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‘Romancing the truth: vernacular history and the origin of fiction’ (Joint seminar with Centre for Medieval Studies)

Prof Simon Gaunt (KCL) holds an ERC Advanced Grant exploring ‘The Values of French Language and Literature'

A Centre for Translating Cultures seminar
Date29 November 2017
Time15:30 to 17:30
PlaceQueens Building LT1

Abstract: Romancing the truth: vernacular history and the origin of fiction In her influential Romancing the Past, Gabrielle Spiegel argued that early 13th-c. vernacular prose played a key role in enabling a truly historical discourse to disengage itself from fictional writing. Her analysis often presupposes, however, definitions of ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ that do not map comfortably either on to medieval terminology, or on to medieval textual practice. The early thirteenth-century Histoire ancienne jusau’à César—one of Spiegel’s key texts—repeatedly offers or alludes to multiple versions of well-known episodes of its ‘history’ (such as the Trojan horse or Eneas’ descent into hell), in order explicitly to vaunt the verisimilitude of its own account in contrast to the fables in circulation. This lecture will argue that texts like the Histoire ancienne thereby define ‘fiction’ far more clearly than they do ‘history’ and also that the transmission of the Histoire ancienne can be used to demonstrate that the fluid boundary between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ remains problematic—and fascinating—throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the category to which the various forms of writing in vernacular prose (whether ‘historical’ or ‘fictional’) are all committed is the truth, but how then is the truth to be told in the relatively new and unstable medium of vernacular prose?


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