Thursday, October 14, 2021

What does it mean to 'believe a story'? Vortigern, Fiction, History 3/3

This is the third post. History and Fiction have been dealt with in the previous two. 

If Layamon isn’t writing ‘History’ or ‘Fiction’ in the modern sense, what was he doing? Or, to reframe the question, how did the original audience ‘receive’ his text. There’s no way of answering that definitely, not least because we don’t know who that original audience was, but asking it will lead us to some interesting places.  

Most conscious reading is based on learnt reading practices. You learn that ‘History’ is different to ‘Fiction’ and there is an assumption that they will be ‘read’ differently. 


When you read the bizarre happens at the funeral of William 1st, or the Angevin’s victory at the second battle of Lincoln, and you read them in a modern history book, you should assume they did happen. Credibility should not be an issue. Whether it sounds improbable to you as reader is irrelevant. (Or should be, but that’s a different matter.)


When you read Lord of the Rings, you ‘believe’ in the story world while you’re reading, but afterwards, unless you are disturbed or unbalanced, you know there are no Hobbits and never were. Tolkien was writing fiction; he invented them. Modern Fiction is an elaborate form of socially sanctioned lying. 


Take out the safety rails of modern genre, and it becomes far more complicated.


What does it mean to ‘believe a story’? 


A long time ago, Nancy Partner wrote ‘Serious Entertainments’ and pointed out that the dividing line between what we call Medieval Romance and the History of the Chroniclers was so thin that apparently the best educated people could not distinguish truth from false hood or were prepared to accept quantities of complicated, distant or unusual information on the assurance of one informant who might have got their information second hand….’Worst of all, [they] had a sense of probability that apparently excluded nothing’ (Partner, p. 185).


This is a generalisation and like all generalisations isn’t completely true, if it were, William of Malmsbury and Gerald of Wales’ distrust of Geoffrey of Monmouth would be impossible. And the recent pandemic has proven the same description could be applied to sections of the modern community. 


But my question is, what does  ‘accept’ mean in this context? 


There are certainly incidents in the Brut which must have seemed credible to the Audience because they echoed events which would have been comfortably familiar. 


At the start of the Brut, Brutus Kills his father in a hunting accident. That would have rung a bell with some of the original audience who remembered the death of William Rufus.


Civil wars, rebellious royal sons and fractious royal brothers? If Lawman is writing at the end of the twelfth century, every King of England from William 1st to King John had either been involved in the first or could be described as either or both of the second and third. It’s difficult not to read the Brut as a sly commentary on the Angevins. It takes a conscious effort to pull back from that thought and remember Geoffrey set these stories rolling in 1130.


But then take all the Kings from Alfred to John, would any one of them have fallen for Hengist’s bulls hide trick? (see previous post). Name one of those Kings who is tricked in a similar way?


Up to the end of the twelfth century, name an English or Norman King who puts his kingdom in jeopardy or his rule in danger, not just to satisfy his lust for a single individual but to go so far as to allow that individual’s family to dominate him. (It does happen, but much later). Yet this is the central, repeated story in the Brut. 


The nearest relevant example I can think of is King John, whose marriage to Isabel of Angouleme was politically disastrous. But even if he was swept off his feet by her beauty, her lands were equally attractive. The marriage wasn’t a disaster in itself. John’s treatment of Hugh of Lusignan, who was betrothed to her, was thoughtless, heavy handed and inept. But ironically for this discussion, that seems to have been in keeping with what we know of John’s character. Since that marriage didn’t happen until 1200 it can’t have been a model for the story. 


The assumption seems to be that the audience ‘believed’ these stories, the way Layamon ‘believed’ a note saying his Bishop was arriving tomorrow to visit to check up on his behaviour as Parish Priest, or news that the French had landed and were marching on London.  


But Layamon’s audience, if it were local, would remember stories about the Anarchy, or the Civil wars that rumbled on from Henry II’s reign. Some of them might have participated. Did they believe that a body with fifteen wounds, the smallest of which you could put your hand into, would survive? 


Or to take an earlier example, Nennius records that at the battle of Badon, nine hundred and sixty men of the enemy were killed by Arthur, in a single charge, and ‘no one laid them low but he alone’. Did anyone ‘believe’ that? Did the audience ‘translate’ it to ‘Arthur killed a lot of people’? Because otherwise no one apparently stopped and worked out the maths? (10 hours of daylight? 600 minutes? 1.6 deaths every minute non-stop for ten hours? That’s an impressive ‘single charge’.)   


Or, do we need to accept that a response to a story is never as straight forward as ‘accepting’ or ‘believing’ might imply.  


These stories exist in a world of storytelling which exists ‘over there’, where, for the length of the story, the audience might ‘believe’ the way some people entertain the existence of Hobbits or Aliens while reading.


There’s an obvious gap between what people knew and recognised as lived experience, and what people were willing to entertain within a story. But whether or not they ‘believed’ it, or ‘accepted it as factual’ is a different question.  


Which raises all sorts of problems for someone trying to retell it. And all kinds of interesting suggestions about how the legendary history made sense of the past for the people who used it. 


It has serious implications for the dubious idea that you can read ‘values attitudes and beliefs’ straight from a fictive text. Or that studying ‘representations’ in fictive texts is a meaningful and straightforward activity which reveals truths about the author and original audience. 

And it also suggests, perhaps, that reader response theory might not be transhistorical but bound to the learnt reading practices of the twentieth century. 


Who said Medieval Lit was dull? 

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