18.09.09 Münster-Swendsen et al., Historical and Intellectual Culture in the Long Twelfth Century

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Benjamin Pohl

The Medieval Review 18.09.09

Münster-Swendsen, Mia, Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm, and Sigbjørn Olsen Sønnesyn , eds. Historical and Intellectual Culture in the Long Twelfth Century: The Scandinavian Connection . Durham Medieval and Renaissance Monographs and Essays, 5. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. pp. xiv, 322. ISBN: 978-0-88844-864-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Benjamin Pohl
University of Bristol

The book under review here is an edited collection of essays dedicated to exploring the historical and intellectual culture of the central Middle Ages (particularly the twelfth century) with a specific view towards Europe's "Scandinavian connection[s]." In keeping with recent scholarly developments, history throughout the volume is defined widely as encompassing not just chronicles etc., but a variety of textual and stylistic genres, as well as various non-textual aspects such as ritual, custom, etc. The Introduction, which remains anonymous but presumably was co-written by the three editors--Mia Münster-Swendsen, Thomas Heebøll-Holm and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn--, is kept succinct and confines itself to setting out briefly the volume's academic context and raison d'être (1-2), before offering a helpful summary of the sixteen chapters that follow (3-12). It is here that many important links between individual chapters are fleshed out in advance, thereby offering a useful road map and compass which guide the reader through the book's different thematic sections.

The first of these sections (13-90) contains four chapters summarised under the headline "The Writing of History: European Context and Points of Comparison." What is offered here is a selection of case studies that set out to re-think and re-contextualise the way(s) in which history was written and/or read in and across different parts of medieval Europe. First up is Elisabeth van Houts (13-30), whose chapter sheds new light on the importance of marriage and family as key motivators for historiographical production. Van Houts shows that marriage generally had a much bigger role to play in the commissioning, conceptualising and reception of historical works than previously thought, and in doing so she draws particular attention to the role of women. This is followed by Nora Berend's contribution on writing (about) Christianisation in medieval Hungary (31-50), which not only offers an impressively wide-ranging survey of medieval Christian historiography from Hungary, but also includes a useful conceptual discussion on the term "Christianisation" itself and the way in which it can be used to understand the socio-cultural context of narratives dealing with processes of religious mission and conversion. Next is Alheydis Plassmann (51-70), who turns specifically to Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum for a discussion of how bishops--especially this engaged in missionary work--were expected to behave by their contemporaries and later generations of chroniclers/hagiographers. Plassmann then widens her focus so as to include other pertinent examples from medieval Germany that make for a rounded and well-balanced comparison. The last chapter in this section is written by Lasse Sonne (71-90), who shifts the focus away from the European Mainland to Scandinavia, and from Latin and Hungarian texts to Old Norse literature, for an investigation into the ways in which the pagan past was revisited and re-inscribed by Norse writers. For this he draws on a wide range of methodological frameworks, including Jan Assmann's concept of "cultural memory," which Sonne shows to be highly malleable, and which he uses to make an insightful and original contribution to the long-standing scholarly debates concerning the factuality (or not) of how the Viking Age was described in later medieval sources. Taken together, the chapters in this section generate a varied and multi-faceted perspective into the composition and reception of historical texts in medieval Europe that offers a range of genuinely new ideas and approaches. My only criticism would be that, apart from Sonne's chapter, there are surprisingly few attempts to relate these perspectives explicitly to medieval Scandinavia. Whilst van Houts and Plassmann touch upon the subject occasionally in their respective discussions of the Normans' Scandinavian ancestry and the various Scandinavian "adventures" of the bishops of Hamburg-Bremen, Berend's otherwise excellent chapter seems slightly disjointed from the volume's primary geographical focus. Arguably, there would have been more scope and opportunity throughout this entire section to relate its important findings more regularly and specifically to Scandinavia.

The book's second section (91-130) then focuses more closely on this "Scandinavian connection" through three "author-portraits" from twelfth-century England. Rodney Thomson discusses the work of monk-historian William of Malmesbury (91-103), whilst Michael Gelting investigates the relationship between Henry of Huntingdon and the Roskilde Chronicle (104-119) before Michael Winterbottom concludes the section with a fresh look at Ælnoth of Canterbury (119-130). All three contributors succeed in teasing out important new details about the prevailing images of Scandinavia in England's twelfth-century intellectual and historiographical culture, both monastic and secular. What is more, they show that the relationship between England and Scandinavia during that period was far from unilateral, but instead needs to be understood as a reciprocal culture of cross-fertilisation and exchange that involved both individuals (such as William, Henry and Ælnoth) and collectives/institutions. Indeed, it would even make sense, in this context, to speak of textual communities.

The third section (131-188) is dedicated to the relationship between history and liturgy--a topic that has attracted a lot of scholarly attention during recent years, encouraging prolific dialogue and leading to well-received publications such as Lisa Fagin Davis' monograph The Gottschalk Antiphonary: Liturgy and Music in Twelfth-Century Lambach (CUP, 2000) and the collection of essays Medieval Cantors and their Craft: Music, Liturgy and the Shaping of History, 800–1500, edited by Katie Ann-Marie Bugys, Andrew Kraebel and Margot Fassler (Boydell, 2017). The three chapters on liturgical matters gathered in the present volume add important perspectives to this ongoing tradition, starting with Sigbjørn Sønnesyn's investigation of medieval Danish historiography as a matrix of meaning for monastic lifestyles (131-147). Sønnesyn's arguments are well-balanced and nuanced, and they serve, if not necessarily to resolve, then certainly to reconcile some of the long-standing debates surrounding the person and background of Ælnoth of Canterbury. It is a little surprising, in this context, not to see greater interaction and more consistent cross-referencing between Sønnesyn's chapter and that by Winterbottom in the same volume. Whilst both pieces can perfectly stand on their own, of course, it nevertheless feels like an important chance for conversation might have been missed here. Roman Hankeln then turns more specifically to the subject of music in his discussion of royal hagiography (148-165) before Nils Petersen adds a more conceptual chapter on the important relationship between ritual and historical writing (166-188). Similar to the chapters by Sonne and Berend discussed above, those by Hankeln and Petersen both furnish the volume with important and compelling methodological reflections on the study of medieval historical and intellectual culture.

The book's fourth section (189-294) returns ad fontes for another series of case studies dedicated to specific writers and/or texts, featuring Mia Münster-Swendsen on Ralph Niger (189-210), Thomas Heebøll-Holm on the different Lives of William of Æbelholt (211-234), Stephen Jaeger's comparative piece on Dudo of Saint-Quentin and Saxo Grammaticus (235-251), Thomas Foerster on Saxo Grammaticus and Godfrey of Viterbo (252-271) and, last but not least, Jenny Benham on Roger of Howden and Saxo Grammaticus (272-294). Starring in three out of five chapters, Saxo evidently takes pride of place amongst the medieval authors discussed here, though the comparative nature of several studies included in this section means that the overarching conversations do not become one-sided but maintain a good balance throughout. There is, therefore, little to criticise here, apart from the fact that, as before, there is a minimum of cross-referencing and dialogue between individual contributions, which given Saxo's prominence is perhaps even more surprising than with regard to Ælnoth. This is a shame, as the findings presented by Jaeger, Foerster and Benham are not just important individually, but actually pertain to one another in several ways. Whilst most readers will be able to detect and appreciate these synergies, the editors probably could have facilitated discussions further through appropriate signposting.

Finishing and, in many regards, completing the volume is another chapter by Winterbottom that publishes posthumously Karsten Friis-Jensen's preliminary findings in preparation of a new edition of Sven Aggesen (295-317). Including a chapter like this was an excellent decision that showcases Friis-Jensen's lifelong dedication and contribution to scholarship, at the same time as ensuring the legacy of his unfinished work for future generations. Both Winterbottom and the editors must be congratulated for rendering such kind and appropriate homage to the book's celebrated dedicatee.

As will have become obvious by now, the volume is, in many ways, a triumph, and there can be no doubt that it will soon become--and rightly so--a standard item on academic bookshelves and student reading lists alike. There are no more than a few points of criticism that I feel should be mentioned here. As the editors point out in the Foreword, the book "gathers the fruits of three years of research work and conferences" (xiii), thereby drawing on carefully curated and well-maintained corpus of academic dialogue and intellectual exchange that can no longer be taken for granted in an age of dramatic cuts and increasingly competitive research funding across the Arts and Humanities. It would seem that some of these fruits were plucked earlier than others, however, as their bibliographical references are not always quite as up-to-date as the volume's date of publication might suggest prima facie. There are several chapters which reference few (if any) works published after 2011/2012, which suggests that these might have been written closer to the beginning of this three-year research and conference period. This is not an issue per se, of course, but it should probably have been mentioned in the prelims to avoid confusion. Considering the extraordinary level of scholarly collaboration and combined expertise that led to the volume's publication, one perhaps might have wished for more (or more consistent) cross-referencing between individual chapters so as to showcase the many important ways in which they connect and interrelate. I have already mentioned the cases of Ælnoth and Saxo Grammaticus, but the same holds true for some of the other writers, texts and contexts discussed by the different contributors. Finally, the book and its readers surely would have benefited from some form of bibliography, either in the shape of individual chapter bibliographies or as a combined bibliography at the end of the volume--without these, the onus is put on the reader him/herself to forage through the footnotes of the different chapters in search of bibliographical information.

Ultimately, however, these are but minor quibbles that pertain to specific editorial decisions. They do not, therefore, affect the quality of the contributions themselves, nor should they cast any doubt on the underlying conceptual design and structural integrity of the volume as a whole. It cannot be emphasised enough that the three editors have done an exceptional stellar job in bringing together such a wide range of scholarly approaches and perspectives on Europe's important "Scandinavian connection[s]" during the central Middle Ages--a task which is as challenging as it is necessary. To rise to this challenge and unite these different innovative perspectives within a single volume for the first time is to render an invaluable service not just to current scholarship, but also to future generations of academics. By successfully catering to a long-standing desideratum, Münster-Swendsen, Heebøll-Holm and Sønnesyn have produced an elegant and accessible book that pays fitting tribute to one of Denmark's (and indeed Europe's) finest medievalists.

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