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

torsdag 7. august 2014

Methodology of negatives

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there
- Antigonish, Hughes Mearns

To a young scholar in training, there are certain things for which he or she can not fully prepare but rather has to experience when the time comes. One of these things is to deal with negative results in the humanities, which can become something of a problem when one line of inquiry yields almost more negative results than positive ones. For me this problem first arose in my research for the paper to IMC Leeds this year, in which I looked at sources for the cult of Edward the Confessor in France and Normandy. The following is a reflection/complaint/whining on some of the problems I faced when trying to make a case from more negative results than I had expected.

The purpose of my paper at Leeds 2014 was to look at three case-studies for devotion to the cult of Edward the Confessor as suggested by three types of source material in the period 1161-1480. These sources were a set of 12th-13th-century liturgical books from the archbishopric of Rouen and the Abbey of the Holy Trinity of Fécamp, a series of stained glass window from the same abbey dated to c.1307, and finally an antiphon found in a book compiled by a German Carthusian around 1480. From this material, scattered among several centuries, I tried first to compile a concise overview of the cult of Edward the Confessor in France following his canonisation in 1161. This were to prove very difficult, and it was here I was faced time and again with a number of negative inquiries.  

The Abbey of the Holy Trinity, Fécamp
Courtesy of Wikimedia

During my MA studies, I had often heard the dictum of one of the history professors at NTNU: Negative results are also results. This is of course well and true, but I was also aware that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and therefore it can be very difficult to extract a picture of historical development when there are gaping holes in the timeline. Given the unknown and unfortunately high number of medieval sources lost to us, we are not permitted to make bold claims when we face a lack of material, and at best we can make an educated guess about the possible scenarios such a dearth of evidence may signify.

To give an example: In order to attempt mapping the cult of Edward the Confessor in France, I sought to find out how he was represented in sources beyond hagiography and liturgy. I therefore had a look through one of the greatest works of historiograhpy from medieval France, namely Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Historiale written in the 1240s and -50s, a vast encyclopedia drawing on a number of sources and covering a big range of historical events. Since Vincent's work was completed about eight or nine decades after Edward the Confessor's canonisation, I assumed that the monk of Beauvais would have been able to get hold of one of the hagiographies about Edward. At the very least I presumed Vincent would have read Aelred of Rievaulx's popular and influential Vita Sancti Edwardi. I was excited to find this out, because Vincent's source for Edward could tell a lot about the dissemination of hagiographies for the Confessor. 

Image allegedly of Vincent of Beauvais
Courtesy of Wikimedia

However, when I opened the big, heavy, yellow 1964 reprint of a Douai edition from 1624 - a book as big as my torso but not as thick - and finally found Vincent's chapter on Edward, I was much disappointed. In short, Vincent draws chiefly - and perhaps exclusively - on the Gesta Regum Anglorum of William of Malmesbury, completed in the 1130s, several decades prior to the canonisation of Edward the Confessor. As a consequence, Vincent of Beauvais writes something about the miracles and dreams of Edward - indeed he allots a surprising length to his dream of the seven sleepers - but the Confessor is not referred to as a saint for obvious reasons. I was a bit disappointed with this discovery. Although it did suggest that the hagiographies of Edward indeed were not widely disseminated in France, I couldn't suggest that this was the case unless it was corroborated by several other inquiries, which I didn't have the time to undertake.

After my dead-end-foray into Speculum Historiale, I turned my attention to sources more directly relevant for the cult of St Edward, namely liturgical books. The antiphon handed down to us by the 15th-century Carthusian from Cologne is an adaptation of an antiphon composed for St Louis around 1300. (For more on this antiphon, see here.) In order to see whether this adaptation did suggest exchange of cult material between the cult centres of the two confessor kings, Louis and Edward, I looked through the Westminster Missal and the liturgical material from Saint-Denis as treated by Anne Walters Robertson. What I had envisioned would be a time-consuming investigation into primary sources, was concluded in about fifteen minutes, most of which were spent taking the book from spot A to spot B. I still remember the slightly dejected sensation when I realised that Abbot Lytlyngton's Westminster Missal of c.1380 did not contain a single reference to Louis IX. 

Angels receiving the soul of Louis IX
Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 0783, Grande Chroniques deFrance, 13th-14th centuries
Courtesy of

Of course, the negative results from the liturgical books were of a different nature than that of Speculum historiale. The fact that Louis was not celebrated at Westminster, nor Edward at Saint-Denis, pointed to a deliberate omission, since the contact between France and England was strong enough to ensure that both these monastic institutions knew of the other's patron saint. Consequently, this allowed me to build towards a conclusion in my paper, but - as in the case of Vincent of Beauvais - it was of course slightly frustrating to have to relegate so much research into footnotes that could not be included in my talk at Leeds.

In the end, I believe the paper itself went rather well and I managed to keep some coherence in my argument, but it was a long and arduous road to get there - and one that is not easily traced in the footnotes or in the text itself. This was something for which I was not prepared, despite having heard anecdotes and despite my experience from my MA dissertation. As stated above, it is the kind of experience you have to tackle head-on when it arises, and sometimes it can be very frustrating. It helps, of course, that there are several kinds of negative results. Vincent of Beauvais' reliance on William of Malmesbury was an omission of later material that may not have been deliberate but caused by limited available material. The fact that Louis IX did not appear in the Westminster Missal, composed more than eight decades after his canonisation, suggests a deliberate omission and can yield some ground for positive claims - i.e. that Louis' cult was not adopted at Westminster. A third kind of negative result is the lacunic absence of evidence which may be due to a loss of material or that the material sought was lacking form the start. This is the most frustrating kind, for this leaves only tentative conjectures.  

2 kommentarer:

  1. "Rufinus of Aquileia was well known n read throughout Middle ages." Evidence? None. His translations were widely known ( most withou of his name) His few original works were transnitted amonf the works of Jerome

    1. That's an excellent example, thank you! I wasn't aware of this. But it's a very interesting point in the discussion on authorship in the Middle Ages, and of course the nature of evidence.