And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 29. februar 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 2 - The Purpose of History

It is my considered opinion that the sweetest relief from suffering and the best comfort in affliction that this world affords are to be found almost entirely in the study of literature, and so I believe that the splendour of historical writing is to be cherished with the greatest delight and given the pre-eminent and most glorious position. For nothing is more excellent in this life than to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events.
- Historia Anglorum, Henry Huntingdon (translated by Diana Greenway)

This blogpost is an adaptation of a draft for one of my thesis chapters, focussing on various sources for the life, times and cult of Edward the Confessor. My emphasis in this essay is the purpose of history, why chroniclers spent time and faculties to record past events. The selection is rather minute, but it does include some of the most important figures in the literary history of the English High Middle Ages.

One of the chief strands of purpose detectable in the tapestry of Medieval histories is the idea of history as a looking-glass in which one can learn of good deeds to emulate and wicked deeds to shun, learning by example and counter-example alike. This approach is widely disseminated in the monastic tradition, as exemplified by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the writings of William of Malmesbury, where scribes and authors were primarily subjects of their superior clerics rather than the milieu of a temporal court and thus less likely to indulge excessively in dithyrambics and eschewed reality in favour of a worldly prince. However, it would be exceedingly naïve to suggest that the monastic historiographers were unscathed by the temporal influences; both the above examples prove cases in point. The C manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for instance, shows a very partisan quill in favour of the Godwin family, while William of Malmesbury, in his own words, was spurred on his historiographical task by Queen Matilda and later sought the patronage of her daughter Empress Matilda. No wonder, then, that the Empress is spoken of with unquestionable, albeit modest, favour in William's last opus, Historia Novella.

Another important strand of purpose is the exaltation of an individual, often with didacticism as an important, but secondary, object. This tradition is closely connected with the temporal world, native to the court and the deeds of princes, nobles, kings and emperors whose names are found in its titles. For instance we have Gesta Fredericii, a chronicle of Frederick Barbarossa's Lombard campaign, or Gesta Stephani, concerning the reign of King Stephen of England. Like the general histories or annals these, too, are written by clerics, but the audience is of the court, not the monastic sphere, and the purpose of such works is first of all to record illustrious deeds and make sure that the fame and glory of the subject-matter is passed on to posterity.

These features are are also found in the lives of saints, only with a more clearly didactic aim. Hagiographers chiefly sought to illustrate how Christian life should be led through accounts of various religious paragons whom Christians could emulate. Naturally there were other considerations at stake as well, such as establishing a cult that could rival that of a neighbouring family, diocese, realm or branch of Christianity, but regardless of such personal incentives saints' lives were didactic texts where, unlike general histories, lessons were taught through the good examples of forebears whom, as guaranteed by the Church, God had included among his sanctorum communionem of the Apostolic Creed.

All in all there are few major differences in how hagiography and historiography, as subgenres, approach the matter of history: both are didactic and both are written with one eye on the author's contemporaneity and the other fixed on posterity. The authors, however, are not always equally conform, especially with regards to their incentives to write history. In this chapter I will consider how the authors of various sources to Edward the Confessor approach history and what they state as their purposes for writing. This exploration of Medieval historical writing will also include various texts written during the 12th and early 13th centuries where Edward the Confessor is of minor or no importance, but whose authors are partakers in the same tradition as the authors who deal with Edward in greater detail. In this way I hope to elucidate why history was written and how this affects the way we consider these texts as sources for Edward the Confessor.

The form of Medieval historical writing was heavily indebted to two traditions: the Jewish as found in the Old Testament and the Roman as found chiefly in the works of Poets as Lucan and Virgilius. Roman historians left relatively few fingerprints in the pages of Medieval historiographies, but were important to the genesis of hagiography due to their emphasis on exhaltation of individuals through rhetoric. The main influence with regards to form, however, must be said to have been Eusebius' church history whereas philosophically Medieval historians were indebted by Augustine's De Civitate Dei, both due to its sharp division between matters temporal and spiritual and its division of history into the six ages corresponding the allegorical days of Creation. In this chapter my emphasis is on the English tradition which, in addition to the antecedents already mentioned, draws on the work of Bede, both when it comes to form and purpose.

Although the following selection belongs to the English tradition it should be noted that the term "English" is used because of its convenience rather than its accuracy since the array of authors - named and anonymous alike - encompasses the Anglo-Norse, the Anglo-Norman and the Plantagenet political landscapes. In addition we must consider the various spheres, both geographic and religious, to which the authors belonged. Accordingly I will below present the various authors chronologically, giving a brief outline of their potential biases and certain characteristics where necessary.

Henry [of Huntingdon] (c. 1088 - c. 1157) was of Anglo-Norman origin and dedicated his book Historia Anglorum to Bishop Alexander of Lincoln, a Norman who during his episcopate was praised as a patron of learning, commissioning for instance Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini. In his prologue to book I of Historia Anglorum Henry expresses his enthusiasm with regards to the study of literature, claiming it to be one of the greatest forms of solace in this world. Further on he praises history, considered a subgenre of literature, to be a better teacher of right and wrong than moral philosophy since it offers example of what to emulate and what not to emulate. History, Henry says, "allows judgement of the future by representing the past" and he goes on to state that history "distinguishes rational creatures from brutes", pointing out that there is something inherently noble in desiring knowledge of one's own origin and history. His main incentive for writing history, it appears, is for the sake of erudition, teaching by example and counterexample in the manner of Bede. Such erudition is inherently moral since it calls for the emulation of good - i.e. moral - values and deeds, but Henry was not content with merely illustrating good and bad examples, he also emphasised divine vengeance, treating the five invasions of Britain as punishments by God. This was a literary tradition with firm roots in Christian literature found in works by Alcuin, Gildas, Nennius and Bede. Henry relied in great part on Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but there are influences by other works as well, for instance Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and he himself became widely read and very influential, leaving his traces in the works of important historians such as William of Newburgh and Matthew Paris. To consider him a reliable source, however, is problematic since he allows himself a certain poetic - or perhaps educational - license, when describing the Battle of Lincoln through invented speeches of leading combatants.

William of Malmesbury (c. 1090 - c. 1042) was a Benedictine monk of Anglo-Norman ancestry (prologue book II) he pursued from early years a love of reading and learning, and in the prologue to book IV of Gesta Regum Anglorum he exudes a particular dedication to historical Truth in a discussion concerning the problems of objectivity inherent in the writing of contemporary history. He also states, in the prologue to book I that he is spurred on in his labours both by love of his country and the encouragement of friends. He is not deterred, it appears, despite love for friends and country, from committing himself to historical truth, and like Horatius he stresses the twofold virtue of history: teaching good deeds by example and counter-example. To exonerate him from bias, however, will not do, and it would be contrary to William's own stated caution to presume that he was not influenced by his ties to the royal family, ties which he asserts in his letter to Empress Matilda and which become quite evident in his Historia Novella, as stated above. Nonetheless, it is important to stress that despite such biases and loves, William writes first and foremost for the sake of learning, with the object of educating his contemporaries and his posterity and to pick up the historiographical tradition from the Venerable Bede.

Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/55) is included here quite simply because he is a bit odd. He does not shed any light on Edward since his works deal with the history of the Britons up until the death of Cadwallader in 689, but he was a very influential writer of history and he represents a slight anomaly with regards to the historiographical commitment to which some of his contemporaries subscribed. In his prefatory dedication to Robert of Gloucester, Henry I's illegitimate son, Geoffrey states that his work is a translation of a work "in the British language" concerning the forefathers of the Britons and he expresses a deep interest in the oral accounts of his native Britain. Geoffrey himself was most likely a Welshman, at least he had a strong affection for Welsh history and he was bishop of St. Asaph, known as Britain's smallest cathedral. This Welsh bias permeats his History of the Kings of Britain, a book written - or translated if we are to believe him - because the deeds of the ancient kings "deserve to be praised for all time". This is somewhat reminiscent of William of Malmesbury's professed love for literature since Geoffrey's incentive seems to be that the story must be told because it is a good story. There might be a purpose of erudition here as well, but if that is the case it resembles more the tendency of hagiography where example is set first and foremost by men of glorious character. In any case we are not expressly told, as we are with several other historiographers, that Geoffrey seeks to educate his readers in any particular way, nor that the praiseworthy deeds are worthy of emulation as well as praise. This last point may be ascribed to the severe political implications of such emulation, but that cannot be settled here.

Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-67) is undoubtedly Edward the Confessor's most important hagiographer, writing the first saint's life of Edward,
Vita S. Eduardi regis et confessoris in 1162/63, a work commissioned by Lawrence of Westminster and heavily reliant on Osbert of Clare's edition of Vita Ædwardi. Aelred's Vita is an interesting work not only because of its importance to the emerging Angevin cult but also because of the cultural landscape it is situated in. It is a book about an Anglo-Saxon king written by a seneschal at the Scottish court turned Cistercian monk at the behest of the Abbot of Westminster, a Benedictine monastery, and dedicated to the Angevin king, Henry II. However, the most important aspect of Aelred's Vita in this respect is the stated purpose of its composition. From the very start the reader is told that Aelred's purpose is to present examples of virtue from the past to those who live in the present, inspired by "the endeavor of many ancients". It is also very fascinating to note that the book is expressly dedicated to the king for the edification of his own kingship. In his letter to Robert of Gloucester William of Malmesbury flatters Earl Robert by writing that the illustrious deeds of his forebears are already found in him and Robert needs no education on the subject. Aelred, however, states very overtly that Edward the Confessor is a suitable model for kingship and begs Henry II to emulate his predecessor's noble virtues.

Also worth including in this array is William of Newburgh (1135/6 - c. 1198), historian and Augustinian canon at the monastery of Newburgh. His work Historia rerum Anglicarum is concerned with the history of England after the Norman invasion and as such is not a source to the life of Edward the Confessor, nor is there any mentioning of the Angevin cult, an omission quite puzzling since the work was commissioned by Ernald, abbot of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monastery and home to Aelred, Edward's most important hagiographer. Nonetheless William offers a very interesting approach to history because of his fervent commitment to historical truth and a textual scrutiny reminiscent of the much later and more famous Lorenzo Valla. In his prologue to Historia rerum Anglicarum William launches a vitriolic attack against Geoffrey of Monmouth on grounds that he is a story-teller, fabulator, and not a proper historian, treating honourable history and local legends with the same credulity and even adding to them himself. In the same spirit of historiographical commitment, but with a gentler voice, he commends the historian Gildas (fl. 5th and 6th centuries) for the latter's willingness to condemn "many evil traits" of the old Britons. This historical criticism has earned him a high standing in the eyes of subsequent historians, although is reputation has waned somewhat in recent decades. Like William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon before him, William of Newburgh writes history to edify, stating in his prologue that the purpose of his book is to "advance the knowledge and circumspection of posterity".

The last historian to be included is Matthew Paris (c. 1200 - 1259). Little can be ascertained with regard to his personal life or origin aside from his early attachment to the Benedictine monastery of St. Albans. Throughout his works we also find a fervent Anglocentrism and this, along with arguments made by Paul Meyer on grounds of phonology, suggests he was an Englishman. Already in his own time he achieved a certain reputation as a writer, gained in large part by his Chronica Majora, and he had friends and connections reaching far and wide, ranging from native aristocratic women with whom he corresponded to the courts of Håkon IV of Norway and Louis IX of France. Matthew Paris was a many-faceted writer and supervisor of a number of works, including "five chronicles, six hagiographies, two domestic histories, a cartulary, and a collection of fortune-telling tracts. They amount to well over a million words, most of them penned by Paris himself." Although a diligent writer he was less concerned with whether his writings reflected truth and he did not shy away from a little manipulation of history could it serve his needs. In his verse life of Edward the Confessor Matthew Paris turns to the saint, asking him to "have regard" for him as a sinner who has translated his deeds into French that "memory of thee may spread." Although the stated purpose is piously simple and straightforward - and a literary device - it is nonetheless evident that Paris uses this hagiography as a vehicle for his own politics. For instance we find in Matthew's work praise for Edward's eschewing of foreigners, a sentiment echoing his own Anglocentric opinions rather than any attitude of Edward. It is likely that Matthew Paris wrote his life of St. Edward to provide King Henry III with a model for royal behaviour, perhaps inspired by Aelred's dedication to Henry II in his Life of St. Edward, which was Matthew's source, where Aelred begs king Henry II to emulate his virtuous and blessed predecessor.

As we have seen the Medieval historiographers had various reasons for embark on their literary quests, but didacticism and a love of literature remained important incentives throughout the period here covered. When we look at this aspect of historiography we catch small glimpses of the authors themselves, centuries away, and we learn to appreciate what an important part in their lives the history and the recording of history must have been.

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