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Rewriting Saints and Ancestors

Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200

By Constance Brittain Bouchard

Publication Year: 2014

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 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 else 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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

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...

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Notes on Terminology

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pp. xiii-xvi

Royal lineages had no official names in the period covered by this book. Members of these lineages did, however, clearly recognize their relatives, and it has not therefore seemed an undue stretch for modern scholars to give collective names to those related in the male line. The Merovingians were those descended according to legend from Meroveus, offspring of a fifth-century sea serpent. The Carolingians, the family of Charlemagne (d. 814), are here the...

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pp. 1-8

Time’s arrow moves in one direction only: forward. But memory moves backward. The past does not stand still but rather is in constant flux as it is remembered, remembered differently, or forgotten. In this book I examine, through the lens of memory, the sources from which modern scholars have constructed the church history and family history of France in the early and high Middle Ages in order to give the sources their full due as efforts to remember— or to create— a useful past for those who wrote them....

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1. Cartularies: Remembering the Documentary Past

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pp. 9-21

In the first decade of the twelfth century, Warin, cantor of the cathedral of Châlons-sur-Marne, set out to create a cartulary for his church, a book into which he copied old charters. He began, “Here are the documents (precepta) of the church of St.-Etienne of Châlons, which were scattered (dispersa) and nearly destroyed by age. Warin the cantor collected them and copied them with his own hand.” On the following pages he transcribed charters from kings and...

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2. The Composition and Purpose of Cartularies

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pp. 22-37

Those who created cartularies did so with the purpose of creating a history of their church that was both coherent and complete. Cartularies were intended as part of the broader history of an ecclesiastical community. The documents in the archives were voices from a church’s past, and for that past to be incorporated into the present they had to be copied out, made new again. An eleventh-century biography of a bishop of Auxerre praised the bishop for “renovating”...

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3. Twelfth-Century Narratives of the Past

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pp. 38-52

To write was to create a record for posterity. As Gregory the Great said, “What we speak is transitory, but what we write remains.”1 A twelfth-century bishop of Chalon put it just as clearly if not as elegantly: “Since, in this world, unless things are corroborated in writing, they are often lost to negligence or oblivion, therefore . . .”2 Thus anyone putting pen to parchment, an activity both difficult and expensive, did so because the words were important enough to need to be read again....

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4. Polyptyques: Twelfth-Century Monks Face the Ninth Century

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pp. 53-62

Polyptyques, the great ninth-century inventories of monastic holdings, stand at a turning point in the medieval exercise of memory.1 On the one hand, they were originally created in order to have a clear record of property holdings and expected revenues. Their creation was thus part of a ninth-century effort to organize memory and make it unchanging, as well as to rationalize records— like the first cartularies, created at exactly the same time. On the other hand, polyptyques in the high Middle Ages were also part of the memory of the past...

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5. An Age of Forgery

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pp. 63-86

Creative memory was at its most creative in the ninth century, when churchmen forged unprecedented and monumental runs of entirely false charters. The modern study of medieval documents long focused on “what really happened” and thus either ignored forged documents completely or at best relegated them to the...

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6. Remembering the Carolingians

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pp. 87-105

Everyone knows that the Carolingian age was a glorious turning point.1 The reason we all know this is because certain writers of the late eighth and ninth centuries went out of their way to tell us so. In recent years, however, scholars have begun to see Einhard and his contemporaries not just as simple reporters but as publicists for the Carolingian dynasty.2 It is not surprising that members of court wanted to remember a divinely constituted emperor, who was always successful, both morally and politically. But their accounts need to be...

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7. Creation of a Carolingian Dynasty

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pp. 106-125

As discussed in the previous chapter, the scorn heaped on the Merovingians from the court of Charlemagne should be seen as a retrospective account, intended to make their replacement by the Carolingians seem sensible and natural. In this chapter I shall focus on how the ancestry of Charlemagne was described— and that description modified— in order to make it seem a royal dynasty, of the sort that could or should have been ruling all along....

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8. Western Monasteries and the Carolingians

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pp. 126-151

The publicists of the Carolingian court, as discussed in Chapter 6, sought to portray these anointed kings as great Christian leaders. As part of their program, they sought to distinguish the Carolingians from their predecessors by suggesting that the Christian world of late Merovingian Gaul was decaying and corrupt, requiring the strong reforming hand of a new dynasty. For example, Alcuin, one of Charlemagne’s chief advisors, wrote around 800 a...

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9. Eighth-Century Transitions: The Evidence from Burgundy

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pp. 152-175

Memory always has gaps. In this chapter I shall examine a curious lacuna in the documents from west Frankish monasteries, occurring during the transition from Merovingian to Carolingian rule. Monasteries in the early eighth century functioned in a world very different from that of the early ninth, and yet that transition is nearly silent, for it was not recorded in memory. In addition, this gap in the documents corresponds to a period in which no new monasteries were founded....

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10. Great Noble Families in the Early Middle Ages

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pp. 176-192

Some aristocrats of the Merovingian era were enormously wealthy. But did these families become the very wealthy and powerful families of the Carolingian era? Curiously, they do not appear to have done so— or, if they did, that was not how they remembered their origins. It is striking that no one living within the borders of the old Roman Empire in the year 800 has demonstrable ancestors from the year...

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11. Early Frankish Monasticism

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pp. 193-212

The sixth century was the period in which medieval Christianity was formed.1 By the year 600, bishops were well-established political figures, asceticism was institutionalized in the monasteries, and saints worked through their relics. During the century after the conversion of Clovis, late antique Gaul developed the assumptions about church governance, monasticism, and the holy dead that dominated for the next thousand years. Once early medieval Christianity settled on its broad outlines, the tendency was to re-remember the past as having followed the same pattern....

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12. Remembering Martyrs and Relics in Sixth-Century Gaul

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pp. 213-227

This study of the memory of saints and ancestors has now proceeded back to the sixth century, when thinkers at the dawn of the Middle Ages contemplated early Christianity and assumed that their predecessors had been just like them. But the fourth and fifth centuries, in contrast to the sixth, had functioned with few local saints and even fewer relics. Specifically, between about 400 and 600 Gaul multiplied its saints, and relics became for the first time the chief point of contact between the living and the holy dead. The past of every region...

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pp. 228-232

The saints and ancestors who were remembered, rewritten, and reconceptualized between the sixth century and the twelfth all had one significant aspect in common: they were dead. The living, too, were worthy of memory, as Anselm of St.-Remy made clear in the eleventh century when he recorded the events of the Council of Reims. But control of memory principally meant control of the dead. Even before the development of a unified liturgy of Christian death...

Appendix I. Monasteries in Burgundy and Southern Champagne

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pp. 233-244

Appendix II. Churches in Auxerre

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pp. 245-250

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 251-252


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pp. 253-326


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pp. 327-352


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pp. 353-360

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pp. 361-362

The first draft of this book was written at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, and revisions were made there on a return visit. Like many before me I found the IAS a Promised Land for scholars, composed of tranquil woods and meadows, plenty of books and a helpful staff ready to locate even more books, excellent food, stimulating colleagues, and a great deal of quiet time for thinking and writing. I was lucky to be part of two wonderful groups...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812290080
E-ISBN-10: 0812290089
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812246360

Page Count: 408
Illustrations: 7 illus.
Publication Year: 2014

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Subject Headings

  • Historiography -- France -- History -- To 1500.
  • France -- History -- To 987 -- Historiography.
  • France -- History -- Medieval period, 987-1515 -- Historiography.
  • France -- History -- To 987 -- Sources.
  • France -- History -- Medieval period, 987-1515 -- Sources.
  • Christian hagiography -- History -- To 1500.
  • Genealogical literature -- France -- History -- To 1500.
  • Middle Ages -- Historiography.
  • Memory -- History.
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