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  • In Their Own Words: Practices of Quotation in Early Medieval History-Writing by Jeanette Beer
  • Pauline Souleau
Jeanette Beer. In Their Own Words: Practices of Quotation in Early Medieval History-Writing. University of Toronto Press. xvi, 160. $50.00

“Much needs to be done to bridge the gap between Latin and vernacular history-writing.” With Jeanette Beer’s stimulating study, the gap is considerably narrowed as she provides important keys to understand the close relationship between Latin and vernacular languages, the development of history writing, and quotation practices in the early Middle Ages in the West. She bases her discussion on a carefully chosen corpus, five texts selected for being the first of their kind: Nithard’s Historiae de dissensionibus filiorum Ludovici Pii, the Gesta Francorum, La Conquête de Constantinople by Geoffroi de Villehardouin, La Conquête de Constantinople by Robert de Clari, and Li Fet des Romains. The study starts with a foreword presenting each primary source and a useful preliminary reflection on the term historia and medieval assumptions about history. Isidore of Seville’s “tenet that history records what is worthy of being remembered; unlike fable, it is the vehicle of truth, and that truth is best guaranteed by the eyewitness,” proves to be a uniting feature of these texts, despite their linguistic and stylistic differences. The most striking feature of Nithard’s Histories, discussed in the first chapter, is its inclusion of the first piece of vernacular French in its Latin history of the sons of Louis the Pious. As Beer aptly shows, the presence and function of this passage, known as the Strasbourg Oaths, has often been given anachronistic significance. By focusing on the historical context of Nithard’s composition and the function of the oaths within the literary context of the whole of the Histories, Beer convincingly downplays the textual importance of the use of vernacular French and German by Charlemagne’s grandsons. Nithard is not proud of the emancipation of the French language, nor impressed by the growing diversity of vernaculars, but, rather, nostalgic for the unity experienced under Charlemagne’s rule. The Gesta Francorum, presented in the second chapter, is the first eyewitness account of the First Crusade. By analysing its quotation practices, especially its direct speeches, Beer challenges anachronistic readings of the text, namely, Bréhier’s. Except in rare cases, direct speech should not be understood in the anonymous Gesta as literal ipsissima verba (“actual words verifiably uttered”) but rather seen as a reconstruction. Villehardouin’s La Conquête de Constantinople and Robert de Clari’s account of the Fourth Crusade by the same title—studied in chapters three and four respectively—are the first chronicles in the French vernacular. They are noteworthy for their use of direct speech but also for their diverging attitudes to self-referencing. Villehardouin is one of the key players of the Fourth Crusade; Clari belongs to the ranks of the povres chevaliers. Their respective names do not confer the same authority to their history. Even though they are both histories of the same events, their narrative approach and intent are different: one, [End Page 567] Villehardouin’s, is a disillusioned epic (a history/story); the other, Clari’s, is a lively fabliau-like narrative (a story/history). Li Fet des Romains, discussed in chapters five and six, is the first work of ancient historiography in French focusing on Julius Caesar. It differs from the other texts studied by Beer and “adds another dimension” by making its quotation practices explicit. It uses named Latin sources on Caesar’s life (the Bellum gallicum, Sallust, Suetonius, and Lucan) as well as unnamed ones (Isidore of Seville) and translates them into French. Beer stresses once more the importance of contextualizing medieval history writing: here the relationship and balance of power between the author, the translator, and the public. Through acute analysis and contextualized discussion of the quotation practices of early medieval histories, Beer effectively presents the challenges posed by medieval history writing and warns of the danger of anachronistic readings. As Latin and Old French quotations are translated, this study will appeal to scholars and students with an interest in medieval historiography, philology, and speech and...


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