Recently I have been reading and thinking quite a bit about medieval English chronicles, especially the Middle English Prose Brut and its predecessors. The text is translated from the Anglo-Norman Brut, which in turn drew material from sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, but many versions eventually continue into the historical present of their recorders. The Brut texts, which give accounts of King Lear and King Arthur, as well as containing their fair share of giants and dragons, trouble the divide between history and literature. As I consider this distinction further, I have been reading Hayden White’s The Content of the Form.
In White’s first chapter, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” he considers the drawbacks in the use of narrative in the discipline of history. He points out that taking historical events and weaving them into a grand narrative that fits into a modern conception of a neat story is not a very “scientific” way of doing history. For White, the narrativization of history “is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (14). In order to gain more perspective on how narrative affects the way we understand the discipline of history, White proposes to examine types of historical writing that involve less narrative, or else use narrative in a radically different way. For this, he turns to medieval historical writing, in a rare example of a contemporary theorist using medieval texts in a thoughtful and judicious way. His objects of analysis are the annal and the chronicle, which he treats
not as the imperfect histories they are conventionally conceived to be, but rather as particular products of possible conceptions of historical reality, conceptions that are alternatives to, rather than failed anticipations of, the fully realized historical discourse that modern history is supposed to embody. (6)
It is rather refreshing to see that White is not intending to affirm the supremacy of the history preferred by the privileged subject. Though he ultimately comes out in favour of narrative history, he stresses that it is only one form of historical discourse.
The most radically different form of narrative discussed by White is the annal, which he exemplifies by reproducing an excerpt from the Annals of Saint Gall. This text, which records events occurring in the eighth century in what is now France, is concise in the extreme in its list of events corresponding to the years in which they occurred. As can be seen below, the deeds of great men are recorded alongside the health of crops.
- Hard winter. Duke Gottfried died.
- Hard year and deficient in crops.
- Flood everywhere.
- Pippin, mayor of the palace, died.
- 716. 717.
- Charles devastated the Saxon with great destruction.
- Charles fought against the Saxons.
- Theudo drove the Saracens out of Aquitaine.
- Great crops.
- Saracens came for the first time.
- Blessed Bede, the presbyter, died.
- Charles fought against the Saracens at Poitiers on Saturday.
734. (White 6-7)
White acknowledges that this record is not entirely without narrative, as it is indeed “‘referential’ and contains a representation of temporality” (6). It does, however, resist many features that we might normally attribute to a narrative history. Most importantly, it lacks any “suggestion of any necessary connection between one event and another” (6) – Saracens come and go, but there is no indication that these comings and goings have anything to do with each other, as the historian has not felt the need to posit any retrospective notion of causality. The fact that they are mentioned as coming for the first time indicates that there is retrospective knowledge of the Saracens coming more than once (8), but the annalist still declines to impose an explanation. Another feature of narrative history that the annal eschews is the assignation of relative importance of the events it records. There is no distinction made between the health of dukes and grains, or between the deaths of local government officials and far off churchmen. To be sure, it is a curated list of events that seem important to this particular annalist – just looking at the blank years is enough to convince us that there must have been events that did not capture the interest of this writer. But the lack of relative importance still gives the effect of flattening the value attached to the entries. The reader of this document is left to their own deductions about how these events might fit together, and read the events in terms of their own particular values – anyone involved in the planning and execution of the annual planting season will use this annal very differently than someone who is more politically minded.
The chronicle is a form of history that contains a few more elements of narrative, but still does not look exactly like what we might call a narrative history. This is not to say that there is a teleological connection between these different forms – the annal is not slouching towards the modern history, picking up narrative elements along the way. The chronicle is simply a form that uses narrative in a different way. It, like the annal, is organized chronologically and comprises a list of kings, queens, and events that are of interest to the chronicler, but it is comprised of the sorts of sentences and narrative progression that we are used to when reading history. It lacks other features of retrospective historical interpretation, however, partially by virtue of its lack of temporal distance – chronicles often lead right up to the chronicler’s present. It does not present a neat story with a beginning, middle, and end, because neither the author nor the audience knows the end yet. Unlike the annal, chronicles can contain explicit moralizing, and often assign historical importance to different figures by devoting a different amount of text to each one. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, devotes a significant portion of his text to recounting the life of King Arthur, but breezes through many of the kings before and after him. The chronicle does not, however, self-consciously attempt in many cases to propose a meaning for the events that it relates, as later narrative histories tend to do.
White argues for the value of considering these alternative forms of history as more “scientific” forms of history, as has been upheld by the Annales school of historiography. The act of envisioning a way of doing a history that makes a more sparing use of narrativization also allows the historian to think more carefully about how narrative is used in his or her own work. He does not, however, call for a return to this type of historiography in modern historical practice. Instead, he turns to Paul Ricoeur and emphasizes that while historians should always be self-conscious that the narrative they present is in no way self-evident, “it is because historical events possess a narrative structure that historians are justified in regarding stories as valid representations of such events and treating such representations as explanations of them” (171). He defends this conception of historical events as narrative objects by taking the agency of historical figures into account. Unlike a phenomenon that occurs independently of human interference and must be empirically after the fact, historians deal with data that has been enacted on purpose. Yes, historians are often interested in things that are beyond human control, but their ultimate object of study is the way humans choose to react to such things, and how they interact with one another. White contends that since humans have some awareness of the past and the future, they live their lives according to some sort of narrative, at least to some extent: “historical agents prospectively prefigure their lives as stories with plots. This is why the historian’s retrospective emplotment of historical events cannot be the product of the imaginative freedom enjoyed by the writer of fictions” (173). In other words, narrative history is essentially a collaborative enterprise between the historical agent as author of his own life and the historian as its retrospective editor.
While this notion is a very comforting image of human agency, it seems a rather anthropocentric and idealistic concept. It would be nice to imagine that historical agents have such control over their lives that they might be considered the authors of history, but it may be foolish to be so confidence in the power of the historical agent. Instead, it may be better to consider a weaker version of this theory that relies on the collaborative history-making of a network of people and peoples that have been culturally saturated in narrative. Though it may be too egotistical to suggest that individual historical agents can follow through with a well-designed plan for the events of their life, the sum total of agents’ interactions with each other can be said to be guided by a collective cultural sense of narrative.
In this case, the chronicle and history itself can be said to have a chicken-and-egg relationship. Do historical events create the larger (albeit imperfect) narrative that the chronicle constructs as history progresses, or does the cultural narrative posited by the chronicle influence historical actors (either individually or collectively) to produce results that fall in line with the overarching narrative?
 “Blessed Bede” is here a translation of “Beda Venerabilis,” an epithet that was applied to Bede about a century after his death (which actually occurred in 735). It became a common place title, rather than a value judgment.
 The word “emplotment” was coined by Paul Ricoeur, and refers to the practice of turning a series of historical events into a narrative, thus bestowing a “plot” on the events.