Jacqueline M. Burek: Literary Variety and the Writing of History in Britain's Long Twelfth Century (= Writing History in the Middle Ages; Vol. 10), Woodbridge / Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer 2023, 282 S., ISBN 978-1-914049-10-1, GBP 70,00
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The Latin proverb is well known and deeply true, varietas delectat. It carries many different meanings and has been employed in many different contexts. Jacqueline M. Burek, Assistant Professor of Medieval Literature in the English Department at George Mason University (Virginia), uses the concept of varietas to explore through a close reading the transformative process of medieval English historiography. Every writer, medieval and modern, is trying to appeal to his or her audience, and when an opportunity arises to vary the style, genre, or language, many have embraced this strategy. Boethius did it most successfully in his De consolatione philosophiae (ca. 524), and the anonymous Old French poet of Aucassin et Nicolette (13th c.) offered a brilliant example through his use of prosimetrum (first developed by Menippus, 3rd c. B.C.E.). But true variation in style does not occur so obviously, and only a careful analysis can reveal what is going on within a text. This becomes even more difficult if one uses the genre of historiographical writings, as Burek does, since the chroniclers tended to trace their account from the earliest times to their present in a consistent fashion.
The issue proves to be a highly complicated matter when it mirrors a major shift in the historical process, such as the political takeover of England through William the Conqueror in 1066, which introduced not only a new structure, but also a new language. This had certainly an impact on the writing of history, especially because a straightforward chronological account can easily become rather boring and unattractive. A dramatic example would be the famous world chronicle by Jans Enikel of Vienna (late fourteenth century) who included, without any preparations or transitions, a number of verse narratives in the middle of his account.
Varietas, however, can entail many different aspects, such as the inclusion of foreign language words, new genres, stylistic elements (rhyme scheme, meters, etc.), or contrastive worldviews. Changes in the own report by way of quoting from older sources, or acknowledging a major rupture in the historical events could easily contribute to the creation of varietas. With respect to the conquest of England in 1066, trauma writing can be detected, and we also observe, as Burek emphasizes, the deliberate fragmentation of texts to disrupt the regular flow of the narrative. Whether we could also talk about the "political fragmentation of England" in 1066 (15), seems a bit questionable to me because William was highly successful in establishing complete control over the British lands.
Chapter one reflects on the basic function of varietas in British historiography from the High Middle Ages. Of course, as the author rightly underscores, the chroniclers discussed here drew much inspiration from ancient sources, such as the famous Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero, Sallust, Sueton, or Horace, and imitated their stylistic strategies to change and thus to surprise their readers. Early examples of variety in style during the twelfth century can be found in the Vita Griffini filii Consani, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and William of Newburgh's Historia rerum Anglicorum (1196-1198). Once the Normans had conquered England, the presence of three languages encouraged the chroniclers to reflect on those in particular, which was yet another opportunity for varietas.
Through a careful analysis of William of Malmesbury's Gesta regum Anglorum (ch. 2), Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum (ch. 3), and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (ch. 4), the author succeeds in identifying the rhetorical and stylistic strategies to achieve that goal of variegating the historical account to keep the audience's attention and to provide some entertaining features to embellish the rather dry chronological narrative in Latin and to understand the extent to which historical events were driven by different power sources and thus needed to be viewed in juxtaposition.
The subsequent section continues with this investigation but focuses on early Middle English texts, specifically Laʒamon's Brut and Robert Mannyng's Story of Inglande, where the authors made deliberate efforts to change the internal style at times and thus to uphold their readers' attention. In the case of Mannyng, Burek even observes the switch to internal rhyme, but I cannot recognize that at all (206). Much more significant proves to be the intentional placing of parallel events next to each other which disrupts the traditionally consistent historical narrative (213). Another method was to incorporate letters as a unique genre, or to digress temporarily in the account for entertainment purposes. All this nicely illustrates why medieval chroniclers both in England and on the Continent tended to diversify their narratives so that the flow was not excessively smooth.
Burek acknowledges that she had to limit herself to Latin and Middle English chronicles to complete her task, but she refers the readers also to the wide gamut of other historiographical texts, especially in Anglo-Norman. We can easily draw from her insights also for chronicles in France, England, or Germany, so this study is to be praised highly for making a very good case for the great significance of varietas in chronicle literature. The best example for this phenomenon remains the prosimetrum, as she points out at the end, but the selection of texts for this study contains solid evidence for the larger claim.
This impressive study concludes with a bibliography and an index. Burek has opened for us intriguing windows toward British historiographical literature, and her conclusions can easily be utilized for parallel studies of other examples in this genre.