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Writing Medieval Biography, 750-1250

Writing Medieval Biography, 750-1250: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow

David Bates
Julia Crick
Sarah Hamilton
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    Writing Medieval Biography, 750-1250
    Book Description:

    Biography is one of the oldest, most popular and most tenacious of literary forms. Perhaps the best attested narrative form of the Middle Ages, it continues to draw modern historians of the medieval period to its peculiar challenge to explicate the general through the particular: the biographer's decisions to impose or to resist the imposition of order on biographical remnants raise issues which go to the heart of historical method. This collection, compiled in honour of a distinguished modern exponent of the art of biography, contains sixteen essays by leading scholars which examine the limits and possibilities of the genre for the period between 750AD and 1250AD. Ranging from pivotal figures such as Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and St Bernard, to the anonymous female skeleton in an Anglo-Saxon grave, from kings and queens to clerks and saints, and from individual to the collective biographies, this collection investigates both medieval biographical writings, and the issues surrounding the writing of medieval lives. Professor DAVID BATES is Director of the Institute of Historical Research; Dr JULIA CRICK and Dr SARAH HAMILTON teach in the Department of History at the University of Exeter. Contributors: JANET L. NELSON, ROBIN FLEMING, BARBARA YORKE, RICHARD ABELS, SIMON KEYNES, PAULINE STAFFORD, ELISABETH VAN HOUTS, DAVID BATES, JANE MARTINDALE, CHRISTOPHER HOLDSWORTH, LINDY GRANT, MARJORIE CHIBNALL, EDMUND KING, JOHN GILLINGHAM, DAVID CROUCH, NICHOLAS VINCENT.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-514-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    David Bates
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    The classical art of life-writing persuasion always embraced persuasion as much as verisimilitude.¹ Developed in ancient Athens to celebrate the dead and exemplify the morality of the philosophers, perpetuated in Rome to inspire public virtue and commemorate great men, biography resembled other forms of portraiture, stylised and conventional perhaps, but exposing none the less the artist’s intentions, his skill, and his relations with both his subject and the conventions of his genre.² The idealising tendencies of the pagan bios and vita were reinforced by a complementary tradition, that of epideictic rhetoric, formulated by Aristotle in his Rhetoric I.9 and summarised...

  6. 1 Did Charlemagne have a Private Life?
    (pp. 15-28)

    THERE ARE several reasons why historians might bridle at this question. The word ‘private’ was not in common use in the eighth and ninth centuries. It has been doubted often enough if there was anything approximating to a concept of the private in the earlier Middle Ages.¹ Even if there was, could the life of the aula have offered a king any privacy?² Could he ever have been alone in a palace from which the throng and press of noisy petitioners could hardly be excluded – when even if the royal bedchamber was a separate room, the count of the...

  7. 2 Bones for Historians: Putting the Body back into Biography
    (pp. 29-48)

    FOR MANY people the men, women and children who lived fourteen or fifteen centuries ago are mere abstractions, and it is sometimes hard to comprehend that the people we early medieval historians study were actually people rather than concepts or faceless automatons pushed across time and space by anonymous, impersonal, historical forces. But the evidence of human bones helps to re-animate the historical dead. When confronted with the skeletons of a mother and baby who died during pregnancy, or the body of a tenth-century peasant with polio, or a woman whose arthritic toes and bunions must have caused her feet...

  8. 3 ‘Carriers of the Truth’: Writing the Biographies of Anglo-Saxon Female Saints
    (pp. 49-60)

    THIS SUBJECT allows me to evoke one of my clearest memories of Frank Barlow lecturing to me when I was an undergraduate. The topic was the liaisons of King Edgar – a gift to Frank’s sardonic humour – and I particularly remember a vivid portrayal of Wilton as a sort of finishing school with young bloods calling and asking if they could take young Edith out for the afternoon. This warning to be open-minded in one’s expectations of the true nature of the lives of distant saints was reinforced when I read (also as an undergraduate) Frank’s study of Edward...

  9. 4 Alfred and his Biographers: Images and Imagination
    (pp. 61-76)

    ALFRED’S RHETORICAL question from his translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy was meant to point up the transitory nature of human glory and fame. That we are still studying Alfred eleven hundred years later perhaps denies this assumption, but, looked at from a different perspective, the question is quite relevant to the survival of material and textual evidence for early medieval people, even one as famous as Alfred.² Finding the bones of King Alfred the Great was, appropriately, the goal of the Hyde Community Archaeology Project’s well publicised and fruitless excavation of the Abbey in 1999.³ As dearly as historians...

  10. 5 Re-Reading King Ӕthelred the Unready
    (pp. 77-98)

    THERE ARE several Anglo-Saxon kings who warrant and could sustain the full-scale biographical treatment: Alfred, of course; Ӕthelstan and Edgar, if one were not to be pressed too hard for the personal dimension; and Ӕthelred, Cnut, and Edward the Confessor, all allowing plenty of scope for the exercise of a fecund historical imagination. It would be only fair to add Queen Emma, as another figure of exceptional interest and importance. In most of these cases, there is just about enough material to draw together, and then to play with, and even a hint of the subject’s personality. Of course we...

  11. 6 Writing the Biography of Eleventh-Century Queens
    (pp. 99-110)

    FOR A BIOGRAPHER of eleventh-century English queens, the work of Frank Barlow must be a constant point of reference. His writing on the eleventh century, and in particular his biographies of eleventh-century rulers, is the essential starting point for anyone assessing English politics at this date. His view that early medieval biography was both possible and useful has acted as a stimulus to all of us who followed him along that difficult path. His biography of Edward the Confessor was not only a personal guide, but also a spur to my own attempt to produce a similar work on Edward’s...

  12. 7 The Flemish Contribution to Biographical Writing in England in the Eleventh Century
    (pp. 111-128)

    AS IS WELL KNOWN, there was an apparent dearth of indigenous literary talent in England in the first half of the eleventh century, when relatively little by way of historical or hagiographical work was produced in Latin. The gap is particularly striking when compared with the flourishing centres of Canterbury, Winchester, Ramsey and around Wulfstan of York and Ӕlfric at the turn of the millennium, and the growing interest in the past witnessed in the early twelfth century.¹ The political upheavals of the eleventh century, in the form of foreign occupation by the Danes and Normans, could easily be blamed...

  13. 8 The Conqueror’s Earliest Historians and the Writing of his Biography
    (pp. 129-142)

    BIOGRAPHY and character are a consistent theme in Frank Barlow’s publications. While Edward the Confessor, William Rufus and Thomas Becket of course stand in the forefront of his biographical writings, it is worth remembering that both volumes of his English Church also begin with people.¹ Lurking beneath the scholarship of these magnificent books is, I would suggest, the basic principle that we can make an individual from the past accessible to modern minds if we draw partly on a modern framework of ideas and partly on a carefully researched and scholarly understanding of how and why the main sources for...

  14. 9 Secular Propaganda and Aristocratic Values: The Autobiographies of Count Fulk le Réchin of Anjou and Count William of Poitou, Duke of Aquitaine
    (pp. 143-160)

    WILLIAM, Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine here sang of his grief at leaving ‘the lordship of Poitou’ (‘Lo departirs m’es aitan grieus/ Del seignoratge de Peitieus’, lines 9–10), of fear for his son who was still ‘young and feeble’ (‘iov’ e mesqui’, line 20) and exposed to war and threats from enemies. His short lyric certainly does not resemble a conventional biographical text of this time, but is entirely biographical – indeed autobiographical – in character. The poet sang of war and the danger of being attacked: he also rejoiced that he had been a man of...

  15. 10 Reading the Signs: Bernard of Clairvaux and his Miracles
    (pp. 161-172)

    MUCH OF the first Life about Bernard of Clairvaux concerns miraculous events which many contemporaries held demonstrated him to be a man of exceptional gifts, a man of God. Modern scholars, with few exceptions, have dismissed the miracles as without significance. My purpose is to suggest that read carefully they throw considerable light upon Bernard’s development and the impact he had upon his world. Through them we come to understand him better. This theme seemed appropriate since Frank Barlow, the scholar honoured in this volume, wrote about two men who, like Bernard, were held to be saints in the twelfth...

  16. 11 Arnulf’s Mentor: Geoffrey of Lèves, Bishop of Chartres
    (pp. 173-184)

    IN 1939, Professor Frank Barlow produced the first of his distinguished biographies of great figures of the central Middle Ages. As a biography as such it is short, for it constitutes part of the introduction to his edition of the letters of Bishop Arnulf of Lisieux.¹ Like Professor Barlow’s later biographies, it sets its protagonist in a broad cultural context, as well as establishing his career in church and government. As the young Arnulf spent formative years as a clerk in the household of Geoffrey of Lèves, bishop of Chartres, this chapter sets out to expand on Professor Barlow’s perceptive...

  17. 12 The Empress Matilda as a Subject for Biography
    (pp. 185-194)

    ‘SHE WAS UNIQUE among the women of her own age: she was both a woman and the crowned head of a western kingdom who ruled in her own right.’² ‘Bernard Reilly’s description of Queen Urraca of Léon-Castilla, a slightly older contemporary of the Empress Matilda, brings out the limitations on the power of early medieval queens consort, such as Queen Emma, Queen Edith or the wives of William I and Henry I (both Matilda). The great exception was Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen first of France and then of England, but she was in addition heiress of Aquitaine. Among the formal...

  18. 13 The Gesta Stephani
    (pp. 195-206)

    THE HISTORIAN of the reign of King Stephen (1135–54) cannot reasonably complain either of the volume or of the quality of the chronicle sources available for study. The two great chroniclers of the Anglo-Norman age, William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, lived through less than half of the ‘nineteen long winters when Christ and his saints were asleep’, but in that time they saw a succession dispute broaden into civil war, and they recorded the king’s capture at Lincoln on 2 February 1141. The main news stories, such as ‘the arrest of the bishops’ in June 1139, attracted wide...

  19. 14 Writing the Biography of Roger of Howden, King’s Clerk and Chronicler
    (pp. 207-220)

    THE DIFFICULTIES faced when writing biographically do not need rehearsing and are an important theme of this book, especially when the subject is neither a king, queen nor major ecclesiastic. In the case of an author who wrote over a longish period we should, however, at least be able to trace some aspects of the development of an individual mind over time. The fact that Roger of Howden chronicled contemporary events from 1170 to 1201, and in enough detail to fill five Rolls Series volumes, raises these hopes.¹ Moreover the fact that he dealt with the years between 1170 and...

  20. 15 Writing a Biography in the Thirteenth Century: The Construction and Composition of the ‘History of William Marshal’
    (pp. 221-236)

    THE WRITING of biography was not a major medieval preoccupation; unfortunately no-one told the biographer of William Marshal this when he began his work in 1224. Which is just further evidence for me that historians are born, not made. We have to begin with the Marshal biography’s uniqueness. There is no trace of any other twelfth- or thirteenth-century vernacular biography, in prose or verse. For the History there is no question of its genre . . . or barely any. It is unique in its survival, but I believe it was unique in its own day too. There was of...

  21. 16 The Strange Case of the Missing Biographies: The Lives of the Plantagenet Kings of England 1154–1272
    (pp. 237-258)

    IN THE opening words of his Discours sur l’histoire universelle, addressed in 1681 to the French dauphin, Bishop Bossuet states that ‘When history is worthless to other men, it must nonetheless be read to princes.’¹ The reasons for this, as advanced by Bossuet – in essence, that history serves both as a theatre of moral example from which the prince may learn, and as a means of imposing sense and order upon what might otherwise appear to be the patternless chaos of the past – would have been approved by many classical writers, and were as familiar at the court...

  22. INDEX
    (pp. 259-262)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 263-263)