Norman historiographers of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, as the collected essays of the volume together assert, belong unequivocally to the tradition of western historical writing. We may likewise say that the historians who edited and authored the essays in this volume have produced a contribution to scholarship which belongs perfectly to the modern discourse on medieval historical writing in the central Middle Ages.
As editors Pierre Bauduin and Marie-Agnès Lucas-Avenel discuss in their brief but direct Avant-Propos, Norman chroniclers were constructing the history of emerging peoples, politics, and princes. In so doing, they borrowed, adapted, and interpreted the ancient past for the moral, didactic, and exegetic models which suited their contemporary Christian vision of the past. The collected essays illuminate interesting aspects thereof without losing a sense of context. This is an edited volume which is greater than the sum of its parts. Not all of the authors agree: there is some lively debate about the working definition of historiography, about how to read the absence of evidence, about the avenues for mediation of antiquity, and about how far we can extrapolate based on the existing evidence. Through the medium of discussion and thematic clarity, the book as a whole advances the field in a precise and directed manner. The authors are learned in the tradition they seek to explore, and the book offers new studies which probe the frontiers of medieval historiography.
The volume is firmly rooted in scholarship of medieval historiography’s shared biblical and classical tradition; still, the book is not averse to discovery. The key strength of the book–and what gives the essays unity–is a keen awareness of the need to avoid oversimplification, which is successfully sustained throughout. The essays go beyond the identification of similarities and concordances: they reflect on how the two ancient traditions work together, and they tease out as yet unexplored possibilities for ways in which antiquity makes its way into Norman historical writing. One of the most intriguing of these possibilities is the express desire to search for and to better understand the persistence of Scandinavian historical and narrative traditions in Norman perceptions of the past. Such a search is not unfounded. “Viking” studies continue to suggest that the Scandinavian invasions of the continent in the early Middle Ages resulted not only in fighting and raiding, but also in cultural interaction, friendships, and alliances. These, we might imagine, had their place in later historical memory as well as in the monastic records of looting and surprise attacks. The more varied interactions which took place could well have promoted ongoing historical consciousness of the Normans’ complex and varied ancient heritage–including the northern element, rather than detracted from the serious business of the Christian and Roman pasts.
What is important about this volume is the attention to detail, nuance, and creativity in the exploration of antique exempla in Norman historical writing. The book is well structured and well written. Elegant metaphors give tangibility and voice to familiar concepts, doing so in a reflective way which invites further thought and discussion. A case in point occurs in Michel Sot’s introductory essay: in describing the influence of the Bible, from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, he writes: Toute historiographie s’inscrit entre ces deux livres (16). The words cut seamlessly across time, encouraging the reader to consider continuities and universals in how medieval writers sought to connect with–and to write themselves into–the ancient past.
The volume’s strategies for analyzing, presenting, and integrating the results of the collaborative research enterprise of the 2009 Cerisy conference are effective, as well as creative. Sot’s introductory essay employs an intriguing conceit: the proposal of an ideal library inventory in Normandy (un inventaire idéal de bibliothèque carolingienne ou post-carolingienne) (18). This ideal inventory, based on extant catalogues, encourages the orderly asking of basic questions: what was read, where, and by whom–and the broader historical questions prompted by ideal types: can we use this information to identify wider political, historical, or social trends? One is reminded of the utility of Marc Bloch’s definition of feudal society in 1939, which articulated six broad characteristics of la société féodale. These characteristics too proposed an ideal type: whereas no single society necessarily possessed all six characteristics, Bloch’s ideal “inventory” of criteria–based as it was on his sense of the sum of existing evidence–made it possible to isolate the unique qualities and variances of an individual society, and to make fruitful comparisons between societies through a common language of experimental conditions.
Given the many Neoplatonic elements in intellectual discourse in the period in question, the volume’s use of ideal types is particularly apt, and suggests a profound engagement with the past on many levels. The ideal type links the essays in the volume not only rhetorically, but thematically; Monique Goullet’s concluding response paper completes the structure built on this foundation, reflecting both on the contributors’ methods and avenues for further enquiry. This inventory forms a conjectural keystone which indicates how the volume is well framed, both as an introduction to Norman historiography, and in providing a coherent foundation for future comparisons between Norman historiography and the other literatures of Europe in the central Middle Ages.
Part one launches the volume’s scholarly papers with a spirited investigation of manuscripts, texts, and transmission in high medieval Normandy. Essays by Rosamond McKitterick, Monique Peyrafort-Huin, and Pierre Bouet cover an impressive scope of interpretive strategies and, indeed, conclusions: there is as much pragmatic attention to the limitations of manuscript evidence as there is imagination in creating a speculative picture of the imagined past. These essays demand a reexamination of assumptions as to what historians can say about the extent of historiographical trends in the central Middle Ages. They just as forcefully inspire a considered liberalism in entertaining possible explanations for the nature of Norman historical scholarship.
Part two, on historical content in Norman writing, is important because of its attention to the mediation of the Roman past, in all its forms, in high medieval Normandy. Essays by Magali Coumert, Yann Coz, Mireille Chazan, and Élisabeth Mégier concern the classical past, both early and late; origin myths, both eastern and western; and women, both mythical and Norman. The import of patristic texts as mediators of the classical past is rightly stressed; Coz’s essay encourages comparisons between historical writing in Normandy and Anglo-Saxon England, a further indication of continuity in cross-channel interactions, and not only after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The section reminds us that how Norman writers knew what they knew–through what authors, through the contents of what libraries–is as important as what they knew.
Part three, on the representation of power, explores how and why Norman writers drew on the past to legitimate their rulers, using the written word to capture these leaders’ import in Norman society. As a corollary, the section as a whole provides food for a good deal of future thought about those people, ideas, and themes which were left out of Norman historiography. These essays by Laurence Mathey-Maille, Graham A. Loud, and Vito Sivo elucidate what I would describe as the reuse not of “Antiquity,” but of “Antiquities”: Norman writers amalgamated different ancient traditions–which included concepts, stories, and individuals of Rome, Christendom, Germany, Scandinavia, and beyond–to tell a unified story relevant to Normandy’s present.
In part four, the essays by Marie-Agnès Lucas-Avenel, Edoardo D’Angelo, and Antoine Foucher clearly describe linguistic and rhetorical aspects of Norman historical writing. A key benefit of this section is that it will balance the work done on the linguistic side of twelfth-century historiography on the other side of the Channel. Henry of Huntingdon’s and William of Malmesbury’s metrical, verbal, and rhetorical experiments, for instance, have been examined in numerous specific studies. Their tenth- through twelfth-century counterparts on the continent merit analysis as incisive and comprehensive; the present volume makes progress in redressing the imbalance. The individual essays’ conclusions could in some cases be longer or more fully developed, but the section illuminates connections between practices in the use of antique models in Normandy and elsewhere in high medieval Europe.
The volume renders explicit the wide range of historical activities which Norman historical writers undertook in the tenth through the twelfth centuries. The titular reference to sources antiques should not mislead: for Norman writers, the past was populated not only with “sources,” but with living entities and multifarious concepts which provided a fertile garden for cultivating and seeding a new history. With this range in the forefront of our minds, the true nature of the sources antiques in question begins to look very complex, and no less fascinating. Which antiquity is being remembered, and which Rome? Which people and which individuals are worth rewriting? Why, and through what modes of mediation?
Sot’s introductory essay nears its conclusion with the pertinent and provocative question: Seul le XIe siècle resterait sans renaissance? The still-popular terms “Carolingian Renaissance” and “Twelfth-Century Renaissance,” taken together, can imply that the intervening period was one of historical infertility between rebirths. If, however, this was not the case–as the contents of the present volume strongly suggest–then perhaps we must look for a more consistent intellectual natality rate in the reuse of antiquity in northern Europe across the central Middle Ages.