Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Frederic Clark's "The First Pagan Historian"

Frederic Clark is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Southern California.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The First Pagan Historian: The Fortunes of a Fraud from Antiquity to the Enlightenment, and reported the following:
From page 99:
What did William place after Dares and “Cato”? For the Benedictine scholar, like Fredegar’s continuator or the Lorsch compiler, the ending of the Destruction of Troy must have seemed a tantalizing cliffhanger. Having recorded the fall of Troy, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands on both sides, its very last lines enumerated those Trojans lucky enough to have sailed away. But it said noth­ing about what befell them afterwards. After all, Dares was an eyewitness who remained at Troy: by Isidore’s rules of historia he could relate only what he had seen. Accordingly, his book seemed to beg for some kind of sequel. William’s pseudo-Cato had ended with Priam and Aeneas, two central characters in Dares’ narrative. Hence, using their family tree as a kind of bridge, he continued Dares by documenting what happened to the Trojans after them.
Page 99 of The First Pagan Historian details how one of many medieval readers—the twelfth-century historian and Benedictine monk William of Malmesbury—responded to the eponymous protagonist of my book, the supposed “first pagan historian” Dares the Phrygian. The book takes its title from the assertion of the early medieval encyclopedist Isidore of Seville that, just as Moses was the first “among us” to write history (i.e. the Book of Genesis), so “among the pagans,” Dares the Phrygian was the first to bring forth a history, on the Greeks and Trojans.” This was the History of the Destruction of Troy; its “author,” Dares, claimed to be an eyewitness observer of the Trojan War. In the early decades of the twelfth century, William copied out the text of the Destruction of Troy in his own hand, and incorporated it into a highly elaborate—and beautifully decorated—volume that he devoted to the history of Rome.

Just a few pages before Page 99, I examine how William chose to begin this volume with Dares, a supposedly historically faithful account of what he understood to be Rome’s prehistory—i.e. the Trojan War and Troy’s consequent fall. He even introduced the text with what I term the best of all publisher’s blurbs: the aforementioned excerpt from Isidore claiming that Dares was the first pagan historian. I next describe how William continued the Destruction of Troy with a short Trojan genealogy that he mistakenly guessed was by the Roman statesman Cato the Elder. Page 99 then details what William added next to the manuscript, and it considers how the contents of Dares’ text itself motivated—or rather demanded—such continuation. As I argue, many of Dares’ medieval readers interpreted the ending of the Destruction of Troy as a cliffhanger. Its closing words mentioned various Trojans sailing away from their ruined city, but remained silent about what happened to them next. As a result, William decided to “continue” Dares in his manuscript. And one of his continuations documented how the Trojan Aeneas—best known today as the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid—sailed to Italy, and how his descendants founded Rome.

Page 99 offers a good taste of my method in The First Pagan Historian as a whole. In broadest terms, my book offers close readings of Dares’ many readers, from the early Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. William belongs to a crowded company, even if few of its members are known for reading a now-obscure Trojan pseudo-history. William also typifies a broader trend that I examine in this chapter (Chapter Two). He—like other scribes, compilers, chroniclers, and poets—felt compelled to continue or expand the Destruction of Troy. My book emphasizes how these readers, William included, used the technology of the manuscript codex to do exactly that. Medieval manuscripts were often compilatory affairs; multiple texts circulated together in the confines of a single book, and William proved especially adroit at assembling snippets of texts to make a new coherent whole. For him, that new whole was the history of Rome, but for many other readers of Dares, their new whole was an account of their own supposed Trojan pedigrees. Thus, Dares also circulated with texts like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which claimed that Britain was founded by the Trojan Brutus.

The example of William also points to one of the book’s largest themes: the relationship between truth and falsehood (or truth and fiction), and the ways that readers ancient, medieval, and modern have drawn the line between the two. William did not entertain the possibility that “Dares” had not actually been a Trojan eyewitness. In fact, he added another misattribution to it, joining the text to “Cato.” Yet this is not to deny William’s manifest achievements as a historian and classical scholar. On the contrary, his practices of attribution offer us rich insights into his conceptions of the ancient past.

Later in the book (Chapters Five and Six), I examine the unexpected legacies of these “webs of misattribution” in the early modern world, including the fate of pseudo-Cato’s Trojan genealogy. Dubious texts of all sorts had a tendency to stick to Dares. Even the humanists and philologists who attacked Dares as fake were never freed entirely of the associations he first formed in medieval manuscripts. Forgery and misattribution are not the products of any one historical milieu, but have rather flourished in all ages. Or to put it in more sanguine terms, ways of reading often prove more durable than we know.
Learn more about The First Pagan Historian at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue