20.04.05 Campopiano/Bainton (eds.), Universal Chronicles in the High Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Jay Rubenstein

The Medieval Review 20.04.05

Campopiano, Michele and Henry Bainton, eds. Universal Chronicles in the High Middle Ages. Writing History in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2017. pp. xii, 277. ISBN: 978-1-90315-373-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jay Rubenstein
University of Southern California

This book contains eleven essays, eight in English and three in French, about universal chronicles--that is, books that aimed to be about everything. The genre is familiar to most medievalists. A certain type of writer (usually monastic, often German) compiled various texts in a single massive tome, often organized into annals. They often began with creation and continued to the author's own day. The most famous universal chronicler of them all, Otto of Freising, added an additional section to his narrative, once history proper had ended in 1146, in which he used prophetic traditions to describe the Last Days. Outside of a few famous authors like the aforesaid Otto, medievalists are most likely to have come across these books in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. They are usually and named after a church, printed in a bewildering number of fonts to help readers sort out which phrase came from which source, and usually excerpted in such a way to emphasize events that occurred in the years immediately before the chroniclers sat down to copy, arrange, or compose their material. As a publishing methodology, it is appropriate if your goal is to glean the facts most contemporary to a text's production. It has the drawback, though, of making the universal chronicle look like something it was not--a limited account of recent events told from a local perspective.

The essays collected here by Campopiano and Bainton, provide an important corrective to this approach. All of the contributors describe texts, some familiar and some obscure, as what they are--bulky and ambitious attempts to capture all of human history in a single codex. The essays then demonstrate through a variety of methods the kinds of insights one can glean when approaching universal chronicles with an awareness of what the book as a whole looks like. Inevitably, this subject can prove, like the sources themselves, unwieldy. Indeed, several of the texts included could have supported their own volumes. Despite the breadth of questions asked and methodologies applied, however, a few common themes do emerge.

One of those themes, concerning the ideological power of universal histories, emerges the first chapter. There, Tobias Andersson and Andrew Marsham examine the only non-European source in the collection, the ninth-century chronicle of Kalīfa b. Khayyāṭ. Not exactly a universal chronicle, Kalīfa b. Khayyāṭ instead describes the first decades of Islamic history, beginning with the foundation of the Muslim community at Medina. Taking a cue from Hayden White's concept of "mode of emplotment," Andersson and Marsham suggest that the genre is one of "process and continuity." Kalīfa b. Khayyāṭ describes the creation and evolution of the Caliphate as one of steady progress, devoid of conflict and controversy. He and presumably his audience saw imperial succession as the natural mode of government. As a member of the Traditionalist Hadith circles of Basra, Kalīfa b. Khayyāṭ employs a staid historical narrative to argue implicitly for the justness of Sunni rule. It is an underlying theme of many of the essays. Universal histories, even in their most sedate if not dull form, inspire and create grand historical movements as much as they record them.

Similar processes play out in subsequent essays in the volume, all of which originate in Western Europe and are arranged chronologically, from the eleventh to the fourth century. In the second chapter, Stephen Vanderputten calls attention to what he calls a group of "boring" chronicles (43) He focuses particularly on the Chronicle of Saint-Vaast, which covers the history of the world from creation to 899 CE. In this case, the narrative served to help a male institution account for its origins as a female community and at the same time to argue on behalf of the church's modern property rights. As such, the Chronicle is part of a decades-long project of memorialization typical of the eleventh century reformed churches in Low Countries. In the next essay, Elizabeth M. Tyler shows again how local concerns can intersect with the universal in Manuscript British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.i, which contains an early eleventh-century Old English translation of Orosius's history combined with the C-version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. On a grand level, this juxtaposition of texts places England into a narrative of translatio imperii, while on a local level, as Tyler argues, it tries to present Earl Leofric of Mercia as a loyal follower of the dynasty of Wessex, restored under Edward the Confessor.

The subjects of the next three essays, chapters four to six, all come from the German imperial courts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In chapter four Claudia Wittig discusses the twelfth-century Middle-High German Kaiserchronik, the first major chronicle in verse produced in medieval Europe. Not exactly universal, it begins with the founding of Rome and continues to the reign of Conrad III in 1146. The themes which Wittig chooses to emphasize center on reform. More in the tradition of didactic literature than the eschatological musings of Otto of Freising, Wittig sees the Kaiserchronik as advancing an argument on the proper management of the empire, one that advocated for collaboration between Emperor and Pope. Charlemagne's coronation, for example, is not a case of translatio imperii, according to the Kaiserchronik, but a moment of restoration and renovation, a good ruler bringing back proper order to what had become a failing government. The Salian dynasty under Henry IV and Henry V nearly destroyed this balance, but Lothar III again restored it, providing an example of good government and also keeping at bay the reign of Antichrist, as foretold in the book of Daniel. The slightly later Pantheon by Godfrey of Viterbo, discussed by Michele Campopiano in the fifth chapter, takes an entirely different approach to history. As Campopiano describes the text, it uses science and philosophy as a frame for historical thought. Indeed, the Pantheon begins not at Creation but before it, with a meditation on the divine essence. Following encyclopedic traditions, Godfrey ruminates on the microcosm/macrocosm relationship between man and nature, though he integrates his science and history more seamlessly than encyclopedists such as Honoroius Augustodiensis and Lambert of Saint-Omer had done. The Pantheon also dwells at length on eschatological questions, placing Roman Emperors at the end of the four world monarchies prophesied by Daniel and incorporating into its narrative a version of the Last World Emperor legend, where a German king will finally lay down his crown in Jerusalem. Similar prophetic concerns shape the Weltchronik of Rudolph von Ems, prepared at the court of Conrad III and discussed here by Christophe Thierry in the book's sixth chapter. A fragmentary text, it is like the Kaiserchronik a verse narrative in the vernacular. At once deeply rooted in exegetical models but also fascinated with pre-Christian lore, Rudolph mixed biblical stories with explanations for the origins of pagan gods and the foundation of Rome, in a way that Thierry suggests would appeal to a courtly audience. Conrad III, in Rudolph's judgment, drew together these two traditions, the Classical and the Christian, by virtue of his twin roles as Roman Emperor and King of--to the Caesars and to David.

The following chapters shift focus to various points outside the German court. First, in chapter seven, Catherine Gaullier-Bourgassas discusses Wauchier de Denain's l'Histoire ancienne jusqu'a César, the first universal chronicle written in French. As with the Weltchronik, Wauchier aimed his text at a courtly audience, this time in thirteenth-century Flanders. Gaullier-Bourgassas discusses in particular the author's use of Alexander the Great as a model for proper knightly conduct and how he makes Alexander's adventures serve as commentaries on recent political turmoil in Flanders. In the next chapter, Bjorn Weiler examines Matthew Paris's famous chronicle through the prism of universal history, showing how Matthew draws on the Anglo-Norman traditions of writers like William of Malmesbury and Radulfus Niger but breaks from them in terms of breadth and variety of subject matter. In chapter nine, Rosa M. Rodriguez Porto offers a fascinating study of the Estoria de Espana, written for Alfonso X of Castille. Produced in tandem with a more traditional universal history, the General Estoria, the Estoria de Espana presents a sweeping vision of the place of the Iberian Peninsula in world history. The manuscript also contains a sadly incomplete series of illustrations designed to contextualize the many ruins of Antiquity scattered around the Spanish landscape. The goal, Porto suggests, was to emphasize Spain's connection to the biblical and Classical past, including ancient myth--was especially important--as a way of decentering what would have clearly been the most crucial event in recent history, the Islamic conquest. This fascination with Antiquity becomes of a programmatic statement in the following chapter, where Elena Koroleva examines a chronicle attributed to Baudouin d'Avesnes. She focuses in particular on the integration of a life of Alexander the Great into one manuscript of Baudouin's text, now held at Cambrai. Its presentation of Alexander, she argues, divests his character of all the usual eschatological trappings. Even his imprisonment of the impure tribes of the North, by this point long associated with Gog and Magog, is presented in a straightforwardly historical fashion. Through methods of abridgment, editorial cuts, and reorganization, the author--or compiler--creates a text that aspires more toward objectivity than to revelation.

Finally, as a sort of coda to the collection, Cornelia Dreer and Keith D. Lilley offer a beautifully illustrated overview of the cartographic traditions associated with the mid fourteenth-century Polychronicon of Ranulph Higden. Higden, who devoted the first of the seven books of the Polychronicon to a description of the world, considered geography a prerequisite for the proper understanding of history. While the maps included many copies of the Polychronicon clearly grow out of information contained in Higden's text, they do not always reflect the author's concerns. Indeed, one manuscript produced at Ramsey Abbey, contains two world maps that stand in dialogue or dispute with one another--one emphasizing Britain's geographic marginality, as Higden does in his narrative, and the other pushing England more directly into the physical boundaries Europe, distorting the Continent's actual shape in the process. Other maps even reflect not just local but neighborhood concerns, a point which Dreer and Lilley make through an examination of maps produced contemporaneously at separate churches in Gloucester. What those specific concerns might be the authors do not fully articulate. They are content here, rather, to point out that in chronicles such as these readers should always be aware of resonances between the particular and the universal.

On the whole, this collection contains scholarship exemplary in terms of both its ambition and its attention to detail. No single overarching idea unites the papers, but several noteworthy tendencies do emerge. The habit of modeling universal history, either according to "the two cities" or "the four kingdoms" or "the six ages" or sometimes all at once, is an obvious one. All of these models, however, are nothing if not flexible, creating opportunities for creativity or innovation more than they set narrative boundaries. Certain people or places play prominent roles in most of the chapters, though to different effect and purpose--the sons of Noah, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Jerusalem, Troy, and Rome. Future students of universal histories would do well to start with these points of reference and use this volume to get a sense of possible avenues of interpretation. Eschatological concerns are frequent though not essential elements in these chronicles. Based on the presentation here, where the essays are arranged chronologically, it appears that the miraculous and supernatural fade in narrative significance as the medieval centuries unfurl. Finally, what these essays demonstrate above all else, is the advantage of studying these bulky and derivative texts in their entirety. The windows onto world views which they open are inherently valuable--even, or perhaps especially, in the boring ones.

Article Details