14.11.11, Beer, In Their Own Words

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Cristian Bratu

The Medieval Review 14.11.11

Beer, Jeanette. In Their Own Words: Practices of Quotation in Early Medieval History-Writing. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Pp. xv, 158. ISBN: 9781442647541 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cristian Bratu
Baylor University

Jeanette Beer's new book examines, as its title suggests, practices of quotation in early medieval history-writing. This is indeed a welcome scholarly study for a number of reasons. First of all, the secondary literature available on this topic remains fairly slim. Secondly, it is a welcome addition to the growing number of studies on medieval chronicles and histories because, as Beer correctly points out in the foreword (ix), important reference works such as the Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature continue to completely--and inexplicably--omit discussing medieval historiography. Thirdly, it is a book that discusses both Latin and French texts, in an attempt to bridge the gap between Latin and vernacular history-writing.

What is striking in the foreword, however, is that Beer does not dwell sufficiently on the generic differences among the texts discussed in her book. Are they all "histories" (ix) or are some of them chronicles? Of course, the border between historical genres is oftentimes porous in the Middle Ages but a short discussion of these generic issues would have been useful. Equally desirable would have been a more detailed explanation of the author's methodology and her definition of "quotation." Beer does specify that she is going to focus on ipsissima verba (actual words verifiably uttered), oratio recta (direct speech/direct discourse), and oratio obliqua (indirect speech/indirect discourse, including free indirect speech/free indirect discourse), literary quotation, allusion, translation, citation of sources, and self-referencing" (xiv). However, she does not discuss more theorico, in the foreword at least, the major differences among these different types of "quotations" and how they affect the overall text. Fortunately, she does so in the individual chapters dedicated to each text.

In the first chapter of her book, Beer focuses on Nithard's Historiae de dissensionibus filiorum Ludovici Pii, which contains the famous Oaths of Strasbourg, the very first written text in Romance or Proto-French (surprisingly, Beer calls it "French" at times). She argues that although modern sensibilities tend to see the presence of vernacular passages in the Historiae in a positive manner (through what she calls the "rose-coloured spectacles of anachronism"), Nithard's mood when he included these passages was in fact all but rosy. Instead, these vernacular passages "were a graphic representation of the fragmentation" of Charlemagne's empire between Lothar, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald. Indeed, Nithard uses direct speech mostly to emphasize pledges and oaths between various historical actors (Louis the Pious and Lothar, Louis the German and Charles the Bald, etc.). Beer's analysis is truly interesting and convincing, although it focuses almost exclusively on a couple of passages in the vernacular (in fact, it does not discuss the Old High German text) of the Strasbourg Oath and seems to neglect the rest of the Historiae.

In the chapter on the Gesta Francorum, however, Beer does provide an overview of quotation use in the entire text: a few literary quotations (some of them biblical) and ninety-seven occurrences of direct speech. The anonymous author of the Gesta used direct speech both as a literary device and for propagandistic effect, mainly in order to describe characters. Beer also delves into the complex issue of the authorship of the Gesta. Previous critics such as Louis Bréhier and August Krey had hypothesized that the text was not single but multi-authored (Bréhier assumed there had been two authors, Krey three or more). Bréhier believed that the "Anonymous" was the more matter-of-fact historian, whereas the less terse passages came from someone else. Beer argues that there are no major lexical and stylistic differences between the historical passages proper and direct speeches. This reader is very much inclined to believe Beer's argument, although a lengthier explanation of these lexical and stylistic similarities would have strengthened Beer's argument. Also, Beer notes that "Bréhier's hypothesis is not based upon any codicological evidence" (30) but, in truth, one could say the same about her own argument.

The first part of the following chapter is adapted from Beer's earlier contribution on Villehardouin, "Author-Formulae and the Differentiation of Material in Villehardouin's La Conquête de Constantinople." Beer restates here her thesis that Villehardouin refers to himself in five different guises (Villehardouin qua crusader; Villehardouin the author; I; we; and the book) and each of these authorial modes is associated with a different material. To her previous research on Villehardouin--which remains fairly convincing although in some passages these authorial instances seem very much interchangeable--Beer adds an analysis of direct speeches in La Conquête de Constantinople. She points out, correctly, that "the most informative and the most frequent examples occur in the first 200 paragraphs" (46). Indeed, direct speeches are more common in the section of the book that shows Villehardouin as an ambassador/negotiator, and they help dramatize the debate on the "best" (though controversial) route to Jerusalem via Zara chosen by the crusaders. She notes, correctly once again, that in the second part of the book, the diminishing number of crusaders and the lack of unity of the crusading armies prevented an epic vision similar to the one that imbued the first part, hence the reduced frequency of direct speeches. This is an accurate--though not fundamentally novel--assessment, since other critics (e.g. Dufournet) have already pointed out this discrepancy in tone between the first and the second part of the Conquête. The work of the other major historian of the Fourth Crusade, Robert de Clari, constitutes the topic of the next chapter. Beer notes that, in contrast to Villehardouin who used the "je" in order to abbreviate or to present unverifiable (even controversial) materials, Clari used the first-person pronoun to recapitulate or to move the plot forward (59). Also unlike Villehardouin, Clari uses the "je" and the "nous" as synonyms. This suggests, according to Beer, a close teamwork between Clari and his scribe, although, as Beer herself notes, there are a few situations in which the "je" appears in the same paragraph as the "nous", which prompts the question: do the "je" and the "nous" refer to different people here? These are all very interesting points but, in a sense, they are only marginally related to the main topic of the book. In other sections of this chapter, however, Beer does make observations relevant to the topic of quotations and notes that in Clari's work, like in Villehardouin's, there are very few literary allusions and many direct speech passages. Interestingly enough, the author finds that scatological references in Clari's text are signs of a "fabliau-style narration" (66). That is not entirely implausible but we should also remember that such references are not uncommon in the lingo of soldiers. However, she is absolutely right when she claims that while Villehardouin was "weighed down with leadership responsibilities" (68) and, as a result, produced a serious, self-justifying narrative, Clari's text seems much more lively and "sparkling." (68)

The final two chapters focus on the Fet des Romains, a text that the author introduces briefly in the first part of chapter five. Further in the same chapter, Beer shows how, in some cases, the medieval translator rendered the Latin content accurately while performing a number of more or less significant changes. For instance, the medieval anonymous translator pretends to quote Cicero, when, in fact, he is merely inventing a source. So fond of Cicero is the medieval translator that he even attributes heroic facts to the Roman author. Other times, the translator quotes an author (Virgil) but his actual source is another author (Isidore). We are here in a territory that Roger Dragonetti famously called le mirage des sources. Indeed, the medieval author took some liberties with the original, and in some cases such liberties reveal a certain ignorance of Roman history. For instance, Beer points out that he seemed to be unfamiliar with Cornelius Nepos, whom he believed to be Cicero's nephew (nepos in Latin). She also shows how, on several occasions, the medieval translator abridged, simplified, approximated, and interpreted (more or less adroitly) his sources. Like many other medieval translators, he also "forgot" to quote his source, thus appropriating foreign material and (voluntarily or involuntarily) presenting it as his own. Beer contends that although the translator was very familiar with the Bellum gallicum, he seemed to be unaware of its actual author, whom he considered to be one "Julien" (or "Julius Celsus"), instead of Julius Caesar. Thus, in a passage where Caesar was speaking in the first-person plural, the translator did not know what to do with this "Julien" who seemed to know Caesar's innermost thoughts (87). As a result, our medieval translator came up with a creative solution and concluded that the narrator was physically present at the events with Caesar (when, in fact, the narrator was Caesar). "Julien" becomes thus the fabricated eyewitness and auctor that the medieval translator needed in order to lend his source (and his own text) more authority.

In the final chapter, dedicated to another section of the Fet des Romains, Beer analyzes the medieval translator's use of Lucan. The translator christianizes the ancient text in some passages, whereas in other sections he is obviously torn between his desire to translate faithfully and his reluctance to perpetrate theological unorthodoxy by rendering the auctor's pagan views. Beer shows how, in some situations, the medieval author resorts to interpretive gymnastics, claiming, for instance, that the auctor himself did not seem to believe what he was saying, and therefore we should not feel compelled to believe him either (95). Thus, the use of the phrase Lucans dist allows the medieval compiler to distance himself from "problematic" passages or simply to prevent readers/listeners from attributing to him sentences or interpretations with which he did not want to be associated. Elsewhere, the medieval compiler mentions explicitly that he has changed the text because of its brevity or lack of clarity. In other passages yet, the translator lends his source an epic pathos that is reminiscent of the chanson de geste. These last two chapters are indeed fascinating and, although they focus on limited sections of the Fet des Romains, they are perhaps two of the most interesting and compelling sections of this book.

In the conclusion, Beer notes that all the historians discussed in her book seem to share the Isidorean belief that "history records what is worthy of being remembered" and that truth is best guaranteed by eyewitnesses" (105). While it is true that most medieval chroniclers thought eyewitnesses were likely to be the best historians, it is hard to believe that they were all (or needed to be) familiar with Isidore. Moreover, the conclusion merely recapitulates the main points presented in earlier chapters, instead of, for example, comparing quotation practices in chronicles to practices in other genres, or mentioning whether these practices changed in the late Middle Ages. Indeed, the absence of at least one late medieval text in Beer's book is truly surprising. Readers would have also appreciated the inclusion of at least a versified history as well, which would have made the corpus analyzed by the author much more well-rounded.

Fortunately, there are few editing and typographical errors in Beer's book. On page 6, for instance, there is a bathos instead of pathos. Surprisingly, a whole paragraph on page 29 is a large parenthesis, and there is a missing verb on page 32 ("Analysis reveals that there no difference..."). All of the above are nonetheless relatively minor shortcomings in an overall interesting and well-written book. Ideally, this book should have been somewhat lengthier and it should have contained an analysis of quotation practices in late medieval histories, as well as a comparison of quotation practices in historical and fictional texts. But at the end of the day, Jeanette Beer's book remains an important contribution on the important (yet little explored) topic of quotation practices in French and Latin medieval historical texts.

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Cristian Bratu

Baylor University