E. A. Winkler u.a. (Hrsg.): Rewriting History in the Central Middle Ages, 900–1300

Rewriting History in the Central Middle Ages, 900–1300.

Winkler, Emily A.; Lewis, C.P.
International Medieval Research
Turnhout 2022: Brepols Publishers
Anzahl Seiten
342 S.
€ 95,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Erik Niblaeus, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies, University of Cambridge

In newspaper English, the phrase “rewriting history” often has a pejorative sense: meddling with the past to serve a supposed contemporary agenda. This, for example, was how Boris Johnson’s universities minister Michelle Donelan criticised initiatives on the part of institutions in the United Kingdom to remove statues or rename buildings celebrating beneficiaries of colonialism or the Atlantic slave trade: “We cannot rewrite our history; instead what we should do is remember and learn from it”. Medievalists are more likely to use “rewriting” (réécriture, Wiedererzählen) in a technical sense, to mean the transformation of one or several texts into a new one, a different way of presenting the same material, deemed preferable by its author for one reason or another. The re-imagining of the Gesta Francorum by a generation of crusading chroniclers who considered it stylistically inadequate is a well-known example to medieval historians. Francophone literary scholars (notably Monique Goullet on hagiography) have been particularly important in the development and theorization of the concept of rewriting.

The book under review, edited by Emily A. Winkler and C. P. Lewis, gathers essays on the rewriting of historical texts broadly defined—annals, chronicles, poetry, annotated cartularies—in Latin, Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Middle Irish, and Old English in the central middle ages. It ultimately springs from a series of sessions at the Leeds International Medieval Congress. The geographical and chronological parameters are broad, but the collection is weighted towards the Anglo-Norman sphere and the decades around 1100. In truth, several chapters treat the rewriting of history only tangentially, sometimes with slightly awkward justifications (“Some might argue that [rewriting the past] is the very nature of historical writing itself”, p. 164; “The very act of writing involved reflection on events and thus some kind of ‘rewriting’”, p. 197). But as a set of essays on history writing with an eye to intertextuality the book is very successful.

The collection opens with Roman Deutinger’s chapter on “rewriting a Reichenau world chronicle from the eleventh to the thirteenth century”, a speedy tour through the reception of an anonymous chronicle composed at Reichenau in the 1040s. This concise chronicle, notwithstanding its “somewhat simplistic content” (p. 42), spread across the German realm. The version extended and rewritten by the Bamberg monk Frutolf (finished in 1099) was a particular success, adapted, excerpted, and continued for centuries. The chapter demonstrates with the fullest clarity how reading our sources through the lens of rewriting and intertextuality, with due attention paid to the fluidity of categories of text and authorship, helps us understand the remarkable flourishing of historical writing in eleventh-century Germany and its afterlife.

Deutinger’s chapter speaks to that by Pauline Stafford, on a set of entries on tenth-century women in the D version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled in its present form in the mid- to late-eleventh century but concealing several layers of rewriting that can be uncovered through careful philological detective work. Stafford treats a complex topic with hard-to-achieve clarity. She ends with a call to think carefully about texts which have been lost but can still be glimpsed in the thicket of manuscript transmission and rewriting. Textual criticism and stemmatic analysis can seem dry, but they often rely on a keen historical imagination that deserves to be let loose, and this is how to do it. Another version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the bilingual ASC F from around the turn of the twelfth century, makes a brief appearance as a comparandum in Robert F. Berkhofer III’s chapter, whose main focus is an eleventh-century cartulary, the Liber traditionum of the abbey of St Peter in Ghent. Berkhofer uses the Ghent cartulary to show how an institution could manipulate its past for present priorities, but also as part of a broadly conceived argument in favour of taking the study of forged documents beyond the positivist concerns of traditional diplomatic.

Nikoloz Aleksidze’s chapter is an elegant and accessible account of historical writing and rewriting in medieval Caucasia. The scope is broad, encompassing works in several genres in both Armenian and Georgian from the ninth century to the twelfth. It is the only chapter in the volume to include hagiographical literature. The final section, on “Byzantinising” authors in eleventh-century Georgia, speaks most clearly to the theme of the volume, but the chapter is fascinating throughout. Aleksidze shows how history could be rewritten both to justify and to reinforce ethnically inflected doctrinal differences. The chapter is quite compact and there are times when you wish that the reading of the sources could have been closer.

Kyle F. Lincoln also considers how later chroniclers recast divisions between polities, by investigating how early thirteenth-century Castilian chroniclers simplified dynastic politics in in late eleventh- and twelfth-century Christian Spain. It is a lively and engaging account of a complex political narrative. Patrick Wadden’s chapter gives a similarly engaging insight into an enormously complex tradition of historical writing, that of Gaeldom in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Several arguments are interwoven through the chapter: one about the upsurge in historical writing in Ireland in the eleventh century; one about central-medieval interest in Ireland’s ancient past, including tales which are now mostly read as mythological or fantastical, but were incorporated into scholarly historical tradition; and a third about how historical writing in Gaeldom should not be considered in isolation, but as part of a larger European tradition, with the requisite classical references and potential for exegetical readings. It is a rich and learned chapter, fascinating to read in the context of this volume.

C. P. Lewis’s chapter is a careful and evocative reading of Orderic Vitalis’s Ecclesiastical History, focussed on Orderic’s knowledge of England and his own sense of Englishness. Born to an English mother and a French father, Orderic had arrived in Normandy at the age of ten and, with the exception of a brief journey back in 1119–1120, stayed. Lewis teases out the identity of the humble Benedictine Orderic, a learned and historicising kind of self-fashioning. Maximilian Lau’s chapter is a close reading of a set of poems from twelfth-century Constantinople, mostly praise poetry directed at Emperor John II Komnenos (1118–1143). Here, again, the phrase “rewriting history” is used in a very loose sense, to refer to poetic allusions to the Old Testament and to classical history. Lau examines these allusions with verve and conviction, although sometimes the theological vocabulary falters and you wish that he could have situated the poems more clearly in a longer tradition of Byzantine panegyric.

Like Lau’s, Marie-Agnès Lucas-Avenel’s chapter is a close reading of texts addressed to princes and mainly focussed on warfare, although in this case more clearly historical: William of Apulia’s epic Gesta Roberti Guiscardi and Geoffrey Malaterra’s De rebus gestis Rogerii comitis, both from the closing years of the eleventh century. Lucas-Avenel compares how the two texts told the story of Robert Guiscard’s expedition to Apulia in 1081–1082. The rhetorical and syntactical analysis is often sophisticated, although again there are times when the word “rewrite” could happily have been just “write”. Gregory Fedorenko’s chapter concerns a later text, from the thirteenth century, on the Hauteville dynasty: a short genealogical account of the descendants of Robert Guiscard’s father Tancred and some anecdotes about Tancred’s son-in-law Richard of Capua, in French prose. Fedorenko spoils us with an edition and a translation of the text, which can be found in the manuscript tradition of the Chronique de Normandie.

The comparative method recurs in the chapters by Jaakko Tahkokallio and the late and much missed Alheydis Plassmann. The two chapters are close in scope: both compare the authorial techniques of Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury. They are rich, full studies, perhaps the best in the book, combining close textual analysis with direct engagement with secondary scholarship. In the best possible way, they invite argument. The title of Plassmann’s chapter (“Æthelred the Unready and Edward the Confessor in William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon: Two Sides of the Same Coin?”) is misleading. In fact, the chapter (already published in part in German) treats the morality of kingship in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum, concluding with a relatively brief but systematic comparison with Henry of Huntingdon. The focus is not just on two kings, but on the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

Tahkokallio’s chapter is even more ambitious, situating the quality and success of William and Henry’s histories against a broader background of the “twelfth-century Renaissance”. It begins with a quantitative analysis, comparing the number of surviving manuscripts of Henry and William’s chronicles with those of other authors. A more fluid approach to authorship and rewriting might have tilted the analysis slightly differently here: for example, it is true that the great chroniclers of eleventh-century Germany are poorly represented in manuscript as full texts; but, as Deutinger shows in his chapter, their reception is perhaps better traced in adaptations and in the quotation of extensive excerpts. The remainder of the chapter is again in large part about the ethics of kingship, but with an entirely different analytical inflection from Plassmann’s, with a focus on the reception of classical authors and thought. Implicit in Tahkokallio’s chapter is an argument about the validity of Haskins’s twelfth-century Renaissance, an argument in its favour, as this reader understands it, although it could have been stated more forcefully.

The volume has a helpful preface and an elegant introduction. Each chapter has its own bibliography. There are three indices: of medieval authors (the Venerable Bede, interestingly, has by far the most citations); of “centres of writing”; and of “topics”, divided into an intriguing set of subcategories (“techniques of composition”, “textual features”, and so on). At times, the editorial hands have slipped. The English is occasionally unidiomatic. The presentation of quotations from primary sources is inconsistent. In most cases, both the original and an English translation are included, but sometimes only the translation and sometimes (in the footnotes) only the original. There are instances (for example, on p. 186) in which the translation and the original do not match up.

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