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Volume 11, Issue 5: Historia

Henry of Huntington

Chris Schlect

Imagine yourself in a shopping mall, browsing the shelves in a chain bookstore. The history section features a cardboard promotion of The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. Interesting book, you think to yourself. Next to Brokaw is an unfamiliar title. You open to the Preface, where you find the author explaining to you how important history is: “I believe that the splendour of historical writing is to be cherished with the greatest delight and given the pre-eminent and most glorious position. For nothing is more excellent in this life than to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events. Where does the grandeur of valiant men shine more brightly, or the wisdom of the prudent, or the discretion of the righteous, or the moderation of the temperate, than in the context of history?” Beautifully stated, you think to yourself. As you keep reading you discover that the author views history as the unfolding of God’s providence. This a work of today’s scholarship? The preface closes with an invocation to the Almighty Lord of history: “O Adonai, our creator, shepherd and defender, source, quickener and end of these things, we pray Thee to favour this work and guide it to its close: this work which Thou, our Father, hast Thyself brought about among our fathers, raising up and putting down peoples and kingdoms by Thy judgment, that operates sometimes secretly and sometimes openly, delaying the punishment of some until they finish their crimes, and hurling punishment at others when their crimes are complete. For whatever kings or peoples plan to do, if it is accomplished, it is by Thy action, Who makest peace and createst evil, as the prophet attests [Is. 45:7], a unique entity, remaining as great as Thou hast desired, from Whom and by Whom and in Whom Alone, all things exist.” Is this a dream?

Yes, this is a dream. You will find nothing like this in The Greatest Generation, nor in most other products of modern historiography. But there was once a time when Christianity pervaded historical thought, and historians could not envision the past any other way. To them, history was not ultimately directed by climate and geography, socioeconomic class struggles, political ideologies, market forces, movements from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, impersonal and unending cycles, scientific changes and technological gee-whizzery, military movements, health and diet and population growth, literacy, or any such framework that shapes the obsessions of modern historians. Of course, the old Christian scholars understood these factors and reflected upon how past occurrences were shaped by some of them. But they believed such factors to be unintelligible, and even meaningless, unless they were seen as the various means by which God carries out His sovereign purpose in the affairs of men. Their Christian outlook meddled in every little nook and cranny of their scholarship, because their God governed all things. Indeed, they would have acknowledged that Tom Brokaw and others have stumbled on to something, yet at the same time they would have denied that the moderns knew what that something was or how to account for it.
The excerpts quoted above come from the great twelfth-century chronicle of Henry, Archdeacon of Huntington, the Historia Anglorum (History of the English). Henry is one of several important medieval chroniclers who is valuable not only for the information he relates, but for his historiography. Henry’s Historia surveys the history of England from Roman times down to the accession of King Henry II, his contemporary, in 1154. This work is one of the most clearly organized surveys of English history, but its most striking feature is its elegant style. Henry was well-educated, having been thoroughly steeped in grammar and rhetoric, and he was influenced by the ancient poets. For Henry, history was worthwhile not only for the sake of information and moral improvement, but also for its beauty—which reflects the goodness of history’s God. This beauty he brings out with uncommon flair. Consider, for example, his record of the first blows in the Battle of Hastings: “Then began death-bearing clouds of arrows. There followed the thunder of blows. The clash of helmets and swords produced dancing sparks. . . .” Henry’s work, which includes excellent poetry, is as great a work of literature as it is of history.
Oxford University Press has done a great service by reopening this history to us (published in 1996; 900 pages). This new Oxford edition, edited and translated by Diana Greenway, will be the standard version for years to come. An earlier Latin text—valuable, but inferior to the present version—was published in 1879, and the previous English translation was Thomas Forester’s in 1853. Like all titles in the “Oxford Medieval Texts” series, this volume features a complete Latin text with a facing-page translation. The book also includes, for the first time, all of Henry’s extant writings, as well as helpful scholarly apparatus: notes on manuscript variants, an index, and the most thorough survey of Henry’s life, career, and methods yet produced. Moreover, it is well bound. At $195.00, the cost may be prohibitive to individuals, but it is still a worthwhile investment—especially for school libraries. History teachers should have access to a copy. Sadly, there is not a good market for fine works of medieval history, so Oxford prints short runs that sell slowly; hence, the price is high. We are grateful to Oxford for their commitment to publishing fine works like this, and to Henry for showing us how history ought to be written. You won’t find the Historia Anglorum in the mall.

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