Gutting literature for historical pleasure and profit

Jon Jarrett has been doing some more reporting on IHR seminars, including a rather sceptical discussion of a recent paper by Stephen White looking at legal disputes and Arthurian romance. In this Jon asks the question:

‘But is gutting literature for use as a context-less data-bank ever really sound history?’

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t hear Stephen’s paper, so I don’t know the details of what he was trying to do. But if gutting literature is now an unacceptable historical tactic, I’m in big trouble. Because I’m a historian of mentalities and that’s what I do: gut literature (and history and anything else I can lay my metaphorical knife on) in search of attitudes.

If I’m trying to defend myself I might say, oh, but I’m not really taking things out of context, but that can’t be terribly convincing. Most of the time for medieval literature (and a surprising amount of medieval history) we don’t actually have an independently verifiable context, in the basic sense of knowing a) who wrote the work, b) when and c) what were their affiliations (class, religious, political)? Most of what we know about authors and their context is deduced from the sources themselves and thus prone to all kinds of circular reasoning. In fact, what medieval literary authors are there that we know much about (with a few exceptions like Dante and Chaucer)? The Gawain-poet and the Beowulf-poet and ‘Turoldus’ and ‘Marie de France’ are all shadows and we’re frequently reduced to speculating about contexts. I argue in an article that I’m currently trying to get published that the Latin poem Waltharius fits very well into a Carolingian context, but I’m sure someone else could see things in it that make it look Ottonian to them.

So why do I rip anecdotal gobbets from inoffensive works of fiction and try to arrange them in new and pretty patterns? Because I don’t know another way to study the kind of things that interest me. For example, I want to know about acceptable behaviour in warfare, but until men start writing treatises on chivalry (in fact arguably till something like Honoré Bouvet’s Tree of Battles), no-one writes down the kind of details I want. So instead I sidle up to the topic via poetry and annals, in the hope that even if they don’t actually tell me what actually happened, they can give me ideas about what ought to have happened or what men dreamed and hoped would happen. Otherwise, the range of topics on which we early medieval historians cannot speak becomes even wider.

It’s not just military ethics you may have to sneak up on like this, but also gender, the discovery of the individual, images of peasants and lots of other curious abstractions like those. And I mosaic together fragments from many different sources into what I hope is a convincing whole because fragments are what I have to work with. Yes, it would be nice to work with a sizeable coherent corpus of literary material that is all firmly locatable in the same time and place and deals with common issues, but then I’d be talking about gender and morality in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, not the ninth. That doesn’t mean we can simply ignore methodological problems about using literary sources (whether it’s how close in time and place our examples need to be to be comparable or the role of irony and fantasy and literary conventions), but after the ‘linguistic turn’, historians need almost equal caution in reading narrative historical sources and even charters.

So it doesn’t seem to me, in theory, unjustified in making something of the frequent use of trial by combat scenes in Arthurian romance. There are obvious questions, of course, which need to be asked: is this motif particular to this genre? Is this a new pattern or just the side-effect of a ‘literary-documentary mutation’? I’m sceptical about stories of weak and treacherous kings having a particular political context: that seems a perennial problem of monarchies, old and new (and it’s a frequent theme in the chansons de geste, for example). But the emphasis on trial by combat, in contrast, is intriguing, if this motif can be successfully pinned down to a specific period.

To me it automatically brings thoughts about the twelfth-century rise of legal professionalism as against the ‘good old law’ of the nobility. (It’s all too easy to presume that this more ‘rational’ law must have seemed preferable to everyone: but as Tim Reuter once memorably remarked (The medieval German Sonderweg? p 200): ‘In general I suspect it is an error to assume as a working maxim for the study of medieval government that we needs must love the highest when we see it.’) We have historical evidence of the importance nobles attached to rights to trial by combat; if there are literary parallels, that may help confirm the significance of this preference. It also suggests that gutting literature, however aesthetically unsatisfying, can sometimes be a useful tool for a historian.


4 thoughts on “Gutting literature for historical pleasure and profit

  1. You have some just points, and my frustration with Professor White’s paper was mainly based on his wish to stay at a macro-level of analysis whereas his texts all seemed to demand different treatment. Especially problematic was the question of audience, which is where the extrapolation to noble attitudes falls over I think. Susan Reynolds, who was there, did as you might expect suggest that the pattern stopped turning up when it did because of lawyers spoiliing everything, so I think she would agree with you here about it being a relic of the time before professional law.

    As to the wider issue, I may have to come back to that, but carefully, because a lot of my readers appear to be literature types…


    • Thanks for the reference to this book: I vaguely remember having heard of Geoffrey Charny, but I’ve never explored his work. Unfortunately, since my period is so much earlier (eighth/ninth century) I can’t justify citing any chivalric literature in my work, but I am aware of some of the interesting attempts to try and compare chivalric literature, advice to knights and accounts of actual battles. If only I had those kind of sources…


  2. In which Keith Thomas says it for me
    I quote:
    “You often use literary sources as well as archival ones. What can they offer that the ‘documents’ cannot?
    “… Well, they cover a wide range of experiences essentially, and clearly they present serious problems of…


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