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The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle: The Manuscript Culture of Late Medieval England.


The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle: The Manuscript Culture of Late Medieval England.

Writing History in the Middle Ages, vol. 5.

York, UK: York Medieval Press in association with

The Boydell Press, 2017.

314 pp. 2 color + 26 B&W illus.

The importance of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut cannot be gainsaid. Originating in northern England around the end of the thirteenth century, some fifty or sixty French versions are extant. It was soon translated into English, and such was its popularity that three or four times as many versions remain in English. There were translations, too, into Latin, a few, perhaps, into Welsh, and with continuation and expansion it was to become "the medium in which secular Middle English historiography developed" (2)--as many as thirteen different editions were in print before 1528. In 2006, Dr. Marvin published the first scholarly edition of The Oldest Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, its seventy-one-page Introduction tightly focused and dealing with such matters as the five manuscripts of the Oldest Version (OV), their relationships, and materials appropriate to the establishment of the edited text (Marvin distinguishes the Oldest from the Oldest Version [OV], that is her edited text). Her 2006 edition is now complemented by a splendid analysis not just of the OV but of its place within the wider Brut tradition. The book is simply structured: the "Introduction" (1 -18) is followed by two parts, "Construction" (19-128) and "Reconstruction and Response" (129-229), with a "Conclusion" (231 -259). Prefatory materials include two pages of well-chosen "Abbreviations" and a most helpful "Note on Proper Names, Transcriptions, and Translations." A "Bibliography," a "General Index," and a lengthy "Index of Manuscripts Cited" complete the book.

Nowadays we tend to view prose Bruts with suspicion, dismissing them as "derivative and middlebrow" (15), but Marvin reminds us that they were consulted as a source for history into the seventeenth century, and she argues that the prose Brut "set the context, form, and matter for vernacular historical writing in England" (2). In particular, the OV marks "a key moment in the larger Brut tradition," providing the core text for "a new British history" and serving as a catalyst for historical writing in the vernaculars of medieval England (16).

Five aspects of the" Construction" of the new British history are treated. The first of these chapters shows how the OV's author creates his New Troy in a vocabulary that is "fairly narrow" and "repetitive" (24). It is a history of rulers who are good or bad, for audiences "with relatively little immediate access to, knowledge or memory of, or investment in previous versions of the matter of Troy" (35). Even the founding of Rome is omitted, and Rome is first named in the story of Belin and Brenne. What matters in the OV is what happens in Britain and to its rulers: "Imperial Rome becomes an entirely negative exemplar" (54). From the first leader, emphasis is placed on "the centrality of the people's support--and counsel--to Brut's success" (27).

The second chapter shows how the OV promotes "the ideal of a cohesive community" (57) in which the right of rebellion is "presumed and enacted" (60). There are few descriptions of warfare, rather of negotiations and outcomes than of deeds. Just as the OV takes little interest in depicting war, so, too, chapter 3 shows, it "displays no sympathy for 'romantic,' sexual love" (78). Yet some women's stories are elaborated, and in interesting ways. For example, the narrative of Edward the Martyr's wicked stepmother is played out across three reigns (84). Marvin suggests that the OV displays "a demystifying attitude towards rape" (91) and that its presentation of women straightforwardly "as human beings, plain and simple" is "extraordinary in and of itself (92).

A whole chapter is given to "Social Arthur," a model king and implicitly the forerunner of Edward I (107). The final chapter in Part I explores how the OV created a "common heritage" in which insular readers could "consider themselves descendants of Brut" (127). Ethnicities are blurred in a country of multiple identities. This is the true history ("le dreit estorie"), even to the land's renaming as "Engistlonde" and then "Engleterre" (117-118) by a writer "eager to demonstrate the genealogical credentials of the house of Plantagenet" (123).

Whereas Part I is a literary analysis of the OV set within the context of its sources and analogues, "Part II: Reconstruction and Response" examines four aspects of the history of material books in the French prose Brut tradition. Its twenty-eight images, two in color, are contextually apposite, contributing to points under discussion. In the first of these chapters, Marvin begins by dispelling the sense of solidity given by the OV text. Despite its strong common core, of the five manuscripts from which it is constructed, each one lacks text present in others. What, she asks, is the evidence for a lay market in England for Anglo-Norman texts? Even copies of the Short Version that look so alike as to be regarded as twins are shown to be markedly dissimilar. Anglo-Norman Bruts come in a variety of scripts and layouts, and must have had "many different points of origin" (153). Doubt is cast upon the presence or absence of verse prologue as the criterion for dividing the Short Version into two groups; and indeed, if the prologue is in its own separate quire, could it constitute evidence for an earlier stage of the Short Version?

Chapter 7 looks to the texts that travel with Anglo-Norman Bruts, a task complicated by the frequent loss of beginnings and/or endings and the general lack of original bindings--about 40 percent are today single codices. Nevertheless, the wealth of detail accumulated bears out Marvin's conclusion that the Anglo-Norman prose Brut and what we think of as romance are "understood and consumed in different ways''(174). These Bruts were taken seriously, keeping company with French and Latin rather than English, alongside historiography and such edifying works as the Image du monde. Despite the acknowledged hazards of an "incompletely known manuscript tradition" (45), in the opening paragraph of chapter 8 Marvin states firmly: "Each of the major versions of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut has a characteristic ordinatio" (177). Here she reflects on how texts are organized, on side notes, annotations, marginalia, and other forms of markup.

In Part II's last chapter, "History Illustrated," Marvin begins by reminding us how rare illustration is throughout the prose Brut tradition. Three late deluxe manuscripts were produced on the Continent, but only a few insular manuscripts of the Anglo-Norman Brut have any illustrations. Marvin's survey of these manuscripts bears out her suggestion that there was not "much in the way of a iconographic tradition" (205).

But what is Merlin's role in a serious historical work that prompts its audience to think about what they read? In her "Conclusion," Marvin contends that in its depiction of Merlin, the OV is "a precociously humanistic text" (258). Its Merlin is not so much a prophet as a sage, a reader of signs. Emphasis is placed on wisdom rather than magic, and his access to occult powers is downplayed. By contrast, the Long Version "makes a retrograde move," shifting "power from the reader back to the exceptional, superhuman figure of the prophet" (255).

A short descriptive review can do no more than attempt an overview of this deeply learned book. On page after page are nuggets prompting recognition and speculation. So just what history of England was chained in Winchester cathedral? (124) How large was "the sheer number of people involved in the making of prose Bruts''? (133) In what ways do "the manuscripts bear witness to different choices about how to accommodate the material," even what to include? (150) Overall, this is an important book to be treasured for its insights into historical writing and Arthurian chronicle, to be combed assiduously for its wealth of codicological detail. Yet it is so well written as to be thoroughly readable.

Jane Roberts, University of London
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Author:Roberts, Jane
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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