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23.12.02 Winkler/Lewis (eds.), Rewriting History in the Central Middle Ages

23.12.02 Winkler/Lewis (eds.), Rewriting History in the Central Middle Ages

The refashioning of the past to serve the needs of the present has always been a fundamental feature of human society. New perspectives, understandings, evidence, and agendas repeatedly drive the reworking of history to reveal, reconceptualise, obfuscate or erase. These processes of reworking occur in varied forms and media, spanning cultural memory through texts to social media. Indeed, often the evolution of new communicative modes gives impetus and opportunity to new evaluations of the past. Such was the case in the Central Middle Ages (c.900-c.1300) an era which experienced significant cultural transformation (especially in the twelfth century), a perceptible rise in literacy rates, and the development of new forms of knowledge management aided by the expansion of the written word. It is surprising that few studies have foregrounded the significance of the “rewriting” of history during the Central Middle Ages. Emily Winkler and C. P. Lewis’s excellent edited volume--Rewriting History in the Central Middle Ages, 900-1300--which originated in sessions at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, is therefore, a most welcome contribution, for to understand the rewriting of the past is to understand how (at least) some individuals and communities navigated significant transition and wielded influence.

Defining and identifying “rewriting” is both slippery and crucial. One should add here the important caveat that it is, arguably, almost methodologically impossible to do so with consistency given the ubiquity and fuzziness of the interweaving of knowledge and information across generations, and the overwhelmingly large spectrum of potential “rewriting” from the extensive and obvious to the microscopic and obscured. The editors fully acknowledge this and their introduction devotes plenty of space to consider these issues with nuance and flexibility, and offers some thought-provoking perspectives. Winkler and Lewis confirm, sensibly so, that their “definition is deliberately loose” (17); for them it is “an account of some part of the past [that] already exists and is known to an author who chooses not to replicate it by simply copying it out, but instead recasts it in some way. Rewriting can happen at any scale from an episode to an entire historical work. By rewriting, a new author addresses new circumstances” (17). As an overarching definition this works well both conceptually and pragmatically. The editors expand on their definition by using the concept of “curation” which “is the visible, active part of a much larger root system of reasoning” (19) and suggests that the person/s rewriting is “accepting a sense of responsibility to whatever is curated” (18). Significant too is the acknowledgement that rewriting implicitly required the questioning of auctoritas found in earlier works and produced “something completely new and experimental” (31).

The volume’s twelve contributions collectively demonstrate the range and diversity inherent in rewriting history. They also demonstrate the challenges inherent in researching this topic, for the, at times opaque, nature of rewriting requires significant technical expertise to identify and understand it. Consequently, some of the volume’s contributions require extremely close reading to follow the multiple forms of rewriting and inter-textual relationships under analysis, but doing so brings great reward to the attentive reader. The editors acknowledge that the volume cannot be an exhaustive treatment: its geographical focus is Western Christendom, the Byzantine world, and the Christian kingdoms in the Caucasus, meaning that studies on rewriting history in, for example, the Jewish and Muslim worlds or in eastern Europe and Scandinavia are absent. Chronologically, the focus, as the volume’s title elucidates, is the Central Middle Ages (c.900-c.1300); a time, particularly from the twelfth century onwards, of innovation and expansion in historical writing. The editors also “argue that rewriting was a feature of the central Middle Ages and not of the earlier or later Middle Ages” (27), citing the dearth of written accounts in the earlier Middle Ages and the proclivity to produce continuations in the later Middle Ages as two forces which worked against the act of rewriting. These are certainly valid and interesting lines of enquiry and while one assumes that the editors are not suggesting that rewriting was entirely absent before 900 and after 1300, the extent of the distinction between “periods” could be fruitfully problematized further, a not insignificant task which perhaps could be tackled in a future volume. A few quibbles aside, the introduction offers a careful and very useful entry point into a stimulating and complex subject.

The twelve contributions which follow each pursue a different, sometimes markedly so, mode of rewriting and in doing so validate the need for the fluid and loose definition set out in the introduction. The contributions are arranged into three strands: Broad Themes, Comparisons, and Case studies. In reality there is some overlap here, and some contributions might arguably sit in different strands. This is no great matter, but here perhaps it would have been helpful if the editors had provided a brief discussion in the introduction to explain the guiding principle behind the organisation of each strand.

The first strand--Broad Themes--commences with Roman Deutinger’s analysis of the rewriting of the Reichenau World Chronicle. It offers a tour d’horizon of the dizzying number of overlaps, reuses, reworkings, copies and continuations associated with this chronicle. Thus, the reader can fully appreciate how “a tree with many branches had grown from this root” [i.e. the Reichenau World Chronicle] (58). Patrick Wadden’s assessment of historical culture in Gaeldom demonstrates how Gaelic historiographical tradition was connected to a wider context of ancient and salvation history and shared common ground with learned culture across Europe. Importantly, while authors and compilers reached back to copy texts, their endeavours to critically engage and question these texts generated forms of rewriting. Nikoloz Aleksidze likewise offers an analysis of the rewriting of histories in medieval Caucasia, and the tensions within Georgian and Armenian writings. Aleksidze assesses the “Two Times of Caucasian History” in the context of the Schism between the Armenian and Georgian Churches, the attempts to sustain continuity in historical writing and a process of “Byzantinizing,” all of which produced rewriting. As Aleksidze states, the “constant tension between the past and present, the pull of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in uncertain times, and uncertainties with regard to identity inevitably resulted in a constant need to rewrite, adapt, and adopt earlier narratives” (102-3). The final contribution in the first strand is Maximilian Lau’s study of the rewriting of history at the court of the Komnenoi. There, Old Testament, Classical and recent history were reworked to present the Komnenoi as the latest gatekeepers of a continuing divinely framed world order.

The second strand--Comparisons--begins with a comparative analysis of monastic forgeries and plausible narratives at St Peter’s, Ghent and Christ Church, Canterbury by Robert F. Berkhofer III. This study concludes that some of the rewriting that occurred in both houses should be understood as “argumentum, plausible narratives,” which reflected the monks’ “own interpretations of their pasts” and which should be situated somewhere between “historia and fabula” (164). Next, Jaakko Tahkokallio explores the rewriting of English history through a comparison of Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury. Both authors were shaped by Classical literature in their rewriting of English history, by a wider European cultural renaissance, and by aspirations (seemingly achieved) for their works to have utility for a broader, educated and secular audience. The final contribution in the second strand, by Marie-Agnès Lucas-Avenel, compares the way the campaign in 1081-82 against the Byzantine Empire by the Norman Hauteville, Robert Guiscard, was portrayed in the works of Geoffrey Malaterra and William of Apulia respectively. Both re-utilised ancient epic and Christian tradition in their works to legitimate, albeit in different ways, the power of the Norman Hauteville dynasty.

The third and final strand--Case Studies--opens with Pauline Stafford’s intricate examination of women and rewriting in the D Chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Studying women in the D Chronicle highlights, among other things, lost chronicles and that “the dynamic vernacular historiographical tradition” which existed before 1066 was replete with rewriting (238), and consequently proved to be a crucial corpus of material for historical writing after the Norman conquest. The next study, by Alheydis Plassmann, explores what factors were considered vital to a successful king’s reign and how the past was mined by authors for answers. The analysis focuses on Willam of Malmesbury and representations of the figures of Æthelred the Unready and Edward the Confessor, but also brings in Henry of Huntingdon and other kings. A complex and carefully balanced picture emerges of the characteristics deemed necessary for a successful king: incentive, punishment, counsel (which implied cooperation with the nobility), and virtues are all brought into the mix. C. P. Lewis examines Orderic Vitalis’ sense of selfhood in order to provide a more holistic understanding of his historical work and in particular the way he rewrote English history within it. Central to Orderic’s sense of selfhood was his displacement from England to Normandy, his complex tension between his English and Norman selves, and also his Mercianness and identity as a monastic historian. As Lewis reveals, self-perception and the act of rewriting were connected: “Orderic’s rewriting of history involved, in a small way, the rewriting of his own identity” (290). Next, Kyle C. Lincoln analyses the rewriting of the past which promoted a history of Castilian dominance, particularly in the context of the fraught balance of power with Léon. Tracing the interweaving of interests at play in Léon-Castilian geo-politics of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, Lincoln shows how rewritten histories enabled “the retrofitting of a shared Spanish past to fit a Castilian agenda” (297). Finally, Gregory Fedorenko’s study assesses the continuing aristocratic interest in post-1204 Normandy for remembrance of the wider Norman diaspora in southern Italy. Fedorenko explores this through the prism of the Estoire de Tancrède de Hauteville et de Richard de Quarrel, a short vernacular chronicle produced in northern France in the early-thirteenth century (an edition and translation is also provided in the appendix). The composition of this text, and the reworking of the past within it, indicates the thirteenth-century interest in genealogy (and, in this text, a specific interest in matrilineal descent), crusading identity, and earlier forms of Normanness.

In conclusion, this volume serves as a rich resource for anybody wanting to explore the myriad ways in which history was rewritten in the Central Middle Ages, and the equally numerous reasons for this. Each contribution presents a different context for, and interpretation of, rewriting, and, while there are inevitable gaps in coverage, read collectively one is left with a deep and rounded understanding of the practice of reworking the past through texts. What lies at the heart of this practice, what makes it so intriguing, is precisely the paradox which the editors identified in the introduction: rewriting “affirms a text, a tradition, or an identity” but is also shaped by “newness” (17). Old meets new, the permanent meets the impermanent, and all revolves around the present moment.