Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200

Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200

Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200

Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200

Synopsis

Thinkers in medieval France constantly reconceptualized what had come before, interpreting past events to give validity to the present and help control the future. The long-dead saints who presided over churches and the ancestors of established dynasties were an especially crucial part of creative memory, Constance Brittain Bouchard contends. In Rewriting Saints and Ancestors she examines how such ex post facto accounts are less an impediment to the writing of accurate history than a crucial tool for understanding the Middle Ages.

Working backward through time, Bouchard discusses twelfth-century scribes contemplating the ninth-century documents they copied into cartularies or reworked into narratives of disaster and triumph, ninth-century churchmen deliberately forging supposedly late antique documents as weapons against both kings and other churchmen, and sixth- and seventh-century Gallic writers coming to terms with an early Christianity that had neither the saints nor the monasteries that would become fundamental to religious practice. As they met with political change and social upheaval, each generation decided which events of the past were worth remembering and which were to be reinterpreted or quietly forgotten. By considering memory as an analytic tool, Bouchard not only reveals the ways early medieval writers constructed a useful past but also provides new insights into the nature of record keeping, the changing ways dynasties were conceptualized, the relationships of the Merovingian and Carolingian kings to the church, and the discovery (or invention) of Gaul's earliest martyrs.

Excerpt

In medieval France thinkers constantly reconceptualized their past. The proper interpretation of past events could give validity to the present and help control the future. The saints that now presided over churches and the ancestors that had first established a dynasty were an especially crucial part of creative memory. Scholars have long known that many of our primary sources for the period were written well after the events they describe, so that, for example, the reign of Clovis is known principally from the Historia of Gregory of Tours, composed nearly a century later. Such post facto accounts form the heart of this book, including twelfth-century scribes contemplating the ninth-century documents they copied into cartularies; ninth-century churchmen considering their sixth-century predecessors; and sixth-century writers in Gaul coming to terms with the Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries. The changes and upheavals of the period 500–1200 were met by rewriting and re-remembering. Memory was always malleable, as each generation decided which events of the past were worth remembering and which were to be reinterpreted or else quietly forgotten.

Memory is a potentially enormous subject, and this book has constantly sought to become the thousand-page wonder that makes academic publishers of the twenty-first century recoil in horror. To keep it manageable in size, I have omitted many interesting topics—some of which were spun off as articles, summarized only briefly here—and tried (not always successfully) to pare down the endnotes to the most recent or most influential works. I urge those seeking a fuller historiography to consult the notes to the books and articles cited. References are generally given in short form; full details are reserved for the bibliography.

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