OCLW lecture by Paul Strohm: ‘Was there Life-Writing in the Middle Ages?’ on 6th March 2014

Hello there, life-writers, it’s Nanette again with a report on Paul Strohm’s lecture last week. To answer the question in the title of his lecture, Paul Strohm began with a qualified ‘yes’. He introduced us to the idea that some of the more obvious locations for life-writing in the Middle Ages are not necessarily the most productive. The early biographies tend to be classically inspired, accentuating respect for prior models and decorum over factual accuracy of the individual at hand. There was a strong desire that the biography be exemplary, with the didactic purpose of providing an example or model for its readers. Strohm called out Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne as a biography that emphasises the dignity of the monarch over the more humanizing details. Hagiography, or the lives of saints, is another specifically exemplary genre of narrative that follows very particular conventions of the life of the saint. Hagiography establishes each saint’s position in the community of saints: the life and passion of the saint, the life and miracles of the saint, the trials of the person on their way to sainthood. Eventually the lives of saints became free-standing vernacular narratives, but, Strohm argued, there remained a frame of expectations and the problem of generic decorum on medieval hagiographical and biographical writing that influenced what might be called the factual accuracy of the works.

The places to look, then, Strohm pointed out, are not hagiography or biography, but other genres in medieval culture. Documents of practice, record keeping about promotions, rank, payment stubs all offer titbits of life narratives. Historians may look at these documents as kernels of evidence, but they are still texts and objects which can be analysed in a literary way. Isolated facts can become narrative, and Strohm gave the example that in writing his biography of Chaucer he learned from documents like these that Chaucer was a customs officer on the waterfront, and was given a jug of wine daily on a Royal grant with the expectation that he would show up to work daily. These facts helped him to form a picture of Chaucer’s life: like many writers, he held down a day job and thus must have done his writing on his off hours.

Legal documents may present opportunities to find details and life narratives. Strohm told us the Latin ‘narratio’ (which only entered vernacular in the 16th century) belongs to the legal profession, as part of the art of persuasion in pleading a case. Medieval case histories are an interesting place to look for narrative, or for specific life details that could be more likely to be true than not. Strohm covered a few examples of these historical cases involving prostitution and deception. The philosophical treatise is another genre where life details and bits of narrative may be slipped in, as is the case with Thomas Usk’s Testment of Love. More relevantly to the literature-specialists and literary biographers, Strohm also argued that there were some life facts to be found in the literary work of John Gower, Robert Greene and Chaucer, providing Strohm with some fodder for his Chaucer biography. The problem with the literary ‘I’ in these works is that it is an amalgam of life and art, crossing ‘the bounds of making and making-up’. But if elements of a life represented to us in a literary work can also be corroborated by legal documents, it would be possible to construct a plausible narrative from the combination. Strohm’s thoughts here about the literary ‘I’ struck me as one of the best articulations of the problem readers encounter with literary memoir or any category of autobiographical fiction. One of the easiest traps a reader can fall into is that of assuming the literary ‘I’ equates with a personal, biographical ‘I’. But if we read carefully, we may find elements of factual ‘truth’ and certainly kinds of emotional, human truths in these literary representations of authors.

The questions and answer section covered a variety of topics from the assertion that there were no diaries per se in medieval England and that it would be extremely unusual to see a medieval biography that didn’t emphasise continuity of the subject’s life with past lives. An audience member raised the point that in Italy, however, things were different. Dante falls between the tendency towards writing within a tradition and expressing individuality with the lyric ‘I’. Strohm agreed, joking that there was probably a hundred year lag between medieval England and Italy. Another question raised the idea of changing notions of conscience, moving from a sense of communal conscience to individual conscience. Strohm replied that until the 14th century, the phrase ‘my conscience’ is never used in English and the word has a capital ‘C’, meaning it is common to all. From the 16th century, you get a sense of distinctive individual conscience. This tied in with another audience comment about the practice and influence of confession on life narrative, which Strohm agreed could be considered a generative form for life narrative as it would be created or shaped for the confessional. Strohm concluded by reiterating his argument that medieval writers often opened up with less self-consciousness about their lives when they were writing in alternative genres (which is why the legal framework becomes revelatory).

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