18.03.17, Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle

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John Spence

The Medieval Review 18.03.17

Marvin, Julia. The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle The Manuscript Culture of Late Medieval England. Writing History in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge UK:York Medieval Press, 2017. pp. 319. ISBN: 978-1-903153-74-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

John Spence

Julia Marvin's first book was the first published edition of the Oldest Version (OV) of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut chronicle, in which she also provided a translation and studied its sources and manuscript context in fine detail. [1] Marvin has also published a series of carefully researched and convincingly argued articles on aspects of the OV and the wider prose Brut tradition. Now she has published this second book, a critical analysis of the prose Brut in two parts, looking at the OV's approach to its historical narrative before turning to the reception and reinterpretation of this account in the manuscript tradition of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut. [2]

The book's introduction sets the scene with a brief overview of the tradition of historical writing from which the prose Brut emerged, as well as the creation and dissemination of the chronicle. This provides an update on the introduction provided in Marvin's 2006 edition, bringing in insights from recent research. Marvin also outlines her views on the general scholarly reception of the prose Brut, both historically and in more recent work.

In the first part of the book, Marvin then develops a closely-argued account of how the OV's version of British and English history is constructed and narrated. There is a hero in Marvin's book, and it is the author of the OV. Over five chapters, Marvin makes the case that the OV's (anonymous) author carefully and confidently shaped his chronicle into a moral narrative in which kings who protect their barons and other subjects bring the realm peace and prosperity, while those who are cruel, arrogant or wicked eventually face ruin. Summarised in this way, these messages could seem clichéd, but Marvin deftly illustrates how the OV's author holds back from drawing such explicit moral conclusions or indeed from initiating any kind of metanarrative discussion within the chronicle. Instead the OV allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

Marvin explores this theme through several lenses. First is a treatment of how the OV portrays Britain as a realm that surpasses even Rome, while simultaneously advancing an "anti-imperial" (47) position which is distinct from the prose Brut's main sources for the earlier parts of its account (Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and Wace's Roman de Brut). The next chapter focuses on the OV's views on kingship, while Chapter 3 looks at the presentation of women in the OV. In a subtle and illuminating series of readings, Marvin argues that the OV presents women in a way that its readers may have found 'far more sympathetic, plausible and pertinent to their own experience than those found elsewhere' in late medieval English literature (91). This chapter, and especially its last section on the presentation of rape in the OV, is a very worthwhile contribution to recent scholarship on how the literature of medieval England represents both women and violence against women. Chapter 4 explores how the chronicle's views on kingship are epitomised in its presentation of King Arthur's reign, while Chapter 5 discusses how the OV does its best to create a continuity for the English realm which extends back to the legendary British past.

Throughout these chapters, like the OV's author, Marvin does not clutter her book with heavy or otiose references but wears her learning lightly. At the same time the discussion demonstrates her deep knowledge and intelligent understanding of the prose Brut's content and its sources, as these inform the analysis she crafts. If at times I would have been interested in a more detailed explication of the implications of this analysis for the prose Brut's relationships with its sources, as well as with analogues in wider medieval literature, this may be my own preferences as a reader coming through.

In the second part of this book Marvin moves to consider the reception and reimagining of the OV through consideration of the medieval manuscripts containing the Anglo-Norman prose Brut. This section too is careful and detailed, though it is still (of necessity) selective and partial. Chapter 6 centres its discussion on two related manuscripts of the prose Brut (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D.329, and London, Inner Temple Library, MS Petyt 511/19) to explore the range of evidence which can be drawn from particular manuscripts regarding the approach to producing a version of the prose Brut chronicle, as well as the sprawling range of questions and uncertainties to which such intensive consideration of the manuscripts can give rise. The next chapter looks at what can be learned about the reception of the prose Brut from other substantive works found alongside it in manuscripts. Chapter 8 then looks at how the prose Brut is variously presented in the manuscripts (such as through organization, rubrics and sidenotes) as well as considering what can be learned about its readers from later annotations. The picture which emerges from these three chapters is of a chronicle which was taken seriously by interested producers and readers of the manuscripts, even as these interests sometimes interpreted the chronicle very differently from the way in which the OV's author had intended (at least, as the OV's author's intentions are presented in the first part of the book).

This theme is developed further in chapter 9 which looks at the surviving illustrations incorporated within manuscripts of the prose Brut. As few insular manuscripts of the prose Brut were illustrated at all, this chapter focuses mainly on the several Continental manuscripts of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut. The chapter ends with a discussion of the chronicle's use by some later Continental chronicles such as La Chronique Anonyme Universelle, A tous nobles qui aiment beaux faits et bonnes histoires and the chronicles of Jean de Wavrin, and considers how these texts and the Continental prose Brut manuscripts adapt and reframe a work designed to be read in one realm for the benefit of readers from another.

The book's conclusion brings its two halves together in a consideration of the OV's portrait of the character of Merlin, and subsequent responses to his portrayal in the manuscripts of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut. This conclusion is also a highlight of the book as it brings together the close reading of the first part with the codicology of the second to explore a literary creation alongside readers' responses. Marvin brings her volume to a close by arguing that the OV's Merlin with his wisdom and perceptiveness, interpreting signs to advise kings, "becomes also a lightly drawn figure of the historian" (239) and a model for readers of the chronicle who are asked to "draw their own conclusions" from a text structured "to shape what some of those conclusions are likely to be" (258). Meanwhile the response in later manuscripts, Marvin argues, in some cases 'overwrites and somewhat undoes' the interpretation of Merlin's role in the Anglo-Norman prose Brut's narrative established by the OV (242). The book concludes with full and helpful scholarly apparatus: bibliography, general index, and index of manuscripts cited. Throughout the volume helpful and accurate translations into modern English immediately follow all quotations from versions of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut. The book also has 28 plates of images from medieval manuscripts.

As suggested above, Marvin's admiration for the OV and its author comes through strongly throughout the book, leading her to conclude that in many ways 'the Oldest Version appears to be a precociously humanistic text' in the way it invites its readers to actively engage with its narrative (258). This admiration sustains and unifies the first part of the book in particular. Marvin makes a coherent and persuasive case, even if there are complexities and contradictions within the OV that may allow those writing on the prose Brut in future to contest or revise some of her conclusions about what the OV is attempting and how successful it is at realising the aims she identifies.

There is much in this volume too for scholars of medieval historical writing and literature generally. As noted earlier, Marvin does not make a habit of pulling away from her focus on the prose Brut to provide extensive context for it within wider historiographical and literary currents. She does, though, draw a number of conclusions that challenge readings within literary histories of medieval England. For example, she places the prose Brut in conversation with James Simpson's volume of the Oxford English Literary History on a number of occasions, such as when discussing the OV's approach to Britain's supposed Trojan heritage (54-5). These juxtapositions are intriguing, even if I felt they could be developed further at times: what, for instance, are the specific humanist texts that Marvin believes the OV 'precociously' prefigures, and what might reading the prose Brut alongside those texts themselves reveal? The structure of this book does not allow space for that kind of exploration, but I hope that Marvin might develop that approach further in her future writing, and also that others reading this book might bring some of Marvin's insights to bear in their work on other texts. Marvin does highlight one of her forthcoming pieces of scholarship, 'a study and edition' of the version of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut in St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, MS Fr.F.v. IV 8 (p. 166, n. 15), and that work will surely be eagerly awaited by those who have read this book.

-------- Notes:

1. The Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, ed. and trans. Julia Marvin (Medieval Chronicles 4; Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006).

2. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I am mentioned in the acknowledgements and my work is referenced or discussed a number of times in the book.

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