I should have read this the moment I got it, part VI

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Part Three of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe is called ‘Representation and Reality on the Artistry of Early Medieval Literature’, and is one of the thicker and more enjoyable sections. That said, not very much of is actually about literature as such and I suspect that some of our more literature-based readers wouldn’t really recognise the approaches. What we have is Paul Dutton doing one of his curiosity vignettes by investigating what the (historical) sources are doing when they mention rains of blood, Joaquin Martínez Pizarro looking at the Historia Wambae‘s type-scenes and asking if there’s more to them than meets the motif index, and Jan Ziolkowski going through the Waltharius for weapons geekery and asking if this makes it easier to date. Then Danuta Shanzer adds a short review paper salting these with about a hundred other references to late Antique literature and her usual bracing elision of the distance between the medieval them and the reading us.1

The linking theme here is that they’re all basically asking, “can we believe this stuff?” You know, is it, fundamentally, historical, even if we have to go through contortions to get the facts out? This isn’t really a new direction to my mind, but the ways that they are attacking their texts possibly are. For example, Dutton quite quickly shows that there is actually reasonably good evidence for red rains in Europe and that they can mostly be put down to Saharan dust swept up by strong winds; his most recent example, albeit with only anecdotal evidence, is from Münster in 1992 (watch out Theo) and discerning use of that Famous Web Search Engine finds some pictures from someone that they claim were taken during such a storm in Greece. He then spends the rest of his short paper asking why the medieval people experiencing this took it so readily to be blood? He finds various texts in evidence of the idea that for almost all medieval thinkers (as usual Eriugena is an exception), and indeed the people at large, the weather was down to God, so that if something funny happened with it it must be for a reason and the question was merely one of what. He also however suggests that by the twelfth century it was more readily accepted that there might be less supernatural causes, and Shanzer questions this by saying that just because we have a lot of scholastics willing to consider such opinions doesn’t mean that non-élite belief altered so much.2

Martínez analyses the Historia Wambae as literature, but reckons that because it is actually deviating from the type-scenes it’s exploiting in some important ways, the real path of the events it describes lies underneath like lumps under a blanket (my simile, not his). Shanzer wonders whether the type-scenes of history and literature aren’t distinct, but I wonder more seriously whether one can apply this argument, which I use happily for charters—when they deviate from the formula there’s a reason—so easily for literature, where the reason is not going to be as simple as, ‘there really was a dovecote in the courtyard but they didn’t have any meadow’.3 In short, are we actually sure that Julian of Toledo was writing history not literature, I mean, was it even meant to be true? This question has been asked in other contexts lately by Magistra and the discussion there has obviously influenced where this one goes; as so often, her blog helps me think about this stuff, so thanks are due.

Lastly, as I say, Ziolkowski gathers the very disparate historiography of early medieval weaponry—this is not the sort of subject that gets a lot of work, in part I think because it is seen as boy’s-own-history pursued only by wargamers, which is just daft given how much work has been done, for example, on ploughs and even stirrups—and so work has to be cited from the last hundred years rather than the last ten. Nonetheless, he gathers it, and finds references in the Waltharius both to current and antique weapons, and there rather runs out of steam. He is, however, I think quite correct to say that it’s only by this sort of endeavour of filling out the author’s world that we will come to be able to place the text better in its context, and I think this is the newest direction of the three, though obviously there is a need to work out why there are weapons from several periods being referenced and what the poet thinks they mean.

Romantic depiction of Ekkehard of St Gall, supposed by some to be the author of the Waltharius, writing it

Romantic depiction of Ekkehard of St Gall, supposed by some to be the author of the Waltharius, writing it

Two things strike me about these papers. The first, despite the rather bleak appraisal I’ve given above, is how much fun they are. All three main authors write very enjoyably, often just by bringing out their sources to play: Dutton is as ever masterful at this, and Pizarro, though he doesn’t provide any stand-out moments of insight, unrolls his interpretation in faultless prose. And Ziolkowski made me laugh out loud with this:

Long before pointed brass cones became fashionable, terms that had originally pertained to body armor were transferred to haute couture, and especially to lingerie. The most memorable such transference is the case of the Old French designation for “armor of the arm, arm guard”, whence the modern brassiere. Such dainties are put, of course, in the armoire.4

Just as Carl Pyrdum some time ago managed to claim any discussion of Angelina Jolie’s body as medieval studies, I think Ziokolwski here manages to annexe women’s underwear (leaving Marco Mostert only the men’s…). Now the next time I play Pink Floyd’s `Arnold Layne’ I shall think of him—but in a good way! Meanwhile, Danuta Shanzer’s wrap-up and review is fabulous, a parade of parallels; I never really feel much connection to her material, because her late antique intellectuals so clearly inhabit a different world to my earnest Benedictines and frontier warmongers, but I enjoy reading it a great deal. And she often turns interpretations completely over just for fun, as here:

Scientific methods require control groups and parallel studies from dated materials. Should we examine weapons and regalia in other epics? The Æneid? The Psychomachia? Claudian? The Anticlaudianus? Are these different epic poets’ treatments of weapons markedly different? And what of the Waltharius poet and more pregnant or symbolic weapons? The ekphrasis of a shield or Pallas’ fatal belt? Does his failure to use weapons as symbols and crucial plot mechanisms as did the great epic poets condemn him as a clunky Germanic weapons wonk?5

I mean, did you get the phrase, “clunky Germanic weapons wonk” in your breakfast reading? To whom else could we go for this stuff? But anyway. There was a second point. As I say, everyone here is engaged in trying to find truth in fiction, or at least, in records of misapprehension. It comes down to, “is the author right or wrong?” Now, maybe this is me hanging out in the wrong places but it seems to me that this approach needs, well, theorising. Because, you know, surely this is an area where literary criticism and investigation has something to tell us, the investigation and criticism of literature? Even if we want to know something as old-fashioned as ‘what was the author doing here’ there are more sophisticated, if perhaps less scientific, ways of proceeding than comparison to known historical data. All of the authors do have some discussion of the method and effect of the author’s choice of words and literary tactics, especially Martínez but the others too, but I would like to see some readings of these sources inspired by more wide-ranging approaches and I wonder then if the questions we would ask would throw some extra light on these ones.


1. Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 167-180; Joaquín Martínez Pizarro, “The King Says No: On the Logic of Type-Scenes in Late Antique and Early Medieval Narrative”, ibid. pp. 181-192; Jan Ziolkowski, “Of Arms and The (Ger)man: Literary and Material Culture in the Waltharius“,6 ibid. pp. 193-208; Danuta Shanzer, “Representations and Reality in Early Medieval Literature”, ibid. 209-215.

2. Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather”; Shanzer, “Representations and Reality”, p. 211.

3. Martínez Pizarro, “The King Says No”; Shanzer, “Representations and Reality”, pp. 212-214; cf. Allan Scott McKinley, “Personal motivations for giving land to the church in the eighth century? The case of Wissembourg” in idem, Martin Ryan & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic: history from charters and charter critique (forthcoming).

4. Ziolkowski, “Of Arms and the (Ger)man”, p. 203.

5. Shanzer, “Representation and Reality”, p. 215.

6. I wish he hadn’t used the pomo brackets though; anyone who gets the joke at all doesn’t need them.

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4 responses to “I should have read this the moment I got it, part VI

  1. Are you actually contemplating the utility of postmodern literary theory in that last paragraph?? (I still laugh about the post you sub-titled ‘Help, I got a little Foucault on me’). I love it when scholarly writing shows it can also be playful and entertaining.

    • Doesn’t have to be postmodern, but yes, why not? This section has been distinguished as literature but that’s not really how the authors studied it; I’d quite like to see what a different approach would highlight. I dismiss much of that sort of thing as waffle, almost certainly too much, but I certainly don’t want to say it’s useless.

  2. “Because, you know, surely this is an area where literary criticism and investigation has something to tell us, the investigation and criticism of literature? Even if we want to know something as old-fashioned as ‘what was the author doing here’ there are more sophisticated, if perhaps less scientific, ways of proceeding than comparison to known historical data”. Indeed (even though I would disagree with the “less scientific” qualification). I still think that Gabrielle Spiegel’s piece, “The Social Logic of the Text”, is the best place to start.

    • Literary Criticism will always evade the questioning mind. How can we every truly know the author’s intentions. And those who focus too closely on trees all to often fail to see the majesty of the forrest.

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