16.05.09, Høgel and Bartoli, eds., Medieval Letters

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Mia Münster-Swendsen

The Medieval Review 16.05.09

Høgel, Christian, and Elisabetta Bartoli , eds. Medieval Letters: Between Fiction and Document. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 33. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xi, 471. ISBN: 978-2-503-55520-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mia Münster-Swendsen
Roskilde University

This is a bulky (471 p), multilingual volume (in English, French, Italian and Spanish) contain no less than thirty essays covering a broad spectrum of subjects and case-studies on medieval letters, while chronologically stretches over almost the entire Middle Ages, Latin Europe as well as Byzantium. The contributions stem from a conference held in Siena in September 2013--a collaboration between the University of Siena and the Centre for Medieval Literature, the latter itself an interdisciplinary joint venture between the University of Southern Denmark and the University of York. The preface mentions several papers unfortunately not included in the book, i.e. it describes the proceedings at the conference, referring to the papers held there as well as two round-table discussions on women's letters and the hotly debated authorship of the collection known as the Epistolae duorum amantium respectively, that are only partially published in the book. Like so many volumes of conference proceedings, the structure of the book thus seem, more or less intentionally, to have retained many vestiges of the structure of the conference from which they originate, which is not necessarily a good thing. It is no easy task to review an anthology of this size and breadth of scope and due to the limits imposed on a relatively short review like this, it is impossible to discuss each single essay in greater depth. I have thus chosen to focus on those contributions that offer a broader perspective regarding medieval written correspondences, the methodological aspects in particular.

As stated in the preface, the volume attempts to grapple with the question of truthfulness in this particular genre of historical text and the particular problem of fictitiousness in regard to medieval letters, particularly when used as historical sources and as repositories of historical facts. It seeks to inspire further reflections regarding the documentary value of these texts--indeed, a re-appreciation of these as historical sources. The three first essays directly address the methodological problems that the use of these multidimensional texts involve. Wim Verbaal uses the correspondence between Abelard and Heloise as his test case, to address the question of, among others, narrativity in collections and, as Walter Ysebaert shows in his wide-ranging survey, medieval letters and letter-collections are almost impossible to classify in a meaningful manne--the contribution of the latter is a reprint of his important and much-cited article published in Studi Medievali in 2009. The third essay by Paolo Cammarosano too addresses the complex question of authenticity and fiction in his survey of Italian letter-collections. An important point is of course, that simply because letters were gathered into collections to become teaching material or models of composition, it does not therefore mean that they stop being authentic or referring to a historical reality. This use and means of transmission, however, create hermeneutical problems that require careful consideration, as all three contributors stress.

Following a chronological scheme, the next section contains two articles on two early medieval writers of letters, Ermenrich of Ellwangen and Einhard, by the editors of their works Francesco Mosetti Casaretto and Carlos Pérez Gonzáles. What connects these two case studies is mainly the chronology, as belonging to the "early" period, before the ars dictaminis became an integral part of the school curriculum. They each address different questions and a more general overview of letter-writing in this quite under-researched early period would have been most welcome here. As is often the case in volumes like this one, the majority of essays focuses on the twelfth century--described as a "turning point in the history of letter-writing" (6).

The five essays in the third section fall in two thematic categories: Florian Hartmann, Elisabetta Bartoli and Vito Sivo focus on the Italian dictatores, among them well-known names such as Boncompagno and Guido Faba, while the essays of Greti Dinkova-Bruun and Roberto Angelini are case-studies of two of the great masters of twelfth-century letter-writing, Aegidius of Paris and Hildebert of Lavardin. The former includes a critical edition of Aegidius' letter to Bishop Odo of Sully, while the theme of Angelini's contribution leads up to that of the next batch of essays, discussing women in the letters--particularly as recipients and dedicatees.

The fourth section addresses the problem of gender, for example, in regard to the identity of the interlocutors. Knowing that schoolboys would sometimes assume the voice of the opposite gender in their assignments and exercises (many of which are indeed in the form of letters), are there actual women behind the female voices in the letters, indeed how can we know which individuals hide between the personas in these discourses? The section comprises six contributions and the theme could easily have formed the basis of an individual volume in itself. Joan M. Ferrante's essay functions as an overview here, discussing the main methodological problems in regard to women and letters with references to a broad array of textual examples. To address these complexities, Paolo Garbini's essay focus on a particular text, the Rota Veneris of Boncompagno, Peter Dronke's concern is the magnificent and intriguing collection of so-called love-letters from Tegernsee of which he offers the text and translation of letter I-III in an appendix. Marek Thue Kretschmer's focus is also on love-letters, particularly those of Baudri of Bourgueil, in regard to the question of authenticity versus fiction. Francesca Battista's contribution on Queen Kunhuta's letters of love to her husband, the Bohemian King Otakar II introduces the reader to some much less well-known sources. According to the preface, C. Stephen Jaeger's contribution is the only part of the roundtable debate regarding the authorship of the most debated of medieval letter collections in recent years that went into this volume. The article, however, covers a much broader scope than merely the debate about authorship. As the title suggests he addresses another important methodological problem in medieval correspondences, namely the use of irony, subtext and intertextual play. It is perhaps these aspects, rather than the question of factuality or authenticity that causes hermeneutical headaches for an historian.

Section five shifts the geographical focus to Byzantium, with contributions by Michael Grünbart, Christian Høgel, Divna Manolova and Sylvia Lefèvre. Even a non-byzantinist like this reviewer can find many useful things here and bringing in this comparative aspect should be commended. The Latin Europe/Byzantium divide in scholarship seem to be slowly dissolving these years and medievalists from both have a lot to offer each other and hopefully, in the future, the byzantinists will not have to be assigned their particular section in similar anthologies, that otherwise are structured thematically or chronologically. The next section return to the chronological framework with six contributions on a variety of topics, from the ars notariae by Ronald Witt, two essays on Dante Alighieri's letter to Cangrande by Thomas Ricklin and Alberto Casadei, dictamina and chancery letters by Fulvio Delle Donne and Benoît Grévin. Grévin's essay highlights another important point in regard to the complex structure of medieval letter-collections: the recirculation and recycling of content, and its use in new and different contexts. The section ends with a short essay on letters and the more bloody aspects of Italian politics by Julia Bolton Holloway, which neatly leads up to the final, seventh section with three equally diverse case-studies on court letters and hence, the political use and implications of correspondences in the Late Middle Ages. Monica Ferrari and Federico Piseri focus on letters as didactic tools at the Sforza court, Maria A. Soleti on Christine de Pizan's correspondence, and Sacramento Roselló-Martínez on letters of grievances in fifteenth-century Castile.

Containing no index, no editors' introduction presenting the selection of essays and no abstracts of these, the dense volume is really quite difficult to navigate for the reader. This book is certainly no introductory handbook or companion to medieval letter-writing, the reader has to know precisely what he /she is looking for. This makes it a book for specialists who are already well into working with medieval letters, whether as historical sources mined for facts in a traditional way, or literary texts to be studied in their own right as aesthetic artefacts. The chronological structure of the individual sections of the book (with women's letters and Byzantium having their own sections) is perhaps also less beneficial. A more thematic and thus comparative structure might have made the collection more coherent and would perhaps also be more in the spirit of the critical programmatic statements in the preface. The volume suffers from the usual malady of voluminous conference anthologies: a seemingly lack of focus. This is a persistent problem that is very difficult to solve in regard to proceedings from broadly themed conferences. This reviewer knows only too well how difficult editing volumes of this type can be. However, seen as a collection of highly specialized studies that together seek to explore the vast field of medieval letters and letter-writing, the book has much to offer the medievalist working on these highly complex and multiform types of texts. Most importantly, the methodological essays in particular offer highly useful reflections on the nature of medieval letter-writing as well as its use as historical sources. As such, despite the aforementioned editorial limitations, the book is a very welcome and valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship on medieval letters as literature as well as crucial and useful sources of historical information.

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