The Barbarian Past in Early Medieval Historical Narrative
By Shami Ghosh
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2009
Abstract: This thesis presents a series of case studies of early medieval narratives about the non-Roman, non-biblical distant past. After an introduction that briefly outlines the context of Christian traditions of historiography in the same period, in chapter two, I examine the Gothic histories of Jordanes and Isidore, and show how they present different methods of reconciling notions of Gothic independence with the heritage of Rome. Chapter three looks at the Trojan origin narratives of the Franks in the Fredegar chronicle and the Liber historiae Francorum, and argues that this origin story, based on the model of the Roman foundation myth, was a means of making the Franks separate from Rome, but nevertheless comparable in the distinction of their origins.
Chapter four studies Paul the Deacon’s Historia Langobardorum, and argues that although Paul drew more on oral sources than did the other histories examined, his text is equally not a record of ancient oral tradition, but presents a synthesis of a Roman, Christian, and of non-Roman and pagan or Arian heritages, and shows that there was actually little differentiation between them. Chapter five is an examination of Waltharius, a Latin epic drawing on Christian verse traditions, but also on oral vernacular traditions about the distant past; I suggest that it is evidence of the interpenetration between secular, oral, vernacular culture and ecclesiastical, written and Latin learning.
Beowulf, the subject of chapter six, is similar evidence for such intercourse, though in this case to some extent in the other direction: while in Waltharius Christian morality appears to have little of a role to play, in Beowulf the distant past is explicitly problematised because it was pagan. In the final chapter, I examine the further evidence for oral vernacular secular historical traditions in the ninth and tenth centuries, and argue that the reason so little survives is because, when the distant past had no immediate political function—as origin narratives might—it was normally seen as suspect by the Church, which largely controlled the medium of writing.