14.03.07, Lake, Richer of Saint-Rémi

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Matthew Gabriele

The Medieval Review 14.03.07

Lake, Justin. Richer of Saint-Rémi: The Methods and Mentality of a Tenth-Century Historian. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013. Pp. vii, 321. ISBN: 978-0-8132-2125-0.

Reviewed by:
Matthew Gabriele
Virginia Tech

Recently, scholars have begun to pay attention to the tenth century again (though whether they'd really paid attention in the past is debatable). [1] This period, conceptualized mainly as a liminal space between the Carolingians and the High Middle Ages, has revealed rich soil to be tilled--a period of intellectual ferment, religious innovation, and political change. Justin Lake's 2013 study of Richer of Saint-Rémi's Histories, coming on the heels of his 2011 edition and translation of that same text, adds to this harvest. There is much to admire here, as Lake's philological approach pulls the text apart at its very seams and reveals many of its secrets. Yet, the spotlight Lake trains on the text feels, at times, limiting. After all, a spotlight in a darkened room illuminates its subject well but it can conversely give the impression that the rest of the room is somehow darker than it was before.

The Introduction launches right into the background, complete with the little we know about Richer himself, debates about the transmission of Richer's work, and a long section on the sole surviving manuscript. Ultimately, Lake says he is trying to rehabilitate Robert Latouche's early twentieth-century reading of Richer, positing the Histories as primarily a rhetorical exercise, not a political commentary. That said, Richer did have some political points to make, namely advocating on behalf of the prerogatives of the see of Reims and on behalf of strong kings who ruled by consensus, regardless of which dynasty they came from. These political points had everything to do with the palpable reverence Richer held for Gerbert of Aurillac, a ghost that haunts both Richer's Histories and Lake's study of it. The rest of the book serves to demonstrate these points, as Lake moves methodically through the text itself--from the Prologue (Chapter 1), to Richer's written sources (Chapter 2), to his storytelling techniques (Chapters 3 and 4), and finally to a concluding chapter on Richer's intent (Chapter 5).

Lake is absolutely right and absolutely convincing in his deconstruction of Richer's prologue. Neither simple convention nor transparent claim, Richer here revealed much of what he wanted to do. The construction of the text itself bears this out. Indeed, "[Richer's] stylistic self-consciousness, complete indifference to factual accuracy, and fanciful amplification of his sources are best explained as the result of a conscious decision to write history according to the rhetorical conventions of classical historiography" (185). More specifically, although the text was heavily dependent on Hincmar and Flodoard, as well as oral tradition within the ecclesiastical community at Reims, Richer cut his own path by trying to tell his story within the formal rules of a classical rhetorical narratio. All this was done so that Richer could pay homage to Gerbert and the "secular learning" he championed. Richer's consistent allusions to Cicero, Caesar, Livy, and Orosius, as well as Richer's message calling for concordia (particularly among the aristocracy), would have been something that his intended audience, including Adalbero of Reims, Gerbert of Aurillac, and their supporters, would have understood implicitly. The spotlight Lake shines follows a direct path from antiquity to tenth-century Reims.

But there is a tension here in Lake analysis of Richer's work. So focused on deconstructing the Histories itself, the book becomes one almost out of time--an object floating, unmoored from historical contingency. Certainly, Lake does very well in situating the precise historical moment of the text's creation (the struggle between the Capetians and Carolingians, particularly as that struggle involved Reims at the end of the tenth century), but the spotlight shines only on that moment. What else is in that darkened room? What else stands between that light's source (antiquity) and the object illuminated (the Histories)? What, for example, of the ninth century? Richer may have been a classicizing monk at Saint-Rémi in Reims but he was still a tenth-century classicizing monk who lived in a monastery and a city both with long, direct historiographical traditions back into the ninth century, and was a tenth-century monk who consciously used elements of that ninth-century tradition (Hincmar) to construct his own text. This tradition stands in the way of the spotlight, casting shadows.

That ninth-century historiography was, in its outlook, virtually identical to how Lake describes Richer's--sources that seem to omit "seemingly relevant" events (83), have their discussions "distorted by unreliable oral traditions" (91), find themselves guilty of "simple carelessness" (103), "manipulate" their material (104), at times "misread" their sources (136), but then consciously create "a version of history that accorded to [their] own views about the past" (107). Moreover, the very concerns about his world that Richer evinces in his text--the pettiness of the aristocracy who break the peace, bishops as moral lodestars in the kingdom, etc.--directly echo those of the later ninth century, men like Nithard, Hincmar, and the exegetes and poets who wrote while the empire seemed to crumble around them. There are mountains of scholarship on these topics. [2]

One should note, however, that the above comments are not necessarily criticisms. And, I will admit, they are also a tad unfair in that they point out something the book does not seem to have intended to do. To return to my initial metaphor about the spotlight in the darkened room, Lake intended to illuminate Richer's text itself, and he does add much to our understanding of the text by championing a particular early twentieth-century reading. We must take into account the Histories' classicizing tendencies from here on out. Once the reader's gaze turns away from the text itself though, the residual darkness of Richer himself, tenth-century Reims, and their collective intellectual genealogy becomes more apparent. This book complements, rather than supplants, works like Jason Glenn's excellent 2004 Politics and History in the Tenth Century: The Work and World of Richer of Reims but more importantly Lake's Methods and Mentality of a Tenth-Century Historian also suggests that there is much, much more to say about the tenth century and how it conceptualized itself, both in Reims and throughout the rest of Europe.



1. For an overview, see the summaries of the scholarship in John Howe, "Re-Forging the 'Age of Iron' Parts I and II," History Compass 8 (2010): 866-887, 1000-1022. Much could be added to these surveys in just the few years since those articles' publication.

2. The scholars writing in English that immediately spring to mind are Janet Nelson, Rosamond McKitterick, Mayke de Jong, Pat Geary, Courtney Booker, Simon Maclean, and John Contreni among many others.

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Matthew Gabriele

Virginia Tech