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

fredag 16. mars 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 4 - The Ethics of Historiography

In short, they are often deceived and deceive by their guesses, though these are quite sophisticated, but by means of trickery in their predictions they lay claim amongst naive people to a foreknowledge of the future which they do not at all possess.
- Prologue to Book 1 of Historia Rerum Anglicarum, William of Newburgh

I was first introduced to the Augustinian canon and historian William of Newburgh (b. 1135/6, d. in or after 1198) in a course on literature in the Anglo-Saxon world I took at the University of York. The course, England in Europe, aimed to explore the literary influences and connections between England and the continent from the early Anglo-Saxon period until the Anglo-Norman era of the 12th century. William's History of English Affairs marks the tail-end of the period covered by this course as it was, probably, begun in 1196 and apparently never completed due to his death two years later. Historia Rerum Anglicarum, which I have already mentioned in part two of this series, is famous for its commitment to truth and the ethics of historiography. In his prologue to book 1 - the only part of the book covered on the course - these ethics surface in William's vicious attack on Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. To me it is a great delight to read these attacks because through his indignation and ferocity William serves a scholarly - albeit severely ungenerous - critique of what he considers imagined history, a critique that is as valid today as it was in the 12th century and - in some cases - equally necessary. In this blogpost I will present some of the highlights from William's prefatory attack on poor historiographical scholarship.

William dedicates most of his prologue to castigate Geoffrey of Monmouth's dishonesty, a dishonesty mirrored by the excellence of the historians Bede and Gildas whom William praises for their research and truthful account. Gildas, William claims, "does not hesitate to write as a Briton about Britons that they were neither brave in war nor trustworthy in peace." This is one of the cruxes of William's antipathy for Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is very much concerned with how great the old Britons were and, as we shall see, especially King Arthur. This is how William describes his fellow historian:

But in our own day a writer of the opposite tendency [of Gildas and Bede] has emerged. To atone for these faults of the Britons he weaves a laughable web of fiction about them, with shameless vainglory extolling them far above the virtue of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey and bears the soubriquet Arthur, because he has taken up the stories about Arthur from the old fictitious accounts of the Britons, has added to them himself, and by embellishing them in the Latin tongue he has cloaked them with the honourable title of history.

Aside from the ethical problems of Geoffrey's rendition of history, William also accuses him of blasphemy or at least irreligion. One of the perhaps most famous passages of History of the Kings of Britain is the prophecies of Merlin, the offspring of a woman - some say a nun - and an incubus. It is Merlin's demonic heritage that allows him to see into the future and to William this is highly troublesome:

In fact we are instructed by both true reasoning and the sacred writings that demons are shut out from God's light, and are wholly unable to have prior knowledge of the future by mentally observing it, though they apprehend certain future events by guesswork rather than knowledge, through signs better known to them than to us.

To a modern mind this might appear petty and pedantic, and I recall two of my fellow students at York being quite amused by this emphasis. To William of Newburgh, however, demons of various kinds - incubi, succubi and the like - were parts of reality and evil parts at that. No wonder, then, that William found Geoffrey's claim preposterous. Geoffrey, he maintains, "has not learnt the truth about events, and so without discrimination he gives space to fables without substance."

Merlin reading his prophecies to King Vortigern

William also finds it hard to swallow Geoffrey's unabashed representation of the British kings as heroes mightier than those of Antiquity. To William this is a perverse distortion of the truth found in the historical accounts he treasures greatly and he does not hold back:

But even a person of dim mental vision can observe how much the unadulterated historical truth preempts the falsehood which has been compiled at this point. Geoffrey makes Arthur himself outstanding and remarkable above all others; he seeks to present him in his achievements according to the free rein of his fancy.

"[T]his is doubtless", William complains, "to make this Briton's [i.e. Arthur] little finger appear thicker than the mighty Caesar's loins." Our Augustinian canon goes further and points out not merely wild heroic fantasies but also grave historical inaccuracies by pointing out that at a feast in praise of Arthur "[t]hree British archbishops, of London, Caerleon and York, are present, and this at a time when the Britons never had even a single archbishop, for Augustine was the first to receive the pallium from the Roman pontiff and to become archbishop in Britain."

After listing a range of Geoffrey's unbridled exaggerations and fantasies William deals his adversary the following blow:

Is he dreaming of another world containing kingdoms without number, in which the events took place which are mentioned by him earlier? Certainly in our world nothing of this kind took place; for how could the historians of old, who took immense pains to omit from their writings nothing worthy of mention, and who are known to have recorded even modest events, have passed over in silence this man beyond compare and his achievements so notable beyond measure?

It is this precise refutation and the ones above, which make me greatly appreciate William of Newburgh as an historiographer. He shows in this prologue commitment to truth, to a work-ethos and to Orthodoxy that to my mind appears staggeringly precocious in comparison with Geoffrey's more far-fetched imagined past. This is not to say, however, that William himself is singular in his ethics and nor does it mean he was precocious to his age - although it may appear thus to modern historians thoroughly familiar with the advent of the humanist ad fontes approach of Lorenzo Valla. Medieval historians, it is true, did not have the benefit of methodological tools burgeoning from centuries of academic evolution, but - as we can see in the case of William of Newburgh - they were far from indifferent or careless in their commitment to the transmission of history.

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