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  • History and the Written Word: Documents, Literacy, and Language in the Age of the Angevins by Henry Bainton
  • James B. Harr III
History and the Written Word: Documents, Literacy, and Language in the Age of the Angevins By Henry Bainton. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

History and the Written Word begins by imagining the twelfth-century historian Roger of Howden composing his annual chronicle entry. After completing a section of his text, he finds a charter he has on hand verifying the information he has just recorded; he then copies the charter’s text after the newly written narrative. Though the addition of the charter text would not necessarily be noteworthy in the twelfth century, a modern audience may see it as a striking convention, particularly as its purpose is seemingly to satisfy the incredulous reader with evidence that ensures the veracity of Howden’s narrative. In fact, however, this “documentary gesture” is not merely a supplementary provision of textual evidence but the act of authority within a sociolinguistic context.

Centering History and the Written Word’s trajectory on the work and example of Roger of Howden and incorporating case studies from the late twelfth century, Bainton considers history writing in the age of the Angevins and investigates the purpose behind integrating documents (or scripta) into historical narratives. He rethinks the role of the material scripta—including as intermediary between documentary gestures and historical narratives—and the position they held as records and objects of memory. By focusing on this period of medieval history, he up-ends the diplomatic approach typical of Angevin scholarship, in which research “‘mine[s]’ this period’s history-writing for its documents” and instead hones in on the information the text provides (3). In reimagining approaches to documentary analysis, Bainton uses both the quantitative and qualitative: the former as a means to evaluate overwhelming compendia, such as Howden’s Gesta regis Henrici secundi; the latter to recognize the Angevin era as a “golden age of historiography in England” while also better evaluating historians’ use of documents. Situating the document within history writing’s larger conversation, he asks, “What are documents? What do they do for the texts that quoted them? And what did those texts do for the documents in return?” (3). In posing these questions, he considers the quantitative in thinking about the amount and type of text but also the qualitative in considering the rhetorical, linguistic, and textual effects of the document. [End Page 239]

Though not explicitly identified in the table of contents, two general categories divide the book. Part 1, made up of chapters 1 and 2, focuses on “the document” itself. Bainton sets out to identify the characteristics of documents and articulate their purpose in the age of the Angevins, with the primary goal of establishing connections between historical narratives and what “made [them] work in such close association with documentary forms of discourse” (12). He considers rhetorical devices employed by late-twelfth-century documents and spends considerable time analyzing the vocabulary that Howden used to describe document types (though he admits that Howden was inconsistent with terms and naming conventions). Bainton delves into history writing as a genre, particularly the contribution of “truth claims,” the circulation of scripta, and the differentiation among documents. He then shifts to the topic of document reuse, reframing, and remediation as they are indicative of a document’s flexibility, “broaden[ing the] focus in order to think about the cultural rather than just the textual dynamics of documentary reframing” (44). To illustrate the presence of cultural dynamics, he examines the work of Ralph de Diceto and Gervase of Canterbury, both known for coupling historical writing with theoretical awareness.

Part 2 (chapters 3, 4, and 5) transitions to documents’ effects on society as nonhuman participants and cultural agents in the promotion and advancement of literacy. Bainton analyzes the performative aspect of documents in the era, discussing the act of quoting and reading historical documents as a form of physical performance, where the private nature of literacy becomes public and invites a wider audience to participate. Along with the performance of reading, he acknowledges a literate power evidenced by the readers themselves. However...


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pp. 239-241
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