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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > III MEDIEVAL HISTORIOGRAPHY
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For the same reason that we must not look upon the beginning of any history as an absolute beginning, or conceive of epochs in a simplicistic manner, as though they were strictly limited to the determinations represented by their general character, we must be careful not to identify the humanistic conception of history with the ancient epoch of historiography which it characterizes or symbolizes—in fact, we must not make historical the ideal categories, which are eternal. Gr?co-Roman historiography was without doubt humanistic, but it was a Gr?co-Roman humanism—that is to say, it not only had all the limitations that we have been pointing out, but also the special physiognomy which such humanism assumes in the ancient historians and thinkers, varying more or less in each one of them. Not only was it thus humanistic, but other formations of the same sort probably preceded, as they certainly followed, it in the course of the centuries. It is perhaps attractive, but it is also artificial (and contrary to the true concept of progress), to conceive of the history of philosophy and of historiography as of a series of ideal phases, which are traversed once only, and to transform philosophers into categories and categories into philosophers, making synonymous Democritus and the atom, Plato and the transcendental idea, Descartes and dualism, Spinoza and pantheism, Leibnitz and monadism, whittling down history to the dimensions of a Dynastengeschichte, as a German critic has satirically described it, or treating it[Pg 201] according to a sort of 'line of buckets' theory, as an Englishman has humorously described it. Hence, too, the view that history has not yet appeared in the world, or that it has appeared for the first time and by flashes, in response to the invocations made by the historian and the critic of the present day. But every thinking of history is always adequate to the moment at which it appears and always inadequate to the moment that follows.

The opportuneness of this warning is confirmed by the astonishment of those who consider the passage from ancient to Christian or medieval historiography; for what can be the meaning of this passage, in which we find ourselves faced with a miraculous and mythological world all over again, identical as it seems, in its general characteristics, with that of the ancient historians, which has disappeared? It is certainly not progress, but rather falling into a ditch, into which also fall all the dearest illusions relating to the perpetual advance of humanity. And the Middle Ages did seem to be a ditch or a declivity, sometimes during the period itself and most clearly at the Renaissance, and this image is still represented in common belief. Restricting ourselves solely to the domain of historiography, and following up the impression of astonishment at first caused by it, we end by representing events at the beginning of the Middle Ages somewhat in the way they appeared to our writer Adolfo Bartoli, in his introductory volume to the History of Italian Literature, which is all broken up with cries of horror and with the gesture of covering the face lest he should see so much ugliness. "We are in a world," writes Bartoli, when speaking of Gregory of Tours, "where thought has descended so low as to cause pity, in a world where a conception of history no longer exists," and history also[Pg 202] becomes "a humble handmaid to theology—that is to say, an aberration of the spirit." And after Gregory of Tours (continues Bartoli) there is a further fall: "Behold Fredigarius, in whom credulity, ignorance, and confusion surpass every limit... there survives in him nothing of a previous civilization." After Fredigarius, with the monastic chronicle, we take another step down-ward toward nothingness, though this would seem to be impossible. Here "we seem to see the lean monk putting his trembling head out of the narrow window of his cell every five or eleven years, to make sure that men are not all dead, and then shutting himself up again in the prison, where he lives only in the expectation of death." We must protest against such shrinking back (which makes the critic of to-day look like the "lean monk" whose appearance he has so vividly portrayed); we must assert that mythology and miracle and transcendency certainly returned in the Middle Ages—that is to say, that these ideal categories again acted with almost equal force and that they almost reassumed their ancient bulk, but they did not return historically identical with those of the pre-Hellenic world. We must seek in the heart of their new manifestations for the effective progress which is certainly accomplished by Gregory of Tours and Fredigarius, and even by the monkish chroniclers.

The divinity descends again to mingle anthropomorphically with the affairs of men, as a most powerful or ultra-powerful personage among the less powerful; the gods are now the saints, and Peter and Paul intervene in favour of this or that people; St Mark, St Gregory, St Andrew, or St January lead the array of the combatants, the one vying with the other, and sometimes against the other, playing malicious tricks upon one another; and[Pg 203] in the performance or the non-performance of an act of worship is again placed the loss or gain of a battle: medieval poems and chronicles are full of such stories. These conceptions are analogous to the antique, and indeed they are their historical continuation. This is not only so (as has so often been pointed out) owing to the attachment of this or that particular of ancient faith to popular religion and to the transformation of gods into saints and demons, but also, and above all, to a more substantial reason. Ancient thought had left fortune, the divinity, the inscrutable, at the edge of its humanism, with the result that the prodigious was never completely eliminated even from the most severe historians—the door at any rate was left open by which it could return. All are aware with how many 'superstitions' philosophy, science, history, and customs were impregnated during late antiquity, which in this respect was not intellectually superior, but indeed inferior, to the new Christian religion. In the latter the fables gradually formed and miracles which were believed became spiritualized and ceased to be 'superstitions'—that is to say, something extraneous or discordant to the general humanistic conception—and set themselves in harmony with the new supernaturalistic and transcendental conception, of which they were the accompaniment. Thus myth and miracle, becoming intensified in Christianity, became at the same time different from ancient myths and miracles.

They were different and more lofty, because they contained a more lofty thought: the thought of spiritual worth, which was not peculiar to this or to that people, but common to the whole of humanity. The ancients had indeed touched upon this thought in speculation, but they had never possessed it, and their philosophers had sought[Pg 204] it in vain or attained to it only in abstract speculation not capable of investing the whole soul, as is the case with thoughts that are profoundly thought, and as was the case with Christianity. Paulus Orosius expresses this in his Histor? adversus paganos, in such accents as no Gr?co-Roman historian had been able to utter: Ubique patria, ubique lex et religio mea est.... Latitudo orientis, septentrionis copiositas, meridiana diffusio, magnarum insularum largissim? tutissim?que sedes mei juris et nominis sunt, quia ad Christianos et Romanos Romanus et Christianus accedo. To the virtue of the citizen is added that of man, of spiritual man, who puts himself on a level with the truth by means of his religious faith and by his work, which is humanly good. To the illustrious men among the pagans are opposed illustrious men among the Christians who are better than illustrious, being saints; and the new Plutarch is found in the Vit? patrum or eremitarum, in the lives of the confessors of Christ, of the martyrs, of the propagators of the true faith; the new epics describe the conflicts of the faithful against unbelievers, of Christians against heretics and Islamites. There is here a greater consciousness of conflict than the Greeks had of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians, or freedmen and slaves, which were usually looked upon rather as representing differences of nature than of spiritual values. Ecclesiastical history now appears, no longer that of Athens or of Rome, but of religion and of the Church which represented it in its strifes and in its triumphs—that is to say, the strifes and triumphs of the truth. This was a thing without precedent in the ancient world, whose histories of culture, of art or philosophy, did not go beyond the empirical stage, as we have seen, whereas ecclesiastical history has a spiritual value as its subject,[Pg 205] by means of which it illuminates and judges facts. To censure ecclesiastical history because it overrules and oppresses profane history will perhaps be justified, as we shall see, from certain points of view and in a certain sense; but it is not justifiable as a general criticism of the idea of that history, and, indeed, when we formulate the censure in these terms we are unconsciously pronouncing a warm eulogy of it. The historia spiritalis (as we may also call it, employing the title of Avito's poem) could not and in truth would not consent to be a mere part, or to suffer rivals at its side: it must dominate and affirm itself as the whole. And since history becomes history of the truth with Christianity, it abandons at the same time the fortuitous and chance, to which the ancients had often abandoned it, and recognizes its own proper law, which is no longer a natural law, blind fate, or even the influence of the stars (St Augustine confutes this doctrine of the pagans), but rationality, intelligence, providence. This conception was not unknown to ancient philosophy, but is now set free from the frost of intellectualism and abstractionism and becomes warm and fruitful. Providence guides and disposes the course of events, directing them to an end, permitting evils as punishments and as instruments of education, determining the greatness and the catastrophes of empires, in order to prepare the kingdom of God. This means that for the first time is really broken the idea of the circle, of the perpetual return of human affairs to their starting-point, of the vain labour of the Dana?ds (St Augustine also combats the circuitus); history for the first time is here understood as progress: a progress that the ancient historians did not succeed in discovering, save in rare glimpses, thus falling into unconsolable pessimism, whereas Christian pessimism[Pg 206] is irradiated with hope. Hence the importance to be attributed to the succession of empires and to the function fulfilled by each of them, and especially with regard to the Roman Empire, which politically unified the world that Christ came to unify spiritually, to the position of Judaism as opposed to Christianity, and the like. These questions have been answered in various ways, but on the common assumption that divine intelligence had willed those events, that greatness and that decadence, those joys and afflictions, and therefore that all had been necessary means of the divine work, and that all had competed in and were competing in the final end of history, linked one with the other, not as effects following from a blind cause, but as stages of a process. Hence, too, history understood as universal history, no longer in the sense of Polybius, who narrates the transactions of those states which enter into relations with one another, but in the profounder sense of a history of the universal, of the universal by excellence, which is history in labour with God and toward God. By means of this spirit which invests them, even the most neglected of the chronicles become surrounded with a halo, which is wanting to the classical histories of Greece and Rome, and which, however distant they be from our particular view-points, yet in their general aspect makes them very near to our heart and mind.

Such are the new problems and the new solutions which Christianity brought to historical thought, and it may be said of them, as of the political and humanistic thought of the ancients, that they constitute a solid possession of perpetual efficacy for the human spirit. Eusebius of C?sarea is to be placed beside Herodotus as 'father' of modern historiography, however little disposed it may be to recognize its parents in that[Pg 207] barbaric author and in the others who were called 'fathers of the Church,' to whom, and particularly to St Augustine, it yet owes so great a part of itself. What are our histories of culture, of civilization, of progress, of humanity, of truth, save the form of ecclesiastical history in harmony with our times—that is to say, of the triumph and propagation of the faith, of the strife against the powers of darkness, of the successive treatments of the new evangel, or good news, made afresh with each succeeding epoch? Do not the modern histories, which narrate the function performed or the pre-eminence assumed by this or that nation in the work of civilization, correspond to the Gesta Dei per Francos and to other like formulas of medieval historiography? And our universal histories are such not only in the sense of Polybius, but also of the universal as ideal, purified and elevated in the Christian sense; hence the religious sentiment which we experience on approaching the solemnity of history.

It will be observed that in presenting it in this way we to some extent idealize the Christian conception; and this is true, but in the same way and in the same measure as we have idealized ancient humanism, which was not only humanism, but also transcendency and mystery. Christian historiography, like ancient historiography, solved the problems that were set to it, but it did not solve other problems that were only formed afterward, because they were not set to it. A proof of this is to be found in the caprices and the myths that accompanied its fundamental conception. The prodigious and the miraculous, which, as already observed, surrounded Christian historiography, bore witness precisely to the incomplete ideality of the new and loftier God, the thought of whom became converted into a myth, his action into[Pg 208] fabulous anecdotes. Yet when it was not a question of miracles, or when these were reduced to small compass, attenuated and held back, if not refuted, there nevertheless remained the miracle of the divinity and of the truth, conceived as transcendent, separated from and opposed to human affairs. This too was an attestation of the Christian spirit, in so far as it surpassed the ancient spirit, not with the calmness and security of thought, but with the violence of sentiment and with the enthusiasm of the imagination. Transcendency led to a consideration of worldly things as external and rebellious to divine things: hence the dualism of God and the world, of a civitas colestis and of another that was terrena, of a civitas Dei and of a civitas diaboli which revived most ancient Oriental conceptions, such as Parseeism, and was tempered, if not internally corrected, by means of the providential course of history, internally compromised by that unconquered dualism. The city of God destroyed the earthly city and took its place, but did not justify it, although it tried to do so here and there, in accordance with the logic of its providential and progressive principle. St Augustine, obliged to explain the reasons of the fortune of Rome, escaped from the difficulty with the sophism that God conceded that greatness to the Romans as a reward for their virtues, earthly though they were and not such as to lead to the attainment of heavenly glories, but yet worthy the fleeting reward of earthly glory. Thus the Romans remained always reprobate, but less reprehensible than other reprobates; there could not have been true virtue where there had not been true religion. The contests of ideas did not appear as conflicting forms of the true in its becoming, but simply diabolical suggestions, which disturbed the truth, which was complete and possessed[Pg 209] by the Church. Eusebius of C?sarea treated heresies as the work of the devil, because it was the devil who prompted Simon Magus, and then Menander, and the two currents of gnosis represented by Saturninus and Basil. Otto of Frisia contemplated the Roman Empire succeeding to the Babylonian as son to father, and the kings of the Persians and the Greeks almost as its tutors and pedagogues. In the political unity of Rome he discovers a prelude to Christian unity, in order that the minds of men should form themselves ad majora intelligenda promptiores et capaciores, be disciplined to the cult of a single man, the emperor, and to the fear of a single dominant city, that they should learn unam quoque fidem tenendam. But the same Otto imagines the whole world a primo homine ad Christum ... exceptis de Israelitico populo paucis, errore deceptus, vanis superstitionibus deditus, d?monum ludicris captus, mundi illecebris irretitus, fighting sub principe mundi diabolo, until venit plenitudo temporis and God sent His son to earth. The doctrine of salvation as a grace due to the good pleasure of God, indebita Dei gratia, is not at all an accidental excrescence upon this conception, but is its foundation or logical complement. Christian humanity was destined to make itself unhuman, and St Augustine, however much reverence he excites by the energy of his temperament, by his gaze ever fixed above, offends us to an equal degree by his lack of human sympathy, his harshness and cruelty; and the 'grace' of which he speaks assumes in our eyes the aspect of odious favouritism and undue exercise of power. It is nevertheless well to remember that by means of these oscillations and deviations of sentiment and imagination Christian historiography prepared the problem of the surpassing of dualism. For if the search for the Christianity of the non-Christians,[Pg 210] for grace due to all men from their very character of men, the truth of heresies, the goodness of pagan virtue, was a historical task that has matured slowly in modern times, the division and opposition of the two histories and the two cities, introduced by Christianity, was a fundamental necessity, as their unity thought in the providential divine Unity was a good preparation for it.

Another well-known aspect of this dualism is dogmatism, the incapacity to understand the concrete particularization of itself by the spirit in its various activities and forms. This explains the accusation levelled against ecclesiastical history of overriding and tyrannically oppressing the whole of the rest of history. This did in fact take place, because ecclesiastical history, instead of developing itself in the concrete universal of the spirit, remained rooted in a particular determination of it. All human values were reduced to a single value—that is to say, to firmness of Christian faith and to service of the Church. This value, thus abstractly conceived, became deprived of its natural virtue and declined to the level of a material and immobile fact, and indeed the vivid, fluid Christian consciousness after some centuries of development became solidified in dogmas. That materialized and motionless dogma necessarily prevailed as a universal measure, and men of all times were judged according to whether they had or had not been touched with the divine grace, were pious or impious, and the lives of the holy fathers and of believers were a Plutarch, who excluded every other profane Plutarch. This was the dogmatism of transcendency, which therefore resolved itself into asceticism, in the name of which the whole actual history of mankind is covered with contempt, with horror,[Pg 211] and with lamentation. This is particularly noticeable in Augustine, in Orosius, and in Otto of Frisia, but is to be perceived at least in germ as a tendency among all the historians or chroniclers of the early Middle Ages. What thoughts are suggested by the battle of Thermopyl? to Otto of Frisia? T?det hic inextricabilem malorum texere cratem; tamen ad ostendendam mortalium miseriam, summatim ea attingere volo. And what by the deeds of Alexander? Regni Macedonum monarchia, qu? al ipso c?pit, ipso mortuo cum ipso finitur.... Civitas autem Christi firmata supra firmam petram.... With asceticism is linked the often noted and often ridiculed credulity of the medieval historians (not to be confounded with the belief in miracles, originating from religion): this credulity is generally attributed to the prevalence of imagination, or to social conditions, which rendered books rare and critical capacity difficult to find—that is to say, to things which required to be explained in their turn.

Indifference is, indeed, one of the principal sources of credulity, because no one is ever credulous in the things that touch him closely and of whi............
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