- Histories, Volume I. Books 1-2: Richer of Saint-Rémi ed. by Justin Lake, and: Histories, Volume II. Books 3-4: Richer of Saint-Rémi ed. by Justin Lake
Richer de Saint Rémi's Histories, which cover the period 888-98 and are much concerned with, and dedicated to, Gerbert (who afterwards became Pope Sylvester II), provide a wonderful resource for those times. They are principally concerned to cover the political and military history of what is generally called West Francia, but they also give an extensive account of Gerbert's work. Like other early histories, Richer's work has its own embellishments and inaccuracies, but such things do not prevent us reading, enjoying, and learning from many medieval writers, for example, Geoffrey of Monmouth.
It is somewhat amazing that the Histories have not previously been available in English though there have been three versions in French and one in German. The Latin text, which survives in a single manuscript, Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek MS Hist. 5, has been available in print since 1839, but Lake has sensibly used Hoffmann's edition from 2000, which has become definitive. Lake has limited notes on the Latin and these principally correct the readings, and he also refers the scholar to Hoffmann's notes (i, p. xxiii).
The present translation of the Histories is, quite simply, a good read and will be welcomed by students. Its mellifluous prose is printed en face with the Latin and scholars will appreciate this presentation, because Lake's style is decidedly prolix beside Richer's terse Latin. The very prolixity makes it more readable: for example, relative pronouns referring back some distance in the Latin are replaced by the (often proper) nouns to which they refer. It should also be remembered that, even in the twelfth century, there were keen debates as to whether a translation should aim at being word for word or more literary and primarily convey the meaning. Lake opts for the latter, which is not surprising given that his 2008 Harvard PhD thesis was titled 'Rhetorical and narrative studies on the Historiae of Richer of Saint-Rémi'.
The result is something like an iced cake rather than a wax seal impression. The icing on a cake disguises the cracks and imperfections in favour of a smooth surface; a wax seal impression faithfully translates all the sharp concavities into convexities. Bachrach's appraisal, in The Medieval Review, complains [End Page 267] about the handling of military terminology while somewhat surprisingly praising Lake's treatment of technical passages, meaning in particular those on mathematics and astronomy. This is just a symptom of the fact that Lake, like many modern scholars, does not have the knowledge of the wide range of sciences (scientiae) that medieval writers often had. It is unfortunate that he seems not to have consulted experts or friends to fill the gaps. The result is that, apart from the problems with military terminology, his translation of Richer on other scientiae such as music theory, mathematics, and astronomy can be unsatisfying. To give but one example, rationabiliter distinguens, which is used in describing the intervals on the monochord, becomes 'breaking down ... into their constituent sounds' thereby losing the Pythagorean relationship between musical intervals and numerical ratios (note 57 partly assuages this.) In Book 3, Chapter 52, which is praised by Bachrach, Lake explains in his note 63 what Richer just said in the previous chapter. Again this is symptomatic: notes on classical texts (Sallust, Cicero, Caesar, Livy) are all in place, but notes on other scientiae oscillate between excess and deficiency, especially in the treatment of Gerbert's science. For example, Bubnov's Latin collection...