The invention and reinvention of the Middle Ages
Hill, Michelle Queen
MetadataShow full item record
“The Invention and Reinvention of the Middle Ages: Writers, Readers, and the Composition of Text” focuses on the multiplicity of historical eras as produced within the narratives written within those time periods. By interpreting and comparing pairs of texts from the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, we see that the medieval period can exist both in chronological and narrative time. H.R. Jauss’s “horizon of expectations,” the theoretical idea that recognizes the variety of responses readers—and, by extension, writers—may have to a particular text, allows different interpretations of a single narrative to exist simultaneously. Multiple interpretations mean that multiple historical periods can then exist. Jauss includes a discussion of genres and how they can be associated with representing these different time periods. Study of how various genres are invoked and then transformed in the narratives created by writers from both the medieval and nineteenth century then illustrate the existence of several Middle Ages that are the same chronologically but they fulfill several narrative, rhetorical goals. Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds, a description of a twelfth-century monastery, is translated and “edited” by Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present (1843). Through his revision of Jocelin’s chronicle, Carlyle also recreates the twelfth-century moment as a perfect image of society, one governed by a heroic and paternalistic leader who makes choices for those he governs. This historical image, crafted by Carlyle’s narrative artistry, serves—Carlyle believes—as the ideal model of government England needs to emerge from social failings and revolutionary atmosphere they have encouraged. A comparison of these texts shows how both authors use multiple genres to meet their own rhetorical goals. In the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer reinvents the medieval genres of dream vision and romance within the late medieval period itself. William Morris, an admirer of Chaucer, combines both genres within the nineteenth-century narrative worlds he envisions in his novels: A Dream of John Ball (1886-87) and News from Nowhere (1890). Even though an unavoidable doom pervades the late chapters of Past and Present, Carlyle tries to maintain confidence in his narrative. Morris, however, while never abandoning his medieval creation and desire to inhabit that world, knows that the nineteenth century can never be contained inside this reinvented world; his resignation is obvious but does not stop efforts to escape.