What were the features of medieval historical writing in Europe?

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As in antiquity, the best medieval works were accounts of contemporary history by men who had participated in the events that they were describing. It is, however, very significant that some of the writers that are prized most highly today survive in only very few manuscripts and were presumably not appreciated by most of their contemporaries.

One such work was the Historian Pontifical is (‘Pontifical History’) covering the period 1148-52, of John of Salisbury (circa 1115-1180), one of the most accomplished scholars of his age, who was writing about the period when he was in the papal service. In 12th-century Europe secular history writing emerged, shown in the work of Geoffrey de Villehardouin (circa 1160-1213), and the chronicles of Jean sire de Joinville (1224-1317), Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Comines (1445-1509) in successive centuries.

Another feature of medieval historical writing in Europe was that it seemed perennially poised at the crossroads between eschatological aspirations of a universal Christendom and the objective conditions of the real world. It was this conflict which forced another remarkable contemporary chronicler, Bishop Otto of Freezing (cal 112-58), half brother to the then reigning King Conrad III, to present a rather gloomy narrative of human history from the expulsion from paradise up to his own times.

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The History of the Two Cities, sometimes also referred to as Chronic, provided an account of history in seven books, to which Otto added a speculative eighth book on the future of the City of God when there would be no history. Otto completed his work in 1146, the year in which the abortive Second Crusade began and in which he, his nephew and the future Emperor Frederick, as well as King Conrad, took part. Otto’s narrative abounded with laments about the volatility of empires which he felt to be increasing during his own time.

This feeling led Otto to believe that he and his contemporaries were living at the end of times; with the end of the world as the most fundamental of all changes approaching. And although he credited human actors with some degree of freedom of promoting or resisting change, he insisted that transistorizes had been divinely ordained and was therefore an unalterable quality of human existence. In this way, chronology itself became a means of demonstrating the changeability of the past and the conditions of life in the present before the coming of the City of God.

In this fashion, world history came to be established as a computable, finite, yet unstable entity under the control of change in the historiographical traditions of medieval Europe. But, this view of world history soon came under stress. Two factors caused the stress: first, there was the manifestly continuous existence of the world despite the eschatological belief that the predicted end of the world was close; and second, there was the reception in the Occident, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries/ of the Aristotelian concept of time as an endless process.

The first factor was enhanced by the use of the AD chronology itself, which helped to deal historiographically with the institutional discontinuities of the Roman Empire. Hence it was ultimately in conflict with the eschatological belief in the finiteness of the existence of the world as an earthly city.

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The Aristotelian definition of time came to be reintroduced in the Occident through the Arab translations of Aristotle’s original works from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.’ According to the Aristotelian concept, time was regarded as the mover of all things, elevated above all other divine creations. In consequence of the spread of this concept of time, it became difficult to conceive existence without time, even beyond Judgment Day. In other words, if time was prior to everything else, existence became inconceivable outside of or beyond time and thinking about a world without change became subject to fairy tales and mere speculation.

Memory was an important repository of historical traditions in medieval Europe. In this the cult of saints and the veneration of ancestors occupied a very important place. The earliest political groups in early medieval Europe emphasized tradition in their commemoration of the past. In many of these political groups, rulers were involved in the process of passing on to future generations the inherited traditions which contained norms of behavior as well as conventional group- related attitudes and perceptions.

Therefore oral narratives were and were believed to contain records of the past, whose reliability and authenticity was to be confirmed by the social status of the person narrating them. Therefore these traditions could transmit sanctioned rules, norms and values which, in turn, authoritatively shaped the attitudes and perceptions of the group members. Gradually however, there was a shift towards the use of a wider variety of sources.

This was visible in the works of Otto who sought to adapt to his own time the various chronological frameworks which he found in his sources. From the Bible, he took the chronology of the world ages for the early parts of his work; from Rosins (d. 417) he borrowed the chronology of the foundation of Rome and the arguments through which the coming into existence, spreading and continuity of the Christian religion could be linked with the Roman Empire. But it was from Bede that Otto received the idea of counting the years after the birth of Christ, so that he could continue his narrative beyond the fifth-century institutional crisis of the Roman Empire.

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As he himself wrote: ‘in order to remove all occasions of doubt about those things I have written, either in your mind or in the minds of any others who listen to or read this history, I will make it my business to state briefly from what sources I have gained my information’. This attitude became remarkably diffused among historians.

Unlike the historians of antiquity, the medieval writers had no inhibitions about extensively quoting from official documents. In England, legal and administrative records were used extensively by contemporary historians, like Roger of Hove den, who made their chronicles into an anthology of official records, thinly connected by the authors’ brief comments.

One major problem with medieval European historical writing was its perception of history as primarily as a chronological progression.. Historical changes were seen in political rise and decline or in change of ruler ship, possibly complemented by spatial displacement of the centers of power, and historical events were installed in their precise temporal frame. But these changes were not estimated, interpreted, or explained according to their respective historical situations, as structural changes, changes in contemporary attitudes, or, even in the historical conditions.

Owing to a linear concept of time, the authors recognized an irretrievability of history, but they did not acknowledge a thorough alteration through the coming of new epochs. Therefore, they completely lacked any sense of ‘alternative pasts’ or of the historical peculiarity of each epoch. The twelfth century, as a modern historian has remarked, the twelfth century was not simply concerned with ‘the pastiness of the past’ but with ‘its timeless edification’. The past and the present were thus fused in one continuous narrative.

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One danger of regarding the past with the eyes of the present to such a degree easily was that of anachronism. For instance, Charlemagne was not only presented as a martial Frankish emperor but also as a knight and a crusader. In the account of Caesars (ostensible) conquest of ‘Germany’ the Roman camps (castellan) became medieval castles, the legionaries (militias) were turned into knights, the magistrates into ministerial, and the Germanic peoples became Germans.

The unawareness of the meaning of anachronism helps to explain the strange wanderings of medieval annals and chronicles. If a religious community wanted to acquire a historical narrative, it copied some work that happened to be most readily accessible. A continuation might then be added at the manuscript’s new abode, and, later on, this composite version might be copied and further altered by a succession of other writers. Hence there are at least six main versions of the annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

They all derive from the annals kept down to 892 at Winchester, the West Saxon capital. The tendency to link the present time with the period of the Roman Empire and to emphasize a continuity indicates a characteristic feature. of the concept (or consciousness) of history in the high Middle Ages that seems to contradict the tendency to determine and record precise historic dates.

On the one hand, the authors acknowledged and noted change and development, and they distinguished between epochs or phases in history; on the other hand, their perceptions of the events were imbued with an astounding sense of ‘timelessness’ that ignored a real difference in the epochal character insofar as this went beyond the political succession of power, reign, and kingdoms. On the contrary, it allowed events that were long past to be applied directly to the present.

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Contact with Byzantines and Muslims broadened history writing by showing Westerners other points of view. Byzantine historians also extensively used the genre of writing history in the form of chronicles, although the greater unity of the Byzantine Empire and the persistence of a unified culture gave a somewhat more literary quality to the Byzantine works. Medieval Islamic historians such as al-Tabari and al-Masudi wrote histories of great scope, often employing sophisticated methods to separate fact from fable.

But by far the greatest medieval Arabic historian was Ibn Khaldun, who created an early version of sociological history to account for the rise and decline of cities and civilizations. In the course of the fifteenth century, commemorating the past as the changing history of the world became more directly intertwined with the geographical, specifically maritime, exploration of the world in the quest for the seaway to India or the hypothetical southern continent which was thought to connect Africa with Asia. The extending recognition by Europeans of the pluralism of continents on the surface of the earth made an oddity of the conventional medieval world picture and the medieval way of counting years and commemorating the past.

Though the bases of Western historiographical tradition continued to be classical antiquity and Christianity, the later middle Ages received that deposit, transmitted it with a wider variety of sources and in a strictly chronological frame. It also adapted it to wider influences which were touching the shores of Europe from outside.

Therefore the criticism which has sometimes been leveled that medieval historians showed little awareness of the process of historical change and that they were unable to imagine that any earlier age was substantially different from their own seems inappropriate.

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