Laura L. Gathagan and William North, eds.
(Boydell & Brewer, 2016) 214 pp. $90.00
This particular book is made of three groups of papers: papers read at the 34th Annual Conference of the Charles Homer Haskins Society at Carlton College in November 2015, papers read at earlier conferences, and individual submissions (ix). The roughly two hundred pages of this book contain ten essays. Martin Millett’s paper is on the significance of rural settlement in Roman Britain for the early medieval period. Laura Wangerin’s paper is a comparison and contrast between the uses of holy relics for legitimacy in Ottonian Germany and Anglo-Saxon England. Joyce Hill looks beyond the obvious to examine Aelfric’s use of Bede as a patristic authority. Katherine Cross takes a look at Byrhtfert’s Historia regum as an example of the transformation of the Alfredian past for political criticism of Aethelred Unread. Mark E. Blincoe writes about Geoffrey el Bel of Anjou (father of Henry II of England) and the issue of political inheritance in the Anglo-Norman realm. John Patrick Slevin makes some observations about the obscure twelfth-century Historia of Alfred of Beverley. Katherine L. Hodges-Kluck writes about Helena, Constantine, and the Angevin desire for Jerusalem. Jesse W. Izzo looks at the revolts of the Embracio and its role in the fall of the County of Tripoli to the Muslims in the late 13th century. In the 9th essay, Sarah Ifft Decker examines the role of Jewish and Christian women in loaning and borrowing in thirteenth-century Catalonia. In the volume’s final essay, David Bachrach and Oliver Stoutner give a prosographical analysis of military entrepreneurs in the armies of Edward I of England.
Looking at these subjects, in order and from a high level view, they range over about nine centuries of history and span from England to Spain and the Holy Land. Yet despite the immense chronological and geographical spread of the papers, the collection as a whole has a surprisingly strong level of coherence. Many of the papers deal with questions of legitimacy, particularly the way in which history is reinterpreted and applied in ways that seek to induce leaders to conduct themselves in certain ways. The Angevin monarchs, who had sought to bolster their own legitimacy by tying themselves to their kinsmen ruling over the King of Jerusalem, were constrained to defend the Holy Land from Muslim invasion because the Holy Land proved an important part of their own shaky legitimacy. Likewise, Aethelred Unread was by no means a notably effective commander of men, but the clever use of Alfredian sources threatening his legitimacy as the English king in an age of persistent Norse invasions may have influenced him to take a more active role towards the end of his reign in military matters. Over and over again the papers show the intersection of historical sources and their political implications, whether we are dealing with the gender politics of women in Catalonia or the high politics of the rulers of Medieval Germany and England.
Overall, the quality of the papers is excellent, with most of the papers having a large degree of sources cited and a high degree of skill in interpreting these sources (though the first paper is largely an apologia from a researcher about his own research in the face of revisionist critics). One of the papers stands out for being a remarkable effort in this regard, namely Joyce Hill’s examination of a Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies and his knowledge of the writings of various church fathers through very limited sources available to him in a somewhat remote monastery that happened to be well-cited enough for him to cite the original sources. This source is remarkable both in its demonstration of how Aelfric managed to cite numerous church fathers through his skillful use of two books and also how he subtly sought to use the authority of Bede to demonstrate the value of his own work within the larger Benedictine monastic reform tradition. Several of the other essays show a similar attention to sources as well, like Katherine Cross’ discussion of the subtle but pervasive recasting of the available history of Alfred’s reign in the context of late 11th and early 12th century England on the eve of the Norse conquest. From beginning to end, this is a collection of papers in medieval history that is full of excellent scholarship that is enjoyable to read and also of importance in demonstrating the way in which history is used to defend or question the legitimacy of contemporary political regimes. Not only that, but in focusing so strongly on questions of political legitimacy, the scholars here defend their own legitimacy as knowledgeable interpreters of the sources that form the bedrock of historical knowledge.
Overall, this is a book that few students of medieval history will likely find by accident. Nevertheless, for those who want to read papers averaging twenty pages in length that demonstrate the highest degree of skill in analyzing and discussing historical sources and providing more than a few hints of the continuing importance of even obscure matters, and for those whose research in the subject areas discussed by these historians, this book is an immensely worthwhile collection of essays. The fact that the authors show such an obvious love of medieval sources and demonstrate this love through their own excellent papers only makes this more enjoyable to read. The quality of work here can be seen through this one example, from John Patrick Slevin’s paper on the Historia of Alfred of Beverley, where he writes: “With well over eighty percent of the text reworked from his sources, Alfred’s is a highly derivative work, a scissors and paste production par excellence, but it is of no less historical interest for that. In the words of an eminent medievalist describing a similar compiler-author of the time, Symeon of Durham, ‘the scissors were quite deftly wielded: the paste was of good quality’ (125).” If you want papers written with skill and considerable passion about some of the neglected corners of medieval history, this is a great book to read.