Sunday, August 16, 2015

Philip Gavitt: “Rewriting Saints and Ancestors”

Philip Gavitt

Book Review

Constance Bouchard, Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500 - 1200. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2015), xiv + 363pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4636-0

1> It seems only appropriate that a history of medieval memory should begin at the end of its chronological period and work its way back to the beginning. Unlike studies of medieval memory and mnemonic devices undertaken by Mary Carruthers and many others, Bouchard attempts a project more like those we associate with studies of more modern memory: the active rewriting of the past in which the past is not merely present but is also a malleable instrument to be revised, rewritten, and reworked according to the urgent, practical needs of the present.  Historians for some time have realized that our perceptions of the medieval and early modern period come to us refracted through the lens of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  By comparing the evolution of accounts of events over time, Bouchard locates the origins of our current historical accounts of the middle ages not just in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but in the practices of abbots, kings, noble families, monks, and chroniclers throughout the medieval period.

2> This is a far more subtle book than what is expressed by the old saw that history is written by the winners. The early chapters of the book concern themselves with types and purposes of medieval documentation: cartularies, chronicles, and polyptiques, from which the author moves on to the great “age of forgeries,” the early and mid-ninth century, before turning her attention to Carolingians, Merovingians, monastic life, and great noble families. Cartularies reworked and simplified the earlier documents on which they were based in an effort to preserve a memory of the past—not with an eye to completeness but to their political utility. The monks of the Saint Denis cartulary went farther than most in falsifying their past to avoid losing their lands, even writing their forgeries on the backs of existing papyri to lend them “a specious air of authenticity” (16).

3> Much as early Renaissance humanists might complain about mistakes in medieval manuscripts that “corrupted” the transmission of texts, medieval scribes, who were often copying documents from three or more centuries earlier, might have been challenged, as are we, by mysterious scripts. But there is no indication that lack of interest or carelessness played a role in the transmission of text. As Bouchard points out, a nun of Auxerre wrote in the margins of one of her copies that it had been collated with the original (26). Similarly, the ordering of documents in cartularies was unlikely to be strictly chronological but, like medieval illuminations, to blend distinct eras into a single tableau. In some cases copies could be improvements over their “originals,” when a scribe might know from other sources which missing names should fill gaps in the earlier document.

4> Bouchard valuably demonstrates how many of our preoccupations with objectivity make our readings of medieval documents more problematic than they need to be. We are far better served, in her view, by looking at medieval cartularies as commemorative documents than as justification for staking out legal claims. Our approaches to polyptiques are unnecessarily obscured when we attempt to treat them as fiscal documents. Even the eleventh and twelfth century scribes who attempted to reconcile polyptiques with each other and with other kinds of documents understood that differences in vocabulary made it extremely difficult to do an accurate historical accounting of previous holdings. Above all, the polyptiques make clear that by focusing on the institutional and economic changes of the early eleventh century, historians are missing the opportunity to examine what may have been dramatic changes in the rural economy a century earlier.

5> There is perhaps no clearer example of the importance of a useful past than the forgeries that abounded in Charlemagne’s era. Where Giles Constable argued that forgeries represented a resistance to change during the Carolingian era, Bouchard argues that the relative absence of extant documentation in the Carolingian period combined administrative and intellectual vitality to make the creation of a well-documented though contrived past a matter of urgency. Bouchard examines at length the Le Mans forgeries and the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals (of which the famous forgery of the Donation of Constantine was a part) and concludes that both were products  “of concerted campaigns to create a useful past that was completely false”(66). The Pseudo-Isidorian decretals in particular, she argues, used the veneration of the written word in the service of defending ecclesiastical rights to property and to discourage its misappropriation. Not all such forgeries were successful, however, and not all had to await the Italian Renaissance to be suspected and revealed as such.

6> The following chapters deal with the use that Carolingians made of documents to reinforce their own legitimacy and how, in doing so, they created the portrait of their Merovingian predecessors as weak and disorganized that still prevails in our undergraduate teaching. Bouchard suggests that the Carolingians’ view of the Mayors of the Palace is largely a colorful fiction, and that the Merovingians offered far more support of monastic institutions than their successors gave them credit for. Indeed, Carolingian attention to monastic institutions was far more self-interested and controlling than beneficial.  Competing chronicles, Paul the Deacon’s and the Annals of Metz in particular, show Carolingian chroniclers employing rival versions of genealogical research to deal with the touchy problem of the transition from Merovingians to Carolingians.

7> Bouchard’s arguments are based on research in primary sources that is both broad and deep, and should stand as an excellent example of how recent theoretical attention to memory and its manipulation can successfully challenge our assumptions about the early medieval past that often are also more useful than accurate.  Not all will agree that this book means that substantial changes in our views of the early middle ages are long overdue, but the author deserves our gratitude for injecting a healthy dose of skepticism both about traditional narratives of medieval history that we take for granted, and also for her welcome skepticism about the unambiguity of primary sources.

Philip Gavitt is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. In 1992 he founded the Saint Louis University Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and is the author of Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence: The Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1410-1536 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990) as well as Gender, Honor and Charity in Late Renaissance Florence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). He is co-editor (with Rebecca Messbarger and Christopher Johns) of a forthcoming volume of essays on Pope Benedict XIV: Art, Science, Spirituality to be published in 2016 by University of Toronto Press. He is also working on a book-length project on religious orders and the early Catholic Reformation.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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