The research behind Making Room in History is published in my dissertation, “No Room in History”: Genre and Identity in British and Irish National Histories, 1541–1691, and in two articles, “The Poetics and Politics of Legend: Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn and the Invention of Irish History,” published in 2014 by The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, and “Writing on the Land of Ireland: Nationality, Textuality, and Geography in the Acallam na Senórach,” published in Hortulus in 2011.
History and Legend in National Narratives
My research into the Acallam na Senórach demonstrates that this medieval account of an exchange between Saint Patrick and two Fenian heroes offered a multigeneric model for relating past narratives and constructing Irish identity within an Archipelagic context. The Acallam constructs a highly textual version of Irish identity by linking the people of Ireland with their geographic space through the narratives told about both. In this way, the Acallam responds directly to claims made by colonialist texts such as Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica, which attempted to separate the people of Ireland from their land in order to justify the Anglo-Norman invasion. The Acallam is notable for its self-conscious approach to collecting and reworking materials from several different textual traditions, including place-name lore, Fenian legends, and the Lives of saints. In addition to being an important source on early Irish history for centuries, the Acallam also established the efficacy of multi-textual historical accounts in supporting Irish identity and resisting colonialist claims.
Several centuries later, Geoffrey Keating would follow the Acallam‘s model to construct a multi-generic defense of Irish identity and sovereignty in his ca. 1643 Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland, often called the History of Ireland). The Foras Feasa incorporates the repetitive typological structure of medieval scéla (“stories”) within humanist narrative history to produce a new genre of Irish national history. Keating asserts that the Irish historian’s task is to distinguish poetical truths from historical ones, but not to quarantine legend from history. Instead, Keating makes legends integral to his “Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland,” constructing the practice of reading Irish history as one that requires the ability to recognize links among collections of similar tales. This historiographic paradigm demands contextualized reading practices and deep familiarity with Irish sources, thereby rebutting many British versions of Irish history, which tended to isolate purportedly risible tales to claim that all of Ireland’s records were equally unreliable.
Chronicling (Early) Modernity
Keating was one of many early modern writers whose work shows that adapting the practices and materials of medieval history was an effective strategy for addressing the political, historiographic, and religious exigencies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For example, Roderic O’Flaherty’s 1685 Ogygia deploys chronicles, genealogies, synchronisms, and king-lists to assert that Ireland’s historical record, which related a long and independent line of Irish kings, is supported by its consistency with established world chronology. Ogygia traces the kingship of Ireland from the legendary sons of Míleadh to King Charles II, whom O’Flaherty praises as restoring peace to Ireland after Cromwellian conquest. Though chronicles have been disparaged by both early modern and current scholars for following uncritical and obsolete historiographic practices, Ogygia demonstrates that the supposed defects of chronicles—their lack of continuity and rigid annular framework—could be turned into strengths, as when O’Flaherty compresses 405 years of English rule in Ireland into a single chronicle entry to bolster his claim that the Stuart kings were a continuation of the Irish royal line.
British writers, as much as Irish ones, recognized the power of medieval methods and genres. The supposedly non-evaulative quality of chronicles—their lack of interest in underlying causes—which was often treated as a failing of the genre, could also be turned to the writer’s benefit. A number of seventeenth-century writers handled potentially sensitive recent histories by presenting them as chronicles or annals and invoking the form’s impartiality to mitigate the controversial nature of their work. For example, the full title of John Rushworth’s 1686 Historical Collections advertises that the text is “impartially related and disposed in annals,” setting forth “only matter of fact in order of time, without observation or reflection.”
“Impartial” is a term that is often associated with annals, as in Hamon L’Estrange’s 1655 The reign of King Charles an history faithfully and impartially delivered and disposed into annals and in Thomas Frankland’s 1681 Annals of King James and King Charles the First, whose full title asserts that the annals contain “a faithful history and impartial account of the great affairs of state, and transactions of parliaments in England.” In these texts, the ostensibly non-evaluative nature of annals is treated as an asset, allowing writers to relate recent history while claiming an impartiality that helps prevent a return to the devastatingly divisive politics they describe.
Poetical Fictions and Ridiculous Reports
Despite these and other examples of historiographic fictions and medievalisms, early modern history was not a disciplinary free-for-all. The many texts that discuss how to recognize and respond to fictions, fables, and legends in historical works reveal the depth of early modern historians’ interest in establishing the parameters of their discipline. For example, in his 1606 Historie of Great Britannie, John Clapham writes that numerous Arthurian traditions are “matters indeede more fit for feined Legends, and poeticall fictions, then for a Historie, which ought to be a Register of things, either truely done, or at least, warrantable by probabilitie.” John Speed’s 1611 Historie of Great Britaine picks up this theme to repeat William of Malmesbury’s assertion that King Arthur “being the only proppe that upheld his country” does not deserve to be “abused with fables” and to single out the tradition that Merlin brought Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain as a “ridiculous report” (164).
This project is designed to explore the questions of why and how early modern writers continued to work with “poeticall fictions” despite the prevalence of criticisms like Speed’s and Clapham’s. I am particularly invested in tracking the methods that writers used to validate their own historical accounts and to counter potential dismissals of their work as no better than fiction. The varied and complex strategies that scholars adopted to defend their references to Britain and Ireland’s often-challenged heroic traditions and origin legends show that late seventeenth-century uses of medieval materials were closely engaged with contemporary debates about the proper scope and methods of history.
In response to their colleagues who criticized “ridiculous reports” such as the Stonehenge story, historians who wished to include medieval legends adopted a number of strategies: they asserted that history need not be limited to the purely factual; they argued for the value of multi-generic accounts of the past, especially those combining poetry and history; they showed how even improbable-seeming stories were validated by authentic sources and archaeological remains; they demythologized their materials to remove magical and fabulous elements while preserving core narratives; and they established the historian as one who was able to correctly interpret the monuments of the past, even those that appeared fantastic to the unlearned.
In this vein, William Slatyer’s 1621 History of Great Britanie covers historical narrative in the “robes of Poesie” to authorize its inclusion of the Merlin-Stonehenge account and all of the tale’s utility in asserting British dominance over the land of Ireland in a quite literal fashion. Slatyer explains that the “aim” of his work is “the full scope of our British history.” And so, in addition to “shadowing” history with poesy, he has helpfully supplied “marginall notes serving for illustration” as well as: “other Annotations, Analyses, or Explications proposing order, pointing at method, light and life of all discourse,” thus bringing together a variety of forms in order to offer his fully scoped British history (n. pag.).
Like the Arthurian traditions, the legend that Britain was settled by the Trojan Brutus gained a number of defenders in the second half of the seventeenth century because it was highly effective in reinforcing British unity and English dominance, both of which were challenged by the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. For example, Percy Enderbie’s 1661 Cambria Triumphans rehabilitates the tradition of Britain’s Trojan origins to trace the sovereignty of Britain from Brutus to Charles II and thus validate the newly restored monarchy in the wake of the “Chymerical Anarchy” of the Protectorate (n. pag.). In his own Brutus defense, from the 1676 An Introduction to the History of England, Daniel Langhorne directly confronts writers like Speed who had, in Langhorne’s phrasing, claimed that Brutus was “the meer product of Geffrey of Monmouth’s Brain” (5). In addition to his detailed rebuttal of previous critiques leveled against Brutus’s facticity, Langhorne constructs a synthesis of previously competing settlement traditions and theories, builds arguments through philological and cultural analysis, and finally asserts that the national history possesses the capacity for encompassing multiple genres to support his references to the Trojan hero.
Making Room in History
The early modern writers I examine in this project unquestionably demonstrate a strong investment in examining the qualities and nature of their discipline, in establishing what history is—and what it is not. However, as my work illustrates, early modern attention to disciplinary boundaries did not preclude the production of thoroughly heterogeneous national histories in which the historical interacts with the fictional to produce narratives of sovereignty, national identity, and empire. This project thus contends that the “room” sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers found for poetic forms and medieval legends in their histories shows the need for equally flexible disciplinary and period models in current scholarship on early modern literatures and historiographies. Putting this conviction into action, Making Room in History is an interdisciplinary experiment designed to examine medieval and early modern literature and history using the tools of text encoding and digital scholarship.