Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Modes of perception or stylistic conventions?

My supervisor recommended me last week a book that he finds has received less attention than it deserves, partly because it is awkwardly titled for its contents: William Brandt’s The Shape of Medieval History: Studies in Modes of Perception (London: Yale UP, 1966). I have found myself alternately fascinated and frustrated by it.

Brandt argues that mediaeval clerical writers lacked any concept of causal correlation, that a basic characteristic of mediaeval modes of perception was that events or objects stood in isolation as entities in themselves. Consequently events, not processes, are the basic units of mediaeval history writing. Rather than a chronicles being true narratives, or even continua, they were ‘written as collections of incidents or events... the clerical chronicler simply did not see a basic continuity of action’ (85-6). In Brandt’s analysis, the events that form the basic units of the chronicle are included as if no context existed, unrelated either by the chronicler’s awareness of an underlying process or cause, or by any kind of ‘temporal dimensions’: each stands alone, ‘one particular instant in time’ (66).

Brandt’s ideas are fascinating and thought-provoking, and some of them I find very productive. In particular, given my area of study, I am happily toying with his conclusion that the world perceived by mediaeval clerical writers [Footnote: Or, as I prefer to restrict it, the world as it is organised in the chronicles of said writers.] was ‘non-temporal... Our modern feeling for time is a function of our feeling for process; time is the means of continual change. The discrete and self-contained character of action as perceived by the medieval clerk meant that the world could not be perceived as process’ (171). There are some productive ideas here. I do agree with him that the mediaeval concept of time does seem to involve a fundamental division into discrete units, although I’d add that all of these seem to bear the same relationship to each other, and can therefore function as proximate examples (for example, an incident from antiquity may be used as an example that reflects on an incident in 1274).

Where I quibble with Brandt is not over his analyses of mediaeval historical writing, but in his insistence that the results of his analysis reveal some basic mediaeval ‘mode of perception’. Brandt sets out to find some kind of mindset or perceptive frame that he might characterise as recognisably mediaeval, and he believes he finds it in certain structural characteristics of some of the most typical late-mediaeval chronicles. While the search itself may be a worthy one, it seems to have led him to exaggerate the significance of his findings. He applies the phrase ‘fundamentally antitemporal’ not to a particular style of writing, but to the mind that produces it (93).

Brandt attributes the wide variety of material and the resulting lack of narrative flow in universalising chronicles to this inability to perceive causal relationships between situations. While acknowledging that Matthew Paris seems to have been aware of the irrelevance (impertinentia) of certain of his material to what Brandt interprets as his main subject, Brandt denies that, for Matthew or his contemporaries, it could have been a major criterion in selecting that material:

When we say that something is relevant to something else, we ordinarily mean that there is a causal relationship between them. Lacking in great measure the perception of relationships, the medieval chronicler who took his work seriously, as Matthew certainly did, was hard put to know what was relevant and what was not. (47)
Although it may be a result of unfortunate phrasing, Brandt seems to imply that Matthew was conscious of a debilitating lack in his perceptual tool box which complicated his task. This seems unlikely, as a recognised intellectual lack is easily remedied. In any case, the supposition that the mediaeval mind was so hampered by its inability to recognise causal correlations as to be unable to distinguish between relevance and irrelevance is easily disproved: think genres as diverse as analyses of vices and virtues, legal treatises, mirrors for princes, and many chronicles whose scope is more specific than Matthew’s.

Brandt seems himself to be hampered by a particular mode of perception, at least as it relates to the purpose of historical writing. This is illustrated by the falsity of his supposition in comparing Matthew’s perception of relevance to the conceptual decisions that a modern historian might make in planning out a work. An historian nowadays has the luxury of selection: any material omitted may reasonably be expected to exist elsewhere in easily accessible form. We have the luxury of structuring our work around a process or an argument. We may choose a process, argue it and select the events to fit. Matthew Paris, however, is not telling a story or arguing a process, but recording events. From his point of view it is probably better that any particular event be given the benefit of the doubt in the question of inclusion – who knows whether it will be recorded elsewhere? And if it is, there is no guarantee that it will ever be available to any of his particular readers. Once such a wide variety of material is admitted, a chronological structure is likely to be more coherent than any attempt at narrative ordered by topic (as Brandt himself points out, 46). This does not mean that Matthew (or his contemporaries) was not capable of telling a story, shaping the narrative and the events to fit. The Fineshade chronicler, for example, does exactly that. [Footnote: Granted, the Fineshade chronicle is what Brandt would call an occasional chronicle, as opposed to the universalising chronicles of Matthew Paris; but if this ‘mode of perception’ were indeed as fundamental to the structure of mediaeval thinking and writing as Brandt claims, that would make no difference.]

Brandt seems throughout to view the work of the mediaeval historian through his ideas of what a modern one ought to write, which reveal themselves from time to time as condescension, fascination or mild frustration. For example, in discussing the aristocratic chronicle, he remarks as if wonderingly that ‘it aims to celebrate, not to explain, the actions with which it is concerned. An explanation that may occur along the way is never the point of the narrative’ (88). There is no reason, outside of Brandt’s expectations, why Matthew Paris, or Jean le Bel, or Sir Thomas Gray, should make explanation the ‘point’ of their writing. The mediaeval chronicle, after all, is descended from (and existed concurrently with) simple annalistic lists of events, with no commentary or expansion at all.

I would prefer to account for the lack of explanatory context in another way. Although I agree that mediaeval modes of perception doubtless differed widely from ours, in ways that still call for exploration, I would rather pin this particular difference not to authorial perception, but to modes of reading.

The mediaeval intellectual mind was well-accustomed to glossing, to extrapolating larger meaning from single points, to reading significance in juxtaposition or similarity. There is literal glossing, of course, in which the bare text of (say) a work of Augustine’s was expected to travel with one or more levels of interpretive gloss, which leant it several layers of (sometimes mutually contradictory) reading. The Bible was expected to be accompanied by the Glossa Ordinaria. Images, too, could provide a kind of gloss. An image on a page, though not directly illustrating the text, may on reflection emphasise or alter one’s reading of that same text. Texts were intended to be considered and re-considered, each page to be contemplated. A reader is, then, in the habit of taking on a certain burden of interpretation. The interpretation is naturally guided by the reader’s own cultural paraphernalia. If his (or occasionally her) copy of Mark’s Gospel lacked the Glossa, he would nevertheless have the intellectual apparatus to, say, produce a reasonable allegorical reading of a given passage, or read the appearance of a certain animal in terms of its usual symbolic significance.

In a similar fashion, in a chronicle – especially a local one – a list of events may perhaps be expected to function effectively as an aide-memoire. Exact sequences of events and dates may be forgotten, and so are recorded as the basic skeletal structure of memory. Memory’s flesh, however, the emotional weight and drama behind a certain event, or its significance to a given community – the shared cultural heart of it, in short – may be expected to come to mind far more easily, especially when prompted by the bone-like facts. Writing in Ramsey Abbey, where the death toll included the abbot, it may not be necessary to say more of 1349 than ‘hoc anno fuit magna pestilencia hominum’: anyone reading it knows what that means, fundamentally, in human terms. The year may slip one’s mind, but not its horror, whether one lived through it or not.

In this analogy, chronicle would function as text and internalised cultural memory as gloss.   The gloss is an important element in correctly reading the text, although it may be implicit rather than spelt out.  Brandt, I feel, goes too far in problematising the absence of an explicit authorial interpretative presence in the chronicles he examines.  He frets over the lack of a connecting narrative in Matthew’s account of the conflicts between Henry III and the church, finding that the chronicler sees ‘only a series of events… The things that make these struggles intelligible for a modern reader – the church–state controversy, for instance – were invisible to Matthew’ (76).

Can a man of Matthew’s sense and intellectual curiosity have been blind to the tension between church and state whose manifestations he so enthusiastically records? Perhaps instead we should say that they were not only visible, but so very obvious that he had no need to explain them. 


Anonymous said...

I've heard of this argument before and basically ignored it as being both chauvinist and nuts. The whole genre of Providential history refutes it, for example, as does almost every saint's life ever: cause, insult to the saint; effect, humiliating death or injury! Causation: explicit. So I left it alone after thinking that far. I'm actually rather intrigued that you've made any of it do anything useful and now I shall have to rethink. All the same, I do wonder whether a better explanation of the mind-set that Brandt perceives is not that the scale of cause and effect is not primarily mundane but written in the heavens and across a timespan that ultimately leads to the Day of Judgement, so that short-term things that don't impinge on the sacred probably don't make a big dent in the clerical sense of history. Your take is a lot more subtle, though, so mine obviously won't do by itself. Hmm.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Oops. I fail at noticing there was a comment to approve. Sorry about that!

I suspect a large element of what Brandt is picking up on is, as you say, that there is a common mediaeval perception that everything has a meaning and a cause beyond that which is accessible to human understanding. Everything in history is shaped by the hand omnipotent, which stands outside of time and sees the pattern of the whole, which is invisible to temporally-bound human eyes.

However, implicit in this is the (rather desperate) belief that there IS a pattern, and to my mind that's what most chroniclers, with varying degrees of success, try to seek out. The role of historian inevitably involves wresting control of history, standing outside of it and perceiving (controlling?) the pattern, and as such positions the writer - again, to varying degrees, depending on literary ability and ego - in the role of the divine.

Or something.

And yes, I had a lot of trouble reading Brandt, because I kept thinking 'that SURELY can't be what he meant'. I think certain things about his phrasing don't do him any services. And also I kept being irritated at the not-so-latent patronising attitude that was implicit in the entire argument. :) So I had to write this post to deal with that before I could go on to use his ideas about structure in relation to the chapter I'm writing.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, blogging as intellectual exorcism, done that for sure. And, I only left the comment last night, it was there and answered by the next time I looked, do not reproach you etc.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Odd! My email didn't tell me about any comments to be moderated, so I just assumed it had been there for a while and I'd accidentally deleted it in a sweep of my spam folder. Ah, the mysteries of the internet.

Kath said...

Wow - I had actually not come across this previously. Which is probably a good thing because I may have thrown inanimate objects rather than engaging the critical faculties as you have done.

As to clerical authors, and production of chronicles in particular: what tenthmedieval said... Even the earliest annals I would argue have an implicit intent of tracking the events that will prefigure the second coming and apocalypse. A) they don't need to say so because "it's, like, duh!" and B) in a deep sense it's not *their* narrative they see themselves as constructing; rather, they are merely the hands that record it.

And I can add that *clearly* the 13th century English mind was entirely capable of comprehending, expressing and manipulating the concept of cause and effect. One only has to read a handful of petitionary letters, court records, etc. that are exactly contemporary with dear old M.P. to see just how specific people could be about how X had been brought about by Y, and how Z was the only way to fix it!

But now I really am curious - what is it that you are finding this thinking useful for?