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Signs and Things: The ‘Vita Heinrici IV. Imperatoris’ and the Crisis of Interpretation in Twelfth-Century History

  • Robert M. Stein (a1)


Universus enim mundus iste sensibilis quasi quidam liber est scriptus digito Dei, hoc est divina creatus, et singulae creaturae quasi figurae quaedem sunt non humano placito inventae sed divino arbitrio institutae ad manifestandam invisibilium Dei sapientiam.

Hugh of St. Victor, Eruditionis didascalicae liber septimus

Ipsa tamen veritas connexionem non instituta sed animadversa est ab hominibus et notata ut eam possint vel discere vel docere: nam est in rerum ratione perpetua et divinitus instituta. Sicut enim qui narrat ordinem temporum, non eum ipse componit.

St. Augustine, De doctrina Christiana 2.32

The Vita Heinrici IV. Imperatoris, composed by an unknown author probably around the turn of the twelfth century, is an old-fashioned imperial life which raises serious interpretive questions in a period of social and cultural transformation. There are certain cultural moments characterized by the absence of an interpretive consensus, when older patterns of interpretation no longer seem adequate to experience. Criticism has looked to the work of the imaginative artist at those moments, on whom typically devolves the task of representing experience and rendering it coherent in expression. This is a task at which the artist must necessarily fail insofar as the representation is true to the sense of experience which has left behind available interpretive categories. But what of the historian whose work is necessarily rooted directly in the social transformation ? In what follows I want to consider the peculiarities of historical narrative at one such cultural moment. The Vita Heinrici provides an example of singular narrative power and singular clarity.



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1 The text is Vita Heinrici IV. Imperatoris, ed. Wilhelm Eberhard after Wattenbach, W., MGH Scriptores… in usum scholarum 3rd ed. (Hanover 1899); for an English translation see Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, edd. and trans. Mommsen, T. E. and Morrison, K. F. (Columbia Records of Civilization 67; New York 1962) 101–38; the Eberhard–Wattenbach text is reprinted with a German translation by Irene Schmale-Ott in Quellen zur Geschichte Kaiser Heinrichs IV., ed. Schmale, Franz-Josef (Berlin 1963) 407–69. The introduction to that edition, 35–46, provides an excellent survey of modern scholarship.

2 The Locus classicus is Augustine's De doctrina Christiana. For a convenient presentation of the development of the tradition and a notice of the principal primary sources, see Chenu, M.-D., Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century, trans. Taylor, J. and Little, L. K. (Chicago 1986) 119–45, 162–201.

3 See Chenu, , 99118.

4 See, for one discussion of the new sense of human freedom, Schapiro, Meyer, ‘From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos,’ in his Romanesque Art (Selected Papers I; New York 1977) 28101.

5 Hist. eccl. 5.1. The text is from The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, ed. and trans. Chibnall, Marjorie (Oxford 1972–1983) III 89.

6 On the historiography of the Anglo-Normans see especially Hanning, Robert W., The Vision of History in Early Britain (New York 1966) 121–77; Brandt, William J., The Shape of Medieval History (New Haven 1966); Schnith, Karl, England in einer sich wandelden Welt — 1189–1259 (Stuttgart 1974); Partner, Nancy F., Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England (Chicago 1977). For a general discussion of medieval historiography, Schulz, Marie, Die Lehre von der historischen Methode bei den Geschichtsschreibern des Mittelalters (Berlin 1909) is still essential, as is Southern, R. W., ‘Aspects of the European Tradition of Historical Writing,’ Translations of the Royal Historical Society 5th ser. 20 (1970) 173–96; 21 (1971) 159–79; 22 (1972) 159–80; 23 (1973) 243–63.

7 William of Malmesbury, De Gestis regum Anglorum, ed. Stubbs, William (Rolls Series 89; London 1889). Such descriptions are to be found throughout Book III; one extremely interesting instance of this type of analysis is the allegory William builds on the notice of the ‘prodigious birth’ of Siamese twins. The birth is precisely not a miraculous sign written by God for all to read; it is an occasion for the historian to reflect on the results of what strikes him as the similarly unnatural political joining of Britain and Normandy: ‘Tunc quoque in confinio Britanniae et Normanniae portentum visum est: in una vel potius duabus mulieribus duo erant capita, quatuor brachia, et cetera gemina omnia usque ad umbilicum: inferius duo crura, duo pedes, et cetera omnia singula. Ridebat, comedebat, loquebatur una: flebat, esuriebat, tacebat altera. Ore gemino manducabatur, sed uno meatu degerebatur. Postremo una defuncta, supervixit altera: portavit pene triennio viva mortuam, donec et mole ponderis et nidore cadaveris ipsa quoque defecit. Putatum est a quisbusdam, et litteris etiam traditum, quod hae mulieres Angliam et Normanniam significaverint; quae, licet spatiis terrarum sint divisae, sunt tamen sub uno dominio unitae. Hae quicquid pecuniarum adivis faucibus insorbuerint, in unam lucunam defluit, quae sit vel principum avaritia, vel circumpositarum gentium ferocia: mortuam et pene exhaustam Normanniam vigens pecuniis sustentat Anglia, donec et ipsa fortassis succumbat exactorum violentia; felix si unquam in libertatem respirare poterit, cujus inanem jamdudum persequitur umbram. Nunc gemit calamitatibus afflicta, pensionibus addicta: causam hujusce calamitatis describam, si prius quaedam dixero ad rem pertinentia’ (Stubbs I 259–60). For further discussion of William's presentation, see Hanning 128–35.

8 See Schmale, , Quellen 38.

9 See my ‘Sallust for his Readers, 410–1550: A Study in the Formation of the Classical Tradition’ (diss., Columbia University 1977; Ann Arbor 1977).

10 The primary exceptions are the school authors Terence and Vergil, whose words are usually introduced as acknowledged quotations, and Ovid, inevitable in the formation of any twelfth-century writer's Latinity.

11 Vita sec. 6. Direct quotations start from Iug. 57.4; the ‘snails episode’ is in Iug. 93–94.

12 The title, whether or not the historian's own, signals the unity based on the structure of the emperor's life, and in its use of vita rather than res gesta suggests affinities with hagiography. In this connection it may be revealing that with the exception of the Vita, the manuscript, described as a fifteenth-century compilation of material written from the tenth to the thirteenth century, contains only hagiography. I have not seen the manuscript and would very much like to know the principles (if there were any) on which this compilation was made. Clearly some medieval codices were put together with a very strong sense of the unity of the book. A detailed study of the manuscript is the essential first step in understanding whether the tendencies of this imperial life are connected in detail to a set of hagiographical writings originally composed for a variety of reasons. Such study could tell us much about medieval reading. For descriptions of the manuscript, Clm. 14095, see Catalogus codicum Latinorum Bibliothecae Regiae Monacensis II.2 (Munich 1896); Eberhard– Wattenbach 2–3, 8.

13 Cohen, Carolyn, ‘Les éléments constitutifs de quelques Planctus des xc et xie siècles,’ Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale 1 (1958) 8386.

14 The Ad C. Herennium de ratione dicendi, long attributed to Cicero, was the basis for most medieval instruction in rhetoric. I use the Loeb text, ed. H. Caplan (Cambridge, Mass. 1954). Epideictic invention is treated from 3.6.10 to 3.8.15. Scholars have long been struck by the rhetorical art of the Vita, yet among the various treatments of it no one seems to have considered the standard oratorical forms. See Hellman, S., ‘Die Vita Heinrici IV. und die kaiserliche Kanzlei,’ Historische Vierteljahrschrift 28 (1933–34) 273334; Haefele, Hans F., Fortuna Heinrici IV. Imperatoris (Graz 1954) 18–46.

15 ‘Principium sumitur aut ab nostra, aut ab eius de quo loquemur, aut ab eorum qui audient persona, aut ab re. Ab nostra, si laudabimus: aut officio facere, quod causa necessitudinis intercedat; aut studio, quod eiusmodi virtute sit ut omnes commemorare debeant velle; aut quod rectum sit ex aliorum laude ostendere qualis ipsius animus sit’ (Her. 3.6.11).

16 ‘Principio tractato aliqua harum quas ante commemoravimus ratione, narratio non erit ulla quae necessario consequatur’ (Her. 3.7.13).

17 ‘Divisione hac utemur; exponemus quas res laudaturi sumus … sed exponere oportebit animi virtutes aut vitia; deinde commoda aut incommoda corporis aut rerum externarum quomodo ab animo tractata sint demonstrare’ (Her. 3.7.13).

18 ‘… deinde ut quaeque quove tempore res erit gesta ordine dicemus’ (Her. 3.7.13).

19 ‘Conclusiones brevibus utemur, enumeratione ad exitum causae; in ipsa causa crebras et breves amplificationes interponemus per locos communes’ (Her. 3.8.15).

20 ‘Item inter historiam et argumentum et fabulam interesse. Nam historiae sunt res verae quae factae sunt, argumenta sunt quae etsi facta non sunt, fieri tamen possunt; fabulae vero sunt quae nec factae sunt nec fieri possunt, quia contra naturam sunt’ (Isidore of Seville, , Etymologiarum lib. 1.44.5).

21 ‘Apud veteres enim nemo conscribebat historiam nisi is qui interfuisset, et ea quae conscribenda essent vidisset’ (Etym. 1.41.1). See the discussions of the criterion of truth in Schulz, 5–14 and Lacroix, Benoît, L'Historien au moyen âge (Montreal 1971) 133–40.

22 In the Renaissance, the writing of history becomes an occasion for anti-rhetorical bravura; a cultivated roughness of style or the lack of writerly polish marks the writer's commitment to his content. For a convenient example, see the preface to Machiavelli's Discorsi.

23 In classical Latin, documentum is ordinarily used for a living example, model, or specimen, usually of virtue or vice. In law, however, it often refers to a written prececent; by late antiquity, textual evidence, especially a piece of Scripture to be glossed, is its primary meaning. See ThLL, s.v. Documentum.

24 The term is Berges', quoted by Williams, George, The Norman Anonymous of 1100 AD (Harvard Theological Studies 18; Cambridge 1951) 175.

25 The texts of the Norman Anonymous are edited by Boehmer, H. in MGH Libelli de lite imperatorum et pontificum saeculis XI et XII conscripti III (Hanover 1897). For commentary see Williams, G. and Kantorowicz, Ernst, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton 1957) 42–61.

26 See, for example, MGH Libelli III, Tractate 4.667, 56. The king is so high ‘ut nulla potestas Deo sit propinquior’ (Williams 189).

27 MGH Libelli III, Tractate 4.676–77. The passage marked as a quotation is from the Ordo coronationis Aetheredi, a ninth-century liturgy, and the method of quotation by the Anonymous is itself an interesting piece of textual violence. The Norman Anonymous here transforms a prayer for peace into a result-clause without changing a word; a wish in the liturgy becomes a ‘description’ of reality by syntactical embedding alone. For the coronation ordo see Taylor, Arthur, The Glory of Regality: An Historical Treatise of the Anointing and Crowning of the Kings and Queens of England (London 1820) Appendix 2, 395.

28 It is precisely the space opened between secular society and the absolute, John Ganim has recently argued, that provides a locus for the development of narrative art in the later Middle Ages and constitutes some of its more marked structural and stylistic properties. See his Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative (Princeton 1983).


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