15.01.17, Aurell, Authoring the Past

Main Article Content

Damian J. Smith

The Medieval Review 15.01.17

Aurell, Jaume. Authoring the Past: History, Autobiography and Politics in Medieval Catalonia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xv, 313. ISBN: 9780226032320 (hardback) 9780226032344 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Damian J. Smith
Saint Louis University

Catalan historiography of the Middle Ages is still little known to Anglophone readers. This is partly the result of the long-term exclusion of matters from beyond the Pyrenees in the teaching of medieval European history but also surely because it is rare for a Catalan historian to write a work in English. Here Jaume Aurell, well-known for his studies on the Catalan merchant culture of the Later Middle Ages, happily turns his attention to the subject of the Gesta comitum Barcinonensium, a crucial text for understanding subsequent Catalan writing, and Les quatre grans cròniques, that is, the Llibre dels fets of James I, the chronicles of Desclot and Muntaner, and the chronicle of Peter IV. Necessarily combining careful historical analysis with literary criticism, Aurell has produced a remarkably lucid and beautifully argued study, which will undoubtedly be of enormous benefit to scholar and student alike. Nevertheless, it is not without certain problems.

The work is structured in two parts, with the first five chapters being dedicated to each of the five texts and providing solid information on the dating of the works, their authors, and their historical context, while the second set of chapters concerns each author's conscious choice of their genre, the invention of self, notions of authorship, the place of myth and legend, and the move towards realism exhibited by the chronicle of Peter IV, which the author takes to be substantially different from its predecessors. Aurell's range of historical knowledge and the depth of his readings in theory, which here he cannot do without, are both impressive and unusual.

Historians will probably be relieved to know that, in spite of the problematic nature of the authorship of the texts and the number of hands involved in the Gesta and in the autobiographies of the two kings, the author is nevertheless if not well at least alive--and Aurell gives emphasis to the author, authorship and the emergence of historical genres in his descriptions. The new philologists might well lament that in deliberately concentrating on the author and giving less attention to the audience, or multiple audiences, Aurell has left us some important questions still to answer, which will of course help in understanding the author's intentions, but that task can be taken up by others.

Aurell tends to see all these texts as in large measure concerned with legitimation. This seems to me to be problematic almost throughout. Even the Gesta Comitum Barcinonensium, which one might suspect to be more concerned with legitimation, was not composed at the beginning of Alfonso II's reign, as is suggested here, but rather well into it, and by that stage there had been kings of Aragon for a century and counts of Barcelona far longer than that. The legitimacy of the dynasty was not really in question then or later (an impostor at this time still claimed to be Alfonso the Battler!), but it was rather prestige which the crown lacked, particularly with territorial growth stunted by the Almohads. James I did not spend too much time seeking legal justification for his attacks against the enemies of the Christian Faith either. It is not simply in the introduction (which, as is noted, was probably not the king's own work) to the Llibre dels fets but throughout the text that success is the result of God's design and this is also the case in the other chronicles. But none of them really needed to press or persuade a group of doubters into believing this.

Aurell moves from the traditional date for the Llibre dels fets to a composition in various stages between 1244 and 1274 but I think this is probably not the case and that rather the work was all composed at the end of James's reign. This helps us to understand the inclusion of events from the early part of the reign concerning Urgell and Navarre since they were live issues again in the 1270s and suggests that the Llibre dels fets was at least a little closer in design to the chronicle of Peter IV than Aurell might allow. That is, it was also to some extent concerned with guiding future policy and the chancery was also involved in its construction. It should also be said that concerning barefaced cruelty, which is here (104) only associated with the later chronicle, James I was no less willing to drop his mask than Peter IV, when he expressed his pleasure at the drowning of his illegitimate son, Fernando Sánchez de Castro.

It might seem bad form to make too many criticisms of this admirable work, but--since it will hopefully run to many editions and serve as an introduction to students picking up the English versions of the chronicles, all of which need some improvement except for the Gesta, which still needs a translator!--I think that it is almost certainly not the case that the Llibre dels fets' description of the conquests of Majorca and Valencia was much influenced by existing poems (184) or by Islamic chronicles (160), and it should also be said that James's account of his own conception, unlike the accounts of Desclot and Muntaner, was not based on legends (63) but was really quite mundane. Ramon Berenguer IV could not have taken up the kingship of Aragon (22), even if he had wanted to, since Ramiro II insisted on keeping his title both in his own lands and in those of the count for as long as he wanted. Marie de Montpellier predeceased her husband (43). The tensions between the crown and the Capetians long predated Charles of Anjou's taking of Sicily (67). Peter III became king of Aragon in 1276 rather than 1274 (56). James I actually asked to be crowned (211) by Pope Gregory X at Lyons (and had previously asked the same of Gregory IX in 1229) but would not pay the arrears of the tribute agreed by his father.

I hope that students who enjoy this elegantly written book will also have the opportunity to consult Stefano Cingolani's La memòria dels reis: les quatre grans cròniques i la historiografia catalane (Barcelona, Base 2007), which offers another excellent perspective on these great chronicles.

Article Details

Author Biography

Damian J. Smith

Saint Louis University