Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. By Fredric L. Cheyette, Professor of History. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. 474 pp. $35 hardcover.
The medieval world of southwestern France looms almost as large in the imagination as the world of Camelot does—but the imaginings enjoy the advantage of being substantially based on something real. This is the region—Languedoc—that gave us the love poetry and the epic chansons of the troubadours. It is the region that nurtured the ideal of courtly love, whose mystique served political as well as artistic and amorous ends. In religion Languedoc was notoriously prone to originality—that is to say, to heresy, and in particular to Catharism, whose rapid spread and annoying persistence elicited a harsh counter-response, in the form of the Inquisition. Politically, too, the region went its own way. Until the 13th century, when armies from the north imposed their will, Languedoc was independent of the French crown—a stateless but autonomous entity ruled by a smattering of powerful local families from Toulouse and Carcassonne, Montpellier and Narbonne. And the language spoken proudly was not the king's French but a vernacular known to the people simply as lenga romana, which survives today in modern Catalan.
Even now the thick crescent of Languedoc, starting at the Pyrenees and arcing to the northeast, along the Mediterranean, remains a stubbornly distinctive region, linguistically and socially. It is a somewhat lonely corner of France, but the ruined strongholds on the high crags were once a center of attention.
This is the territory that Fredric L. Cheyette, a medieval historian at Amherst for more than 35 years, has taken as his subject. He calls the region Occitania, to help us conceive it afresh, and he has set out to explore 13th-century Occitania with the help of a remarkable woman named Ermengard of Narbonne. As Cheyette acknowledges, Ermengard (d. 1196) is hardly a household name; Katherine Hepburn never brought her to life onscreen, as she did Eleanor of Aquitaine (in The Lion in Winter). And yet to contemporaries
Ermengard was as prominent a figure as Eleanor was. The viscountess of Narbonne, Ermengard ruled her wealthy port city and farther-flung domains for nearly half a century. She led armies, laid siege
to castles, and negotiated treaties. She was extolled by troubadours, who spread her fame to distant corners of Europe. Improbably, she even makes an appearance in the Norse sagas. In one of them, an earl from the Orkneys visits Narbonne, meets Ermengard, and says, "I'll swear, clever sweetheart,/you're a slender delight/to grasp and to cuddle,/my golden-locked girl." In the 13th century, Ermengard's was certainly a name to conjure with.
Virtually no one in the medieval world comes down to us with enough source material to permit a detailed factual biography, much less a satisfying psychological portrait. Robert Caro would not be a happy medievalist. Reconstructing what he can, Cheyette uses Ermengard's life primarily as a tool to explore topics it offers access to—what it meant to be a serf; what it meant to take an oath; the status of Jews; the life of a troubadour. Cheyette has long worked across disciplines, and the opportunities here are rich.
One of the big topics, obviously, is the role of women in medieval society. Cheyette recounts an eye-opening experience when he first started delving into the archives of Narbonne and Carcassonne—and realized that much of the received wisdom about gender amounted to a misconception:
Women (apart from queens) had figured little in the medieval history I had learned. Every book I had read suggested (if only by their absence) that women were historically invisible, unknowable. Yet here in the documents there were women everywhere—making their own marriage contracts, serving as executors for their husbands' estates, commanding castles. There were even women warriors such as Rixendis de Paraez, who early in the twelfth century joined a posse of village lords to attack some mills that she and her fellows claimed were theirs, or the wife of Bernard of Nissan, who took revenge on her husband's enemy when the two men were fighting over a jointly held castle. [Such women] did not match the tinted Victorian image of the mysterious, retiring lady in the castle.
Observing the frequency with which heiresses and widows assumed positions of power in medieval Languedoc, Cheyette concludes that they must have been routinely trained for such duties from an early age. Ermengard, eight centuries ago, had far more role models than Margaret Thatcher did.
The viscountess of Narbonne herself moves in and out of focus. She is mentioned by name in only 64 archival documents—"a thin and tattered fabric." A marriage contract ushers her into the historical record, in 1142—she was barely an adolescent. Later, mature and shrewd, she maneuvers among the shifting contours of regional politics, sometimes venturing out on business at the head of an army. On one occasion she gives refuge to a pope, who is locked in a contest with a schismatic rival. (He wins.) Besides the references in official documents there are references to Ermengard in many troubadour songs, and in the potted biographies of troubadours that circulated widely—though whether the stories they tell are essentially true or largely fiction is anyone's guess. One such tale involves Ermengard and the troubadour Peire Rogier: "For a long time he remained at her court, and the people of the region believed that he received the pleasure of love from her."
Ermengard's last years were unhappy ones. She was expelled from Narbonne by her nephew (and designated successor), Pedro de Lara, in 1192, and sought refuge with the Knights Templars in Roussillon, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There she lived, impoverished and alone, for the remainder of her life. On April 30, 1196,
Ermengard dictated a last will and testament. Its language is strong and bitter. She died the very next day.
Adding a sense of elegy to Ermengard of Narbonne is the inescapable fact that Occitania itself was doomed—the society known to Ermengard would survive her by only a few decades. The story of what befell the region is complex; in essence, "great power" politics and the outbreak of heresy combined to make Occitania's autonomy untenable. The so-called Albigensian Crusade, a joint project of the Roman Pope and the French King, proved to be unsparing; the massacre of the population of Beziers, in 1209, was initiated with a cleric's order, "Kill them all. God will recognize his own." Two decades of fighting curtailed the Cathar heresy, for a time, and extended the sway of the French king to the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. "In those twenty years of unremitting warfare," Cheyette writes, "the society that has been the subject of this book vanished beyond recall."
But not the poetry. And thanks to Fredric Cheyette, not Ermengard.
—Cullen Murphy '74
The reviewer is managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and author of The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (1998).
Illustration: Valerie Soklova
The Memory of Judgment. Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust. By Lawrence R. Douglas, Associate Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 318 pp. $35 hardcover.
The Holocaust has become a moral reference point, Peter Novick caustically wrote a few years ago, for if Americans could agree on nothing else, then at least they could join together in deploring it. Novick's despairing comment that this was a pretty low moral consensus but better than none at all is emblematic of the puzzled tone thoughtful commentators take when they try to address why events that occurred thousands of miles away and more than half a century ago seem of such importance to Americans. The importance is enshrined not just in the Holocaust museums and memorial centers that now exist in nine states, or in the fact that since 1994 both New Jersey and Florida have required the history of the Holocaust—"a watershed event in the history of humanity" according to Florida Statute 233.061—to be taught in their public schools. It can also be seen in the more than 17 million people who have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since it opened in 1993, a number whose magnitude is not far from the total number of students enrolled in all of America's 4,000 colleges and universities. The Museum's Website notes that of those visitors, five million were children, two million were minority group members, two million were international visitors, and 13 million were non-Jewish.
While museums and curricula have a clear intent to inform and teach, the messages to be transmitted are a good deal murkier. The passage of time is in any case inexorably turning memory into history, silencing the direct testimony of Holocaust survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders and replacing it with physical memorials, images, texts, and putative lessons. But past examples of memorialization and the fate of intended didactic messages may give one pause. The lesson that the First World War was the "war to end all wars" was clearly not heeded, and Armistice Day, meant in 1919 to commemorate the lasting peace, became a national holiday in 1938 and then was renamed Veteran's Day in 1954, at which point it became an occasion to honor those who had served and fought in all of America's wars, a rather different commemoration or message from that of 1919. What the "lessons" of the Holocaust are, or whether they have been learned, are no less troubling questions. To put it bluntly, as Samantha Power recently did in the New York Review of Books (March 14), if the Holocaust lesson "never again" means Germans should never again be allowed to kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s, it makes it all too easy for governments, including the American government, to overlook more recent large-scale slaughters of Cambodians, Kurds, Bosnians, or Tutsi as somehow not measuring up to the horrors of the Holocaust, and then judge it not worth the political cost of intervening to stop them.
This is strong, uncomfortable stuff, yet part of the social and political background for the rather different attempts made over the years to enforce and teach another lesson: that perpetrators of atrocities should be made to stand trial for their crimes. Professor Douglas puts this far more elegantly and subtly—recompensing the slain through a deliberative act, submitting atrocity to principled judgment, doing justice to the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust—and his specific examination is of the criminal trials at Nuremberg (1945-46), as well as of the Adolf Eichmann (1961) and Ernst Zundel (1985-88) trials, with shorter treatments accorded the trials of Klaus Barbie (1987) and John (Ivan) Demjanjuk (1986). Yet Douglas is also troubled by the effect the passage of time has had, not only because the trials of the 1980s in some respects were caricatures of the earlier trials, but also because the "didactic paradigm" employed shifts from trial by document at Nuremberg and then trial by survivor testimony against Eichmann to "a digest of the Holocaust in the sober terms of historical discourse" by the time the first Zundel trial occurs. The Nuremberg and Eichmann trials in particular, he notes, were unique, spectacular, and anomalous, not just in the form of their proceedings and the crimes they were attempting to prosecute, but also in the global attention they commanded. The Eichmann trial, Douglas asserts, even "served to create the Holocaust" as a concept and give it the "historical significance and collective meaning" it now possesses.
At one level, this eminently readable book is about the primary obligation of the law, as understood in the democracies where these trials have taken place, to render legal justice. Among other things, the term means to guarantee fundamental rights of the accused to hear the charges in open court and defend himself against them with the aid of counsel, including by confronting or challenging witnesses and evidence, and that the court's conduct or the procedure used in the trial is explicit and fair.
The formalism necessary to ensure that legal justice is done, however, severely constrains what can occur during such a trial. It also has a bewildering effect on those watching, as the proceedings may appear numbingly boring (through seemingly endless procedural motions or massive documentation) or incredibly insulting (as suffering witnesses are mercilessly cross-examined in efforts to undermine their credibility), and can ultimately seem entirely beside the point for those who have pre-judged the guilt of the accused (why even waste time trying Hermann Göring? or, for a more recent example, Slobodan Milosevic?). It is one of the strengths of this book that in answer to such observer reactions, Douglas draws attention to the considerations that lead to specific legal strategies and to judges' interventions. Another is to emphasize the changing use across the Nuremberg, Eichmann, and Zundel trials of the documentary film Nazi Concentration Camps as a novel form of "witness" whose showing during the proceedings was a problematic contribution to the trials, if for different reasons each time.
Douglas occasionally lapses into the legal jargon—hearsay and evidentiary concerns, stipulating to the facticity of a crime, taking judicial notice, the concept of mens rea, probative value—needed to understand the course a trial takes; but he is less concerned with such specificities than with the larger issue of the self-justification and legitimation of these courts, including the attempts at Nuremberg to avoid the impression that only "victor's justice" was being meted out.
This brings us to the more significant level of Douglas's study: his examination of the "idiom of judgment" that suffuses such trials. This is meant less in a narrow sense, as in seeing the legal charge of "crimes against humanity" that was first introduced by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg as idiom, than as
a question of whether it is appropriate to use legal tools to respond to traumatic history. The law, he notes early in the book, has "struggled to locate an idiom adequate to the task," an apt description of the protracted, contentious discussions that have accompanied planning Holocaust memorials in Berlin and Vienna as well. The struggle over idiom still does not seem to have been resolved, in the U.S. or elsewhere, even after structures stand. Finding an appropriate physical representation sometimes does seem a way to come to terms publicly with traumatic history—the Vietnam Memorial in Washington might be a case in point— but an appropriate linguistic, let alone legal, idiom may yet elude us for the Holocaust, let alone for traumas closer to home like the enslavement of blacks or the decimation of Indians.
Finding an idiom may not be conceptually all that different from learning a lesson, and Douglas flatly contends that the law can serve as a useful tool of historical instruction. To judge by more recent court cases that have tried to address economic restitution issues ("victim's assets" claimed to still be held by insurance companies, or Swiss banks, or governments, or compensation claims for wartime forced labor), I have grave doubts that it can. In much the manner that Douglas describes for the Zundel cases, and that has reached its latest apex in the David Irving libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt in Great Britain, the ambiguities of interpreting the past are played out in not in calm, or at least sheltered, discourse between competing schools of historians at conferences and in academic journals, but in the full glare of adversarial jousting by lawyers (and defendants) who are looking for weapons that will help them win. History in the court is then a tool to be whetted, or used to beat one's opponents (or rivals) over the head. Perhaps this is a model for more generally teaching lessons of the past, but it is a dreadfully blunt tool and, as the "war to end all wars" or "never again" lessons should remind us, a method that carries no guarantee that the lesson is actually learned in the manner intended.
There are at least two dangers, Douglas argues, even in trying to "do justice to traumatic history" in the cases he examines. One is that the law, and perhaps particularly so in these anomalous trials, will in the end be less interested in history than in arguing for its own legitimacy, whether in the practical terms of a particular court's composition and procedures, or in the more abstract terms of the legal values the law upholds or the discourse it practices. The other danger is that the proceedings themselves may get hijacked and the court turned into a public venue (and free publicity) for the very views and actions that are being prosecuted. To be sure, Douglas is not wrong to argue that there have been some gains in terms of idioms, since the Nuremberg trial in particular gave us "genocide" and "crimes against humanity," but the naming of the thing is hardly a substitute for preventing it.
If there is something to fault in Professor Douglas's account, it lies in the inadequate attention given to the extensive discussion of collective memory during the last few years. Douglas uses the intriguing phrase "memory was volatized"—a useful shorthand applicable to contexts well outside the Holocaust—and talks of "heroic" or "survivor" memory, but he largely avoids discussion of how memory of the past is used and shared by communities, interests, and governments. Given that these trials took place in countries where the "proper" collective memory is often an obsession, or where the past is constantly revisited and reinterpreted both publicly and privately, this absence is a pity.
—John Bendix '78
After more than a decade of teaching political science at a small liberal arts college, John Bendix has moved to Germany, where he works as a social science translator and university lecturer.
The Edge of Meaning. By James Boyd White '60. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. 301 pp. $25 hardcover.
The Edge of Meaning presents James Boyd White writing in nine chapters on a variety of topics—each followed by a brief, semi-autobiographical vignette—unified by the theme of making meaning and recognizing the limits of our acts of definition and affirmation. White's writing and thinking are markedly graceful and nearly always clear—even when approaching difficult matter such as the meaning of passages from the Greek of Homer or Plato translated into a foreign tongue, English—and he is alive to the making of meaning by thoughtful juxtaposition. Thus, in the first three chapters we travel from Thoreau's Walden to Twain's Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey—a route that could result in a flattening out of significant points of the individual works and a reduction of the three into some kind of structural paradigm—to discover with White nuances of meaning with respect to the individual's relation to his own culture and the possibilities of meaning within certain cultures that can be obscured for us as we impose our own concerns and assumptions on the language(s) of a text. Such an imposition would stand in contrast to his own activity of attempting to read those languages against our expectation that "texts"—broadly inclusive of literary, philosophical, legal or political, and even painterly works—can somehow deliver meaning as a commodity. Instead, his emphasis is on reading as an encounter with the production of meaning that is always, if itself meaning-ful and not a repetition of stereotypes and pre-conceptions, on the edge of non-meaning—whether in the failure of coherence or in surrender to dead speech or writing. Hence his title.
Most of these chapters can be read singly in one sitting, and some are based on previously published essays, revised for this volume. Exceptions to the one-sitting norm, perhaps, are chapter four, "Reading Greek," and chapter six, "The Phaedrus: Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Love." The first is a primer for those who do not read Homeric Greek on what that experience is like, and the is like here begins to get at something interesting and telling about White's relation to an ongoing inheritance of an Amherst education, at least for those harkening back (in fealty or opposition) to the legacy of Theodore Baird. (That inheritance is explicitly invoked in the
autobiographical vignette about English 1-2 at "Hadley College" which appears to quote an assignment from the course verbatim, and in a more historical way, with references to recollections by Richard Poirier '49 and William H. Pritchard '53, in a chapter on the poetry of Robert Frost and George Herbert.) It is an important part of that inheritance to learn to resist eliding similitude into identity—is like into is—and this is a reason that Frost's poetry, for instance, is so important to it. Important to it, not as nature poetry, say, but as poetry in which is like and is are always (or almost always) in play against each other.
In fact, for White, much that is wrong with traditional readings of Plato's Phraedrus and similar texts, in the second of the chapters mentioned, is this reduction (which matters to the construction of what Socrates and others say in it), and it is what is important about learning to speak and read in another tongue, such as the remote Homeric Greek, and thereby to learn in some depth and with precision that any translation only is like and never is the original in meaning or effect. From this it is a short step to understanding, as revealed in the nicely worked out narrative of White's chapter eight (focusing on what it is like to think through a case as a lawyer), something about the complexities of law and lawyering, at least in the constitutional arena, where "cases and controversies" are never exactly the same and is only is ever is like, forcing a judgment in any case or controversy about how much one situation or another will be considered to fall under one set of concerns or another.
Some of this will seem like—perhaps in part is—a variety of post-modern thinking deriving either from pragmatism or from deconstruction, and thus to be somewhat of a painful case of more of the same. I hope not to give the impression of such painful repetition, because there is a profound difference in the commitments communicated in White's writing and the lack of commitment or arbitrariness of commitment communicated in examples that may come to mind of others who, for instance, write on topics of literature, philosophy and law. One needs only to read a few paragraphs into any one of the chapters in The Edge of Meaning to recognize White's commitment to humane learning. Indeed, it seems to me to exemplify the combination of passionate devotion to the making of meaning, however fugitive, and worthy skepticism implied in his own translation out of the Phaedrus: "But also for the one who puts one's hand to noble things [it is] noble even to suffer whatever it should fall to him to suffer" (p.175). This book is not a labor to read, though in some places it is work, but the gift of another's labor and a distinct pleasure to read.
—Stephen Hahn '75
Professor of English, William Paterson University
Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm. By David Hamilton '61. Columbia, Mo. and London: University of Missouri Press, 2001. 169 pp. $24.95 hardcover.
As a farm boy who claimed Coon Hollow, Missouri, as his hometown, David Hamilton seemed almost exotic when he entered Amherst in 1957. Even in those days, the college didn't draw many students from Midwestern farms. Asthma prevented Hamilton from returning to the family agricultural life as an adult; instead he went on to become a professor of English at the University of Iowa, where he has also been editor of the Iowa Review for many years.
Happily, though—as the saying has it—you can't get the farming out of the boy. A result is this unique and evocative testament to disappearing custom, time and place—a small but captivating volume that runs fresh dirt through your fingers and a land's history through time.
The Hamiltons had their farm not at Coon Hollow, exactly, but close enough: near a settlement with that irresistible name in rural Saline County of north central Missouri, where the wide Missouri has ebbed and flowed and twisted for centuries like a wild contortionist. Here is a folklorist's tapestry of prehistoric mastodons, of Indians (Osage, Oto, Pawnee, Ioway, Sauk, Meskwakie), of French explorers, antebellum slaveholders, outlaws, soldiers and riverboat pilots.
The region is an archaeologist's delight, too, an ancient land of Clovis points, knife blades and arrowheads. As Hamilton observes, "We rarely suspect the stories we walk over." He tells many of those he's heard, like the tale of Indians who surprised a pioneer family that was encamped in house-tall prairie grass. The Indians quickly burned a clearing nearby and moved the group and its wagon to safety in the fireproof circle just before a fast-moving wildfire overtook them.
Hamilton recounts his own boyhood adventures: his family in the 1950s, for instance, battling floods by filling groundhog holes and sandbagging levees.
Those personal narratives are the best ones of all—the author's experiences wielding an ax to chop willow and box elder shoots out of newly cleared fields ("you had to read the shoot into the soil to know the angle at which to hit") or driving a tractor and cultivator across the fields, "tripping a lever behind me to pull out the shoes, braking the wheel . . . ."
When he was even younger he'd go to the fields with his father or uncle "expecting a day of slow but steady escape to stretch before me, a day of little distraction except the occasional stop to pull refuse from between the plow bottoms or the cultivator shoes when those became clogged or to change a shoe if one broke on an old stump. I'd climb high to sketch out the stories I favored, to lay out my trapline and construct my cabin in the North Woods, or, like an aspiring Missouri warrior of the Buffalo clan, to prepare for a long hunting season and my vision quest."
Hamilton writes modestly that Deep River "is my family's story more than my own; I cannot hold myself at its center." And it is often the land's story even more than his family's.
But the most affecting recollections here are the author's own. His retrospective vision quest leaves the reader with a country appetite for more.