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24.03.02 Fafinski/Riemenschneider (eds.), The Past Through Narratology

24.03.02 Fafinski/Riemenschneider (eds.), The Past Through Narratology

This volume contains the expanded papers presented at a conference held in Innsbruck, Austria, in November 2019, focusing on late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, using narratology as the critical lens to study the various texts and documents. The editors have brought together twelve contributions, apart from their introduction, all of them, with one exception, written in English. As far as I know, Austria is still a predominantly German-speaking country, but researchers both there and in Germany appear to prefer English nowadays. Since the current project is highly interdisciplinary, with a good number of authors from various countries, this appears to be understandable. However, if they do not know German, how would they be able to engage with the vast amount of relevant research literature in German, particularly in that field? The inclusion of abstracts both in English and German is certainly a pleasant feature. Authors are briefly identified on the first page with a reference to their affiliation, and we also find their emails listed there. A separate list with short bios, however, would have been welcome. The volume concludes with an index of places and one of persons. The publisher has done an excellent job producing this book, which is well-bound and uses a nice typeface; even a cloth bookmark is included.

The editors have set historical markers, limiting the range of studies to late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. One problem with that would be that the transition from Roman culture to the next cultural period is hard to define, especially when a theoretical model such as narratology is applied. Why would we not examine Latin literature in light of narratological strategies? What made late antique texts so different from their predecessors? Of course, we always need a historical framework to focus on the subject matter, but both bookends used here would need some theoretical and historiographical reflections, which the introduction or the individual contributions do not fully offer.

The first section engages with individual literary works; the second considers larger corpora of texts, and the third embraces the notion of narrative in a wider context, including also archaeological data and meta-narratives. According to the editors, “the this collection form a logical and coherent whole, as do its three parts” (3), which might be the case, but as a reviewer I must really first evaluate that claim; it is not an automatic given.

The stated goal is to probe to what extent the method of narratology could be applied to the documents under investigation here, as if that were a novel idea. If a literary theory works well, and narratology certainly does, then there has never been any chronological limitation. It makes good sense to expand the concept of the narrative also to objects and images, such as maps, pictures, or architecture, but the argument then has to be a bit more delicate. However, what would be the critical difference between a traditional textual analysis considering the various voices and narrative strategies by the author and/or intradiegetic narrator, and an interpretation that subscribes specifically to the methodology of narratology? Hartmut Bleumer has already made a valiant effort to figure out what characterizes narratology in Medieval Studies, [1] but even in his case--his article was not consulted here--the entire concept remains vague and elusive; while analytic strategy deepens our understanding of the text, it might not yield truly innovative perspectives beyond traditional textual analysis in the hermeneutic context.

One major theme in most of the texts studied here pertains to the fear of barbarians, which makes good sense considering the constant attacks against the Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries. The discussion of Procopius, for instance, demonstrates that this observation holds true, but many historians and literary scholars have confirmed that already. What does narratology bring new to the table? The editors themselves admit that it is “not a newcomer” (13), but there is not such a clear indication what the volume then really tries to do specifically, apart from highlighting this rather neglected field between ca. 400 and ca. 1100. The key might be the discovery of a new discourse following the one reflecting primarily on the fall of Rome and turning to the new sense of transformation through the Christian perspective (15). We can only welcome these efforts to turn our attention to this in-between period characterized by a growing process of literarization in many different areas of daily life, although I am not sure why we would therefore need narratology as the prime analytic tool. The editors hope that the outcome of this approach would be to detect “‘narrative consequences’ of texts, archaeological finds, research narratives and their respective repercussions” (22). I feel a bit stranded here, not being really clear what the new impetus might consist of. The textual analysis determines the following articles, with or without the jargon of narratology.

In the first section, Sihong Lin examines the Life of Eligius of Noyon (why the authors never use italics for titles remains mysterious; single quotation marks serve really different purposes) from ca. 650, and the author’s political intentions to defend the inactive Franks during a time of theological debates. Sabina Tuzzo looks at the Epigrammata Bobiensia (ca. late fourth century), considering the changed characterization of Ulysses’s wife Penelope who here feels overwhelmed by her erotic desires for her long-absent husband. And Andreas Abele discusses Sulpicius Severus’s Vita Sancti Martini in his operations as a saint vis-à-vis the semantics of space, which allegedly “illustrate[s] the outstanding power emerging from an ascetic and eremitic life as Martin leads it” (72).

In the second section, the emphasis rests on “literary movements,” which simply means textual exchanges, such as letter correspondences. Veronica Egetenmeyr reflects on the emotional exchanges in the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris and Ruricius of Limoges, which seems to be a quite natural feature of letters between friends, up to today. Sabina Walter reviews late antique legal texts involving conflicts between Jews and Christians, and Michail Kitsos turns to some Adversus Iudaeos dialogues from late antiquity and their use of temporality as a narrative strategy, such as in the exchange between Gregentios and the Jew Herbari (ca. tenth century). Typically, the author relies heavily on the seminal study on narratology by Monika Fludernik (2009), but he seems to be ignorant of the critically important work by Heinz Schreckenberg (1997). [2] It may be a slip of the tongue, but in his acknowledgment he confuses this volume with a journal (122). Jelle Wassenaar observes that since the eleventh century, various textual narratives, such as Regino of Prüm’s Chronicon and especially Alpert of Metz’s De diversitate temporum, reflected the increasing importance of townspeople, which was apparently associated with the rise of diocesan identity. Salvatore Liccardo highlights the changing characterization of Alexander the Great in late antique maps such as the Peutinger Table in comparison with the various Alexander romances, which reveals that narrative elements are present in the map as well. Of course, we have already known for a long time thatmappaemundi and other maps were characterized by a combination of pictorial and narrative features, as the Bayeux Tapestry indicates as well (here not considered). I question whether we can, or even should, approve the final comment by Michel Houllebecq that the map is more interesting than the territory, a very postmodern but highly irresponsible perspective (160).

It is hardly surprising that late antique Jewish (b. Baba Bathra) and Christian travel narratives demonstrate considerable similarities, as Reuven Kiperwasser and Serge Ruzer argue in their paper. A quick reference to the anonymous Apollonius of Tyre would have easily confirmed that as well, although there are no comments on sea monsters--the German and English abstracts differ in the specific terms for those, which changes the emotional aspect considerably. The Vita by Barsauma confirms that mythological concepts were actually of an archetypal nature.

The third section begins with Philipp Margreiter’s study about funeral donations in the so-called Haßleben-Leuna graves in Thuringia. He outlines the current debate about whether those Germanic people actually served as auxiliary troops to the Gallic emperors or not. He offers also a fundamental discussion about the narrative elements also in the field of archaeology, which results in the realization that all presentations of new research reflect narrative interests. The thesis that those Germanic troops were mostly mercenaries seems to be an error, a result of a rather positivistic research approach since the post-war period (201). However, it remains unclear how we then would have to interpret those grave sites alternatively. And how would the narratological component enter the picture here, apart from the discussion of the development in historiographical research?

Some time ago, Brian Stock pointed out the significant role of communal reading in early medieval monasteries and other learned centers. [3] This is addressed here by Rutger Kramer and Ekaterina Novokhatko (they mention Stock at least once in a hidden footnote) by focusing on early medieval hagiographical literature, such as the Gesta Sanctorum Rotonensium or the Vita Geraldi. The use of topoi situates them in the local but also in the global context.

The book concludes with a coda by Kate Cooper with rather rambling reflections on what reading meant in the Middle Ages, and what it might do to us today.

We can certainly grant that the editors and the contributors deserve great credit for turning our attention back to what they describe as the neglected period after the fall of the Roman empire and before the eleventh century. The articles contained in this book are well researched, focusing on a variety of important texts and objects. The use of narratology, however, seems like icing on the cake, which is not healthy and should be shaved off, to change the normal use of this idiomatic phrase. What happens here is simply the critical reading of various texts and objects, based on comparative analysis, close examinations, and careful interpretations. Of course, without the concept of narratology, neither the conference nor this collected volume might have been appealing enough. However, the entire volume would have certainly been able to stand on its own without the theoretical metanarrative.



1. Hartmut Bleumer, “Historische Narratologie? Metalegendarisches Erzählen im Silvester Konrads von Würzburg,” in Literatur- und Kulturtheorien in der Germanistischen Mediävistik, ed. Harald Haferland and Matthias Meyer (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 231-61.

2. Monika Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009); Heinz Schreckenberg, Die christlichen Adversus-Judaeos-Texte (11.-13. Jh.): mit einer Ikonographie des Judenthemas bis zum 4. Laterankonzil (Frankfurt am Main and Boston: Peter Lang, 1997).

3. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy. Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the 11th and 12th centuries (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1983).