Alan J. Koman, A Who’s Who of Your Ancestral Saints, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2010.
Reviewed by Karl Fugelso (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In a departure from most medievalism, Alan J. Koman concentrates not on cultural references to the Middle Ages, but on genealogical links to it, specifically his own. In Part One of his tripartite book, he lists twenty-four of the “great men and women of medieval Europe” to whom he is related, including such luminaries as William the Conqueror and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Immediately beneath each of those entries, he names saints who qualify as either “Direct Ancestors” or “Aunts and Uncles” of the fab twenty-four. And in Parts Two and Three he gives a brief biography of each saint, their lineage, and the sources for that information.
Given that the book describes Koman as a lawyer by trade, “lifetime Catholic,” and first-time author in the fields of genealogy and hagiography, we may not be surprised that the biographies are wrapped around unwarranted assumptions, the lineages are presented with far too much confidence, and the sources tend to be extremely general and/or outdated. But to Koman’s great credit, he never presents himself as a professional medievalist or (other) scholar of the Middle Ages; he has humble expectations for his book, as he claims he will be satisfied if it “helps anyone to prepare at any level for the moment when all will be revealed”; and he foregrounds many issues that deserve our attention.
Chief among these is the definition of the Middle Ages. Koman locates them exclusively in Europe and dates them from the fall of the Roman Empire to shortly after the Western Church “universally recognized” the papal monopoly on beatification. But many other writers have located them far beyond the borders of anything that could be called “Western,” much less “European,” and some scholars have even identified them as a parallel but independent development in such distant lands as Japan, Cambodia, and Peru. These other Middle Ages may range widely in date, as they are rarely related to the Fall of Rome or the rise of the Renaissance, but their end tends to be particularly slippery, for, like many characterizations of its counterpart in Europe, it is often treated as a wane. Rather than being dated to the fall of an empire or another comparatively quick and dramatic event, it is frequently portrayed as a series of developments in a range of political, cultural, and economic circumstances. Beginning with the very choice of contexts in which it is supposedly found, it becomes a highly subjective determination that points to the elusiveness of our field and the challenges we face in finding common ground. Indeed, it opens up the possibility that there is no validity at all in making or studying references to the Middle Ages, other than in arguing we are chasing a chimera.
It also touches on another, closely related problem in much of medievalism, one that takes an unusual twist in Koman’s book. While generally characterizing the Middle Ages as long ago and far away, many medievalists treat particular references to this era not as reconstructions, revivals, or (other) returns, but as continuities. Koman, for example, invites us to find inspiration, comfort, and pride in bloodlines with figures that are “standing before the throne of God” because they led exemplary lives during far more difficult times than our own. Like many other medievalists, he exoticizes the Middle Ages even as he portrays some aspects of them as thoroughly familiar.
Indeed, he joins many of his colleagues in constructing a very particular, if not peculiar, Middle Ages. He, too, inserts enough documented details to lend his vision an aura of authenticity, yet aggressively shapes those details to serve his agenda, as when he claims Ermengarde of Zutphen “was a very devout and generous person. She and [her first husband] Gerard enlarged a church at Zutphen. She also made three pilgrimages to Rome during which notable miracles are said to have occurred.” And, as we can see from that example, he, too, frequently wrap the details in speculation and assumptions that do not always admit their hypothetical nature and are often delivered in an authoritative manner. He, too, presents the Middle Ages not as a fragmentary past that cannot even be described without bias, but as a knowable setting that definitely gave rise to at least some virtues of a preferred community.
Of course, as I have already suggested, the particularities of Koman’s vision do not prevent him from sharing in many stereotypes that still pervade our field, especially among those who make, rather than study, references to the Middle Ages. His illustrious ancestors stand like giants above a world of cruelty, mud, and ignorance. In their proximity to Christ and resistance to far greater challenges than our own, they evince a purer and more zealous spirituality. In fact, like many a character in modern art and literature, they shine like beacons from what Koman describes as the “Dark Ages.”
All of which is not to say we should dismiss Koman’s work, much less give up on medievalism. Indeed, A Who’s Who of Your Ancestral Saints points to the wonderful inclusiveness of, and opportunities in, our field. Even the most offhand, undocumented reference to the Middle Ages falls within our purview and may reveal much about the contexts in which it was made. And a work as sincere, ambitious, and engaging as Koman’s constitutes an unusually large and exceptionally clear window to many aspects of modern American culture. It may not meet the highest standards of professional medievalism, but, not least in that very shortcoming, it should be of interest to all medievalists, and, in fact, all who seek the present in the past.