Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Guest Post: Historical Writing in Medieval England: A Very Short Introduction - Michael Tansini

When people think of medieval literature, they think of the Knights of King Arthur searching for the holy grail, hordes of Vikings running around various parts of Europe, and Beowulf overcoming the monstrous Grendel (and, if the 2008 film starring Ray Winstone is to be believed, overcoming some pretty serious Oedipal issues). The idea of some medieval monk or cleric writing genealogical histories does not filter through to public consciousness, or, if it does, it is only before a Monty Python-esque giant foot stomps on the poor writer. However to ignore historical writing in the Middle Ages, and especially writing in England is to ignore some of the most exciting literature of the whole period. 
(Alas, there are no historical writings about the Giant Foot outbreak of 1178) 
When we think of history today, it is of dates and events and people that can be clearly traced with historical records and archaeological evidence. In the High Middle Ages (roughly late 11th to early 14th century) it was different. Many noble families, especially in Norman England and France, could barely trace back their family line three of four generations. The lost grandeur of Rome inspired many to attempt to create an ancestral link to justify their present rule. Moreover the Norman invasion of England had resulted in the overthrow of English government. Though the basic Anglo-Saxon administrative framework remained, English religious leaders and landowners were removed in favour of Norman ones; the English language, which had been unique in Europe for featuring a good deal of historical writing, rapidly fell out of use. So in the twelfth century, when historians such as John (or Florence, depending on which critic you believe) of Worcester, Henry of Huntingdon and Eadmer, start writing histories of Britain, and in particular the Anglo-Saxon ‘English’, it must be seen in the context of radical societal upheaval. 
(A Medieval scribe, looking bored)
Nor is this historical writing limited to the English. Orderic Vitalis was an Anglo-Norman clergyman whose monumental ‘Ecclesiastical History’ is symptomatic of divided loyalties. He praises Henry I as a lion but condemns William the Conqueror for his Harrying of the North and describes the Norman subjugation as a ‘yoke’.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ is often derided as falsifying and myth-making but it also represents an attempt by Welsh Britons to commemorate their own history that English writers (like Henry of Huntingdon) have ignored). Geoffrey was the first writer to depict King Arthur as we recognise him, and his depiction of Arthur’s life and Merlin’s Prophecies were the foundation for the growth in Arthurian literature.

Even works now considered literary had a strong historical background. It is important to note that while there was the difference between ‘fabula’, roughly translating to a story and a ‘historia’, history, these genre boundaries were far from fluid. Thus the writers Wace and Gaimar wrote literary stories about the history of England in Anglo-Norman which contain clear genealogical elements in addition to their underappreciated literary merit. And Jordan Fantosme’s Chronicle, though often shelved in the history section of a university library, uses a flexible metrical structure, dashing heroic speeches and bloody battles in a portrayal of Henry II’s war against the Scots.
(Henry II in less murderous times)
This can only be a rudimentary sketch of the exciting and (from a literary perspective) underappreciated burst of historical writing in England. I have not mentioned the historical writers of the thirteenth century, notably Matthew Paris, nor the wealth of writing on the Continent. It is a type of writing which undermines genre, ethnic national boundaries as quickly as these boundaries are set up, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Michael Tansini is an MA student in Medieval Literatures at the University of York

List of Works Mentioned
Eadmer, Lives and Miracles trans. and ed. Muir and Turner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006)
Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis, trans. and ed. Ian Short. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. and ed. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977)
Henry of Huntingdon, History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. and ed. Diana Greenway (Oxford: OUP), 2009
John of Worcester, Chronicle, trans. and ed. McGur, 3 volumes. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)
Jordan De Fantosme, Chronicle ed. R.C Johnson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981)
Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History trans. and ed. Marjorie Chibnall 6 volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1969-80)
Wace, La Roman de Brut, trans. and ed. Judith Weiss (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002)

Two interesting Critical Studies
Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England 550-1307. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974)
Partner, Nancy. Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977