The fall of the Roman Empire led to the development of Christian historiography. When Europe converted to Christianity, it deviated from the Greek and Roman style of history writing and historiography began to be used as an instrument to preach and propagate Christianity. In Greek and Roman times, history was secular and presented a critical analysis of the worldly affairs of society. There was no divine intervention in the process of history writing and heroes would be described as powerful history-makers owing to either their intellectual prowess or military strength. War was a favourite theme that affected every aspect of society and dramatised the entire historical narrative.
Contrary to the Greeks and Romans, Christian historians adopted extreme religious views to comprehend and interpret historical events. According to their point of view, everything happened as per divine intervention, so understanding the nature and causes of these events was beyond human comprehension. Christian historiography denied the cyclical view of history which was previously being used, replacing it with a linear view as they believed that the world began with Adam and Eve and would end with the ‘Second Coming of Christ.’
With this approach of history, the role of man became subordinate to divine law. Therefore, he became passive and submissive without using his intellectual capacity to play any role in shaping history. Historians of this period accepted the biblical account of history without any analysis and criticism and relied on the belief of the creation of the universe, division of races and early history of the Middle East.
The Christian world view had a fundamental impact on history writing
Among the early Christian historians were Eusebius (d.339/340 AD) the author of Demonstrations of the Gospel and Jerome (d.419 or 420 AD), whose translation of the Bible into Latin from Hebrew is known as Vulgate. A Gallo-Roman historian Gregory of Tours (d.594 AD) the author of the Ten Books of Histories used history for religious preaching and guidance of the society. Instead of political, social and economic conditions of the country he wrote about the lives of saints and their miracles. Historical works of the English historian Bede (d.735 AD) also referred to as St Bede represent the first consistent attempt to date events using the Incarnation of Christ as a focal point.
History writing progressed when the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne (r.800-814) ordered monasteries to maintain an annual record of the events happening during his reign. As a result the monks systematically documented important events according to seasons and months. These documents provided a rich source of material to modern historians, which helped them to write down the history of monasteries as well as the social and political conditions of this time. Minimising the influence of religion, this approach politicised and secularised history.
An interesting characteristic of historiography of this period was that historians emphasised contemporary history, avoiding references from the past. Therefore the scope of history was marginalised. Although history was not taught as a subject in educational institutions, rulers and aristocrats started to take a deep interest in history, in order to maintain their status and privileges on the basis of their dynasties. They preserved the documents, papers and royal orders which granted them landed property and political rights. This material also became a great source of historiography for modern historians.
Historiography suffered during the mediaeval period because the printing press had not yet been invented and books were not available. Manuscripts and documents which were the only the sources of material were full of spelling mistakes and included the scribe’s own point of view in the text. Since there was no method to detect a forged document or to verify the genealogies of the aristocrats, historians would copy exactly what was available in the manuscript without editing or correction. As a result mistakes and forgeries became part of history books and were later removed by modern historians who studied philology and learnt the art of editing. Eventually, with the advent of the printing press, documents were published after being edited, bringing to light correct versions of history.
Historiography of the mediaeval period either remained dominated by religious views or was twisted by rulers and aristocrats to project their own image. Up until the modern ages, common people and their role in making history remained obscured.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2016