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Reviewed by:
  • Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow
  • Anne J. Duggan (bio)
David Bates, Julia Crick, and Sarah Hamilton , eds. Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006. 262 pp. ISBN 184-38-3262-3, £60.

In this splendid book, sixteen distinguished authors, most of them biographers in their own right, have collaborated to honor a seventeenth, Professor Frank Barlow, whose lives of Edward the Confessor, William Rufus, and Thomas Becket are models of their kind. Taking the writing of medieval biography as their theme, the sixteen discuss critical questions about the sources which form the core of their subject. How should a modern scholar evaluate the account of women saints whose vitae have allegedly passed through the double filter of translation from a vernacular into Latin and possible manipulation by male authors (Barbara Yorke on Anglo-Saxon female saints)? What chance is there of approaching a subject for whom there is little written evidence (Simon Keynes on Æthelred the Unready), or where it is problematical (Janet Nelson on Charlemagne's "private life"). Can one reconstruct a chronicler's own biography from his writings on others (John Gillingham on Roger of Howden)? What explains the absence of biographies of the early Plantagenet kings (1154–1272), when their Capetian contemporaries were well recorded, and is the contrast significant (Nicholas Vincent, "The Strange Case of the Missing Biographies")? How far is it possible to find the individual inside the single or multiple roles which persons of status had to play (Pauline Stafford, "Writing the Biography of Eleventh-century Queens")? [End Page 387]

Stafford concludes that medieval biography "is difficult, but both possible and important"; and she and her fellow-contributors amply demonstrate its possibilities. David Bates brings great depth and subtlety to his reassessment of the earliest narrative sources for the life of William the Conqueror (William of Poitiers, the 'D' version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury), and leaves the reader waiting expectantly for the "new narrative and [the] new biography [that] will emerge" (140); Edmund King re-assesses the accuracy and value of the Gesta Stephani; David Crouch offers a probing study on the "History of William the Marshal"; and Lindy Grant provides a splendid essay on Geoffrey of Lèves, the bishop of Chartres who employed Arnulf, later the long-lived and exceptionally talented bishop of Lisieux, whose letters Frank Barlow edited in 1939. From Christopher Holdsworth there is a new (and more sympathetic) reading of Bernard of Clairvaux's Vitae; and Elizabeth Van Houts explores the influence of Flemish authors (the author of the Encomium Emmae, Drogo of Saint-Winnocksbergen, and Folcard and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin) on English biography in the eleventh century. Jane Martindale's insightful examination of the remarkable "autobiographies" of two powerful French nobles, William, count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine (1071–1126), and Fulk le Réchin of Anjou (1043–1109), the one in Occitan verse and the other in Latin prose, is an exemplary demonstration of the way in which subtle analysis can force known texts to reveal more secrets.

To interpret the written record, the historian must first understand its form and function, and establish the purpose and reliability of its author. This demands exceptional skill in the interpretation of the written sources, and requires not credulity, but an open-mindedness towards them. It is refreshing to read that Richard Abels had been persuaded away from his own preconceptions by giving the sources their due, rather than attempting to impose a provocative thesis upon them, all the while remembering their ambiguities ("Alfred and his Biographers" 73–75), and Marjorie Chibnall's conclusion that, "however reasonable it may be to speculate about the medical or psychological condition influencing the career of an individual, there is a point beyond which speculation should not go in the face of positive evidence," although she allows "controlled speculation" when that evidence has been mastered ("The Empress Matilda as a Subject for Biography" 194). At the same time, the biographer of a medieval person has to be in command of the full range of surviving materials—narrative, diplomatic, administrative, legal, and...


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