Saturday, 28 February 2009

Medieval sources: an introduction

There are significant difficulties in defining the different types of historical writing from the medieval period[1]. There are also major problems in defining ‘history’ in the medieval context. Medieval historical writings contain emphases and biases that would be unacceptable for historians today. In fact, as the work of Alexander of Telese shows, today’s clear distinction between propaganda and history was something that did not really concern medieval historians who saw history as having a specific contemporary ‘purpose’. Medieval writings were, as William of Apulia’s Gesta Roberti Guiscardi clearly demonstrated, highly ‘selective’ in character. While this may well be a characteristic of all historical writing (in essence no historical writing would be possible without it), there is no pretence of disguising the specific purpose for which the work was written. Medieval historical writing was designed to inform its audiences but often to inform them of a specific political or religious agenda. What we would call distorting the truth, is seen by medieval historians as getting across or ‘spinning’ their particular message. Purpose is at the heart of understanding medieval texts.

History was not a profession in the medieval period.  It required no specialist training, nor did it provide career pathways.  It was distinct from other forms of literature and what distinguished it was its claim to be presenting the truth.  There are significant difficulties in defining the different types of historical writing from the medieval period.[1]  When is a chronicle not a chronicle but an annal?  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a case in point: called a chronicle but clearly a set of annals.  What is the difference between an annal and a chronicle?  Is it simply a case of the way in which each was produced, the one written rather like an annual diary often by different writers, the other as a coherent piece of history in which the author adduces causation to events?  Is the one a work of ‘history’ and the other a means through which history may be written?  Yet, these questions, important though they undoubtedly are, do not resolve the problems with the different genres.  If the difficulty of defining in any precise way what chronicles, annals, lives and deeds actually were is incapable of satisfactory resolution, perhaps historians need to look at their purpose, the agendas that lay behind these historical writings.[2]  Chris Given-Wilson suggests the following questions need to be addressed in the preface of his book:

· Why did chroniclers record the events of either the past or the present?

· What purposes did they think the writing of history ought to serve, whether short-, medium- or long-term?

· How did they decide what to include and what to omit?

· How did they set about the task of amassing evidence and what criteria did they use to evaluate it?

· Why were they so interested in prophecy, portents and other preternatural phenomena?

· How did they conceive of time and space?

· What was the most appropriate form for the presentation of their work and why?

· What ‘message’ did they hope that their readers (or hearers) would take from their work?

· To what extent were they free to express their own views rather than being constrained by political or religious pressures?

· To what use or uses might their chronicles be put and how did that affect what they wrote and how they wrote them?

· How did memories congeal into history and what was history for?

When reading a collection of medieval sources, it is easy to be seduced by crisp, clear translations and confident presentation, and forget what every historian who has dealt first-hand with medieval documents knows.  Often, modern editions and translations are based not upon original documents, but on later copies which may have been deliberately altered or inadvertently corrupted.  When the text is dubious or incomprehensible, modern versions try to make sense of it, but often gloss over the difficulties.  Sometimes, multiple copies exist that differ in detail or even in broad strokes.  These differences are usually smoothed over in modern translations or editions, where the variants are relegated to footnotes.

For the next few months I intend to include some translated and footnoted sources on my blog that relate to the Normans.  In some cases, as for example, with the Life of Louis VI, they deal with issues other than the Normans while others, such as William of Apulia and Geoffrey Malaterra deal specifically with the diasporic nature of Norman expansion in the eleventh century.


[1] On the problem of defining medieval texts see Guenée, Bernard, ‘Histoire, Annales, Chroniques: Essai sur les genres historiques au moyen age’, Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, vol. iv, (1973), pp. 997-1016, reprinted in his Politique et Historie au moyen-age: recueil d’articles sur l’histoire politique et l’historiographie médiévale (1956-1981), Paris, 1981, pp. 279-298.

[2] On this issue see Given-Wilson, Chris, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England, (Hambledon), 2004.  Though the book focuses on the period after 1200, it contains much that is relevant to the tenth and eleventh centuries,

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