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Medieval Identity: A Sign and a Concept

Medieval Identity: A Sign and a Concept

By Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak

American Historical Review, Vol.105:5 (2000):

Introduction: In the two centuries following the turn of the first millennium, literate individuals in Western Europe rarely if ever resorted to mediated expression, to indirect communication by means of the written word, without expressing some sense of the absence of immediacy, that is, of personal presence. When Bishop Arnulf of Lisieux (d. 1181) could not attend a council in London, he sent a letter “so that the page might take the place of his person and the letter might faithfully bring his voice to life.” Slightly earlier, Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) sought to reassure his correspondents about the authenticity and representativeness of two letters to which he was unable to affix his seal. In one letter, he wrote: “I do not have my seal handy, but the reader will recognize the style because I myself have dictated the letter.” The other letter states: “May the discursive structure stand for the seal, which I do not have handy.” Bernard expects readers to notice his personal presence, however immaterial, within the fabric of the text, through its style and diction. His secretary and biographer, Geoffrey of Clairvaux (or of Auxerre, d. after 1188), emphasized this conflation of person and text by entitling Chapter 8 of his biography: “On St. Bernard’s writings and the image of his soul expressed in them.”

Bernard’s and Arnulf’s letters reveal two closely related assumptions, that there is a symbiotic relationship between human presence and representation, one in which representation matches real presence, and second that the written text is an embodiment of its author and articulates a notion of authenticity revolving around authority and identity. Additionally, Bernard indicates that there was equivalence between his discourse and his seal, in that both had the capacity to signify his personality. Written texts, to be sure, were major instruments of the literate elite’s effectiveness as personalities and public figures, but so too was the aura of their physical presence. Bernard and Arnulf lived at a time when it was still possible for them to deploy both media-body and text-equally in matters of authority, even though an irreversible movement had already commenced during the eleventh century that was to shift preeminence from personal to textual presence. Bernard, being literate, could both compose and write in Latin; his authorial identity might thus be vested just as well in his discursive style as in his seal. However, what became of such a form of personal identity if it had to be projected through texts that, produced by others in the names of non-literate individuals, necessarily lacked the authoritative imprint of authorial style and presence? The phenomenon I wish to consider in this essay involves the novel recourse to the written and sealed word by the lay aristocracy of northern France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. At this time, French nobles were not yet literate; they lacked Latin beyond the modest requirements of liturgy, and as yet neither participated in modes of textual and iconic representation nor controlled the spheres of scribal and iconographic practice. I believe that the process of the French nobility’s acculturation to such modes of representation as the sealed charter commenced in writing bureaus staffed by prescholastic clerics, who were actively involved in discussion on semiotics even as they wrestled with questions in sacramental theology.

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