Medieval Histories and Modern Realism: Yet Another Origin of the Novel
I was recently watching the evening news on a local network affiliate in South Florida and was forced to enjoy one of those moments that are like the mental equivalent of a hard eye-blink. The female news anchor was going on in that routine half-emphatic style about some episode of domestic violence that had been suppressed by timely police intervention following a call to 911. I was not listening very attentively, but suddenly I was watching: watching a man and a woman, muffled shouting that I couldn’t hear very well, she retreating, he pushing, my view seemed from somewhere behind them in a smallish living room where the color had oddly drained out of their world as well as the sound, and the picture lurched like amateur camcorder productions, then the police came in at what had to be the front door, and I just had time to wonder, what am I seeing? how can I be seeing this? when the word “simulation” appeared on the screen for a second or two, and my confusion yielded to that increasingly common mixture compounded of “dupe” and “jaded” in equal parts. This happens a lot currently: a news story with enough human interest to broadcast but no visuals, and TV newscast and feature journalism producers, abhorring the unrelieved talking head, edge closer to the resources of fiction—from archival stock footage, through gradations of verisimilitude over to docudrama, reenactment, or so-called simulation—in the Florida instance the crudeness of the hastily contrived footage being a positive advantage. Video [End Page 857] vérité standing in for actual documentary footage, framed by all the visual conventions that mark off the news report from the fictional show, simultaneously enhancing and diluting the cumulative truth-value in the same conflated (or confounded) moment.
This technique of incorporating fictions within the confines of a conventional truth-claim genre (here: news) is currently still a violation of the understood protocol for offering factual information in any modern media, and discussions of genre-blurring tend to regard such techniques as stretching the boundaries, pushing against the limits, or otherwise venturing in an outward and uncharted, if not necessarily wise, direction. Only the benefit of a classical or medievalist training enables one to enjoy the mental double take of recognizing ancient and medieval literary conventions strangely taking life again in highly unlikely places. It is difficult enough to deal with the fiction-inside-of-history phenomenon in its own cultural times and places, even with the excellent scholarly guidance available. Important issues of writer/reader relations, truth and representation, authorial intention and reader reception have not been effaced or resolved by appeals to cultural “alterity” and the long stretch of time, but remain sharp challenges for serious scholarship in several premodern fields. 1
I have long since resolved most of my first confusions about this fiction-inside-history phenomenon as it pervades the truth-claim narratives of the Middle Ages, although there will always be something disconcerting about seeing the conventions of medieval history-writing reincarnated in electronic communications on the cusp of the twenty-first century—definitely like a ghost in the machine. 2 Because the framing conventions of the network news, focusing on the news [End Page 858] desk fact-altar, served by its carefully groomed anchor-acolytes who look us in the eye and speak ritually declarative sentences representing events in the shared reality of the external world, and then introject you-are-there scenes and sounds that no recorder was present to see or hear, are indeed the structural and epistemological equivalent of standard medieval historiographical technique. To offer one among thousands of exemplary instances, there is William of Malmesbury, self-conscious inheritor of the tradition of Bede, assuring readers that: “I have always dreaded putting in writing, for transmission to posterity, anything that I did not know to be established as solid fact [quod nescirem solida veritate subsistere].” 3 His histories are scrupulous and earnestly careful works by the standards of the twelfth century, and also quite unremarkably filled with the routine fictions sanctioned by usage. We are there in the king’s bedchamber to hear William Rufus swearing at his servant while getting dressed: “You son of a whore, how long has the king been wearing such cheap boots?”—the key line in an insulting jokey anecdote that reveals the king to be not only wasteful and luxurious, but incapable of telling good quality from bad. 4 Anecdotes with exemplum-like moral weight, direct speech, interior states, all such fictionally dramatized information is cloaked by the conventional assurance that the historian had heard it from a man, who heard it from a man, who really knew what he was talking about. 5
Or to take another unquestionably reputable historian of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman world, the high-minded if rather priggish Orderic Vitalis, who assures us that he doesn’t write “fictitious tragedy” or “wordy comedy” for profit or entertainment, but only records events truthfully for studious readers, to describe a history notable for its author’s compulsive attraction to directly rendered speech, and the headlong plunge into the dramatized scene, the [End Page 859] impersonated voice, the you-are-there effect. 6 Following the standard-setting example of Bede, who self-consciously set himself in the tradition of Jerome and the best historiographical practice of antiquity, 7 historians like William of Malmesbury and Orderic assured their readers that they were offering generally accepted information of the past from written sources, supplemented by personal knowledge and contemporary testimony from persons of good character. That was the standard for writers and readers who cared about standards. In the words of William of Malmesbury: “I deem it necessary to acquaint [the reader] that I vouch nothing for the truth of long past transactions, but the consonance of the time; the veracity of the relation must rest with the authors. Whatever I have recorded of later times, I have either myself seen, or heard from credible authority.” 8 Orderic, who is particularly austere in his descriptions of the laborious self-dedication required of historians, is sometimes ostentatiously exacting in his selection of sources. About a certain saint whose biography he wished to include he notes: “Jongleurs sing a popular song about him, but a reliable account, carefully written by pious scholars . . . is certainly to be preferred to that.” Orderic himself relies on the rare true account shown to him by Anthony, “a monk of Winchester,” when he visited Orderic’s monastery. 9
But true information, or reliably conveyed information, was not the same as sufficient information for narrative purposes. There was no explicit standard governing the ample range of techniques derived from ancient rhetorical practice for enlivening and dramatizing thin historical information with invented dialogue, interesting details, scenic props, interior motivation, and anecdotal interest. This encyclopedic [End Page 860] resource, limited only by the writer’s skill, passed without comment into the interior of the writer-reader contract—its literary subconscious—intelligible to us only through cautious acts of inference. Medieval histories of any stature beyond annalistic notation supplied satisfactions far different from the earnest austere pleasures promised by historians in their prefatory and other self-flattering statements. Readers expected and historians supplied: the immediacy of moments imagined inside the king’s chamber and other inaccessible places; voices caught in repartée and revealing outbursts; the telling gesture; the detail that enacts a whole scene in the mind; true last thoughts from noble deathbeds; even scenes direct from the Other World beyond death. 10
All the imaginative gratifications involved in what we might call the fictions of the real, which were eventually banished from generic nonfiction, were, in various degrees, part of the medieval historian’s obligation to his readers, and to his own reputation. It is easy to forget this because the later crisp generic separation between fiction and history which marks modern literary production and reception awarded the prize of reader satisfaction entirely to fiction. E. M. Forster, in his 1927 Cambridge lectures on English literature, celebrated this victory without hesitation or self-doubt. A basic psychological demand, the need to know more than reality permits, drives the realist novel because only fiction, in Forster’s words, “goes beyond the evidence, and each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence.” 11 History, constrained by its evidence-commitment to exterior reality, is limited to offering readers [End Page 861] the true but inadequate facts justified by evidence: “If Queen Victoria had not said, ‘We are not amused,’ her neighbors at table would not have known she was not amused, and her ennui could never have been announced to the public.” 12
Victoria’s silent ennui might never have been announced to the nineteenth-century history-reading public. Had she lived in the twelfth century, any number of interesting things about her state of mind might have been described had they filled a historian’s narrative gap or didactic purpose. The need to know beyond the evidence is usually gratified as soon as it arises in medieval narrative history (albeit what we wish to know is usually different from a medieval taste). In fact, the original audience for monastically produced histories, for example, Orderic’s brother monks of Saint-Evroul listening over dinner to parts of his history read aloud (and Orderic’s complaints about certain ungrateful hyper-critical persons suggest this kind of audience for his in-progress work) 13 were in exactly the same situation as I was in front of the television news: the historian-narrator dissolving into impersonated characters whose very words would be spoken aloud by the reader, and probably with feeling.
This phenomenon of what I call the “incorporated fictions” that fill and fill out historical narrative from classical antiquity through the seventeenth century has been recognized candidly and discussed by classical and medieval scholars. I have been over this ground myself, always with questions addressed to history, history as a form of epistemological claim, history as a cultural construct, history as a complex literary protocol. In short, history as genre: what sort of linguistic thing is it that claims to be a true representation of human reality-in-time? 14 And what does it mean that this truth-claiming literature, until very recently, was routinely inflated with counter-factual, anti-evidentiary, unverifiable depictions? Is history, qua history as cultural artifact, substantially changed by its incorporation of fiction? These are genre questions, grounded in historical literary culture, with transhistorical epistemological implications.
And we do find directions toward satisfactory and coherent answers, [End Page 862] not only from clever medievalists, but also when we look over the shoulders of classical and biblical scholarship. All modern scholarship in these fields acknowledges that the central truth-claim genres for the Western tradition—secular history from its classical Greek origins extending through Latin antiquity, and the Hebrew and Greek writings which grounded the relation of God to humanity in the events of this world—are, in literary terms, amalgams of evidence-constrained statements and tacitly licensed fictions, collected together under a generic truth-claim. The truth-claim that extends its authority over the entire text is often announced openly (with Thucydides’s preface being the locus classicus for the historical tradition). The use of fiction is always present in ancient truth-claim discourse and thus, we must infer, was permitted by cultural consensus, but the nature of this “license” is itself an implicit silent effect of reading, still much debated among classicists. With respect to the Greek and Roman tradition, a basic uneasiness, arising to irascibility in scholarly footnotes and reviews, lingers on over the rhetorical practices of “amplification,” “invention/inventio,” “ornare” and related others which involve building up and filling out a bare factual report with appropriate and verisimilar contents, including more events, fictional events, as well as composing fictional speeches attributed to historical persons.
A traditionalist like Charles Fornara, in his book, History in Ancient Greece and Rome, insists that verisimilar elaborations were controlled and limited by the established facts and thus were “irrelevant to the categories of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction,’ ‘truth and falsity,’ ‘honesty and dishonesty,’ so often applied to the discredit of the ancients.” 15 The activity of historical mimesis, as understood in antiquity, had, in Fornara’s opinion, a firm moral center: “if you develop the inherent possibilities of a true datum, ornare is legitimate; if from a fiction (where the psychology may be to delight the reader), the practice is culpable.” 16 In these opinions he stands well centered in the mainstream tradition of classical scholarship, which has always defended [End Page 863] the ancient historians as the founders of the modern truth-committed discipline.
At the other pole of the contemporary spectrum, the classicist, Anthony J. Woodman, in his book on Rhetoric in Classical Historiography, urges us to “rid ourselves of the mistaken notion that the ancients’ view of historical truth was the same as ours . . .” “To our modern way of thinking it seems very strange to insist that the hard core [of facts] should be true when the elaboration of that hard core is by definition (in our terms) false. Yet clearly matters did not present themselves this way to the ancients.” 17 In his view, ancient history was plainly understood by contemporary writers and readers as a subspecies of rhetoric, one in which the core of factual material was routinely overwhelmed and subsumed into an invented narrative of nonfactual events, speeches, and scenes in the service of entertainment and ethics. Woodman is joined in his view by a minority but distinguished company of scholarship.
Disagreeing in every other particular and conclusion, Fornara and Woodman yet implicitly agree that what they are discussing is something generically called history, a species of prose composition governed by a writer/reader contract of truth-claim, purporting to offer an account of events in the real world. The area of disagreement concerns how much truth was implicitly promised by the historian’s truth-claim and what the fictional passages are doing to that truth. And generally, modern approaches to genre, the basic history or fiction question, are oriented to cultural function and social discursive ends. The biblical scholar and narrative theorist, Meir Sternberg (in his indispensable book for this topic, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, and important articles in Poetics Today), has laid out the history/fiction question more lucidly than anyone else: “For history-writing is not a record of fact—of what ‘really happened’—but a [End Page 864] discourse that claims to be a record of fact. Nor is fiction-writing a tissue of free inventions but a discourse that claims freedom of invention. The antithesis lies not in the presence or absence of truth value but of the commitment to truth value.” 18 To make coherent sense of a text in terms of communication: “In the framework of an implicit sociocultural code, [the writer] wields certain linguistic and structural tools with an eye to certain effects, [the reader] infers a coherent message from the signals, and the discourse mediates between the two, embodying intent and guiding response.” 19 From early antiquity until quite recently, the fictional expansion of factual contents was an acceptable and conventional practice within literary discourse that offered a serious truth-claim as its generic reading instruction.
This whole-text approach to literary genre can negotiate all the twists of the linguistic turn as well as the mechanics of reference and verification. It is summed up in the austere Sternbergian law of discourse: teleology governs typology. The textual intention (truth-claim or license to invent) governs the purpose of textual contents: basic genre coordinates tell us what the fictions are doing within historical texts. This is the very discourse-functional approach which has produced the stunningly effective results of Gabrielle Spiegel’s work on the French vernacular chronicles of the thirteenth century, and which she has articulated as her general “theory of the middle ground” which grounds literary types and narrative procedures in their social functions. 20 In historical genre terms, at least until the [End Page 865] modern strict protocol for history evolved, fictional contents did the work assigned to them by their historical intentions.
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Fully accepting that medieval histories are histories by virtue of their communicative function (alias: textual intention), just as the Bible functioned as history, and Herodotus and Tacitus wrote history for contemporary readers, however rhetorically, I am still drawn back to examine the fictions incorporated into medieval histories partly because these are the kind of fictions I find so much more interesting than the kinds found in epic, romance, allegory, or fablieux. One might at least ask for what other category of inquiry than the impact on historical discourse might “fiction incorporated into history” be the proper object of inspection? I see no particular reason to limit such an interesting aspect of medieval culture to genre questions alone. The characteristics of medieval history’s incorporated fictions are interesting in themselves: the persons depicted are quite often obscure or ordinary people (a literary rarity); they often converse in short back-and-forth exchanges rather than formal speeches; we are taken with them to private rooms and bits of landscape evoked in suggestive detail; intriguing objects and furnishings appear; the action occurs in inconsequent stops and starts, often moved by recognizable, less than heroic motivation. In short, this kind of fiction is really quite like fiction.
It is still useful to recapitulate the most salient and characteristic function that drives the fictional form in medieval truth-claim narratives as lucidly stated in Morton Bloomfield’s classic essay, “Authenticating Realism and the Realism of Chaucer.” 21 The kind of “realism” to which Bloomfield refers is a complex artifice of literary effect, not a naive correspondence of words to a purported real world, and is part of the basic strategy for acceptance of any narrative (narrative [End Page 866] itself being an authenticating strategy for the conveying of information.) On the largest scale, as Bloomfield notes, the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, grounded in revelation and historicity, have been a “powerful influence for associating authentication with narrative.” 22 He locates the most intense efforts of authentication in medieval saints’ lives where: “The author or teller of a saint’s life faced problems similar to those of a novelist who cannot count on the suspension of his audience’s disbelief.” The need for credibility moves the truth-claim narrative marred by gaps or questionable reception in the direction of circumstantial plausibility.
Here is an example of a credibility-driven text, this from the Life of Christina of Markyate, an antemortem biography with hagiographic aspirations. 23 Christina was a teenage girl from the early urban patriciate in twelfth-century England; she dedicated herself to perpetual virginity in a secret vow and thereby rebelled against the social ambitions of her parents who aggressively tried to force her to marry. Exasperated by Christina’s stubborn defiance, her parents finally urged her fiancé to enter her bedroom and force her into sexual compliance. When his first halfhearted attempt failed, he was egged on to a second try at sanctioned rape.
When Christina realized this, she hastily sprang out of bed and clinging with both hands to a nail which was fixed in the wall, she hung trembling between the wall and the tapestry. Burthred [the fiancé] approached the bed, not finding her there, he signaled to the people waiting by the door. They burst into the room with lights and ran around looking for her. . . . What I ask, what were her feelings at that moment? How she was trembling as they noisily searched for her. She imagined herself dragged out into the middle of them, everyone standing around her, looking at her and threatening, herself given over to sport of her corrupter. Finally one of them took hold of her foot with his hand as she hung there, but with the tapestry in between he didn’t know what it was, so he let go. . . . [Christina said a silent prayer] and everyone went away. 24
The author, the hovering and near omniscient “I,” had an informant for the episode, Christina herself, remembering and narrating the story for maximum effect many years afterward—she was, we [End Page 867] note, supposedly behind the wall tapestry all the time. But the authenticating engine here is the need to justify the young Christina’s defiance of her respectable family and distract attention from a number of behavioral problems, most notably the odd lapse of her betrothal (witnessed by many people)—when the consistent sincerity of her vow was the basis of her later claim on sanctity. And so the literary furniture of verisimilitude fills the little scene: a bedroom in an urban family home; wall tapestries and the thick nails for hanging them; that perfect gesture of someone groping at the tapestry, not registering that he had touched her foot. And we have to note the deft little fiction within the fiction, the chilling entry into Christina’s fearful imagination of being discovered, of cruel people standing around her, looking. It works. As Bloomfield remarks (although not about this text): “This religious demand for truth reinforced the deeper more primitive truth-claim of ordinary narrative and helped to strengthen the importance of authenticating devices in Western narrative technique.” 25
Similarly, the most vividly convincing little dramatized scenes in Orderic Vitalis’ history are those acting in the service of a miracle or moral in need of bolstering, as when “a certain man named Bricstan” from a village in England called Chatteris got into complicated trouble when he tried to make a (perhaps dubious) property arrangement with a monastery and ended up being accused of holding out money he owed the King. This elaborately circumstantial episode is introduced framed in layers of respectable provenance: it is alleged to have been written by Abbot Warin of St. Evroul (Orderic’s monastery), who heard it on a visit in England with Abbot Robert of Thorney abbey, and then wrote it for Hervey, the bishop of Ely, who (in Orderic’s history) publishes it under his own auspices as being “most delightful to hear, salutary to remember. . . .” 26 The layers of narrative authority have the effect of dissolving into something like omniscient narration.
This Bricstan was an ordinary inoffensive man, neither rich nor poor, but he came up against a tough royal official who accused him [End Page 868] of financial crimes. At his trial people made fun of him because “he was rather fat, and short, and had what one might call a homely face.” He was found guilty and gave over all his money, and listed his debts and debtors, swearing in desperation that he had admitted everything; his very English words are quoted: “That wat min lauert Godel mihtin that ic sege soth.” “My Lord, God almighty knows that I speak the truth”—helpful Latin also in the text. He urged his wife to admit anything she knew, and she said: “Domine, besides what you said I have nothing at all but 16 shillings and two rings worth fourpence.” 27 He was locked up in prison, chained down, sick and despairing, and St. Benedict with both his sisters, Etheldreda and Sexburga, came in person to save him. They were so bright in the dark cell that Bricstan had to shade his eyes with his hand. Benedict not only broke the chains off Bricstan’s feet, he flung them aside and hit the beam holding up the ceiling so hard that the noise woke up the guards sleeping upstairs, and they ran down and saw the broken chains and the big crack Benedict had made in the beam. And another prisoner in the cell told them that he didn’t know who those people were, but there was a bright light and some people came in and talked with Bricstan: “What they said or did, ask him, he knows better.” 28
This is the kind of writing—plausible (even the central miracle is kept in modest scale), circumstantial, obeying the constraints of time and space, where people talk more often than orate and suffer emotions on a non-heroic scale—that seems to surface in such accomplished and sustained display in the early eighteenth century, in the writing of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, that the “origins of the English novel” is a question that requires answering still. Bloomfield’s interest in “authenticating realism,” a phrase that is packed with correct observation and meaning, and is “good to think with” in so many ways, was directed specifically to Chaucer, marking off the special use Chaucer made of his frame device and its invocation of a real setting for the tales. But the realism that authenticates, authenticates the experience of reading. Once it is distributed evenly throughout an entire narrative whose writer/reader contract is not constrained by truth-claim, it evolves into what we call the novel: the surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the epistolary narrative of a servant girl named Pamela, the adventures of Tom Jones. [End Page 869]
I feel I should restate that I am not going in a direction that would debunk or reclassify the status of medieval history-writing as history, or at least not destabilize it any more than recent linguistic turn strategies have already done. History is still that kind of literary thing which operates, in good faith, under the operative conventions, constraints, and general protocol for truth-claim at any given socio-cultural moment—Christina’s foot and Bricstan’s tax problems included.
The locus where history and fiction intersect most seamlessly, and uncontrollably, is where discourse arrives at its teleological goal in the reader (invoking here a theory of reading or reception which is active, not passive). Paul Ricoeur’s complex parsing of Aristotle’s concept of mimesis into three levels of culturally expressive discourse requires the third level (mimesis3 or “refiguration” in Ricoeurian terminology—the level of the reader) for mimetic completion. Here the narrative process of inscribing intelligible human time onto the formless stretch of cosmological time achieves its purpose as the mind of the reader deciphers the encoded signals for fiction or history “configured” or emplotted by the writer (at the level of mimesis2). 29
And it is here, in historical narrative, under certain conditions, that history elides into the “fiction-effect,” when “we enter into an implicit pact of reading and share in the complicity it establishes between the narrative voice and the implied reader. . . . Mistrust is willingly suspended. Confidence reigns.” 30 Ricoeur alludes in this discussion to the now-prohibited practices of ancient historians who made lavish use of the techniques of fiction for “making visible” the narrated event, and closed the distance between “seeing as” (Ricoeur’s phrase for historical or truth-claim representation) and “believing we are seeing”—the reality effect of fiction. When this happens while reading history, the controlled distance of self-consciously provisional knowledge, or “‘holding as true’ which defines belief, succumbs to the hallucination of presence.” 31 The special force of authenticating [End Page 870] realism which informs all medieval historical writing solicits this “hallucination of presence” without trepidation or restraint.
It is this stylistic effect located with special intensity at that middle level of the ordinary, emerging and submerging in the historical genre frame, that wants to connect, however loosely, with the stylistically consistent thing called the realist novel. The complicated and seemingly unending inquiry into the origins of realist fictional narratives in prose is an interesting site in literary scholarship. Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740, 32 apparently a staple of university courses in the novel, and a fascinating if dauntingly overdetermined book, takes as its agonistic progenitor Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel, which notably linked together the literary techniques of “formal realism” with enlightenment “philosophic realism,” and set them in the context of secularized Protestantism and the rise of the middle class. McKeon’s multifaceted response frames the inquiry as centrally epistemological in the most profound and pervasive senses.
In McKeon’s account, the novelists Richardson and Fielding emerge as not only rivals for the esteem and patronage of the early eighteenth-century reading public, but protagonists of conflicting philosophies of knowledge and the ethics of literary effect. History, as usual, is consistently invoked as the framing contrast. By the end of the eighteenth century, “in the realm of prose fiction, questions of truth will be addressed by reference to a notion of ‘history’ that is now sufficiently separated from ‘literature’ to be ‘realistically’ represented by it.” 33 But to arrive at that place of generic separation and mutual definition when writers and readers brought distinctly different expectations to history and fiction, McKeon pushes his realm of [End Page 871] argument back into the seventeenth century, for literary, philosophic, and cultural context.
Other literary historians are interestingly moving the relevant context back even further, retaining the fiction/history axis for epistemology as it connects with genre. Robert Mayer’s History and the English Novel: Matters of Fact from Bacon to Defoe, moves the origins debate forward by going backward into yet another century. 34 Mayer takes Daniel Defoe (whose fictions were persistently read as history) as his critical point of departure and tracks history and fiction as epistemological questions. He notes acutely that the alleged “historical revolution” of the seventeenth century which supposedly purged history of unseemly rhetorical excess hardly encompassed everything that contemporary readers regarded as history. Taking as his objects of study all the works that seem to have been read as history during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writers of romance and of history again join in one blurred category of ambiguous textual intentions and uncertain reader reception. I think that the scope of such projects might as well extend yet further backwards in time towards the medieval historians, although scholars of the novel never seem to think of looking there for any of the ingredients of realist fiction. Matters of writer/reader understandings, persuasion and verisimilitude, truth and authentication, are the topics of Mayer’s very acute and well-judged discussion in this reverse teleology of the realist novel. I think this reverse direction is the right way forward, at least for linking together the relevant components that, under one long enduring set of conditions, configured themselves as truth-claim history, and yet finally evolved into fictionally licensed realism.
What the medieval historians display for us is the development of a stylistic vocabulary of fictional techniques pushed forward by history’s necessary commitment to plausibility and circumstantial authentication, and sheltered under history’s generic truth-claim. As a counter-example, [End Page 872] Geoffrey of Monmouth who never (in my opinion) intended his book to be included with those by Bede or Henry of Huntingdon, composed fantastic fictions that are much closer in style to romance or epic. History, even when chiefly concerned with royalty and aristocrats, gravitated to the “reality effect” of mundane verisimilitude.
A final example is the awful scene from Froissart’s Chronicle in which a knight rapes a woman in her own home, and he pushes “a little glove which he had with him” into her mouth to keep her quiet. 35 It is the moment when we encounter that glove, a “little glove,” not a riding or hunting gauntlet and thus so suitable for use as an improvised gag, that we are really picturing a rape—a terrible moment and one of realist brilliance. That little glove, and thousands more of the petty accessories that furnish reality, would accumulate the technical vocabulary of realism, and eventually furnish the rooms of Pamela’s world.
Nancy F. Partner is Associate Professor of History at McGill University, specializing in Medieval history, historiography, and critical theory. She is the author of Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), and the editor of Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1993).
1. For example, the interesting anthology of conference proceedings, Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher Gill and T. P. Wiseman (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1993) shows the range of interest directed to ancient truth-claim texts, and Monika Otter’s Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) intelligently examines the presence of fictionality in historical or “borderline” texts using modern literary critical and narrative approaches to authorial intentionality, as does Ruth Morse, Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation, and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
2. The current efflorescence and virtually unchecked growth of ostensibly truth-claim information padded with verisimilar fictions, which recall the “so new yet so old” usages of ancient and medieval historical composition, are discussed in my “Historicity in An Age of Reality Fictions,” in A New Philosophy of History, edited by H. Kellner and F. Ankersmit (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 21–39.
3. William of Malmesbury, Historia Novella, trans. by K. R. Potter (London: Th. Nelson and Sons, 1955), 70. His earlier and longer work, the Chronicle of the Kings of England, is introduced with what had become the assurances conventional to the genre that the author relies on written authorities for the distant past who themselves are responsible for their own veracity, but grounds more recent events in his own knowledge or that of reliable witnesses.
4. William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, trans. J. A. Giles (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1847); reprinted by AMS Press, 1968, 335–36.
5. William of Malmesbury, Chronicle: as for example the anecdotes about Pope Gregory VII: “I shall relate some anecdotes of him, which I have not heard trivially, but from the sober relation of a person who would swear that he had learned them from the mouth of Hugo, abbot of Cluny . . .” 296.
6. Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, ed. and trans. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 4:106–7. “I neither compose a fictitious tragedy for the sake of gain, not entertain cackling parasites with a wordy comedy, but truly record events of different kinds for studious readers.” These words are in the concluding passage of Orderic’s extensive account of the last days, death, and funeral of King William the Conqueror, a sequence notable for William’s deathbed speech, which “deserves to be remembered for all time” and is seven pages long, summarizes his life, reign, and policies, and is rendered in the verbatim first person (81–95). It hardly needs to be added that the truth intended in this elaborately composed section only begins at its core of recorded events.
7. Roger Ray, “Bede’s Vera Lex Historiae,” Speculum 55 (1980): 1–21.
8. William of Malmesbury, Chronicle, 4.
9. Orderic, Ecclesiastical History 3:218–19. He in fact exaggerates his dedication and suffering for the sake of the true account, noting that the weather was so cold he could not write with a pen and so had to make a copy on wax tablets and wait to recopy the life on parchment.
10. Orderic’s tour de force in this regard is his extended narrative of the vision of the priest, Walchelin, who encountered a troop of the dead riding through a midnight forest, in Book VIII, 237–251; the locus classicus for this interposition of a completely dramatized vision of the state of souls after death is Bede’s vision of Drychthelm, and Bede was of course aware that Gregory the Great had included short accounts of visions of the Other World in his Dialogues. The fictionality here is not that of specific content, since we presume that all medieval Christians believed in an Other World inhabited by the souls of the dead, but the rendering of it: dramatized narrators, impersonated voices with characters reporting the conversation of other characters, feelings, conversations, scenery, atmosphere, etc.
11. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, ed. Oliver Stallybrass (Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1962), 69–70: “In this direction fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence, and each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence, and, even if the novelist has not got it correctly, well—he has tried.” This effort to provide knowledge of other people’s interior lives is the fiction writer’s special province and privilege, in this classic statement of the modern novel.
12. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 55.
13. Roger D. Ray, “Orderic Vitalis and his Readers,” Studia Monastica 14 (1972), 17–33.
14. The showcase for the problems in establishing history or fiction as the textual cum authorial intention for medieval genre studies is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which I survey in “Notes on the Margins: Editors, Editions, and Sliding Definitions,” in The Politics of Editing Medieval Texts, ed. Roberta Frank (New York: AMS Press, 1993), 1–18.
15. Charles Fornara, History in Ancient Greece and Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 135. Fornara represents a mainstream tradition of scholarship on the classical historians, in which a deep erudition acknowledges and traces the modes of rhetorical amplification and invention, while also insisting on the commitment to truth as the essential or defining characteristic of historical writing. This leads him to conclude that, “sub specie aeternitatis, history has altered but little.” 200.
16. Fornara, History, 136. In general, Fornara views the influence of rhetoric on historical writing as deleterious and unfortunate, and regards rhetorical techniques and purposes as somehow external to, or an imposition on, history.
17. A. J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies (London: Croom Helm; Portland, Or.: Areopagitica Press, 1988), 74; 92. Woodman is typical of another modern strain of scholarship, dissenting from the mainstream, which focuses attention on the fictional elaborations within ancient histories and allows their conceptions of ancient historiography to be modified by them. Therefore, reading the same texts and often the very same passages as occur in Fornara’s book, Woodman concludes that: “. . . it will be clear that in my view classical historiography is different from its modern namesake because it is primarily a rhetorical genre and is to be classified (in modern terms) as literature rather than history.” 197. He is debating Fornara, Sir Ronald Syme, and a host of others on this central point. Woodman is not isolated in his countervailing reading of the ancient historians; T. Wiseman’s Clio’s Cosmetics (Leicester University Press, 1979) is an earlier and very influential progenitor, and Wiseman continues to expound similar ideas about the dominance of fiction in ancient history.
18. Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1986), 25. Sternberg, trained both in modern literary critical studies and biblical scholarship, is an extraordinarily clear-headed analyst of the fundamental questions about literature, writers and readers, and how linguistic conventions work in relation to the out-of-text world; the fact that he addresses these universally relevant questions to the most important and problematic text in the Western tradition makes his work all the more valuable to the study of post-biblical genres. The first chapter of the book describes in detail his general theory of literary genre, including but not exclusively directed to the Bible. Another recent and lucidly focused discussion of basic genre questions is by Dorrit Cohn, The Distinction of Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), which extends a generous and needed attention to nonfictional narrative with the instruments of narrative theory.
19. Sternberg, Poetics, 15.
20. Gabrielle Spiegel, Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of Calif. Press, 1993); she notes that the French prose chroniclers used all the resources of verisimilitude available to them, including prose itself, replacing the indirect discourse of their sources with direct speech and vividly realized dramatic episodes, without any apparent commitment to historical accuracy (95–96). But in spite of the wholesale fictionalizing, in content and technique of presentation, of the chivalric pasts attached to their aristocratic patrons, these historians were still responding to and obliquely referring to a real world of social and political conflict and anxiety. See “History, Historicism, and the Social Logic of the Text,” and “Towards a Theory of the Middle Ground,” for the general theoretical grounding of this very sophisticated and persuasive approach, both in The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 3–28; 44–56.
21. Morton W. Bloomfield, “Authenticating Realism and the Realism of Chaucer,” in Essays and Explorations: Studies in Ideas, Language, and Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 175–98.
22. Bloomfield, “Authenticating Realism,” 182–83.
23. Life of Christina of Markyate, ed. and trans. C. H. Talbot (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959). The author of this work was a monk of St. Albans, a monastery closely connected with Christina’s later career, and a personal friend of his subject; he champions her reputation vigorously against a number of contemporary detractors.
24. Life of Christina, 51–53.
25. Bloomfield, “Authenticating Realism,” 184.
26. Orderic, Ecclesiastical History 3:347. The confusing layers of provenance, with the story allegedly taken from the published writings of Abbot Warin but introduced as if written or published by Bishop Hervey of Ely after being told by Abbot Robert of Thorney, and then seamlessly included in the rest of Orderic’s narrative, has the paradoxical effect of strengthening the fictional effect, that of a self-referring confident and omniscient account.
27. Orderic, Ecclesiastical History 3:349–353.
28. Orderic, Ecclesiastical History 3:353–355.
29. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 1:54–71 for this very compelling neo-Aristotelian unpacking of the activity of mimesis.
30. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. III, chapt. 8, “The Interweaving of History and Fiction,” addresses directly the unavoidable ambiguity of effect and epistemological consequence where history incorporates the impulses of fiction, and fiction imitates historical narrative; 186 for quoted phrases.
31. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative 3:186. This startling psychological description defines the reader’s willing seduction into the historical text, the will to read without any critical distance.
32. Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1987) covers nearly all of the origins terrain in fascinating detail, except for the highly conventional and unquestioned point of departure, the seventeenth century, a period when it is generally assumed that everything “medieval” was safely finished.
33. McKeon, Origins, 419. Another exceptionally acute and sensitive discussion of the epistemological and moral issues raised by the literary techniques of realism in the 18th century is that of Leo Damrosch, Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Damrosch works through issues of reader reception, the creation of a consensus of writer/reader understandings and the functional effectiveness of fictions in the highly developed complexity of Johnson’s and Hume’s thoughts on fiction and its equivocal powers. His approach to the definition of basic genre (fiction/history) is very similar to that of Meir Sternberg, and his book seeks the conscious awareness of the need for writer/reader consensus in eighteenth century writers.
34. Robert Meyer, History and the Early English Novel: Matters of Fact from Bacon to Defoe (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997) opens the discussion to writers and kinds of quasi-historical writing in the century of Defoe that are not very often subjected to literary historical analysis. Finding “that seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century history incorporated fictional elements . . . and markedly polemical rhetoric,” and that “History was the one discourse that virtually all seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fiction writers themselves associated with the novel and identified as the matrix of their fictions,”(11; 14) Meyer’s approach can work perfectly well for the preceding medieval centuries of literary production. He traces the persistent appearance of fictional realism in works that purported to be historical, until the final new development in which all-fiction works hived off from history.
35. Froissart, Chronicles, trans. Geoffrey Brereton (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 310.