The changing concept of time during the middle ages in the West

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The knowledge of facts particularly depends on three aspects: the persons (personae) by whom they have been done, the places (local) where they have been done, and the times (temporal) when they have been done. A typical medieval narrative was determined by these four elements.

Therefore place, time, and history formed not only the contents of medieval encyclopedias, but that some chronicles started with 'time tables' or even with theoretical discussions on time. In medieval perception, chronicles were seen as rerum gestarum (narration of facts) and, consequently, series tempo rum (Sequence of time).

According to the contemporary perceptions, there were five specific reckonings of historical time which delimited the subject of history from other genres:

(1) By the choice of its facts, in the sense that any author had to choose those which were worth remembering (memorabilia), and this made historiography distinct;

(2) By claiming to recollect the truth (the real facts), it was distinguished from fiction;

(3) By its examination of the past and, especially, the 'origins' (origines), it was separated from the prophecies about the future (which nevertheless were also regarded);

(4) By its intention to hand down the corpus of known facts of the past to posterity (memoriae commendare), it was constituted as historiography;

(5) By its specific manner of representation, the chronological order, it acquired its proper character.

It is significant that this sense of time developed quite early in the west European traditions of history-writing. One of the principal moving spirits behind this novel reckoning of time and its historiographical significance was 'the Venerable' Bede (672-735). Once again, the root of this shift laid in the attempts to historicism the Bible.

Remarkably, Bede, who had used the word chronic as the title for his previous writings on the Biblical traditions, in 731 in entitling his work 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People', chose the conventional word historic in order to denote his synthetic way of 'commemorating the past.

In doing so Bede was drawing from a pre- Christian tradition, from Latin where the word historic had meant a secular account of the past compiled from a variety of sources and describing events of the human world set apart from the divine world. Bede expanded the range of the meaning of historic by adding a single major qualifying attribute which was to be the cornerstone of medieval.

European historiography, namely, that his historial was to be an ecclesiastical one, thus, integrating the account of the history of the Church into the universalism represented it Biblical traditions. This last purpose of history was always to be forefront in his mind; at least alongside the need to be accurate of which he was so conscious. Additionally, he became the first historian to use' the AD, that is, from Christ's birth, chronology and in doing so set the standard for historiographical time reckoning in Europe.

This method was adapted into general use through the popularity of the Historian Ecclesiastical and the two works on chronology. This also enabled him to date the change from Roman universal rule over Britain to the establishment of local rulers through a chronology that was not tied to the Roman administrative institutions but focused on Christ.

At a more fundamental level, Bede tried to weigh the relative evidential value of the several sources available to him, thereby initiating a quiet methodological departure from the group-centered oral traditions of contemporary historical thinking. Orally transmitted traditions had retained their validity and authenticity without fundamental change by virtue of being handed down from generation to generation in particularistic groups.

In contrast, Bede, like the historians of late Antiquity, committed himself to the writing and publication of a text which he expected to be communicated through reading and copying and whose reception, by virtue of these communicative techniques, would no longer be confined to one particularistic group.


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