History and Chronicles in Late Medieval Iberia: Representations of Wamba in Late Medieval Narrative Histories by Aengus Ward
The book under scrutiny here is the culmination of an ambitious study. It has been the intention of Aengus Ward (Ph.D., 1995, Birmingham) to examine a large number of textual representations of the seventh-century Visigothic King Wamba in order to delve into the question of the existence of a chronicle genre in late medieval Iberia. Ward, a Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Birmingham, has previously published critical editions of late medieval Iberian chronicles and a number of articles on historiography, authorship, and manuscript culture. The importance of his contribution to the recent strengthening of research on medieval Iberian historiography is undeniable.
Eighteen different accounts of the reign of Wamba make up the source material for Ward’s study. According to the author, among those of the pre-711 period, that of Wamba is the only reign that receives a disproportionately extensive treatment in late medieval Iberian historiography. Ward’s selection of sources rests on the criteria that the chronicles pertain to the period from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, and that Wamba’s reign is depicted within them in a relatively lengthy manner. Furthermore, genealogical connections between these texts have been established by previous research, and Ward argues that besides this direct connection there is an indirect relationship, since the texts possess the same content in largely the same form.
The methodology is meticulously explained, and involves a number of steps, which are marked by chapter-divisions. Ward emphasizes the need to start with the empirical investigation of the evidence, the manuscript texts, and from there move on towards a more theoretical level of genre analysis –where genre is defined as the “codification of discursive properties” (184), and as a historically situated and descriptive concept or analytical tool. The assumption that the meaning of the texts is a function of their manifold contexts is a starting point. Ward’s theoretical foundation is a testimony to his wide reading of previous work by people from the same field, and by more theoretical authors (such as Koselleck and H. R. Jauss, Bakhtin, Todorov, Bourdieu and Hayden White). [End Page 265]
Chapter One is an overview of the contextual information left to us concerning the production of the eighteen sources chosen to function as a corpus. Context should here be understood, in the usage of Ward (partly influenced by G. Martin’s previous work in the monumental Les Juges de Castille), in a very broad and complex manner. It comprises the enunciative (implying a close connection to the actual writing of the text), the socio-political, and the cultural contexts surrounding the production and reception of the chronicles. Furthermore, the manuscript tradition and the intertextual relationships at hand play an important role. Add to this the concept of a narrative context, best understood in connection with Jauss’ formulation of a horizon of expectation for a presumed audience. We do well in remembering that although we know almost nothing of the average reader of these works, we can gain access to the experience of some readers-become-writers who transform the information in their sources into new narrative accounts (90–91). Ward rests most of his assumptions in this contextualizing chapter on previous research and writing by philologists and other hispanists, such as G. Martin, P. Linehan, D. Catalán, I. Fernández-Ordóñez, and not least Ward himself. Generally the information is agreed upon by most specialists, but in some cases the standpoints of scholars are sufficiently divergent as to offer grounds for entirely dissimilar readings of the sources. The vernacular Estoria de los godos is an example: according to Ward it is a Castilian translation of R. Jiménez de Rada’s Latin Historia Gothica pertaining to the late 1270s or late 1280s, whereas Catalán and E. Jerez Cabrero would pose it as an Aragonese text of the 1250s.
Chapter Two consists of a macro-textual analysis, examining the appearance or absence of nine narrative blocs in the depictions of the reign of Wamba in the eighteen chronicles. This admittedly artificial division of the textual segments allows Ward to construct a clear scheme of the interrelationships between the chronicles, and the strategies used are analyzed predominantly in terms of author intentions. On a macro-textual level, the many different representations conform quite well to each other. The next chapter proceeds from the aforementioned to the micro-level of analysis, where Ward lavishes his attention on the details of the representations. This more probing analysis allows the author to draw conclusions with regard to the extended understanding of what can most easily be termed “context of production and consumption”. The main conclusions regard the fact that the lexical level, those deceptively minor details of rhetorical configuration, often allow for more room for agenda-setting [End Page 266] and creating a version of the past that is meaningful in a contemporary context, and advantageous to certain interests, than the inclusion or exclusion of the larger narrative blocs (107, 130–131). These tended to be included by chroniclers who saw the need to include all that was commonly held to be true, as Given-Wilson stated about English chronicles, and Ward now confirms. Slight changes in details could make room for considerations about the nature of kingship and social and political relations.
In Chapter Four Ward goes on to a theoretical discussion of the poetics of the Iberian late medieval chronicle genre. He shows how the historical narratives were invested with present concerns, while arguing that “chroniclers were not propagandists and did not feel free (or not always at least) to impose on all of the past the meaning of the present” (168). In such statements and elsewhere, Ward is careful not to belittle his subjects and to show how they in fact often used more subtle strategies than they have been credited for. Ward’s term “loci of historiographical action” corresponds to those elements of the texts that were most important to the chroniclers in the moments of composition, and where the alterations made have ideological motivations and symbolic implications for the interpretation of the text. Ward sees the different contexts as a range of factors, some of them constraining, which taken together create an opportunity for discursive creativity by the use of different means of textual re-organization. In order to describe the development of the genre the chronicle discourse is presented as a struggle for historiographical hegemony, wherein the novelization of the genre (by means of various factors) leads to its eventual re-invention. Genres evolve, and later chronicles seem to have shifted their focus because of a raised interest in story as entertainment to the detriment of story as historical record. Meanwhile, Ward points out that “the most important characteristic of chronicle narrative, the construction of chronological stories whose meaning is a function of a set of contexts shared by composer and consumer, remained intact” (198), and this is one of the most important contributions this book has to offer. Chroniclers had a great deal of creative liberty within the confines of discursive properties, and they were subject to various influences, internal and external tensions, and diverse power structures, and thereby experienced temporal change. Ward concludes that there was indeed a genre of medieval chronicles, if one uses Jauss’ notion of reception and the evolution of discursive elements, since the chroniclers in creating new horizons of expectation were well aware of engaging in a similar activity as those of their predecessors (and [End Page 267] evoked the same “rules of the game”), and though the referential content may have been the only constant element, the formal discursive strategies evolved as a function of the aims of the different chronicles.
Already in the introduction, Ward foresees and presents a defense against a likely criticism which is sure to appear obvious to anyone who has taken part of the valuable work on medieval historiography by G. M. Spiegel. Following her work, representations of history are analyzed in terms of their relationship to needs in the present; that is to the social and political realities surrounding the production and reception of the historical texts themselves. But analyzing and interpreting medieval texts in conjunction with their contexts is a difficult and precarious task, since a great deal of what we construe as their context is only available to us through the very same texts in the form of internal evidence (and the analysis would then land in seeing a text as an answer to contemporary societal issues raised in the very same text). Nevertheless, there is no ready solution to this problem, and Ward has clearly used evidence as reliable as we have a right to expect of medieval historical evidence.
Chapter Four is most probably that which will be most useful to a wider range of scholars interested in medieval historiography, not just late medieval or Iberian, but in general. It is a valuable and purposeful text in and of itself. It is this final chapter that gives rise to the most questions and further deliberations. On the one hand, there could be a problem in drawing general conclusions from texts separated by such temporal distance, when they are apparently so concerned with and bound by their respective immediate contexts, a fact which indeed underlies the reasoning throughout most of the book. On the other hand, one could raise the possibility that what Ward has discovered among these texts, a limited selection of interconnected narratives (or so he himself says), is particular to this group or family of chronicles. We can only answer that query by comparing Ward’s findings with other medieval historical writing, but I would hazard a guess that without a doubt these tendencies are not all, or not even most of them, particular to late medieval Iberian narrative histories, but will offer clues to the analysis and unlocking of a great deal of the historiography of medieval Europe. The interconnectedness of the narratives is in fact what has helped Ward see the chroniclers’ techniques in action. A comparative perspective, where the relationship between Iberian and other European chronicle traditions would be awarded some consideration, could have enhanced the work further, but given the scope of the study, this task had naturally to be taken up in another work. [End Page 268]
But what can also be of interest to discuss in relation to the generic question and the poetics of the chronicle, is how arbitrary any single view of the evolution of a genre such as historical chronicles must, in effect, be. For taking genre as a fluid concept, seeing it as something in constant transformation, a family of texts with historicity, in Jauss’ view (this perspective is a fruitful one which should spawn further studies, and I commend the author on applying it) begs the question as to where to draw the lines. When does evolution become revolution? Ward asks and answers this inquiry, positing the transformation of historical discourse into novelistic discourse at the end of the medieval period as the ending of the chronicle. But D. Catalán wrote of the drastic change that the decades surrounding the beginning of the fourteenth century (after the death of Alfonso X the Wise) meant for historical discourse, precisely in relation to its novelization. It is also questionable whether the creation of a romance historiography (as opposed to the Latinate sources) did not signify a proper revolution in history writing. I believe Ward’s views are equally viable –but many of the uncertainties remain, simply because they depend on perspective. These remarks aside, Ward adds many new clues to the puzzle.
It should by now be apparent that I consider this book to be one of the singularly most important contributions to the study of medieval Iberian historiography in recent years. Its broad scope and methodological efficacy have definitely given us new insights into the poetics of these texts. I applaud the effort and look forward to the future research that the present study will no doubt give rise to.