Cultural Memory and the Stories We Tell
I love pairs of books. Sometimes they wend their way to my mailbox in isolation and meet up on my desk. Sometimes they are already paired when they reach me. Today’s pair were, I think, joined at the hip at birth, they work together so very well. I’m looking at two very new books, both scholarly: Thomas Hinton's The Conte du Graal Cycle (an examination of what happened around Chrétien de Troyes' twelfth century romance, Perceval) and Sif Rikhardsdottir's Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse (which does exactly what the title says). This means that today I’m firmly in the Middle Ages, which is one of my happy places. It also means I opened these books with the expectation of growing my understanding, so how far my understanding actually grew (on a subject I used to know very well indeed) is important.
In reality, this article isn’t about two scholarly monographs, however short and (for scholarly monographs) not hard to follow. It’s about books and stories and how the telling of stories and the copying of books and the retelling of stories create cultures and underpin the thoughts a society has about itself. It explains how academic research can help us understand the stories we tell and how we tell them. In an ideal world, we would all be racing out and finding out these things from technical studies that get the theory right, rather than waiting for the pop summaries that miss what is being said, but that even the best written scholarly work that looks at textual transmission is going to contain a great deal of specialist language—pop summaries are, alas, easier.
Some of my most-beloved books are in Old French. Just because a language is dead, doesn’t mean it ceases to house works that make the heart spin. The trouble is, however, the dead languages are not quite as accessible as languages we currently read. It’s not just the deadness of the language. It’s that the culture is very different to ours.
Fortunately there is a knight on a white horse riding to our rescue (a good knight, like those in children’s stories—not a complex person with a sad private life, as many knights undoubtedly were in reality): modern scholarship. He is talking through his visor, alas, so sometimes we have to work a bit to understand what he’s saying, but it’s worth the work, for he’s telling us how to interpret that foreign culture of our dead past. And that was the most pretentious metaphor I’ve used all day—I’m very proud of myself. All I really should have said is that these two books, and ten thousand books a bit like them, are wonderful tools if we want to understand where we come from and who we are.
That knight (if one has a pretentious metaphor one ought to stick to it) is scholarship. A good book about a Medieval text will give a bunch of tools for making sense of the story, from why the characters do what they do to what clothes they are wearing. The marvellous excitement of the story itself is, alas, absent from scholarly studies, but once you’ve read them you can go back and actually feel it when you read.
Without this extra understanding, we interpret Medieval texts as if they were modern. We don’t understand why heroes cry and faint or why gloves are so very important, or why insults escalate in a very particular fashion before a fight. We can read a Medieval romance, but our brains are wired for our own culture.
Both these books are knights in shining armour (wait—I changed my metaphor—my knight was on a white horse a moment ago!): they look at different ways of seeing texts. Hinton and Rikhardsdottir talk about cultural memory and how examining how stories are told and translated and extended helps us understand those stories and the cultures that originally created them and read them and listened to them and enjoyed them.
Hinton argues that the Grail tales need to be examined as a cycle, not just looked at in isolation. The Grail tales he discusses are the continuations of Chrétien’s Perceval after Chrétien left it unfinished. They are key to the development of the whole Arthur and the Holy Grail idea and have had resonances for centuries. These were the early stories, when the Grail first emerged and Perceval first became a hero.
Hinton suggests that the Grail tales invite a cyclical reading, that is, that they should be looked at in terms of their company in manuscripts and how they work as stories. That they are not stand-alone episodes, but parts of a series of stories that operate in different ways in different circumstances. I love this approach. This is because it’s my own, as well; I looked at cyclicality many, many years ago, as part of my first doctorate. Hinton does it much more thoroughly, however, and he brings a large amount of modern critical theory to his study. It’s an excellent book.
While it really is intended for people who have background knowledge concerning manuscripts and a comprehension of the medieval Arthurian corpus, it has material at the end to help someone who lacks that knowledge (summaries of the stories, for instance, so that an understanding of Old French isn’t crucial) and he explains a great deal.
I loved the way Hinton described the Grail tales as “a constellation of texts”—it explains how they work together and yet are each their own story. He describes and discusses tales that branch out and grow and develop, sometimes in a linear fashion (from the birth to the death of a hero, for instance) and sometimes in entirely different ways. He talks about why and how, and he does so in terms that are strikingly familiar: the ideas he brings to bear on these old tales are the ideas that modern critics use and they are the same ideas that writers chat about and cause themselves angst with. The relationship between the writer and their material and how different audience receives it, is one of these perennials. This is one book that’s worth obtaining. Work through the strange scholarly techspeak and the book gives a deep understanding of how stories and history work together in a tangled world.
Hinton has some particularly interesting things to say about narrative and about how tales within a larger narrative branch and what happens to these branches. By taking a big view (talking about the cycles and not the specific works alone) he develops insights that are useful to anyone who studies narrative and indeed, some who write it.
How the oral telling of tales and the written play with each other and change each other and even reinforce each other is fascinating. It’s something that both Hinton and Rikhardsdottir look at.
Rikhardsdottir has a different focus, however. She looks at cultural change across complex boundaries, both national and language boundaries. She examines the creativity of the writer and the nature of the material and, most importantly, the dynamic nature of culture. Her work, to my eyes, reflects how I see texts as a writer and how I reflect on them. It shows me that none of this is new, and it also gives me a lovely place to dig for ideas and stories (my story mine may never run dry!). This study of the Middle Ages helps us understand the relationship between writer, culture and story.
The specific tales Rikhardsdottir discusses includes Medieval French epic legends, the short rhymed tales of Marie de France, the longer and more introspective romances of Chrétien de Troyes, and Partenopeu de Blois (a rather interesting romance). She looks at how these tales move from France and Britain to Scandinavia and how the moves change them.
What Rikhardsdottir does that is particularly interesting is to bring together different disciplines in order to understand these stories that cross borders. These disciplines include codicology, narrative theory, post-colonial criticism, gender theory and more. This helps complicate things. Complicating things is good, for she’s examining a complex world and the tangled webs give a truer picture than simplicities ever could. It’s easier to think about Medieval culture as simpler than ours, but that doesn’t actually make medieval culture simple. It’s another part of our modern culture that we use to interpret the Middle Ages. Rikhardsdottir’s commentary reminded me of this over and over again. She brought an awareness of the modern reception of stories into her interpretation of Medieval receptions. The Middle Ages was real, and complex, and endlessly fascinating.
While Rikhardsdottir’s book wasn’t as magical for me in its insights as Hinton’s, it covered terrain carefully and thoroughly and contained many fascinating insights. The most interesting for me concerned the specific reception of the histories of Charlemagne and Arthur across cultural borders, which is one of the subjects at the heart of the book.
Both of today’s books looked at books and stories as artifacts of culture and how they operate within their own society. This is acutely important. Too often we Medievalise: tales of Arthur and Guinevere and Roland and Eleanor are seen to exist in a perpetual present. But culture changes, and the complex way stories and histories exist within cultures also changes. This sort of literary and manuscript history teaches us a lot about the Middle Ages and a lot about ourselves.
Books mentioned in this column: