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?
Ill start by saying that I didnt hear Stephens paper, so I dont know the details of what he was trying to do. But if gutting literature is now an unacceptable historical tactic, Im in big trouble. Because Im a historian of mentalities and thats what I do: gut literature (and history and anything else I can lay my metaphorical knife on) in search of attitudes.
If Im trying to defend myself I might say, oh, but Im not really taking things out of context, but that cant be terribly convincing. Most of the time for medieval literature (and a surprising amount of medieval history) we dont 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 were frequently reduced to speculating about contexts. I argue in an article that Im currently trying to get published that the Latin poem Waltharius fits very well into a Carolingian context, but Im 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 dont 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 Bouvets 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 dont 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.
Its 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 Id be talking about gender and morality in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, not the ninth. That doesnt mean we can simply ignore methodological problems about using literary sources (whether its 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 doesnt 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? Im sceptical about stories of weak and treacherous kings having a particular political context: that seems a perennial problem of monarchies, old and new (and its 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. (Its 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.