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  • Mutatio dexteræ Excelsi: Narratives of Transformation after the Conquest
  • Laura Ashe

In 1860, Jacob Burckhardt devoted a section of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy to “The Development of the Individual,” arguing that it was with the Italian renaissance that “man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such” for the first time.1 Ever since then, medievalists have been in “revolt” against the notion that the Middle Ages produced no such consciousness,2 and a number of influential studies of medieval selfhood, subjectivity, interiority, and individuality have emerged.3 Perhaps ironically, however, much of this work has sought to recuperate the Middle Ages only by backdating the “renaissance” to the twelfth century.4 Meanwhile, early modern critics have begun to acknowledge the claims of [End Page 141] medievalists, while becoming embroiled in a defense of their own period from studies which would delay the development of modern subjectivity ever further.5 The emergence of something resembling the “modern” self has been claimed for the twelfth, fourteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries; and everyone agrees that a sense of self was well developed in the ancient world.6 One can perhaps only conclude that individuality and subjectivity appear in a contingent history of development, continuity, and change across time and space, providing [End Page 142] at various moments varying degrees of likeness and contrast with our own versions of these concepts.7

Nevertheless, the long twelfth century can claim an important role in this story, as one of those moments of thickening in the historical and cultural record, of accelerated change and palpable contemporary awareness of change. In English history, the period provides a focus for studies of character and the individual in concrete textual terms because it was a time of such rapid and flourishing development in several pertinent literary genres. The chronicle history, hagiography, and romance all engage with the question of how to represent character, and in the History of William Marshal, we have a thirteenth-century text that can properly be termed a medieval “biography,” offering a full treatment of the life of a secular, nonroyal individual, commissioned after William’s death by his family and retainers in the 1220s.8 As a sustained biographical narrative, William Marshal wrestles visibly with one of the central difficulties in writing the life of an individual, an authorial challenge that is the focus of the present essay: the depiction of a person’s transformation.9 Any life-writing must provide a convincing representation of an individual’s change and development over time, but the necessary counterpart of this is the authorial management of consistency, some species of continuity in the representation of character that can make sense of that change.

The maintenance of this balance is a challenge faced, to a greater or lesser extent, by all writers of biographical or fictional narrative. Nevertheless, it is a commonplace to observe that twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers have a particular interest in the consistency of individuals, to assert that the modern world is set apart from earlier ages by a constant recourse to psychology and a preoccupation with the nature and formation of character and personality.10 There follows the risk of anachronism, that these underlying assumptions provoke us to search for a consistency in the representation of individuals, which, in the case of medieval texts, may not only not have been there but may actually not have been regarded as [End Page 143] necessary.11 Among the popular romances in particular, one can readily find examples of protagonists undergoing dramatic and even inexplicable transformations, without apparent strain to the narrative expectations of contemporary readers.12 However, I would argue something different: that in fact, as soon as we begin looking for it, we find that medieval chroniclers, hagiographers, and romancers very much want to suggest a consistency of character in their subject; and furthermore, that this is so even in cases where the narrative in question seems ultimately to rely upon the idea of transformation.

As such, this essay is concerned with the most important form of literary transformation in the period: the model of the conversion, the movement into holiness or sanctity. The archetypal...


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