Today we have a guest post from Constance Brittain Bouchard, author of Rewriting Saints and Ancestors: Memory and Forgetting in France, 500-1200. Thinkers in medieval France constantly reconceptualized what had come before, interpreting past events to give validity to the present and help control the future. The long-dead saints who presided over churches and the ancestors of established dynasties were an especially crucial part of creative memory. In Rewriting Saints and Ancestors, Bouchard examines how such post facto accounts are less an impediment to the writing of accurate history than a crucial tool for understanding the Middle Ages.
Memory studies have become an important focus of medieval scholarship in the last two decades. By shifting the question from “what really happened?” to “what did people at the time want to have remembered?” it has become possible to get away from unproductive discussions of historical accuracy, where a number of sources end up being rejected out of hand, and to focus instead on how writers during the Middle Ages perceived their own time and what they themselves thought most important.
For the early Middle Ages especially, the scarcity of primary sources, coupled with the fact that a great many of these sources were written well after the events they describe, has cast something of a pall over efforts to create a straightforward narrative of the period. In addition, some of the most prevalent sources from the period are the “lives” of saints, long rejected as not containing historically accurate information, if not indeed dismissed as “rank superstition.” Thus, with few sources to begin with, and many of those not considered useful to the historian, the period can indeed begin to seem like the Dark Ages—but approaching its history through memory studies can circumvent the problem.