BOOK REVIEW: The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe—Review by Dallas Alexander Grubbs

Clemens Gantner, Rosamond McKitterick, and Sven Meeder (eds). The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-1070-9171-9. pp. 372. £65.00

This volume is the result of two things. First, it is the result of an enduring scholarly interest in the writing, rewriting, and reception of historiographical texts in the early medieval world. In recent decades, Rosamond McKitterick’s and Helmut Reimitz’s works, among others, have successfully demonstrated the uses of history and memory in creating and maintaining Frankish identities. Second, and more directly relevant to this particular collection, the essays assembled are the result of a three-year collaborative research project undertaken by four European universities. The group’s goal was to shed new light on the role played by the textual resources of the past in fostering early medieval cultural memory and identity. The established authorities one would expect to find attached to such a project are all here—Rosamond McKitterick, Helmut Reimitz, Walter Pohl, Ian Wood, and Mayke de Jong. But of equal value and importance are the essays of more up-and-coming historians, many of whom have studied under these established scholars.

The real scope of the collection is much narrower than the title suggests. The “resources of the past” under consideration are predominantly historiographical texts chronicling the Roman, Frankish, biblical, and patristic pasts. The chapter titled “Early Medieval Europe” is mostly confined to Carolingian Francia circa 750-900. As the editors themselves admit, this focus on the Carolingians is unavoidable. The courts and cloisters of this period not only furnished the bulk of our sources and manuscripts but also recognized, to perhaps an even greater extent than their predecessors or successors, the value of historical writing as a cultural resource. Carolingian scribes constantly copied, adapted, rearranged, and rewrote these textual resources of the past to both sustain communal identities and to “inspire, guide, change, or prevent action,” (xv-xvi) in the present.

The book is divided into four thematic sections: “Learning Empire,” “The Biblical Past,” “Changing Senses of the Other,” and “The Migration of Cultural Traditions in Early Medieval Europe,” with significant overlaps between these themes. Each section contains roughly four short individual essays. In exploring the multifaceted ways in which the resources of the past could be reinvented to suit the present needs of early medieval communities, the authors employ two main methodological approaches. The first, which has become increasingly popular in the last twenty years, is the study of the manuscript evidence to better understand the transmission and reception of texts. The second approach stems from the assumption that these historical works do not simply preserve memories and reflect ethnic and cultural identities. Rather, they are a key component in the creation and preservation of such identities. Each author offers a thorough analysis of the different resources of the past, illuminating how these works contributed to the dynamic process of identity formation. These resources were living documents in the early medieval world. In the process of writing or rewriting them, scribes transformed them into prescriptive guides for present and future action, presenting their audiences with an authoritative vision, grounded in the past, for how political and religious communities could and should function.

The fifteen authors utilize a combination of these methodologies to bring out the lively nature of historical writing in early medieval Europe. Walter Pohl and Rosamond McKitterick focus on representations of Rome, revealing the extent to which this city dominated the early medieval imagination and proved a potent and malleable symbol. Désirée Scholten, Graeme Ward, and Helmut Reimitz investigate the reception and use of Late Antique church histories with respect to Cassiodorus’ Historia Tripartita, Frechulf of Lisieux’s Histories, and the Historia Ecclesiastica of Eusebius-Rufinus, respectively, demonstrating that early medieval writers did not slavishly copy Late Antique histories but used them selectively and in pursuit of their own distinct goals. The biblical past (especially the Old Testament) comes to the fore in the chapters by Mayke de Jong, Ian Wood, Marianne Pollheimer, and Sven Meeder, who explore the intersection between biblical exegesis and political, social, and legal thought in the establishment of cultural memory. Community and identity, especially in a Frankish sense, are key themes in the essays of Richard Broome, Robert Flierman, and Timothy Barnwell, who explore the process of “othering” in historical texts. They demonstrate that the construction of “pagans,” among other outsider groups, was not simply a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’ but a much more complicated development. Ideas of inclusion and exclusion are further explored in Erik Goosmann’s examination of how a controversial event, the conversion of Carloman, was transformed from a problematic memory into a valuable Carolingian resource. Finally, Giorgia Vocino and Clemens Gantner explore the legacy of St. Ambrose in Milan and the early papacy in Rome, respectively, where these early Christian memories could be manipulated to accomplish present religious and political goals.

All of the essays in this collection are strongly argued and each author does an excellent job reminding us not to take our sources for granted in the form in which they have come down to us. The past was never static and medieval engagement with the cultural resources of the past was a complicated, varied, and inconsistent process. As the editors themselves state: “Canonical versions of the past are not a given, they are the result of a process of selection, omission, and elaboration.” (290) Having accomplished the aims of the project and successfully proven these points, one would like to see these methodologies applied on a broader scale in subsequent studies. For example, while the Frankish past is by no means neglected in this volume, further studies should explore how the Carolingians engaged and utilized the cultural resources of the distinctly Frankish and specifically the Merovingian past. In addition, some of the ideas put forward in these studies should be applied to a broader range of sources that engage with the past, namely hagiographical and legal materials. On the whole, this collection will undoubtedly prove a valuable resource for historians of the Early Middle Ages in general and students of Carolingian historiography in particular.

Dallas Alexander Grubbs, Catholic University of America

Dallas Alexander Grubbs is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. His areas of interest include early medieval historical writing, memory, political culture, and kingship. His dissertation focuses on the memory and legacy of the Merovingian kings in later Carolingian France.