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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Europe. The downfall of the Roman Empire, the
migration of the barbarians, the attacks from outside
Europe, and those centuries of war and upheaval which
refashioned the map of Europe, had the effect of re-
ducing society to comparatively primitive forms and
led to a hiatus in the history of civilization. In some
respects historiography seemed to go back to the be-
ginning again and, in semi-barbarian conditions, we see
the emergence once more of the epic. We find also
the chronicle evolving afresh from notes that had been
inserted in calendars. For men who in that kind of
world had a simpler faith, the past was relevant and
interesting chiefly in the form of Heilsgeschichte, the
unfolding story of God's plan of salvation. A slightly
greater degree of sophistication seemed to produce a
love of pattern-making, an attachment to symmetries,
parallelisms, symbols—great pleasure at the thought
that the Annunciation occurred at the place where
Adam was born, the Crucifixion at the place where
he died. Even when it has limited materials to work
upon, the human mind does not cease its questioning
or its ingenuity. Men asked how the carnivorous ani-
mals fared in the Ark and wondered whether perhaps
all of them had not once been vegetarian—for, if so,
a reversion to this would not have been impossible for
them for a time. At a higher level the scholars even
now had to engage in serious controversy about the
date of Easter.

In the sixth century, when darkness had fallen upon
Italy, Gregory of Tours produced fine chronicle work
amongst the Franks, but after that, historiography,


which had become humdrum, seemed to be disappear-
ing altogether. The great surprise is the emergence of
Bede (ca. 673-735), whose Ecclesiastical History of the
English People
remains so important, so charming and
readable even at the present day. He was greatly inter-
ested in recording the history that was nearly contem-
porary, but he showed also the intellectual trans-
formation that could be produced in those days when
a man made use of what was available in the Christian
and pagan heritage. He possessed what was then an
unusual amount of classical knowledge and brought a
surprising number of sources to support his wider work
on universal history. He applied labor and ingenuity
to problems of chronology, worked out that the world
was created on 18 March, rejected the view that the
six ages of history must last 6000 years, and allotted
much of his space to the controversy over the date
of Easter. His work on universal history was widely
disseminated, and, along with Jerome's version of the
Chronicle of Eusebius, lay at the base of much of the
historical writing of the subsequent period. Anglo-
Saxon missionaries carried it to Germany, and it was
prefaced to various Frankish annals; and Bede had a
stimulating effect on the continent. Since the Anglo-
Saxon system of dating events by the regnal years in
the various monarchies proved cumbrous when ap-
plied, e.g., to synods of the English Church at which
a number of these kingdoms were represented, he
originated in his Ecclesiastical History the practice of
dating events from the Incarnation—a system intro-
duced two hundred years before in the compilation
of Easter Tables.

After a short classical revival under Charlemagne
around the beginning of the ninth century (when
Einhard, following a classical model, wrote a life of
the Emperor) the return of violence and disorder pro-
duced a further decline of historiography, particularly
in Germany. Only after the middle of the tenth century
did Otto the Great secure stability again, so that a
long-term cultural development became possible.
Then, in the eleventh century there is a distinct
awakening of historical consciousness and the conquests
of the Normans in England and Sicily, the religious
reforms, and the advance of the papacy, and above
all the beginning of the Crusades—in other words all
the large-scale history-making that was going on—
undoubtedly contributed to this broader vision of
things, especially as it drew attention to a wider world,
including Byzantium and the Near Eastern lands. If
there was a livelier concern for contemporary affairs
there was also a revival of interest in ancient history.
At the same time the writing of Latin became more
easy and fluent—less like a school exercise—and in the
general realm of scholarship a rapid development took
place. In the twelfth century—a really creative
period—medieval historiography came to its climax.

For men who envisaged a small world, with a com-
paratively limited time-span, universal history was
perhaps more practicable than it became at later pe-
riods; and those who knew something of the Bible and
the surviving traditions of Rome had both the incentive
and the basis for such an undertaking. Sigibert of
Gembloux (ca. 1030-1112) carried this form of writing
to a height never previously attained. He wrote a
world-history based on wide reading and extensive in
its political range—including the first attempt to un-
derstand the history of Byzantium. Secular history was
balanced against ecclesiastical history, and, though he
lived in the crusading period, he gave bygone centuries
their due proportion of space. Hugh of Saint Victor,
slightly later, brought out a world-history which was
intended to help biblical exegesis. He suggested a divi-
sion into three periods: an age that lived under natural
law; another that was represented by the Mosaic sys-
tem; then the present age that was under Grace.

In the first half of the twelfth century medieval
English historiography blossoms out in the work of
William of Malmesbury who does not merely narrate
but embarks on historical disquisition. For a consid-
erable period both before and after this, the Benedic-
tines are making an important contribution to history,
as we can see in the chronicles of some of their great
English houses. On the continent, a number of famous
writers, such as Guibert of Nogent, Foulcher of Char-
tres, Raoul of Caen, and Ordericus Vitalis seem to show
the stimulating character of the early crusading era.
Historical writing had now become a serious matter,
and some of the writings of this time took decades to

The whole medieval view of history was brought
to its climax by Otto of Freising, an important bishop
and member of a princely family, who had both prac-
tical experience in the work of government and a
profound knowledge of theology and philosophy. He
produced in 1143-46 a universal history which he
entitled The Two Cities in token of the fact that he
was combining Saint Augustine and Orosius; and in-
deed there was a still wider sense in which he was
attempting a synthesis of Heilsgeschichte and profane
history. Lacking modern historical analysis, Otto was
chiefly impressed by the spectacle of the mutability
of things and he felt that pagan historians, describing
the actions of great men, had failed to do justice to
the miseries of mankind. In this respect, he meant to
continue the work of Orosius, and he wrote out of the
bitterness of his soul, he says, for the miseries seemed
at their worst when he was writing, and they opened
his eyes to what mankind had suffered in the past. His


narrative is most detailed and impressive when it
approaches his own time; and in 1156-57, after the
accession of his nephew, Frederick Barbarossa, he
worked over his treatise again for presentation to him,
having in mind the utility that history might have for
an emperor. He accepted the theory of the four world-
monarchies and tried to work out its implications in
secular history, taking Babylon as the starting-point of
civilization. If he saw culture moving from east to west,
he found that now, when it had established its seat
in France and Spain, there was nowhere further for
it to go. This was a further proof that the end of the
world was at hand. The profane history dovetailed into
the salvation-history, and the work concluded with a
full exposition of the end of the world. Otto writes
movingly on occasion—for example when he wonders
whether the Church was not better when it was in
humble circumstances—whether its power and wealth
were really the will of God. Above all, he was con-
cerned to expound the deeper meaning of history. Only
he, in the Middle Ages, understood Augustine, and (in
spite of the wide circulation of his work) there seems
to have been nobody who could rise to the level of
Otto's own thought.

A little later, William of Tyre, the historian of the
Crusades, had sufficient objectivity to be able to com-
mend even Arab and Turk, and to give a not unfavor-
able picture of Nureddin and Saladin. He recognized
the importance of commerce, analyzed personal mo-
tives and human factors, was prepared to discuss alter-
native possible policies and showed a breadth of view
that was unusual in Europe at the time.

Decadence was already beginning, however. Liter-
ary preoccupations were becoming detrimental to
scholarship. Henceforward, the finest work came from
what we should call the contemporary historians, in-
cluding in England the monks of Saint Albans, espe-
cially Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris who
wrote on a very considerable scale. World-history came
into decline, suffering from superficiality and over-
schematization, and becoming a rigid curriculum for
schools. Research into bygone ages went out of fash-
ion—the English writers were ready to take the story
of the remoter past ready-made from the chroniclers
of the twelfth century.

More of the religious houses produced annals and
these were kept more continuously than before.
Archives and charters were consulted for contemporary
affairs rather than for the study of the past. Local
history became important, especially the history of
abbeys and the chronicles of cities. The chief contri-
bution of the Middle Ages in general was in the field
of local and contemporary history. By the thirteenth
century, one meets the idea that history is valuable
as an education in politics.