- 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...