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Found in pre-modern cultures of every era and across the world, from the ancient Near East to medieval Latin Christendom, the universal chronicle is simultaneously one of the most ubiquitous pre-modern cultural forms and one of the most overlooked. Universal chronicles narrate the history of the whole world from the time of its creation up to the then present day, treating the world's affairs as though they were part of a single organic reality, and uniting various strands of history into a unifed, coherent story. They reveal a great deal about how the societies that produced them understood their world and how historical narrative itself can work to produce that understanding. The essays here offer new perspectives on the genre, from a number of different disciplines, demonstrating their vitality, flexibility and cultural importance, They reveal them to be deeply political texts, which allowed history-writers and their audiences to locate themselves in space, time and in the created universe. Several chapters address the manuscript context, looking at the innovative techniques of compilation, structure and layout that placed them at the cutting edge of medieval book technology. Others analyse the background of universal chronicles, and identify their circulation amongst different social groups; there are also investigations into their literary discourse, patronage, authorship and diffusion. Michele Campopiano is Senior Lecturer in Medieval Latin Literature at the University of York; Henry Bainton is Lecturer in High Medieval Literature at the University of York. Contributors:Tobias Andersson, Michele Campopiano, Cornelia Dreer, Catherine Gaullier-Bougassas, Elena Koroleva, Keith Lilley, Andrew Marsham, Rosa M. Rodriguez Porto, Christophe Thierry, Elizabeth M. Tyler, Steven Vanderputten, Bjorn Weiler, Claudia Wittig.
‘In order to remember the deeds and the words and the conduct of the ancestors’, recommends Wace in the prologue to his Roman de Rou, ‘people should read out books and histories and stories at festivals.’ ‘Many things that happened long ago’, he goes on to say, ‘would have been forgotten if documents [escripture] had not been written and then read and recounted by clerks.’ As a vernacular commendation of the pedagogical value of history and of the written word, Wace's comments are well known.3 However, his emphasis on the public staging of writing – on the use of written things at festes- has not been much discussed. This is curious because Wace's comments present such a rare and arresting articulation of the distinctive modalities of public remembrance in the High Middle Ages. For Wace, memory is embodied in the written word. But it is expressed by the voice, and it is staged and recalled in the public assembly. And while it is hardly new to note that books and stories were recited at festivals in this period, it is striking to see these bookish performances being invoked in such proximity to the recital of a more generic escripture.
This essay draws out the connections between the performance of literary and historiographical texts – Wace's livres, estoires et gestes- and other public uses of the written word in the late twelfth century. More specifically, it explores how the recitation of documents could act as a form of public, and authorized, storytelling in the lands either side of the English Channel in the High Middle Ages.
The title of the only identifiable work by Geffrei Gaimar, L'Estoire des Engleis, has long and unfairly coloured its reception, and has cast dark shadows over the nuances of its contents. The Estoire is frequently perceived as an unproblematically national history, a product of a time when the homogenous ‘Normans’ and the monolithic ‘English’ vied for control over the territory of an unproblematic England and its singular, English, past. It is seen above all as a straightforward means by which the Normans who commissioned it could attach themselves to, and root themselves in, England and its past and so ‘become’ ‘English’.
And perhaps such perceptions are not surprising. Firstly, the Estoire is the earliest known historiographical work in Anglo-Norman, which leads to the impression that it is evidence of the Anglo-Norman language – and those who used it – asserting themselves by claiming the right to write history. Secondly, the Estoire is heavily reliant on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and is often considered to be a mere verse translation of it. So in turn it is hard not to see it as a Norman claim to the right of writing the history of England in particular. And thirdly it was produced in the second quarter of the twelfth century, precisely when historians consider the distinctions between Englishness and Norman-ness to have been breaking down. It was a time when, in R. H. C. Davis's formulation, ‘the Normans belonged to England as much as England belonged to them’
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