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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 719-720
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The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages
The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages. Edited by Yitzhak Hen and Matthew Innes. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2000. Pp. x, 283. $64.95 hardback; $23.95 paperback.)
The old saw that every generation writes its own version of history has been recast. The past is "invented," memory is "constructed," even "socially constructed," and the past is "used" in a variety of ways. Viewed from these perspectives, history writing, formerly an arid topic dominated by Quellenkritik, now emerges as an exciting field with virtually limitless possibilities. Even the most prosaic source needs a fresh look. Modern historians need to be mindful that, to paraphrase Matthew Innes (p. 228), all pasts existed in the present of those who set about to fashion representations of the past. The eleven essays gathered in this volume drive that point home with abundant clarity and from a variety of perspectives beyond formal history writing.
Two themes predominate among the essays: how the past justified political power and how the Bible influenced the present's view of the past. Walter Pohl's sophisticated analysis of Lombard sources explores how Lombard memory and identity were formed, especially after the Carolingian conquest of Lombardy. Refreshingly, Pohl offers no simple model of how Lombards constructed their past and reminds his readers that the past was not "infinitely malleable" (p. 27). Mary Garrison's carefully nuanced examination of the Franks as the "New Israel" argues that that equation evolved only gradually and was propelled by non-Franks, popes and insular scholars especially. Yitzhak Hen turned to a seemingly banal document, the Annals of Metz, to argue that it was inspired by Charlemagne's 806 division of the kingdom and painted a picture of Frankish history in which the aristocrats needed (and therefore should support) the Carolingian dynasty. Rosamond McKitterick considered collections of historical texts gathered in manuscripts. Rather than mere records of events, the texts represented carefully considered efforts on the part of political elites to construct self-serving ideologies of power. Matthew Innes also showed how seemingly timeless sources could be molded by contemporary needs and cautioned modern historians to note that Germanic oral traditions developed symbiotically [End Page 719] with Latin sources and should not be read as unalloyed remnants of a remote Germanic past. Many users of the past almost instinctively drew on visions of the past conjured by the Bible. Dominic James reminds readers that prior to 750 history writing was influenced by a spiritual allegorizing tradition rooted in the Bible that led writers to value the universal over the specific. Thus, as Rob Meens describes, the Old Testament was especially useful to early medieval canonists because its books contain the rules and laws they needed to achieve ritual purity. In a remarkable essay, Mayke De Jong shows how the biblical commentaries of Hrabanus Maurus drew on the scriptural past to educate and edify royal readers. De Jong underscores the contemporary resonances of the Bible in ninth-century court culture and the creativity of Hrabanus's achievement.
Other essays examined uses of the past in other contexts. Marios Costambeys looked at how conceptions of monastic life changed in Italy between the sixth and eighth centuries to argue that monasticism in the latter period was animated not so much by the concept of a sovereign deity as it was by the notion of purgation through gift-giving and proximity to the saints. Catherine Cubitt, on the other hand, found very little change from the seventh to the ninth centuries in the narrative structures of four lives of Anglo-Saxon saints. The routine of monastic life with its emphasis on imitation seems to account for the stasis. Cristina La Rocca presented the volume's most spectacular example of medieval ingenuity in constructing usable pasts. Almost everything known about Pacificus of Verona (Ý 846), accounted a major intellectual figure before La Rocca's 1995 book on him, turns out to have...