Epic Lies: Memory, Politics and the Reimagination of the Rebel Count Girart in Twelfth-Century France

Karalexis, Eleni, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ogden, Amy, French, University of Virginia
McGrady, Deborah, French, University of Virginia
Kershaw, Paul, History, University of Virginia
Hays, Gregory, Classics, University of Virginia

This dissertation contributes to the field of cultural memory studies by looking at the involvement of socio-political groups and communities in the preservation, promotion or undercutting of certain memories, especially when these memories come down in a contested form and diverge into several branches of inconsistent narratives. To tackle this subject, the study focuses on how the memory of the historical Count Gérard II of Paris (d. ca. 877) was exploited and dynamically reimagined in many 12th-century works. This historical figure, subsequently known as “Girart”, became one of the most recurring characters in the chanson de geste tradition and also one of the most malleable, being alternatively remembered as a traitorous rebel, a penitent sinner and a faithful vassal wronged by an unjust king. Given the political overtones of his story, the Girart material provides a contained case study of how various social classes and geographic regions, whether in the heart of the Capetian kingdom or located on the periphery, each responded to the same circulating subject matter, altering it to the point where the story was nearly unrecognizable from its origins. Analyzing 12th-century works featuring Girart, this study investigates why societies might revisit historical events that took place outside the memory of living generations, how morally ambiguous figures are treated centuries later, and what happens in instances when several conflicting cultural memories emerge and compete in the same space with each other.

After an introduction discussing pertinent aspects of cultural memory theory, the first chapter, titled “Remembering Gérard from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries”, reevaluates what is known about the life and political career of the historical Count Gérard, as well as how and why his memory may have been transmitted to the 12th century. After showing the historical Gérard’s connections and interactions with the Carolingian line to be vastly different from those of his literary counterpart, this chapter then identifies a number of power nexuses or communities that might have been involved in the transmission and cultivation of his memory, as well as how it might have been made relevant to 12th-century audiences. The second chapter, “Gérard and Ecclesiastical Memory in the Twelfth Century”, analyses how Gérard’s memory is reworked and reappropriated in two works produced at abbeys he founded, namely the Vézelay Chronicle (ca. 1138-61) and the Vita Girardi (late 11th - early 12th century), and how these reflect prevalent contemporary concerns of the ecclesiastical communities. Though both these works utilize different means of remembering and reimagining Gérard, they reveal a similar interest in elevating a local figure and featuring him in their original mythos, which would, in turn, enhance the abbeys’ prestige. The third chapter, “Politics of Remembrance: Girart in the chansons de geste”, examines the impact power nexuses and communities could have on the depiction of Girart in the three chansons de geste that prominently feature him, Girart de Roussillon (ca. 1135-80), Girart de Vienne (ca. 1180) and Aspremont (ca. 1190). His varied portrayal in each of these works reveals the delicate interplay of a number of different political needs and motives of the 12th century—royal, ecclesiastical and baronial—showing them all to have acknowledged the cultural memory of this popularized rebel baron as a tool of political discourse. This chapter also shows that the Carolingian world served as a fountain of legitimacy and common currency to vie for status within Capetian France and its periphery, not only for those affiliated with the Capetians, but also for other groups that used the same discourse.

By applying concepts of cultural memory studies, this dissertation expands on scholarship pertaining to the Girart material by examining its diversification into many, often contradictory narratives not only as the product of regional isolationism and inconsistencies in transmission, but as the attempt of several competing social or regional groups to control a common circulating memory. The observations from this dissertation in turn contribute to the larger field of cultural memory studies, as they show a clear instance of multiple hegemonic groups simultaneously affecting and controlling cultural memory, rather than only a single dominant one suppressing other marginalized memories.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Girart, Rebel Baron, Girart de Vienne, Girart de Roussillon, Aspremont, Vézelay Chronicle, Vita Girardi, Gérard II of Paris
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: