Literary Variety and the Writing of History in Britain’s Long Twelfth Century

Jacqueline M Burek

Welcome to the Medieval Herald Dr Burek! To begin with, can you please give a brief overview of your book? 
My book explores how rhetorical theories of literary variety shaped history-writing in post-Conquest Britain. We typically think of literary variety as something intended to keep readers’ interest. However, my book shows that medieval historians thought of literary variety in far more philosophical terms. For them, literary variety was a rhetorical device that could express the relationship between historical continuity and discontinuity in writing: narratives describing historical discontinuities were typically marked by formal variety, whereas passages relating continuous histories were often written using largely homogeneous literary forms. For this reason, examining the presence (or absence) of formal variety in twelfth-century British history-writing can teach us about medieval attitudes towards historical continuity or discontinuity.

Can you please explain what literary variety (Latin varietas) means in this context?
I use the Latin term varietas to distinguish between the classical and medieval conceptions of literary variety on the one hand, and modern notions of formal mixture or fragmentation on the other. Varietas was not simply about providing pleasing variation and keeping readers entertained, though such goals were certainly part of its ambit. Medieval rhetoricians also believed that shifts in the style or structure of a text helped readers find its inner meaning. In a work of history, then, literary variety – i.e. varietas – could serve as a guide to the historian’s interpretation of past events. For this reason, varietas became a valuable tool for conveying writers’ views of the past. 

Does your research focus on specific British writers? If so, who were they and how were they chosen?
My book focuses on Britain because from the early Middle Ages, the island of Britain had been described as a space of extraordinary variety, both in its natural landscape and in the languages and ethnicities of its inhabitants. After the Norman Conquest, British political history – marked by several invasions, waves of migration, and civil wars – was also understood to possess extraordinary variety. My book begins by focusing on three influential Latin prose historians who popularized this connection between political discontinuity and literary variety: William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I turn my attention to these three writers because the broad circulation of their histories ensured the dissemination of this idea in other historians’ works. My book then turns to Laӡamon and Robert Mannyng, the two Middle English verse chroniclers who most closely adhere to the historiographical practices of these Latin prose historians. In this way, I demonstrate the dynamism and longevity of the historiographical practices pioneered by Malmesbury, Huntingdon, and Monmouth. 

Was there anything from your research that especially surprised you?
I was surprised by the way that certain scenes in medieval historical writing were used again and again as places to reflect on the nature of time. For example, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale of feud between the brothers Lud and Nennius about the rebuilding of London often inspired historians to speak about their views on cultural change. In fact, discussions of buildings and architecture generally prompted reflections on continuity and discontinuity in British history. 

What’s one thing you really want readers to take away from your work?
Medieval historians were not mere passive recipients of rhetorical theory, nor were they content simply to write in pleasing and persuasive ways. On the contrary, many medieval historians were intimately aware of the way that both rhetorical and historiographical theory are, at their heart, concerned with narrative. As a result, medieval historians often used rhetoric to understand history and to resolve historiographical conundrums. I hope readers emerge from this book with a newfound awareness of how, in the Middle Ages, rhetoric was a tool for thinking as well as writing about the past.  

Literary Variety and the Writing of History in Britain’s Long Twelfth Century

Jacqueline M Burek

Writing History in the Middle Ages
£70.00 / $105.00, 9781914049101
January 2023
York Medieval Press



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