Moment of Transition

Monika Otter’s article “1066: The Moment of Transition in Two Narratives of the Norman Conquest”:”(Speculum, Vol. 74, No. 3. (Jul., 1999), pp. 565-586.)”: explores the question of how Medieval historians dealt with novelty and change. Otter writes of “the widely held view that medieval historiography is relatively uninterested in, or ill-suited to, serious literary engagement with contemporary events and the narration of historical change.”:”(Ibid., pg. 566.)”: This feature of Medieval historiography has deep Augustinian roots:

the “present” has a special status in historical consciousness. Strictly speaking, unlike past and future, it has no temporal extension at all but marks the point-already receding as we become conscious of it-where “future time” turns into “past time,” anticipation into memory; in other words, it is entirely a category of our own awareness of time, and it is not narratable.:”(Ibid., referring to Augustine, Confessions 11)”:

All historians must face this limitation of our time-bound status. Indeed, Otter says most Modern historians declare a chunk of the past to be “the present” by arbitrarily deciding on a number of years that constitute “the present” or by setting a fixed, recent event from which “the present” can be measured.:”(Ibid.)”: In trying to historically account for a “decisive event” (like the Norman Conquest), the historian must understand that such “is discernible only in retrospect, from someone’s perspective and within some narrative or causal argument in which ‘not yet’ and ‘no longer’ become important.”:”(Ibid., pp. 566-567.)”:

Eleventh and twelfth century historiography, Otter contends, is not well suited to capturing historical transitions in narrative form due largely to its eschatological, moralistic-allegorical, and “additive” nature:”(Ibid.)”: Historians of this period trying to deal with the Norman Conquest, laboring under constraints of confusion, technical imprecision, and deep loyalties to their patrons and audiences, wind up drawing attention to the epochal nature of the thing by their “conspicuous” attempts to avoid it.

Otter focuses on two late eleventh century chronicles, the Vita Edwardi Regis (Life of King Edward) and William of Malmesbury’s Vita Wulfstani (Life of Wulfstan), to illustrate the point. Both chronicles “elide or very nearly elide” the “moment of change” brought by the Conquest, giving it “oblique but insistent attention.”:”(Ibid., pg. 568.)”: The Life of Wulfstan, for instance, does not chronicle the actual Conquest or its aftermath. The Conquest is passed over by means of the Life’s author giving an aside about Wulfstan’s reforming work before the Conquest (work filled with apocalyptic invective), and then transitioning in two crisp sentences to a point in time after the Conquest.:”(Ibid., pg. 573.)”: Interestingly, it is not until the later twelfth century (1138 at the earliest) that Saint Wulfstan appears in chronicles, working miracles which give implicit divine approval to the pre-Conquest order tied to the last undisputed Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. Such stories make Wulfstan “the embodiment of Anglo-Saxon survival.”:”(Ibid., pp. 570-571. I add parenthetically that several years ago, in a paper that needs serious follow-up, I argued something similar to this regarding the rise of the cult of King Edward himself after the Conquest.)”:

William of Malmesbury’s Life covers “the moment” of the Conquest in an intriguing fashion. Making use of an old historiographical topos, “the Fall of Britain,” derived from the Old Testament and used since at least the fifth century, Wulfstan is portrayed as having “prophetically” acted to rebuke English immorality (“people lived with depraved morals and there was luxury and abundance of pleasures because of their peacetime prosperity”) and effeminacy (“The time would come when those who were ashamed to be what they were born to be, and who imitated women with their flowing hair, would be no more use than women in the defense of their country against the people from overseas”) prior to the Conquest. After the Conquest, which as an “event” is disposed of in a single sentence, Wulfstan is seen to have “prophesied” truly, for in the battle with William the Conqueror “the provincials were so pathetic that they failed after the first battle to mount any significant attempt for their freedom, as if with Harold all strength had been drained from the country.”

But the seeming smoothness of the transition from pre- to post-Conquest times actually serves as a kind of distraction from the constant awareness of historical change in the narrative. The Life is full of indicators of the massive changes that the Conquest brings to England, chiefly in numerous cultural and ecclesiastical differences between the old Anglo-Saxon ways and the new Norman ways. One of the most moving of these vignettes is the one given about the destruction and rebuilding of Worcester cathedral, originally built by the Anglo-Saxon Saint Oswald. As the building is torn down, Wulfstan watches in tears, lamenting, “Here we are, we wretches, destroying the saints’ works, arrogantly believing we can replace them with something better.”:”(Ibid., pg. 575.)”: Other instances show that Wulfstan was being thought of as a figure both bridging the gap between old and new and yet maintaining the old against the new. The Life relates several miracle stories which seem laden with metaphor, such as Wulfstan’s presence preventing a house from collapsing until he himself had left it, and even the Saint’s word preventing a monk from going bald until after he himself had departed this life.:”(Ibid., pg. 576.)”:

Using some deprecating remarks about earlier Anglo-Saxon uses of rhetoric, William of Malmesbury’s Life of Wulfstan further obliquely covers the “moment” of the Norman Conquest by highlighting the difference between readers prone to enjoy “excess” and “sensitive” readers. The passage goes: “…anyone who tries to exalt verbally what is in itself of great importance wastes his efforts. Indeed, while thus trying to praise, he rather slanders and diminishes; for he will appear to be decking himself out with foreign patrimony because he cannot let his subject speak for itself.”:”(Ibid., pg. 577.)”: Elsewhere, William makes it plain that he appreciates, but does not idolize, earlier models of writing such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and assorted Saints’ Lives. Thus by rhetorically distancing himself from pre-Conquest styles, “updating,” as it were, an earlier account of Wulfstan for a new generation with new stylistic preferences, William “talks about” rather than “narrates” the “moment” of the Conquest itself.:”(Ibid., pp. 578-579.)”: As Otter puts it, “the moment of change, while accentuated, has almost been taken out of the series temporum and onto a different plane—one of textuality, of metanarrative.”

Similarly, the second work that Otter covers, the Vita Edwardi Regis qui apud Westmonasterium requiescit (Life of King Edward Who Rests At Westminster), despite its high degree of relevance to the matter of the Conquest, “manages never to mention Hastings, or Duke William, or the Normans.”:”(Ibid., pg. 579.)”: The closest the work gets to any of these subjects are two “prophecies” given by King Edward about somewhat vaguely-defined disasters to come. Otter argues that this skipping over “the event” of the Conquest itself is a deliberate “literary fiction” deliberately designed, once again, to redirect his narrative from the series temporum to a higher metanarratival level. Indeed, Books 1 and 2 of the Vita Edwardi essentially tell the story of the Conquest twice, both times approaching it from different angles and skipping “the event” itself to instead deal with ominous foretellings and glorious after events.:”(Ibid., pp. 580-581.)”:

The prophecies themselves are interestingly vague, and are only later interpreted as having referred to the Norman Conquest and its aftermath. Otter spends most of her time on the second prophey, which involves the legend of the Seven Sleepers—Christians who had fled the persecution of the Emperor Decius, took refuge in a cave, and by God’s power, slept for 272 years, right through the persecution and into a time of safety. Shortly before his death, King Edward claims to have had a vision of the Sleepers turning over onto their left sides (having previously slept for 200 years on their right sides) and remaining that way for a period of 74 years, a time which will be filled with calamities throughout the world. When they reawaken, the dangers will be over and new prosperity will prevail.:”(Ibid., pp. 582-585.)”: This prophecy, Otter says, “curiously combines a denial of time—an assertion of timelessness or the possibility of somehow falling out of time—with a (pseudo) precise marking of time.”:”(Ibid., pg. 584.)”:

The closest that the Life of King Edward gets to the actual “moment” of the Norman Conquest is a single short paragraph wherein Edward discourses about the woes of England, having lost its “native king” (Harold Godwinson) and shed the blood of many men in battle with “the foreigner” (the Battle of Hastings). Even here, no names or dates or exact temporal markers are given, however. The goal of the work thus seems to be “to tell history yet also to avoid it; to launch itself and its readers into the future, past the present disasters; to mark the changes while, if possible, sidestepping the offensive moment of crisis itself.”:”(Ibid., pg. 585.)”:

For Otter, this puts the Life of King Edward in the same class as the Life of Wulfstan: both guarantee the endurance of the English nation through times of horrific, bloody trial, and both tell a history that is curiously not history at all in a sense we would recognize as such.:”(Ibid., pp. 585-586.)”: Though apocalyptic and moralistic, these narratives use biography, or better, hagiography, to “convey the experience of a real, incisive interruption, as well as the experience that individual lives, and therefore communal life, do continue.”:”(Ibid., pg. 585.)”: It is not that these narratives were not concerned with historical change, but that they chose to narrate it differently than we would—indeed, it is not technically “narration” at all—and to see far deeper and more meaningful things in the history than straightforward, “just the facts” narration would ever have seen.

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