Bouchard, Constance Brittain, Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200.
'Times arrow moves in one direction only; forward' (p. 1). So opens Constance Brittain Bouchard's latest book, which deals with the written records of early medieval France. But as Martin Amis showed us in his 1991 novel, Time's Arrow, remembering possesses a more fluid temporality: it is backward-looking and contemporaneously constructive; it is forward-looking but steeped in the language of the past. Thus, although the subject of Bouchard's book is memory, it is in many ways also about time. An ingenious structure guides us from the twelfth century back to the shadowy landscape of Merovingian Gaul, in order to give the sources their full due as efforts to remember--or create--a useful past for those who wrote them' (p. 1).
The twelve chapters focus on different genres of source material. The first considers the cartulary in the twelfth century, providing useful information about the nature of these seemingly prosaic documents. The second chapter establishes the purpose of cartularies as mechanisms for communicating and enshrining particular histories by considering composition, copying and dissemination, and subsequent uses of cartularies. This emphasis on the creation of records for posterity leads into the third chapter, which surveys the monastic chronicle as a close relation to the cartulary.
We move back in time to the ninth century beginning with Chapter 4. Here, the famous Carolingian polyptyques are examined as transformative texts in the 'exercise of medieval memory' (p. 53). Although polyptyques were very much like charters in that they recorded monastic property, they were not copied and compiled like charters; or as Bouchard prefers, they were forgotten. The need for meaningful contexts as environments for the formulation and preservation of memory is emphasised here. In Chapter 5, Bouchard considers the ninth century as 'an age of forgery', arguing that the sheer number of forged charters during this period reveals that the written word was becoming increasingly important in the conscious reworking of memory.
The Carolingians are further studied in Chapters 6 through 8. Here, Bouchard explores the construction of Carolingian dynastic memory (especially the memory of Charlemagne and his family) as a conscious and effective strategy to legitimate a new lineage. This was done by rejecting the Merovingians, dismissively known until recently as les rois faineants, and by careful articulation of a new and distinctive Carolingian genealogy. Both court writers, including Einhard, and monastic writers contributed to this effort. The ninth chapter on the evidence from Burgundy in the eighth century shows that the broader context of social and economic change was 'a time uniquely suited for a new dynasty to consolidate its power and become rulers of the Franks' (p. 174).
We retreat further into the Merovingian world in the final three chapters. Bouchard considers noble, monastic, and religious contexts for the creation and--sometimes--failure of Frankish memory. The great noble families of the Merovingian era differed from their Carolingian descendants in placing less weight on the value of lineage. Early Frankish cenobitic monks, on the other hand, always emphasised moments of foundation and exordia. Further back in the sixth century, we find the stirrings of creative memory in Frankish imaginings of martyrs and the veneration of relics.
This is a profoundly ambitious book, not least in its attempt to track a path through a vast sweep of historical time. Bouchard handles the range of sources beautifully, and her descriptions of the sources will be of enormous benefit to students and academics alike. The argument that creative memory was not only active throughout the early Middle Ages, but came into being during the period 500-1200 brings something new to the study of medieval memory in general. We are reminded that memory and remembering, like the pasts they create and modify, also have a history. That this history has been illuminated so carefully and insightfully for us by Bouchard is itself a significant moment in the ongoing construction of the medieval past.
MEGAN CASSIDY-WELCH, Monash University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2015|
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