La Chronique Anonyme Universelle: Reading and Writing History in Fifteenth-Century France by Lisa Fagin Davis (review)
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manuscript studies, chronicles, rolls, reading, writing, France, historiography, Valois, Bourbon, provenance

Davis, Lisa Fagin. La Chronique Anonyme Universelle: Reading and Writing History in Fifteenth-Century France. Studies in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art History 61. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. Vi + 439 pp., 97 color illustrations. DVD. €175. ISBN: 978-1-905375-55-4.

Lisa Fagin Davis’s edition of the fascinating and little-known Chronique anonyme universelle is nothing short of a tour de force. Taking up the daunting challenge of creating a critical edition and translation of a text that combines multiple, overlapping chronicles and genealogies, that is recorded as a parchment roll, and that is found in twenty-eight different manuscripts, Davis delivers an exhaustively researched and meticulously designed final result. This editorial achievement is profound: the Chronique, while not unique within the genre of universal chronicles, is remarkable for the number of copies in which it survives, suggesting its importance to the genre. Davis’s edition thus joins other recent works bringing much-needed renewed attention to medieval French historiography, an area long championed by Gabrielle M. Spiegel, such as Zrinka Stahuljak’s and Noah Guynn’s co-edited Violence and the Writing of History in the Medieval Francophone World (Cambridge: Brewer, 2013) and Jeanette Beer’s In Their Own Words: Practices of Quotation in Early Medieval History-Writing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014). Davis’s inclusion of a digital facsimile on DVD with [End Page 364] her edition further highlights the exciting possibilities afforded by digital humanities work in studying the parchment roll, a medieval medium particularly well suited for the modern computer or tablet screen.

The Chronique was composed circa 1410 in France, though later copyists continue its French chronicle portion through the late fifteenth century in several manuscripts. Consisting entirely of recombined excerpts from other works, the text is divided into several main, often overlapping sections that relate events from the Bible, Greece, Egypt, Troy, Rome, the papacy, the Crusades, the Holy Roman Empire, France, and England. Each section draws on a bevy of earlier textual sources, such as Orosius, Josephus, Isidore, Augustine, the French prose Brut, and Outremer chronicles, among many others. The text is laid out in vertical columns that shift, multiply, and merge as the roll progresses, beginning in Genesis with a two- to three-column layout and eventually settling into four columns that, at one point, even split into five. Copied in between and around the columns are multiple genealogical trees—of biblical figures, popes, French royalty, Holy Roman emperors, English royalty, etc. As Davis further points out, certain manuscripts demonstrate evidence of the genealogies having been laid down before the text, while others show genealogies snaking around pre-existing text. It is this kind of careful attention to codicological detail in an already sizeable and visually challenging corpus that makes Davis’s edition stand out.

Especially impressive in this regard is Davis’s decision to edit the text in a layout that reproduces the manuscripts’ multicolumn format and to mirror that same format in her (excellent) facing-page English translation. As a result, the complex mise-en-page of this remarkable text is fully preserved, allowing the reader to follow the intertwining historical narratives with ease while comparing the original French text to the English. Davis keeps all the rubrics and identifies the position of the manuscripts’ miniatures with boxes, neatly reproducing the visual organization of her base manuscript. Davis is thus able to facilitate the modern reader’s textual experience without adding any editorial elements not present in the original manuscripts. Furthermore, Davis’s textual apparatus to the translation renders into English any lengthy variants appended to the edition on the left-hand side and offers clarifying historical background on any major figure mentioned in the Chronique. The end result is a strikingly legible edition and [End Page 365] translation that manages to reproduce the manuscripts’ complexity without simplifying it, despite the necessary visual breakdown of the roll into the codex.

But lest the reader despair that the edition in codex format has destroyed the experience of encountering the original roll, Davis offers a solution that capitalizes on that...