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21.08.09 Jahner et al. Medieval Historical Writing

The Medieval Review

21.08.09 Jahner et al. Medieval Historical Writing


How to prepare a book on medieval historical writing that is comprehensive, presents the state-of-the-art of the field, and yet invites future engagement? The editors of this volume have found a compelling answer: In 27, relatively short case studies, critics from different fields showcase specific problems. Together, they present a complex and multifaceted representation of "the disciplinary fluidity of medieval history writing" (6). The scope is impressive: The collection covers no less than 1000 years, from Gildas to Renaissance printers; England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland within their European contexts; and tackles questions of content, style, format, authorship, patronage, audiences, influences on, and effects of, the historical texts under scrutiny. The contributions are sorted into four sections: Time, Place, Practice, and Genre. This is a timely contrast to the chronological order in Antonia Gransden's standard work, the two-volume Historical Writing in England, in that it foregrounds broader thematic issues and brings to the fore connections across time, space, and genres.

The section "Times" focuses on the breaks and discontinuities that modern history sees in the insular Middle Ages: the end of the Roman Empire, the transition from British to English rule, the impact of Christianity, and the Norman Conquest of 1066. The contributions ask how historiographers discussed these discontinuities, or, in contrast, sought to construct continuities, fill gaps, and negotiate contradictions.

Magali Coumert claims that, with the loss of the connection to the Roman Empire, Gildas and his audiences "had lost access to their chronological reference points" (22). Consequently, Gildas aligned his history with biblical history, which resulted in "a hazy chronology" (23) which left a gap that later historiographers would eventually fill with the figure of King Arthur.

Thomas O'Donnell challenges the stereotype of the monastic historiographer as an "expert at recording the past because he was so detached from the present" (35). He discusses personal, universal, and regional forms of memory and shows how other genres, such as romance and local record keeping, intertwine with the religious projects of monks and nuns.

Richard K. Emmerson addresses the question of how history and apocalyptic prophecy intertwine. He presents the four ways in which historians structured universal history: Synagoga and Ecclesia (Jewish past vs. Christian present), the Three Laws (before, during, and after Mosaic Law), the Four Kingdoms, and the Six Ages, and discusses representations of these in text and image.

Jaclyn Rajsic discusses the negotiations, particularly in the Prose Brut, of the divergent timelines provided by Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth (who "burst into [the previous] tradition with a dramatic new periodization, which portrayed the ancient Britons as the overlords of the island," 68). She pays specific attention to the presentation of Cadwallader as the moment of transition of power from the British to the English.

Marie Turner discusses genealogies as connected to questions of "identity, nobility, lineage, and authority" (86). She notes a heightened interest, at the beginning of the Anglo-Norman rule, to "overwrite the discontinuities of 1066 and establish a shared lineage with the Anglo-Saxon past" (87). This interest was particularly well met by the materiality of the genealogical roll and its "vertical momentum" (97).

Cynthia Turner Camp tackles problems that the contradictory Anglo-Saxon pasts originally provided by Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth posed for later writers: "Were the Saxons Geoffrey's savage invaders or Bede's holy kings?" (109) She analyses diverse projects of connecting present and future to an idealised Anglo-Saxon past, and posits that such projects reach into our own present, for example in the form of white supremacists' discourse of racial purity.

Christine Chism discusses how positive portrayals of figures of antiquity such as Dido, (three of) the Nine Worthies, and Alexander the Great enabled medieval writers to acknowledge their indebtedness to a pre-Christian past. The "politics of historical othering," she argues, "are beset by contradictory responses of loss and mourning for pagan people, virtues, and cultures" (118).

The section "Place" explores the connections of historiography to border regions (Wales and the Anglo-Scottish border areas) and to centres of power and learning (London, Bury St Edmunds, and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris). It also, quite literally, puts historical writing on the map and emplaces viking raids as well as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its international context.

Sarah Foot highlights the connection to the previous section when she discusses strategies for explaining shifting geographical and political realities in the wake of migration and conquest. She is particularly interested in how maps visualise the "mental geography of the early medieval English" (139) and explores ideas of Britain's liminality, the shifting use of the terms Anglia, Britannia, and Albion, and the idea of "home" in relation to the eternal home in heaven.

Paul Gazzoli, in his discussion of viking raids reaches back to Coumert's discussion of Gildas' framing of invasions as a divine punishment: "Anglo-Saxon writers were extremely well prepared for [the attack on Lindisfarne] historiographically" (159). However, he shows that responses in northern England were less concerned with correcting English behaviour and instead focused on the potential conversion of the intruders.

Elizabeth M. Tyler challenges the notion that the vernacularity of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle precluded its internationality. By highlighting three key moments in its history, she argues that it was instead embedded in cross-channel networks: the influence on the project of King Alfred's international advisors, Æthelweard's Latin translation at the behest of Abbess Matilda of Essen, and the combination of the chronicle with the Old English Orosius as a way to embed it in universal history.

Kathryn A. Lowe investigates the Anglo-Saxon archive of Bury St Edmunds as a typical example of how religious houses "used and engaged with" their archives in response to the events of their time (194). Tracing different stages of this particular archive from its creation to its use in the Quo Warranto proceedings, to shifts in focus and organisation, she claims that archives are no less valuable than chronicles as "mediated history of its recording institution or office" (192).

Owain Wyn Jones and Huw Pryce show that, while there was historical writing in Wales, no histories of Wales itself were written in the Middle Ages since "these would have been tantamount to an admission of defeat" (208). The translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia into Welsh in the 13th century consequently became a cornerstone of Welsh historiography and formed the basis for the three extant chronicles commonly referred to as Brut y Tyywysogion.

Kate Ash-Irisarri shows that Scotland and Anglo-Scottish border regions consisted of "myriad peoples" for whom origin myths and king-lists provided important ways of establishing identity (228-229). Later, the claim to Scotland of Edward I promoted the Scota origin myth as well as historical writings concerned with the concurrent struggles for internal power, including historical treatments of the Bruce dynasty and William Wallace.

George Shuffelton discusses history writing in London under the aspect of the city's special position as a "figural representation of the nation" (247). While London histories from the 12th to the 15th centuries highlighted a growing sense of pride and self-consciousness (impressively illustrated by the fact that the names of mayors and sheriffs serve as the organisational principle), London remained a "perfect stage for the display of royal power" (255).

Charles F. Briggs challenges Guenée's long-standing notion that history had no place in universities because it was not taught as a separate subject. Briggs traces university-trained writers of history, discusses the books in institutional libraries, and concludes that historical texts were widely used "for purposes ranging from the writing of sermons to the study of grammar, and rhetoric, moral philosophy, and pastoral theology" (274).

The contributions in the section "Practice" cover practices of writing, collaborating, preserving, and printing. The increasing professional self-consciousness of historiographers is tackled in the examples of professional Irish historians, the authorial persona of Matthew Paris, and the vernacular historiographers of the 13th and 14th century. In each case, however, the contributors contrast this "individualisation" of the historiographers with their embeddedness in and dependence on their communities. In a similar vein, Clare A. Lees shows how focusing on collaboration rather than individualism will make the role of women in historiography visible.

Katharine Simms discusses medieval Ireland's paid professional historians, senchaide, who handed down knowledge in oral form from one generation to the next, establishing dynasties. She traces their role in the preservation of knowledge through the stages of beginning literacy with the advent of Christianity, the fusion of ecclesiastical and bardic learning, the roles of senchaide in ecclesiastic and secular education, and their connections to the Gaelic aristocracy.

Clare A. Lees makes clear that when we conceptualise the writing of history as a collaborative process we can make the contributions of women visible. This applies particularly to collaborations between female patrons and male authors, as is the case with Abbess Matilda of Essen and Æthelweard and with queen Ealhhild and the eponymous poet in Widsith. Lees however also insists that any anonymous author may well be a woman and makes a case for a Whitby nun as the author of the Earliest Life of Gregory the Great.

Björn Weiler claims that Matthew Paris, despite his "forceful authorial persona" (331) needs to be re-embedded in his communal and cultural context and insists that even for him, history writing was a social and cultural project, guided by audience expectations. He reconceptualises both patronage ("need not involve the actual commissioning or receiving of texts," 327) and audience ("reception need not require that a text be consulted directly," 328).

Matthew Fisher describes vernacular English historiography as of the middle of the 13th century as a product of a "fluid multilingual intertextuality" and as effective exactly because it made "newly strange even the most familiar stories" (340). The chronicles of Robert Mannyng, Robert of Gloucester, Piers Langtoft, Nicolas Trevet and the Short Chronicle show that history writing consisted of processes of "appropriation and re-narrativisation" (355).

Andrew Prescott calls for a study of administrative documents as historical literature. Archives, he claims, express state power at the same time as "their contents record forgotten everyday people" (369). With his selection of narrative episodes, he however also exemplifies the difficulties of reading archival records: "when documents seem most talkative...they are most deceptive" (364).

A.S.G. Edwards discusses the printing of historical works from Caxton to the sixteenth century and shows how shifting practices attest to a change in the perception of history itself. While Caxton and his successors sought to increase the market value of their product by strategically collating materials, printers as of the 1520s sought to respond to contemporary events more directly, insisting on prose writing as "the modern mode" of accessing truth (383).

The section "Genre" tackles the problematic categorisation of historiography in terms of genre and outlines overlaps, shifting boundaries, and authorial anxieties in relation to the genres of romance, tragedy, and hagiography. While the contributors insist that all these genres perform historical work, too, the discussion of forgeries particularly highlights how our own categorisations prevent us from accessing historical writing in its full medieval generic breadth. The two articles on historiography during the crises of the fourteenth century and the Wars of the Roses finally show how flexible and adaptable historiography can be, not just in terms of genre.

Robert Rouse explores how romances perform historiographical work by embedding family histories, laws, and land tenures in a wider historical framework. Manuscripts, too, bring texts of different genres into close proximity and hence complicate genre divisions, and even landscapes are inscribed by romance as is the case with place names and etiological stories in Hampshire and Sussex where "the romance of Bevis escapes the pages of its manuscript and imprints itself upon the landscape" (399).

Alfred Hiatt makes a similar claim for forgeries: they "intervene in the historical record" (404) and are valuable sources concerning the motivations of the forgers. In the form of documents, saints' lives, and origin stories, forgeries serve specific interests and are consequently validated by their repeated use long after they have been challenged or disproved. The narrative of Arthur for example, was "only removed from accepted history when it ceased to be necessary for dynastic and imperial purposes" (417).

Catherine Sanok points out that even modern history produces wonders when it "reduces complex phenomena to a single agent" (421) and claims that Christian hagiography, as a genre limited to the Middle Ages, may be "the historically most distinctive form" of historiography (422). She discusses the proximity of the two genres, the role of vernacular and Latin and claims that, "as a form of knowledge production...hagiography is a species of historia" (435).

Thomas A. Prendergast explores the thin line historiographers navigated between representation and interpretation, between presenting events in a meaningful way and their fear of distorting history by making it too literary: "To impose meaning on history was to usurp the power of the Creator. To fail to understand the meaning of history was to render the world meaningless" (449).

Andrew Galloway traces the connections between the crises of the 14th century, the development of ideas of England as a nation in contemporary chronicles, and ideas of authorship. In works concerned with national perspectives, he claims, historians emerge as a particular person, embedded in time and making "formal and historiographic choices that could be announced and justified" (455).

Sarah L. Peverley once more underscores the adaptability of historiography when she examines the ways in which writers reacted to the repeated changes of power structures during the Wars of the Roses. A broader spectrum of writers produced shorter and thematically more selective historical texts in the form of notes and continuations and authors such as John Hardyn and John Rous rewrote and adapted their works for opposing dynasties.

This is an extremely rich and timely collection that will become an invaluable resource for students and specialists alike. It lends itself both to a reading as a complete work and to the use as a handbook of sorts. My complaints are few and marginal: First, and not surprisingly, not all contributions fit easily into the section they were put in. Some might have provided an interesting contrast in a different section (e.g., Prescott's in "Genre") and others might have been better placed, together, in a separate section (the contributions by Edwards, Galloway, Fisher, and Peverley all address the adaptability of historical productions to contemporary events, for example). Second, this is overall a beautifully prepared book and it is a pity that the four images in it are not given more space on the page and reproduced in better quality. Third, a more comprehensive indexing of keywords (e.g., authorship, literariness, community) would further support the volume's use a handbook and help underline the myriad connections between the individual chapters.