Biddlecombe, Steven, ed.
The Historia Ierosolimitana of Baldric of Bourgueil. Woodbridge
Boydell Press, 2014. pp. cvii, 153. $99.00. ISBN: 978-184-3839-019.
Reviewed by Jay Rubenstein, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Reviewed in The Medieval Review
Baldric of Bourgueil is one of three monastic writers–along with Guibert of Nogent and Robert the Monk–who famously (among crusade historians, at least) set themselves the task of rewriting the anonymous, eyewitness narrative of the First Crusade, the Gesta Francorum. Not as well known among modern historians as Guibert (whose chronicle was published in a new edition by R. B. C. Huygens in 1996) and not as popular among medieval readers as Robert (whose text survives in over eighty manuscripts and was recently edited by Marcus Bull and Damien Kempf), Baldric’s book has tended to be–if not overlooked, then at least–underappreciated in scholarly circles, which is unfortunate. Among twelfth-century writers about the crusade, Baldric was easily the most sophisticated. Discerning medieval readers shared this judgment, too. Both Orderic Vitalis and Vincent of Beauvais, for example, used Baldric’s Historia Ierosolimitana as the basis for their own work on the crusade. Unlike any of his contemporaries’ efforts, we can say of Baldric’s Historia that it is a true work of literature.
The last published version of Baldric’s chronicle was the one used in the nineteenth-century series the Recueil des Historiens des Croisades, still the essential source collection for crusade historians. That edition was based on seven manuscripts. Biddlecombe has uncovered a further seventeen manuscripts, which he describes in detail in the book’s introduction, and he has collated twenty of them for the current edition. (The ones he has passed over are either lost, fragmentary, riddled with errors, or translated into fifteenth-century Spanish.) Within this significantly larger group of manuscripts, moreover, Biddlecombe has identified two distinct traditions: an initial draft prepared and circulated while Baldric was still abbot of Bourgueil and which served as the basis for Biddlecombe’s edition, and a slightly expanded version completed after Baldric had taken office as archbishop of Dol. Yet another recension, known as the G-manuscript, contains numerous variants with the other two traditions, many of them intended to highlight the achievements of crusaders from the Loire Valley, particularly around Angers and Tours. The additions in this version of the text, many of them quite substantial, are highlighted in the footnotes here. Taken as a whole, then, this new edition of Baldric allows a careful reader to see the evolution of an author’s historical thought, the intellectual and geographical contexts through which his story traveled, and the ways in which other readers could transform that text to serve wholly new purposes. For students of medieval historiography in general and of crusade historiography in particular, Biddlecombe’s edition of Baldric merits careful reading and will provide rich rewards.
Besides such exemplary paleographic detective work, Biddlecombe’s introduction also provides a fine overview both of Baldric’s life and his intellectual milieu. Despite Baldric’s reputation as a cultivated man of letters, he does not seem to have studied at any of the famous schools of his day. Based on his self-presentation, he saw himself instead as something of a « country poet. » The description sounds like modesty topos, but it is not entirely unlikely, given what we know of the education of Baldric’s contemporary Guibert of Nogent from the latter’s memoirs. We can also speculate that Baldric must have found a more talented itinerant teacher that did Guibert, or else that Baldric was a better student, or both. In any case, as Biddlecombe demonstrates, Baldric was able to employ clever wordplay, poetic devices, and classical allusions with great felicity than was Guibert. He was also able to create a narrative as vivid and engaging as did his other literary rival, Robert the monk. One sign of this stylistic daring: an astonishing twenty-seven percent of the text, according to Biddlecombe’s calculation, consists of direct speech. Baldric also invested his work with a versatile but consistent narrative theme, that of the familia Christi, as a way to frame the meaning and purpose of crusading. Thanks to the pioneering work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, students of the First Crusade have defined Baldric, Robert, and Guibert’s chronicles together as examples of « theological refinement. » Now that we have new editions of all three of these books to work with, we can see just what theological refinement actually entailed, and at the same time we must recognize how unsatisfying that label is.
The other major argument Biddlecombe advances in his introduction concerns the dating of the text. The traditional interpretation of Baldric’s Historia, along with the works of Guibert and Robert, is to see it as a product of the 1106 preaching tour of the Norman warrior Bohemond of Taranto. The Gesta Francorum, the source for all three of the monastic texts, so the argument goes, served as propaganda for that crusading hero. It is therefore likely that Bohemond distributed copies of it during his travels around France, and that an educated readership (one that included Baldric, Robert, and Guibert) found the anonymous text so dreadfully constructed that they felt it necessary to rewrite it.
Biddlecombe, like other recent commentators, including most notably Nicholas L. Paul, seeks to undermine these connections between Bohemond’s preaching and the production of these books. Biddlecombe does so dating Baldric’s text with remarkable precision, to 1105. His argument is ingenious. Based on an obituary in a cartulary for the monastery at Bourgueil, Biddlecombe dates the year of Baldric’s birth to 1046. He then notes a statement, in the prologue to Baldric’s crusade chronicle, that he took up the subject when he was almost sixty years old: ad scribendum paene sexagenariam appuli manum (quoted on xxiv in the introduction, and with slightly different spelling in the text on 3). If Baldric’s hand was not quite sixty, paene sexagenariam, at the time he began writing, then must have been fifty-nine, which means in turn that he would have begun his project in 1105, a full year before Bohemond arrived in France. Though cunningly constructed, the argument is not entirely convincing. It depends a little too much on the monks of Bourgueil having recorded Baldric’s age at death correctly and on the likelihood Baldric, at the time he wrote his preface (which was likely the last part of the book that he would have composed) would have remembered with precision the age at which he had begun. A more conservative claim to have dated the manuscript to around 1104-1107 might have been more in order.
The Latin text itself, as indicated, has been marvelously edited. It represents a complete break with the earlier version of the text in the Recueil–though perhaps complete a break. Biddlecombe has, with reason, deleted the arbitrarily devised chapter divisions imposed on the text by its nineteenth-century editors. This perfectly justified excision, however, makes it difficult to cross-reference scholarship based on the Recueil, which is to say all existing scholarship on Baldric, with this new, and sure to be definitive, edition of the text. Some sort of editorial aid toward this end, such as the inclusion of page numbers from the Recueil scattered in the margins throughout, would have been useful. A break with the past was necessary, but the transition might have been less painful.
Setting aside these quibbles, this new edition of Baldric is something to be celebrated. Biddlecombe has clearly met his goal, as stated his preface, of placing Baldric « where he belongs, among the pre-eminent historians of the First Crusade » (x). The new edition will doubtless lead to a new translation, though I would hope that medievalists would start here with the Latin. For the Historia Ierosolimitana, in its original language, is what good medieval writing looks like.