- Broken Lines: Genealogical Literature in Medieval Britain and France
Although a stress on the importance of genealogies in medieval thought is not in itself a new insight, the essays assembled here demonstrate just how pervasive was a sense of dynastic and family history to contemporary political concerns. Contributors make equal use of imaginative and historical literature as evidence for common patterns of thought and cultural priorities among those seeking to establish their right to rule or simply their right to belong to the social elite.
The construction of genealogies for dynastic legitimization is a recurring motif. One group of essays considers Plantagenet efforts to establish their authority as kings of England by means of a manipulated historical legacy. Matthew Fisher, for example, shows how Edward I 'forcibly yoked together' [End Page 239] (p. 129) various historical and literary traditions in a revisionist effort to justify his claims to sovereignty over the whole of Britain. Another group considers similar themes in the context of other monarchies, including France, Scotland and Wales. Of interest here is the way in which several influential texts (most notably Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae) provide material for propagandists of different and often conflicting perspectives to make claims for the strength of their own position. The final section of the book contains three 'case studies', two concerned with various versions of the prose Brut and one with John Hardyng's pro-Yorkist chronicle. All of these texts contain a 'deeply genealogical impulse' (p. 206). In their studies, Lister Matheson and Sarah Peverley both demonstrate the centrality of female forebears (both legendary and historical) to claims of legitimacy on behalf of several generations of Plantagenet monarchs.
While most of the essays deal with royal matters, others explore different contexts. Emilia Jamroziak outlines the role of collective memory, expressed through genealogical literature, in the establishment and maintenance of a sense of corporate identity in English monastic houses. She surveys a range of texts (including chronicles and cartularies) that she feels have been under-appreciated by historians outside the specialist field. Of further interest are a number of monastic genealogies that preserve the memory of lay patrons and benefactors.
This theme suggests connections with Jon Denton's essay on social status among the Early Modern English gentry. In one of the collection's most intriguing contributions, Denton shows how the stricter regulation of 'gentle' status in England from the fifteenth century required families (and especially those Johnny-come-lately upstarts such as the Pastons) to 'prove' (that is, manufacture) their lineage. The provision of written genealogies fulfilled vital legal and economic functions: 'rising families could bolster their gentility in return for a fee' (p. 152). Furthermore, Denton observes a 'last of line' anxiety in a number of especially elaborate tombs and memorials that recorded detailed lineages of the deceased. The preservation of past family connections took on extra importance for those afraid that childlessness might condemn them to eternal obscurity. Thus brass and stone could contribute to the construction of individual and family histories just as effectively as paper and parchment.
It is not unusual to find a certain unevenness of quality in edited collections and that is the case here. Several essays rely too heavily on existing secondary literature, to the point where it is not entirely clear what they have to say [End Page 240] that is new. Scholarship on the genealogical theme already has a healthy history of its own, often influenced by the work of Gabrielle Spiegel on the Capetians. A number of contributions have the feel of surveys of primary sources, which establish useful information about available material but do not offer challenging conclusions or methodological insights. Such surveys can still be valuable, and the editors make the point in the brief introduction that many of the texts are not available in edited form and thus remain difficult to access. In that sense readers are sometimes asked to bear witness...