Gabrielle M. Spiegel Biography

By Robert M. Stein, Purchase College, State University of New York, and Columbia University
From the General Meeting Booklet, 2009 AHA Annual Meeting

Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, was born in New York City five years after her family left Belgium in the face of the impending threat of National Socialism to take up what they thought would be a temporary residence on this side of the Atlantic. Inspired to study history by Gus Pigman, a brilliant high school teacher, Spiegel set out to become a high school history teacher and immediately upon graduation from Bryn Mawr College went to Harvard University where she took an MAT. The interest in the Middle Ages that she had developed during her undergraduate studies summoned her immediately back to graduate school and to Johns Hopkins, where she specialized in high medieval France. For her dissertation, written under John Baldwin, Spiegel compiled an extremely valuable critical survey of the historical writing sponsored by the Abbey of Saint-Denis. This became her first book, The Chronicle Tradition of Saint-Denis: A Survey, published in 1978, and it is still a more than useful account of the development of French royal historiography. After brief stints teaching at her alma mater, Bryn Mawr, and at the University of Pennsylvania, Spiegel began her career of over 20 years teaching at the University of Maryland at College Park. During this time she wrote a series of articles studying the writing of history in the Middle Ages from a wide variety of perspectives and with ever greater theoretical acumen. These articles drew attention to her as a brilliant thinker and not only set the agenda for the contemporary study of medieval historiography but also reached beyond the Middle Ages to articulate problems in the general theory of historiographical method. Spiegel’s work, taken as a whole, forms a continuous meditation on a possible approach to the past in the face of the radical epistemological skepticism that characterized the postmodern turn in the contemporary profession of history.

When Spiegel began her work as a historian of high medieval France, medieval chronicles were read by historians (and only by historians) as essentially unreliable documents, poor providers of facts for the empirical reconstruction of the past. Their documentary reliability was all the poorer, on the one hand because of the chroniclers’ credulousness—their inclusion of miracles, prodigies, popular myths, and visions is notorious—and on the other because their chaotic narratives seem, without any principles of selection or central intellectual point, to recount “just one damn thing after another.” Historiographical research as recently as the early 1970s thus consisted almost entirely of the effort to locate and rationalize the medieval historians’ principles and methods in order to determine their relative trustworthiness as sources. This was done by compiling the few statements about history that could be found in rhetorical manuals and by combing through the historians’ own prefaces and addresses to the reader in order to catalogue their protestations of truth, fidelity to sources, use of contemporary eyewitnesses, and so on. A comparison of work of this sort still being done in the 1960s—such as Benoît Lacroix’s L’Historien au Moyen Age (Institut d’études médiévales, 1971) with turn-of-the-century German monographs such as Marie Schultz’s Lehre von der historischen Methode bei den Geschichtsschreibern des Mittelalters (W. Rothschild, 1909) indicates just how little scholarly advance had been made by the accumulation of such statements and how conclusive a historiographical dead end had been reached, one might say, even before the work started. Precisely because of the radical disconnection between what the historians promise and what they deliver, these prefatory statements tell us nothing directly useful about the historiographical practice of medieval texts.

Spiegel was one of a small handful of scholars in the 1960s and 1970s to recognize that reading medieval chronicles presented a general historiographical problem larger than the local question of their factual reliability. In the first instance, this is an aspect of the literary critical problem raised by any realistic narrative, for in its claim truthfully to represent something that happened independent of the confines of the narrative, historical writing requires the reader’s assent to its own formal techniques of representation. It requires the reader to agree that the text has delivered reality as it happened. Spiegel formulates the problem pointedly in her introduction to the 1997 collection of her essays, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Johns Hopkins University Press):

To ask what were the minimum requirements for realism in medieval historiography was tantamount to asking what was the generative grammar that defined historical writing in the Middle Ages, the linguistic protocols that permitted the transformation of the past into historical narrative?

This question of the relation of the narrative text to reality, raised by any narration that claims to be true, is raised with particular urgency by medieval historical narratives precisely because in at least two ways they so completely stand outside the canons of truth that produce the regular operations of contemporary professional historical practice. As Michel de Certeau brilliantly saw, while certain events narrated by premodern historiographers often stand outside the contemporary sense of the properly historical, it is more importantly these narrratives’ own systems of historical causality that stand on the other side of an epistemological rupture. Our own notions of action and agency relegate the content and historiographical operations of these texts to the sphere of the irrational and superstitious and in this way throw the problematics of realistic representation into high relief. Spiegel’s turn to the question of representation at this time has important affinities to the earliest work of Nancy F. Partner, who was beginning to explore similar territory in her readings of the great historians of twelfth-century England, to Robert Hanning’s foundational Vision of History in Early Britain (Columbia University Press, 1966), which read medieval historiographical texts from within the disciplinary framework of literary criticism, and above all to the metahistorical inquiries of Hayden White into the difficult passage “from acting to telling.”

Spiegel’s most significant essays during this period—for example, “The Reditus Regni ad Stirpem Karoli Magni: A New Look” (1971), “Genealogy: Form and Function in Medieval Historiography” (1983), and “History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus” (1986)—take their starting points from the analysis of narrative structures. In the Suger essay, for example, Spiegel isolates the modular pattern of Suger’s Life of Louis the Fat. Written by the learned and politically powerful abbot of Saint-Denis, this is a text highly prized by generations of positivist historical researchers for its provision, as it were, of a relatively transparent window onto the events of the past. Spiegel pays attention rather to its self-conscious narrative artifice. She demonstrates that the text is organized episodically into chapters, each chapter presenting a single event that instantiates the same triadic structure: the event begins with a disruption of what is presented as normal, hierarchical order; the king then takes corrective action; and the event ends with the restoration of social order. The often remarked chronological vagueness of the text—indeed Suger supplies no dates throughout—is not the result of confusions or inexpert writing, Spiegel argues, but rather of Suger’s obedience to this triadic structure that requires him to violate chronology, fragment some actions while condensing others into a single congeries of disparate material, or in other ways constitute a scene that can be narrated in the triadic form. Suger’s triadic schema is itself the meaning of the narrative as Spiegel sees it; it represents the social world as a sign of the divinely created hierarchical universe, and the king’s restorations of justice become material symbols of divine redemption. The king as representative of God is the only created figure who can set right the ceaseless alternation of hierarchical order and chaotic dispersion that constitutes Suger’s notion of temporality. Thus the triadic, episodic form of the history is not merely a narrative means but is itself its content. In a similar vein, Spiegel argues in her justly influential essay on genealogy that the use of the model of the agnatic lineage family as a principle of narrative organization itself creates a particular version of time, causality, and social space: in the aristocratic chronicle of the thirteenth century, the past is structured as a linear series of exemplary deeds performed by one generation flowing seamlessly after another in orderly succession, “as if the synchronic assemblage of meaningful acts which history can and should relate were diachronically projected onto the screen of the past.”

In its assimilation of narrative structure to historiographical content, Spiegel’s early work already has made the move from the local investigation of narrative structure to the more fraught problematic of representation as such. For one important part of the significance of Spiegel’s narrative analyses in these early essays lies in the thorough revision of the concept of narrative reference that such an assimilation necessarily entails. Reference can no longer mean a match between what the text asserts and something that has occurred outside the text. On the contrary, reference is itself an effect of the language system. Suger’s narrative does not refer to an extratextual reality but to the Pseudo-Dionysian account of the celestial hierarchies; the aristocratic chronicle finds the truth of history in the temporal structure of patriarchal filiation, that is, in its deployment of a discourse that brings the kingroup into being while both rationalizing it and accounting for its claims to social power. The reality effect of the new narrative is thus dependent not upon its relation to some sort of extratextual reality but rather quite directly upon its relation to another narrative already circulating in social use. What gives the reader the sense of a transparent window onto the medieval world in these texts is the effect of a complex narrative operation in which a prior narrative is structurally reiterated by the new text. This prior narrative is necessarily disguised, disavowed as such by complex mechanisms of metaphoric displacement and metonymic condensation. And this disavowal must take place, for if the rhetorical operation were exposed and recognized for what it is, the reality effect of narrative transparency would fail. Moreover, neither the medieval text under scrutiny nor the contemporary historian’s own account can escape in any way from this dependency on other narratives. The systematic intertextual array provides the possible places from which the modern historian as well as the medieval chronicler speaks; from this perspective, there is no universal position, no Olympian height, from which the historian can render an objective, unbiased account of a past reality. “Reality” from this point of view is thus always already textual, and the truth that the narrative claims is based not on its adequacy to a world that it more or less transparently represents but rather on the logic of the signifier. What the narrative signifies turns out to emerge only from a set of relations to other signifiers, and the chain of mediations is interminable; reality, the signified beyond which there is no other, is permanently deferred and always out of reach. With this move we have entered the postmodern world of absolute intertextuality. From the perspective of this moment when “everything becomes discourse,” as Jacques Derrida famously wrote, much of the conceptual apparatus conventionally used in professional historical explanation—Spiegel lists “causality, change, authorial intent, stability of meaning, human agency, and social determination” —loses its moorings. And this loss is the point of convergence of a rather large number of those developments in the human sciences that characterize postmodernism.

It is a testament to the power and importance of Spiegel’s early published work that even while she was writing her major book, Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France, which was published in 1993 by the University of California Press, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, several grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as research grants and leave time from the University of Maryland. I can think of very few scholars who have been recognized as virtually creating a field with only a handful of articles. And it is a testament to Spiegel’s own energy and determination that during this same period she was a dedicated teacher of both graduate and undergraduate students, a faculty colleague of exemplary generosity, and as those of us who did not witness it firsthand have learned from “History Mom,” her recent presidential column in Perspectives on History, an extremely attentive mother who ice-skated with Marcus and played Mozart and Beethoven with Alix, her children, who remember falling asleep, first to the sounds of a typewriter and later to the unique noise of a daisywheel printer. To them she lovingly and fittingly dedicated the book.

Romancing the Past is a fully interdisciplinary investigation that operates at the intersection of literary analysis and historical argument. Spiegel begins with a fact of literary history—the emergence of vernacular prose historiography at the turn of the thirteenth century, and the claim reiterated again and again by prose writers that their work, precisely because it is prose, is more authoritative than verse narratives and, because it is vernacular, is more authoritative than Latin chronicles. Thus vernacular prose historiography immediately defines itself by marking a position within the contemporary array of narrative genres—vernacular epic and romance, Latin history and hagiography. By methods of empirical historical investigation and painstaking literary analysis, Spiegel locates these texts in the patronage network formed by a group of anti-Capetian Flemish aristocrats, who felt themselves under threat by the state-making designs of Philip Augustus, and for whom the wholesale rewriting of the past that these chronicles performed was both a consolation and a weapon in a struggle that was not merely ideological. Spiegel’s book is in many ways a tour de force, consisting primarily of close, attentive readings of the texts that emerged from this patronage network to determine their protocols of representation, their principles of argument, the ideological goals, the forces of desire and resistance with which their narratives are avowedly and unavowedly saturated, and at the same time carrying on a massive work of historical construction that brings to light the conditions of power and social change in the late twelfth century. That this segment of the Francophone nobility felt themselves under threat of dispossession and that in their histories they were bent on recovering a world of aristocratic privilege that these writings represent as both properly and unalterably their own but already permanently lost and irrecoverable, that Spiegel is concerned here with a group of texts that are themselves both the outcome and the sign of historical rupture and produced not as the triumphant song of the victors but rather from the side of loss—these are matters deeply implicated with Spiegel’s own development as a historian. I will turn to them momentarily.

But first I want to return to Spiegel’s sense of doing historical work among the lost moorings of postmodern intellectual labor. She poses the question most explicitly in “History, Historicism, and the Social Logic of the Text,” originally written in 1990 for the New Philology issue of Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America: “What, if anything, can the historian contribute to the reconfiguration of both [the] theoretical concerns and interpretive practices signaled by the very notion of postmodernism?” The answer she supplies in Romancing the Past derives from her insight that the narrative structures isolated within the texts she reads are already in social use. They are a part of the social context from which these texts emerge and of which they too are a part. Literary analysis, such as Hayden White’s work on emplotment and troping, provides a way of understanding the textual protocols that make any particular historical narrative possible. It can tell us nothing, however, about why one particular textual protocol and not another is operative in a particular text or set of texts. This last question is simultaneously epistemological—what are the principles at play in thinking an event?—and properly historical, for epistemologies do not float free to be picked up or put down by the user at will: to ask why something is used at any particular moment is to raise a question about social practice. In the Speculum essay, Spiegel coins the expression “social logic” precisely to bring together the logos, or structure of textuality, of a text and the pragmatic social situation that delimits the free play of its signification. Their intersection creates the place of history. Historiographical texts are themselves always moments in a dual situation: at once part of the synchronic and diachronic intertextual system that constitutes them, a moment in the symbolic code which they inhabit and to which alone they owe their power to signify, they are also part of a social context in which they would make an intervention. A narrative in social use is more than a simple instantiation of a symbolic code; it is also a dynamic social practice with pragmatic intentions (not all of them conscious) and with outcomes (not all of them intended or foreseen) that exceed the symbolic codes that enable it.

The articulation of this dual situation and the possibilities within it for understanding the practice of history, both modern and medieval, has been the burden of Spiegel’s work throughout her career. She revisits this same place somewhat pointedly in the essay, “Towards a Theory of the Middle Ground” (1995) which, as the “towards” of the title suggests, is more a manifesto than a worked out theoretical statement. It is a call to historians to situate themselves in that place where they can address both the structurality of language—to read documents in a necessarily deconstructive way—and language’s capacity at the same time “to convey information about historical forms of life” (53), that is, to situate themselves at that point where they can see the play of social logic in their own constructions of the past. And in her contribution to the American Historical Review forum occasioned by Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line (April 2008), Spiegel again reiterates her commitment to both the “insights and analytic rewards for historical analysis proffered by the linguistic turn in historiography” while at the same time using her contribution to articulate again a possible place for a ‘“historical turn’—that is, an acknowledgment of the contingent, temporally and socially situated character of our beliefs, values, institutions, and practices”—without simply wishing away the epistemological difficulties posed by what we can designate simply as postmodernism. In this middle ground historical practice may indeed construct the past, but it doesn’t quite make it up.

Of course, Spiegel’s insight into the social logic of the text must also include the text written by the contemporary historian, a construction of the past that takes place at the very same point where social process and textuality meet in situated discourse. The situation is what impels the contemporary scholar to work and from which she speaks. In her introduction to The Past as Text (1997) Spiegel writes a brief curriculum vitae for herself. In it she sees her own growing awareness of the postmodern theoretical issue of representation as tracing the trajectory of the profession at large. In this light, it is most interesting that the two late-1990s essays in that volume—“Orations of the Dead/Silences of the Living,” which situates the work of Jacques Derrida in the experience of the postwar years, and “In the Mirror’s Eye,” which narrates the history of the study of the Middle Ages in America—both center on the experience of the generation of intellectuals that came of age in the aftermath of World War II and entered the academy in the 1960s and 1970s, a generation of which Spiegel is a member. I think it is significantly in keeping with her own sense of the experience of her generation that she has operated in what she has called the middle ground throughout her career. Stated theoretically in the Social Logic essay, vehemently demanded in “Towards a Middle Ground,” and reiterated as a necessity in the post-postmodern climate of 2008, the structure of historiographical inquiry that Spiegel calls for and that is evidenced in her most recent writing—notably in the theoretical armature with which she has equipped her fine collection Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn (Routledge, 2005)—is already clearly formulated in her earliest essay that I know:

The interpretation of [historiographical] fictions must take into account not only the literary traditions that went into their creation, but the specific political context in which they appear and the functional relationship they bear to the ongoing processes of political life.

The coherence and intellectual power of her work arise directly from the historiographical commitment that Spiegel has always served and that has in the last decade frequently moved her in the direction of searching for a psycho-social account of historical practice, situating intellectual work in the life experience of the intellectual worker seen both as an individual and as a member of a determinate social group such as a generation.

In “Orations of the Dead/Silence of the Living: The Sociology of the Linguistic Turn” (1997) Spiegel sees the work of Jacques Derrida as the exemplary expression of the peculiar experience of the post-Holocaust generation, and in tracing the outlines of this experience, she has in many ways written her own autobiography. Gabrielle Schupf grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the midst of displaced cosmopolitan Jews in New York who surrounded themselves with a simulacrum of European Jewish culture within which they waited while they only gradually began to see that the world they had temporarily left behind was irrevocably lost. While her parents thought of themselves as belonging properly to an old world within which they always lived no matter where they traveled, Gabrielle belonged either to too many worlds or to none—which is in the last analysis the same condition, and to which one should add the decentering of personal identity—in her case by having an identical twin. The languages in their house provide a paradigmatic image: her father favored Dutch which he spoke to her older brother; her mother favored German which her parents spoke to each other; Gabrielle’s first language was French which she spoke as her only language until she was plunged at around age four into the quite other, American world of Walden, a seriously progressive private school. Hers is a generation that grew up within the void of historical rupture, definitively formed by an overwhelming experience that changed everything, an experience desperately and poignantly their own, yet one that they themselves were not present to witness, an experience—simultaneously theirs and not theirs—whose ultimate incomprehensibility makes it all the more imperative to comprehend and in some complex sense to remember. To remember an absence, to not be the center of one’s own experience. Hence the postmodern obsession with presence and the complex temporality that marks all postmodern senses of present time: the present is haunted by a strange ghostly apparition of an always already lost past, a past that is as real in the present as it is ungraspably absent—as absent as if it never was. And hence the strong force of the desire for history—one notices the urgency of obligation, the “must” in the passage I just quoted above or the hortatory moments that often mark Spiegel’s work—that would refuse to have annihilated in memory a past reality that enters experience only as already annihilated, an object recognizable only as always lost.

From this point of departure, Spiegel proposes in “In the Mirror’s Eye: The Writing of Medieval History in North America” (1997) that the Middle Ages is itself a paradigmatic historical object, medieval study constantly hovering “between the dual consciousness of the Middle Ages as a place and time of non-origin (i.e. the dark, deathly period constructed in and by the Renaissance) and of origin (the origin of the modern state),” a space of “origin and non-origin, lack and plenitude.” And whereas for European medievalists the landscape is filled with the material traces of the period, for Americans the Middle Ages indeed constitutes “an absent other,” an alterity or spectral shadow to be found everywhere and nowhere in American consciousness and institutional life. The Middle Ages thus functioned from the beginning of its study in America as a classic fantasy object, and this was especially true not only for the popular medievalism that could possess the past in utopian dreams and in building fairy-tale castles but also for the first generations of American scholars who, constructing the profession in opposition to popular medievalism, nevertheless would “insist in a highly overdetermined fashion, on its relevance as the origin of the modern, hence American, world.” Spiegel sees the scholarly work of her own postmodern generation as overturning this set of overdetermined identifications in an exigent historical stance that renounces fantasy in the direct confrontation of loss. The Middle Ages is paradigmatic precisely in its alterity, “the name we give to the recognition that the past inevitably escapes us, that words, names, signs, functions—our fragile instruments of scholarship—are at best only momentarily empowered to capture the reality of the past, the knowledge of which as a lived, experienced, understood repository of life is always slipping away.” Spiegel’s work proceeds from the desire for a past, as it were her own, to which it owes the debt of constant remembrance even in the face of the near impossibility of the task.

We learn from “History Mom” how Spiegel, like so many women in academia, was constantly faced with finding ways to balance the work of being a scholar with the demands of family life and the work of being a mother. What enabled her to do this (besides renouncing sleep!) was her tendency always to focus rather on process, on what immediate thing needs to be done at the moment, than on outcomes and accomplishments. This level of focus, a very rare quality, is apparent to her students and to all who have worked with her and for her. When she was dean of humanities at UCLA, her faculty referred to her as “the dean who reads the whole file, including all the scholarly work of the candidate”; she is never too busy to write a letter of recommendation or to read a draft of a colleague’s essay or grant proposal; an extremely efficient administrator, she has served as department chair and as acting Dean of the Faculty at Johns Hopkins, and is much in demand for all aspects of university service both on her home campus and as an external reviewer at other institutions, work that she performs with exemplary thoroughness and care. It is her intense commitment to process rather than striving for accomplishments that enables her success in all areas of academic life. Yet, accomplishments follow as the night the day, and with them always due recognition. The importance of her early work was amply rewarded; the publication of Romancing the Past brought her back to Johns Hopkins after some twenty years at the University of Maryland. Gaby is fond of observing that in the long run, (she will strongly emphasize “long run”) our profession is indeed a meritocracy—credit will be given where credit is due. Spiegel set out to be a high school history teacher; today she culminates her year of service as its president with her address to the American Historical Association.


Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn. Editor. London: Routledge, 2005.

The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

The Chronicle Tradition of Saint-Denis: A Survey. Leiden and Boston, 1978.

Presidential Columns

The Case for History and the Humanities (Perspectives on History, January 2008)
A Triple “A” Threat: Accountability, Assessment, Accreditation (Perspectives on History, March 2008)
“Getting Medieval”: History and the Torture Memos (Perspectives on History, September 2008)
History Mom (Perspectives on History, October 2008)
A Modest Proposal (Perspectives on History, December 2008)