Session Title

Whose Life Is It Anyway? Rethinking Medieval and Modern Biographies (A Roundtable)

Sponsoring Organization(s)

Centre for Medieval Studies, Univ. of Toronto; Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris

Organizer Name

Daniel Price, Vanina M. Kopp

Organizer Affiliation

Univ. of Toronto, Deutsches Historisches Institut Paris

Presider Name

Suzanne Conklin Akbari

Presider Affiliation

Centre for Medieval Studies, Univ. of Toronto

Paper Title 1

Is Autobiography a Christian Thing? A View from Late Antiquity

Presenter 1 Name

Catherine Conybeare

Presenter 1 Affiliation

Bryn Mawr College

Paper Title 2

Jules and Joan: Michelet's Joan of Arc

Presenter 2 Name

Daisy Delogu

Presenter 2 Affiliation

Univ. of Chicago

Paper Title 3

Reverse and Rewind: How the Fourteenth-Century French King Charles V Became a National Hero in Nineteenth-Century Historiography

Presenter 3 Name

Vanina M. Kopp

Paper Title 4

History and Genre in Early Hagiography

Presenter 4 Name

Daniel Price

Paper Title 5

Biographical Method and Historical Judgment

Presenter 5 Name

Gordon Blennemann

Presenter 5 Affiliation

Univ. de Montréal

Start Date

14-5-2016 1:30 PM

Session Location

Valley I Hadley 102

Description

Many of the sources available to us as medievalists employ a biographical style, from the immense corpus of saintly Vitae to royal panegyrics and chronicles. Over the past few decades scholars have become increasingly sensitive to how the rhetorical and generic qualities of such texts work to shape their view of the world. We understand the distorting role of tropes; we are conscious of the ways such texts can be shaped by political exigencies; we recognize the enormous silences concerning certain topics; and we are acutely, painfully conscious of these texts' complicated relationships with historicity.

Writing biographies is also a major challenge for established scholars, both methodologically and historiographically. In his seminal book on Louis IX (2001), Jacques LeGoff provocatively asked whether Louis, both King and Saint, ever even existed as a person – reflecting on the difficulty of finding the real historical person behind a tight web of ecclesiastical as well as national tropes and narratives, which refashioned the figure of “Saint Louis” as needed from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. But for us as modern historians as well, the critical approach to take when writing a biography is crucial. The recent jubilee in 2014 for Charlemagne's death 1200 years ago saw a flood of books dealing with his life on both sides of the Atlantic (i.e. Latowsky, Ehlers, Fried), as well as conferences (International Medieval Society, German Historical Institute) on him as King and Saint; Charlemagne was presented as the “father of Europe” and turned into a role model for present-day political and European identification. The historian writing a biography, probably for a larger audience, has to find his or her way through the entanglement of scholarship, reader expectations, and the national and cultural narratives constructing a specific figure. This phenomenon is even more timely for the scholarly community, considering publishers’ recent zeal for biographies of “great men and women”, which are turning the historian into a “biographer-on-demand” in the service of jubilees and national commemorations.

It would be productive to put the current conversation about medieval biographical and hagiographical genre into dialogue with the modern historian's practice of constructing historical biographies. To that end, we propose a roundtable inviting scholars working on a variety of relevant medieval topics to make provocative commentary on this question. We are aiming at finding scholars addressing all the above issues, from discussion of the literary medieval sources and their constructed character to today's scholarly writing of biographies. For this reason, we favour the format of a roundtable, planning on several shorter, more focused talks that should provide impulses for a vivid discussion with the audience. Should this roundtable go forward, Prof. Suzanne Akbari, the director of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies, has expressed her willingness to serve as chair. The aim of this session is to give us an overview on the challenges of working with, and working on biographies.

Daniel T. Price , Vanina Kopp

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May 14th, 1:30 PM

Whose Life Is It Anyway? Rethinking Medieval and Modern Biographies (A Roundtable)

Valley I Hadley 102

Many of the sources available to us as medievalists employ a biographical style, from the immense corpus of saintly Vitae to royal panegyrics and chronicles. Over the past few decades scholars have become increasingly sensitive to how the rhetorical and generic qualities of such texts work to shape their view of the world. We understand the distorting role of tropes; we are conscious of the ways such texts can be shaped by political exigencies; we recognize the enormous silences concerning certain topics; and we are acutely, painfully conscious of these texts' complicated relationships with historicity.

Writing biographies is also a major challenge for established scholars, both methodologically and historiographically. In his seminal book on Louis IX (2001), Jacques LeGoff provocatively asked whether Louis, both King and Saint, ever even existed as a person – reflecting on the difficulty of finding the real historical person behind a tight web of ecclesiastical as well as national tropes and narratives, which refashioned the figure of “Saint Louis” as needed from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. But for us as modern historians as well, the critical approach to take when writing a biography is crucial. The recent jubilee in 2014 for Charlemagne's death 1200 years ago saw a flood of books dealing with his life on both sides of the Atlantic (i.e. Latowsky, Ehlers, Fried), as well as conferences (International Medieval Society, German Historical Institute) on him as King and Saint; Charlemagne was presented as the “father of Europe” and turned into a role model for present-day political and European identification. The historian writing a biography, probably for a larger audience, has to find his or her way through the entanglement of scholarship, reader expectations, and the national and cultural narratives constructing a specific figure. This phenomenon is even more timely for the scholarly community, considering publishers’ recent zeal for biographies of “great men and women”, which are turning the historian into a “biographer-on-demand” in the service of jubilees and national commemorations.

It would be productive to put the current conversation about medieval biographical and hagiographical genre into dialogue with the modern historian's practice of constructing historical biographies. To that end, we propose a roundtable inviting scholars working on a variety of relevant medieval topics to make provocative commentary on this question. We are aiming at finding scholars addressing all the above issues, from discussion of the literary medieval sources and their constructed character to today's scholarly writing of biographies. For this reason, we favour the format of a roundtable, planning on several shorter, more focused talks that should provide impulses for a vivid discussion with the audience. Should this roundtable go forward, Prof. Suzanne Akbari, the director of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies, has expressed her willingness to serve as chair. The aim of this session is to give us an overview on the challenges of working with, and working on biographies.

Daniel T. Price , Vanina Kopp