Using the Legend of Julian to Demonstrate Brilliant Historical Methodology

In “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography”, Denise Filios uses the figure of Julian and his various representations to examine the role of the historian in the use of primary source materials. Weaving together both Arabic and Hispano-Latin sources according to chronology, Filios drains Julian of any essential, a priori qualities and shows him to be a culturally-saturated figure around which political-historical contingencies orbit. In doing this, Filios reminds students and scholars alike that some of the tasks of the modern historian are in uncovering the meaning inscribed in cultural representations, the weight of their social currency, and how they fit into the larger worldviews (or memory-scapes) in which they are found. As such, the article can serve the learning needs of a wide readership, subtextually introducing them to some of the methodologies found in memory studies and narrative theory, regardless of interest in the historical particularities of her subject.

From the beginning of the article, Filios is clear that her purpose in analyzing the source material is not in determining their “historical reliability” which “misconstrue[s] the nature of the truths that the chronicles attempt to construct.”[1] While it is important for the historian to determine if a source is a complete fabrication (and even that is valuable to explore in terms of how and why that might occur), Filios is clear and adamant that the best “truths” to be found in these sources are in determining how they were used to represent and develop “a meaningful reality”.[2] In “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning,” James Wertsch highlights this difference in scholarship as divided between determining “accuracy criterion” of texts versus how they provide us with a “usable past”.[3] Previous scholars such as Nora and Halbwachs (the fathers of continental memory studies) pitted collective memory against history. However, what Wertsch further outlines and Filios negotiates very well is that the tasks of differentiating accurate representation from the creation of a usable past need not be mutually exclusive endeavours for the historian any longer. In focusing on what social memory expert, Ehud Ben Zvi calls “Future Memories” or how these texts sought to persuade their readers about the future, Filios is careful and quite right to not label them as elite propaganda of their time. Studies on collective memory, particularly where narrative theory is concerned, view a narrative “memory” (or in this case a cultural representation or text) as neither a simple copy of reality, nor entirely active (re)constructions.[4] Filios balances both in her analysis of Julian by asking poignant historical questions. Rather than trying to determine if Julian was real per se, she is instead focused on what he meant to his authours and his audiences.

In textually-mediated collective memory studies in particular, narrative theory can be useful because it presumes that narrative plays a central role in human consciousness and that it is a cultural tool developed in historical and institutional settings that will invariably be reflected through the text.[5] Moving effortlessly through the chronicles of Yulyan in Ibn ‘Abd alHakam and ‘Abd alMalk ibn Habib, and Iulianus’ presence (or absence) in Hispano-Latin sources like Duclidius or Historia Silence, Filios shows how Julian comes to stand as a metaphor for the Strait of Gibraltar – either making it passable and losing relevance quickly after Conquest or as a reflection of Christian views of Muslims through time. In the latter formulation, the Strait often comes to represent a border through his figure. As such, through these juxtapositions, it quickly becomes clear that Julian has no essential characteristics and, in fact, cannot even be said to have existed! Since the latter is not Filios’ research question, that is of little consequence. The point is that even seemingly important narrative details about him vary widely, depending on their author and their historical situation which tell us more about them than Julian himself.

This relatively short article is valuable to readers who are unsure of how to deal with primary source materials, particularly narratives. While not being explicit about her connection with narrative theory or critical memory studies (other than a reference to Hayden White), Filios has provided such readers with an excellent, well-researched example of what is possible through memory studies, regardless of their individual research areas.

[1] Filios, Denise, “Legends of the Fall: Conde Julian in Medieval Arabic and Hispano-Latin Historiography,” Medieval Encounters, Vol 15, 2009, p 377.

[2] Ibid

[3] Wertsch, James. “Collective Memory: In Search of a Meaning” in Voices of Collective Remembering. Cambridge University Press. 2002, p 31.

[4] Ibid. p.32

[5] Ibid. p.56-7


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