In his Poetics, Aristotle surveys the historical development of tragedy in progressive terms: “Its advance . . . was little by little, through their [authors] improving on whatever they had before them at each stage.” He reaches a conclusion that is startling, at least in translation and to modern ears: “It was in fact only after a long series of changes that the movement of Tragedy stopped on attaining to its natural form” (ch. 4). The notion that “natural form” might be the end point rather than the beginning of a process of development seems jarring—but it’s a notion that scholars of Anglo-Norman literature have long had to contend with, when the works they study have been regarded as little more than forerunners to Middle English works, raw material from which real English poets could create real English art. A rough definition of “natural” in this context would be something like “what I enjoy and that with which I am most comfortable.”
Of course we all tend to be parochial about our enthusiasms. It can become easy for an English medievalist to forget that Boccaccio is more than grist for Chaucer’s mill. But Italian studies are not going to be greatly harmed by such a lapse. The potential consequences are far more serious for the study of English medieval culture, when suppression, subordination, or simple ignorance of one part can distort understanding not only of the whole, but even of the parts chosen deemed important and “natural.” Such parochialism can lead to naïve claims like that of the “authenticity” of La3amon’s Brut compared to its Anglo-Norman and Latin antecedents. Even for those who would like nothing better than to give Anglo-Norman its due, the devaluation of Anglo-Norman has serious consequences in the form of the lack of modern editions and little incentive to produce them, as well as the lack of established channels for interchange of thought among Anglo-Normanists (something this conference is doing a great deal to remedy).
With these well-known issues in mind, I would like to examine the history of study of the prose Brut tradition as a case of the effects of the academic Anglo-Norman/Middle English divide. As a prose work of largely legendary history, the Brut has never received the attention merited by its enormous popularity and the access it offers to a non-elite vision of history and society: it has tended to be deemed neither “literary” enough on the one hand nor “historical” enough on the other. No full scholarly edition of any version was to appear until 2007. (F.W.D. Brie’s 1906-8 EETS Middle English edition provided useable texts, but its third volume, which was to contain introduction and apparatus, never came out.)
Until recently, only a few people have studied the Brut at all, most of them first-rate and reponsible scholars (this seems to be one of the advantage of working in a neglected subfield!). But, fascinating and complex as the Anglo-Norman prose Brut tradition is, the lack of basic work on it after the German 1905 monograph by Brie (himself no great admirer of Anglo-Norman), as well as the challenge posed by the sheer size of the corpus of manuscripts, has hampered work even by those scholars who recognize the importance of the Anglo-Norman, and it has blinkered the work of others, so that the Middle English versions have willy-nilly become treated as if they are the real prose Brut and the Anglo-Norman versions mere antecedents. The “Imagining History” project in Belfast, which entirely excludes Anglo-Norman from its census of Brut manuscripts, provides a case in point.
In my paper, I will consider in more detail the causes of the neglect of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut, the effects on the entire field of prose Brut studies, the challenges and opportunities raised by increasing interest in the prose Brut, possible remedies to these problems, and what all this may suggest to Anglo-Normanists working in other areas.