Creative memory and the constructed past

15290Today we have a guest post from Constance Brittain Bouchard, author of Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200. Thinkers in medieval France constantly reconceptualized what had come before, interpreting past events to give validity to the present and help control the future. The long-dead saints who presided over churches and the ancestors of established dynasties were an especially crucial part of creative memory. In Rewriting Saints and Ancestors, Bouchard examines how such post facto accounts are less an impediment to the writing of accurate history than a crucial tool for understanding the Middle Ages.

Memory studies have become an important focus of medieval scholarship in the last two decades. By shifting the question from “what really happened?” to “what did people at the time want to have remembered?” it has become possible to get away from unproductive discussions of historical accuracy, where a number of sources end up being rejected out of hand, and to focus instead on how writers during the Middle Ages perceived their own time and what they themselves thought most important.

For the early Middle Ages especially, the scarcity of primary sources, coupled with the fact that a great many of these sources were written well after the events they describe, has cast something of a pall over efforts to create a straightforward narrative of the period. In addition, some of the most prevalent sources from the period are the “lives” of saints, long rejected as not containing historically accurate information, if not indeed dismissed as “rank superstition.” Thus, with few sources to begin with, and many of those not considered useful to the historian, the period can indeed begin to seem like the Dark Ages—but approaching its history through memory studies can circumvent the problem.

My own new book, Rewriting Saints and Ancestors, puts post facto accounts of events at the forefront—accounts that may not give us much historically accurate detail on what actually happened, but do tell us a tremendous amount about how the authors liked to think or hope the events occurred. These accounts are examined as examples of what I call creative memory; that is, more than a recording of what took place, but rather creative efforts to reshape the past into a form that would be useful in their present. Once one realizes that the past is contested territory, and that the construction or reconstruction of a useful past can be a powerful tool, it is possible to consider many sources as more than flawed efforts to relate what we would now consider a good historical account.

For example, there are at least half a dozen different “lives” of Saint Germanus, bishop of Auxerre in the fifth century, composed between the late fifth century and the ninth. All the versions took as their starting point his status as a saintly bishop, but each interpreted differently what constituted sanctity and how a bishop was expected to behave—and then wrote Germanus to match. If the holiest man ever to preside over the see of Auxerre followed the same mode of life as sought by those at Auxerre who wrote of him over the course of four centuries, then they themselves were vindicated in their position.

In the same way, publicists at Charlemagne’s court, writing at a time when the idea of patrilineage was coming to dominate aristocratic families, sought to create an ancestry for the emperor that both showed an (imagined) straight-line inheritance of power and authority and also suggested that he had holy men as well as effective administrators and war-leaders in his family tree. Here a comparison between the sources on Carolingian ancestors written in the seventh and eighth centuries and how those sources were interpreted by publicists at the beginning of the ninth century reveals deliberate efforts to reinterpret past events to glorify Charlemagne and suggest that his family alone deserved to be kings of the Franks.

The study of creative memory also allows a fresh look at forged documents. For a long time the study of forgeries has been considered a rather dry and narrow topic, where once one has determined whether a document is echt or unecht one’s work is done (German scholars have led in this enterprise). But the really interesting question is what the forgers had in mind when creating a false document.

In fact, forgeries were relatively unusual among medieval sources. Cartularies, collected copies of charters put together in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, were almost entirely composed of documents that give every sign of authenticity, and when the cartulary scribes did copy false charters, they seem to have done so in all innocence. There were only a few periods in which forgers set to work in the full knowledge that they were creating false records, including the mid ninth century, when churchmen fought both against other churchmen and against the Carolingian kings through the creation of a specious past, in which popes and kings promised them inviolate autonomy and abundance forever. Their highly inventive confections, of which the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals and the records from Le Mans provide the best examples, reveal both what the forgers would have preferred to have happened and also the nature of the opponents against whom they used forgery as a weapon.

Finally, during the period of monastic reform of the high Middle Ages, when a number of old houses were rebuilt and restored, monastic chroniclers felt compelled to retell their histories. Putting the foundations of their houses into the earliest days of western monasticism, and interpreting their predecessors’ vision of the religious life as just like their own, they reconceptualized all the disasters that had happened over the subsequent centuries as waves of challenge and renewal, each making their monastery holier and stronger. Armed with five hundred years of often confusing records and the conviction that their predecessors had been just like them—or should have been—these monks, like other early medieval chroniclers and recorders of events, did not falsify so much as reinterpret. After all, the past had to make sense. Rather than accepting or rejecting what they wrote depending on whether we now believe it reflects what really happened, we need to take seriously their efforts to come to terms with a past that had shaped their Now.

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Constance Brittain Bouchard is Distinguished Professor of Medieval History at the University of Akron. Among her many books, Those of My Blood: Creating Noble Families in Medieval Francia is available from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200 is available now.

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