The past in prologues: The origins, form, and function of introductory material in medieval English historical works
Sobehrad, Lane J.
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Prologues are textual features that can occur before the main part of a work in virtually every genre of literature. In ancient Greece, history was the first genre to develop a standard form for the prologue, and histories from Herodotus throughout the medieval period would continue this tradition. Modern scholars have paid some attention to historical prologues, but have often ignored the body of prescriptive texts that underlies their construction, the significance of their historical allusions, and their broad interdisciplinary context. Medieval English histories, in part because they had no body of theory to explicitly address historiographic method, are increasingly interpreted in the context of the social systems that produced them. Histories served many needs in medieval England, including uniting people through semi-legendary ethnic origins, legitimizing legal rights and privileges, establishing community boundaries and power structures, articulating salvation history, and attempting to accurately recount the past. Prologues to historical works typically include a wide array of classical and patristic citations as well as standard topoi and terminology that scholars often dismiss as irrelevant convention. First, I investigate the theory and practice of prologues in the ancient world to determine if medieval authors were citing classical authors and ideas because of convention or utility. Next, I look to early Christian writers, who reconciled the classical past with a Christian present, establishing the basic format of medieval historical writing and prologues. Third, I survey prologue theory in the Middle Ages, ranging from commentaries on the established classical theory to brand new genres of literature that develop of out of the scholastic method. Finally, I use this information to determine the function of these classically-based, salvational, and prescriptive prologues in medieval English history, sampling texts from Bede to William of Malmesbury, concluding that prologues function to introduce not only texts, but also entire cultural and intellectual systems.