Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Vita or Gesta?

The Capetian kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries have been little studied by English historians. Few of the ‘Capetian chronicles’ are available in English translations though the Anglo-Saxon and especially Anglo-Norman writings of historians like Orderic Vitalis, that have much to say on political relations between England, Normandy and France are.  My blog for the next few months will concentrate on the life and writings of Abbot Suger of St-Denis and includes a new translation of his life of Louis VI (Vita Ludovici grossi) based on an examination of most of the extant manuscripts and available French and English translations. This provides valuable insights into the nature of writing history in the early to mid-twelfth century where personal and political agendas often meant that the ‘history’ written was deliberately partial and ‘constructed’ to get across a particular message. It also deals with the problems faced by a French monarchy trying to assert its authority outside its own domains against the vested interests of an aristocracy that proved powerfully dangerous.

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 are is incapable of satisfactory resolution, perhaps historians need to look at their purpose, the agendas that lay behind these historical writings. Suger did not give his biography of Louis VI a title and the manuscripts containing the text gave it different names. However, in the prologue of the text in which Suger wrote to bishop Josselin of Soissons, he used the term ‘gesta’: ‘serenissimi Regis Francorum Ludovici gesta approbate scientie vestrie arbitrio delegamus…’ (I am sending for your approval and wisdom the deeds of the most serene Louis, King of the French) though at the beginning of chapter 28 he uses the term ‘Ut autem ad propositum recolende Regis hystorie revertamur…’ (But let us return to our aim, which is to write a history of the king.). The use of ‘deeds’[2] rather than ‘history’ or ‘life’ can also be found in comments made by Odo de Deuil[3], Suger’s successor as abbot of St-Denis and William, his biographer refers on three occasions to Suger’s account of Louis’ deeds[4]. The problem is that, with two exceptions[5], editors of the text have used the word ‘life’ rather than ‘deeds’[6]. The writing of the ‘deeds’ of particular individuals was an important feature of the historiography of the eleventh and twelfth centuries[7]. These works focus on the reporting of deeds rather than providing detailed biographical information. Essentially they tell the ‘heroic’ story[8] and Cusimano and Moorhead suggest that they are linked ‘perhaps’ to the old French chanson de geste[9]. Suger’s biographer William said that he was a lover of stories and that when he was in a good mood he loved to stay up to the middle of the night telling of the deeds of heroic men[10]. This, according to Cusimano and Moorhead[11] suggests that the episodic nature of the book owed ‘something to the techniques of a raconteur’. More to the point, I think is the continued importance of orality in a period when literacy was the preserve of the few. The problem with using the term ‘gesta’ for Suger’s study of Louis VI is that it lacks the distinguishing features of chronicles of this genre: a commitment to chronological progression through a reign or life; clear thematic development usually grounded in ethical precepts defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kingship; and a degree of historical completeness. The focus on Louis is often lost in favour of long digressions that even Suger recognises are of little relevance to his central character. He almost seems to need to remind himself to get back to the point. Perhaps it is better to look at Suger’s writing as a piece of ‘selective’ biography[12] much in the same way that William of Apulia’s poem on Robert Guiscard and William of Poitiers’ discussion of William the Conqueror are selective. Suger did not simply produce a collection of incidents arranged in a broadly chronological way since an examination of the individual sections shows both a clear internal logic and structure[13]. At the heart of Suger’s Vita Ludovici was an individual who protected the people, the church and, as in the case of the planned German invasion in 1124, France against disputes, disorder and attacks that threatened peaceful order. The innocent and disadvantaged came to Louis to seek his aid and Louis hastens to put things right. This is made clear in the opening chapter of the work: ‘You might have seen this young man dashing across the frontiers into Berry, then into the Auvergne, now into Burgundy, with a handful of men, and returning just as quickly to the Vexin…’. The proud and the recalcitrant are defeated or destroyed and the peace that had earlier existed was restored. There is a clear divine purpose in the text. The individual chapters may be more or less autonomous and more or less chronological but the tone of the text reiterates the same message: the king will restore God’s order and will defeat those who threaten that order. It is that divine purpose that gives the text its selectivity. Gabriel Spiegel argues that each chapter of the Vita Ludovici ‘contains the narration of a single ‘event-unit’ that may, but does not necessarily, delimit a comparable unit of historical time, hence the chronological imprecision all commentators on the text have found so puzzling.’[14] She points to the triadic structure of the chapters where disruption of the established order is followed by Louis’ attempt to deal with the results of that disruption and ends with a final restoration of the proper hierarchical ordering of society. This triadic structuring can be seen throughout the Vita Ludovici even in those chapters on successive popes who come to Philip I and Louis VI to seek their aid to put right certain wrongs. On occasions as, for example in chapter 26 where Louis is defeated at Brémule in 1119, Suger is hard-pressed to maintain the structure but maintain it he does even if the resolution of the disruption is far from convincing. To sustain this structure, Spiegel argues

Suger wilfully violates chronological order, conflating events or deferring the conclusion of a chapter until he can properly narrate the resolution of the disturbance and the restoration of order…The chronological looseness of the Vita Ludovici, therefore, is the result not of confusion but of narrative intention... [15]

In some respects, there is much of the traditional hagiographical tradition in Suger’s writing with Louis as a secular ‘saint’ translating into human events and actions the principles governing the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies of the Pseudo-Dionysius[16], the Areopagite whom the monks of St-Denis mistakenly identified with their own patron saint.. Suger certainly composed a series of lessons for the liturgical office at St-Denis on the anniversary of Louis’ death and, as early as 1124 he provided for Louis’ anniversary to be celebrated at St-Denis. A passage in the Chronicle of Morigny refers to Suger having composed lessons during the period 1139-1142.[17] Suggestions that the lessons were extracts from Suger’s text have been made by two of his editors[18] but there is some evidence to suggest that the text pre-dated the lessons even if it was revised after.[19] At the end of chapter 32, he referred to pope Innocent II in the perfect tense: ‘The lord pope in blessed succession enhanced the glory of the most Holy See by the merits of his life and his devotion to duty.’ This suggests that this was written after Innocent died in 1143 and the earliest references to his work on Louis VI occurred shortly after that date.[20]

More recent general texts on the Capetians available in English include: Dunbabin, J., France in the Making 843-1180, 2nd ed., (Oxford University Press), 2000, Hallam, Elizabeth and Everard, Judith, Capetian France 987-1328, 2nd ed., Longman, 2001 and Bull, Marcus, (ed.), France in the Central Middle Ages 900-1200, (Oxford University Press), 2002

[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] Carpentier, E., ‘Histoire et informatique: Recherches sur la vocabulaire des biographies royals françaises’, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, vol. xxv, (1982), pp. 3-30 provides support for the use of ‘gesta’ for Suger’s work.

[3] Odo of Deuil De Perfectione Ludovici VII in Orientem, edited and translated by Virginia Gingerick Berry, New York, 1948, p. 3.

[4] A. Lecoy de la Marche, (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, Paris 1867, pp. 382 and 403.

[5] Suger: The Deeds of Louis the Fat, translated with introduction and notes by Richard Cusimano and John Moorhead, Washington, 1992 and Suger: La geste de Louis VI et autres oeuvres, edited by Michel Bur,  Paris, 1994.

[6] What follows is grounded in a reading of Spiegel, Gabrielle M., ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, in Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, New York, 1986, pp. 151-158, printed in her The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, London, 1997, pp. 163-177.

[7] Examples of this genre include: Wipo’s The Deeds of the Emperor Conrad, William of Poitiers’ The Deeds of William the Conqueror, William of Apulia’s The Deeds of Robert Guiscard, the anonymous Deeds of Stephen and Otto of Freising’s The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa.

[8] Links have been made between Suger and the crusading works with ‘gesta’ in their title especially the anonymous Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum and Fulcher of Chartres Gesta Francorum Iherusalem peregrinantium and Suger twice stated that his book was an account of the ‘gesta Francorum’ in chapters 1 and 10. On this see Hunt, Tony, ‘L’inspiration ideologique du Charroi de Nîmes’, Revue belge de philology et d’histoire, vol. lxvi, (1978), pp. 580-606.

[9] Ibid, Suger: The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p. 7.

[10] William Vita Sugerii, in ibid, Lecoy de la Marche, A., (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, pp. 382 and 389.

[11] Ibid, Suger: The Deeds of Louis the Fatp. 7.

[12] The notion of ‘selective’ biography is not a type of historical writing exclusive to the medieval period. In the nineteenth century for example, politicians were especially prone to getting their biographies published so that they could tell their sides of the story and were often extremely ‘selective’ with the ‘facts’. We still have ‘official’ biographies today written by historians often with access to family papers unavailable to other scholars. The idea that biography should narrate an individual’s life ‘warts and all’ is quite recent and authors today are often at pains to emphasise that their conclusions have not been influenced by surviving family members. Take Harold Wilson, apart from his own self-justificatory writings and the biographies published while he played a central part in public life in the 1960s and 1970s, three biographies were published in 1992-1993: Pimlott, Ben, Life and Times of Harold Wilson, Morgan, Austen, Harold Wilson: A Life and Zeigler, Philip, Wilson: The Authorized Life of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, the first ‘balanced’, the second ‘critical’ and the third ‘official’.

[13] This is made clear in Spiegel, Gabrielle M., ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, in ibid, Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, New York, 1986, pp. 151-158, printed in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, pp. 163-177.

[14] Ibid, Spiegel Gabrielle M. ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, pp. 151-158, printed in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, p. 166.

[15] Ibid, Spiegel, Gabrielle M., pp. 151-158, printed in her The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, pp. 169-170.

[16] On Suger’s links to the Pseudo-Dionysius, see Panofsky, Erwin, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St-Denis and its Art Treasures, Princeton, 2nd ed., 1979 and Simson, Otto von, The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, 2nd ed., New York, 1964. Modifications to their views are suggested in Zinn, Grover A., ‘Suger, Theology and the Pseudo-Dionysian Traditions’, in ibid, Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, pp. 33-40. Kidson, Peter, ‘Panofsky, Suger and St Denis’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. i, (1987), pp. 1-17 argues that there is no need to see Suger as having been directly influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius.

[17] Mirot, Leon, (ed.), La Chronique de Morigny (1095-1152), 2nd ed., Paris, 1912, p. 69.

[18] Ibid, Lecoy de la Marche, A., (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, p. v and Molinier, Auguste, (ed.), Vie de Louis le Gros par Suger, Paris 1887, p. xvii, no 1. Waquet, Henri, (ed.), Vie de Louis VI le Gros, Paris, 1929 ignored the question.

[19] Hugenholtz, F. and Teunis, H., ‘Suger’s Advice’, Journal of Medieval History, vol. xii, (1986), pp. 191-205 suggest that Suger’s approach to the Vita Ludovici was influenced by events that occurred early in the reign of Louis VII.

[20] The earliest references to the text can be found in Liber de rebus administratione sua gestis, ibid, in Lecoy de la Marche, A., (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, p. 171 and this work has been dated by ibid, Panofsky, Erwin, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St-Denis and its Art Treasures, p. 142 to between 1144-1145 to 1148-1149.

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