Volume 11, Issue 4: Hisoria
Learning Hiostory Part 3
I remember hardly anything from my first university course in history, but a reminder still sits on my shelf: the textbook. At the time, and for the first time, I was struck by the silliness of studying the distant past exclusively from a textbook published last year, authored by So-and-so, Ph.D. The textbook helped me, but it alone was a poor historical diet. So I roamed the library for first-hand sources, and there my bibliophilia began. I found the sources so enjoyable, and so helpful, that I returned again and again to the circulation desk to re-borrow the same books. I wearied of this checkout process, and also realized that I wouldn’t have access to that college library forever. That’s when I turned to good bookstores.
We learn history when we converse with the past, and we are helped by modern books only when we approach them as interpreters who help the conversation along. When we walk off, alone with an interpreter, we end the real conversation.
My previous article introduced the idea of a canon of historical writings, works of acknowledged importance that cannot be passed over. Unfortunately, the Middle Ages as a whole have been unjustly passed over by readers living since then, and many writings from the period have not received their due acknowledgment. Among the many outstanding medieval chroniclers, Bede is the only one who is recognized today as essential reading for cultural literacy. Bede wrote a history of the English church up to his own day, the early 8th century. (His work is available in many fine editions.) Bede saw history as the outworking of God’s providence, the story of the Gospel’s advance on earth. His work recounts missionaries, saints, the conversion of pagans, and the consequences of both faithfulness and infidelity to Christ. Some scholars wish Bede had written more about kings and wars, but Bede does tell of a war—a war of Gospel conquest as the church advanced in Britain.
Bede deserves his high stature, but other worthies remain neglected. Surely many of the works I list below will become more widely recognized when our culture grows up, when we shake off our anti-medieval, anti-church worldview. So we start a little before Bede’s time.
The Middle Ages is the era of the church, and the church arose out of antiquity. The story of this rise is told by Eusebius, a fourth-century writer who traces church history from apostolic times down to his own day. From him we learn about the vicious Roman persecutions, and the reprieve under Constantine. Then a bishop of Hippo arose who would become the most influential theologian since the apostles: Augustine. His autobiography, the Confessions, is important for its literary value and for its subject-matter: it is the life story of one of Christendom’s greatest saints.
Biography would become an important means of teaching history in the Middle Ages. Biographical vignettes fill the writings of Eusebius and Bede, where they relate the pious works of prominent churchmen and, in some cases, even their miracles. A notion of sainthood evolved in the Middle Ages that shaped the worship and worldview of its adherents, and medieval Christianity cannot be understood apart from it. As the cult of the saints developed, hagiography (saint-biography) became a prominent literary form. We have much to learn from these writings; we moderns miss what the medievals saw (though sometimes misunderstood): the covenantal significance of our fathers in the faith. Yes, our medieval forebears erred seriously in some of their views toward saints. But their temptations are not ours. Our modern-day cynicism, and our hatred of heroes that comes with it—and worse, our despising of our fathers!—may be more destructive. An excellent collection of eleven saints’ lives has been edited by Thomas Noble and Thomas Head, entitled Soldiers of Christ. Carolinne White has translated six saints’ lives, which are available along with helpful introductory material, in Early Christian Lives. See also Three Eleventh-Century Anglo-Saints’ Lives, edited by Rosalind C. Love. These books allow us to converse with real people from the Middle Ages.
A few important early French writers also deserve our notice. A churchman named Gregory of Tours (d. 594) is first among them. Gregory’s approach startles our modern historical sensibilities. Why, we may ask, would an historian begin a treatise with a formal profession of the Nicene faith? Gregory begins his Historiae Frankorum (History of the Franks) with these words: “Proposing as I do to describe the wars waged by kings against hostile peoples, by martyrs against heathen and by the churches against the heretics, I wish first of all to explain my own faith…” Contrary to modernity’s vain quest for “unbiased” reporting, Gregory knew that no historian is worldview-neutral. This observation was especially pertinent in his own day, when the Nicene faith was attacked by many Frankish sects. Gregory then starts his history at Adam and Eve, with a summary of redemptive history since then. What a refreshing break from the hyper-specialization that the academy demands today! For Gregory, because God orders the universe, context is just as important as detail. Thankfully, Gregory’s History of the Franks is available in a translation by Lewis Thorpe.
We have forgotten the past, and we need to recover a knowledge of it. We should read these books, these testimonies of our civilization—indeed, of our fathers—and pass their lessons on to our children. Such was Willibald’s desire in relating the life of St. Boniface: “…to furnish future readers with an example of the narration of these matters, so that they may be instructed by Boniface’s model and led to better things by his perfection.” Next installment: more medievals.