Interview with Damien Kempf on Robert the Monk’s Historia Iherosolimitana

Robert the Monk's Historia IherosolimitanaDamien Kempf, Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Liverpool, has recently completed with Marcus Bull The Historia Iherosolimitana of Robert the Monk, the first critical edition of this important text since the 1860s. Robert the Monk’s Historia Iherosolimitana is a narrative of the First Crusade written around 1110. It became a ‘medieval bestseller’ with dozens of manuscripts being found throughout Europe. We interviewed Damien about this book and his research into the topic:

Robert the Monk is one of several chroniclers of the First Crusade – what do you think is unique about the story he tells of the events?

Even though Robert’s text is, by the author’s own admission, essentially a rewriting of the anonymous Gesta Francorum, an eyewitness account written c.1100, it is distinct from the other chronicles in several respects: first, Robert appears to have attended Pope Urban II’s call for the Crusade in Clermont in November 1095; second, and more importantly, Robert is a very good story-teller: his narrative is quite entertaining (at least by medieval standards!) and he has a particular talent for graphic battle scenes; third—and this may be for me the most significant point—Robert offers a Francocentric perspective on the events: he places great emphasis on the Franks, presented as God’s chosen people, and, more precisely, on the western Franks (that is, the French), by celebrating the deeds of influential members of the French royal family such as Hugh of Vermandois, King Philip I’s brother.

Robert’s work survives in more than a hundred manuscripts from the Middle Ages. How did you approach creating an edition from that text, which might have quite a lot of variations between so many manuscripts?

The text has survived in 84 Latin manuscripts dating from between the 12th and the 16th century, which makes it a true medieval ‘best-seller’. In the absence of the original text, to establish an edition based on so many copies may prove quite tricky. It is even more so given that there is something of a hiatus in the surviving manuscript transmission between the date of composition of the text (c. 1110) and its earliest datable manuscripts, which date from the mid-twelfth-century. However, what struck me immediately while reviewing the manuscripts is that the text is remarkably stable across the manuscript range. This is particularly striking given its geographical spread, from northern France to the Czech Republic (where it was copied in the 12th century), and its massive presence in Germany. The most significant variations in fact lie in the structure of the text, and, in particular, in its division into chapters: the old nineteenth-century edition of the text (in the Recueil des Historiens des Croisades) amalgamated different manuscripts and in effect created a sort of ‘historiographical monument’ that had little to do with the structure of Robert’s text. Given the relatively homogenous transmission of the text, Marcus Bull and I decided to base our edition on one manuscript (Paris, BnF, lat. 5129), not because it necessarily reflects Robert’s original version, but because it appears to represent the most suitable witness to the form the text had achieved in the two generations after Robert was writing.

Having spent six years researching Robert the Monk and his work, what are your impressions of this person, as both a writer and an individual?

I am not sure I could talk about Robert as an ‘individual’ since we do not know who he was exactly: was he a monk of the abbey St-Remi of Reims or its abbot? I would think it is the latter although there is no conclusive evidence. Nonetheless, it is clear that Robert was a highly educated man, as exemplified by his command of Latin, his knowledge of classical authors such as Ovid, and his clever use of biblical quotations that pepper the text throughout. He was also, as I have already mentioned, a talented writer, which certainly helps explain the success of the text: if Robert offers a theologically-framed version of the events of the First Crusade interpreted within the history of salvation, he does it with an ‘epic’ twist that could appeal to both a clerical and lay audience.

Finally, what are the some of the issues about Robert’s work and his role in First Crusade historiography that still need to be pursued?

The most important issue is, I think, that of the manuscript transmission on which I am currently working for a monograph tentatively called A Cultural History of a Medieval Best-Seller: Robert the Monk’s Historia Iherosolimitana. Despite its strong French ‘flavour’, the text enjoyed a great success in Germany from the middle of the twelfth century onwards, circulating in particular in Cistercian communities. A copy of the text was even given to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa after the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin’s troops in October 1187. How can we explain the wide dissemination of Robert’s narrative in the Holy Roman Empire, which far surpassed its French transmission? Why was this particular text selected for the German emperor before his departure for the Third Crusade in 1189? These issues relate to more fundamental questions, which can be applied to the numerous narratives of the First Crusade: Who read these texts? What were their repercussions on the society, the culture, and the people of the period? How did they contribute to the development of crusading ideas, as well as of royal ideology, in the 12th and 13th centuries? Here is a just a sample of questions that need to be further explored and are awaiting the next generation of scholars.

We thank Damien Kempf for answering our questions. You can find out more information about Damien at his page on the University of Liverpool website, and you can follow him on Twitter and Tumblr. The Historia Iherosolimitana of Robert the Monk is available from Boydell and Brewer.

See also Sources on the First Crusade: Insights from Three Editors

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