to anyone interested in Anglo-Norman historiography and how authors refashion the past for present purposes. The great strengths of the book lie in Spence's clear prose and his close reading of important moments in these texts. There are, however, numerous instances in which he could have drawn out the resonances that these texts might have had for contemporary audiences. Readers who are well acquainted with Anglo-Norman history and historiography will be able to fill in the lacunae created by Spence's tendency to allude to people, events, and implications, but non-specialists may find it hard going. The scope of the book can be challenging as well, as it requires the reader to shift back and forth between a dizzying array of texts (though Spence's habit of breaking them into general categories is very helpful). Despite these criticisms, Spence has produced an incredibly useful survey of how Anglo-Norman prose chroniclers reshaped the past.