Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2

MEDIEVAL HISTORICAL WRITING

At one time the Middle Ages were seen as a vast cultural desert that the peoples of the West traversed in agony, dragging with them the little of the civilization that remained after the fall of Rome. As they struggled on they jettisoned ever more of it until at length they had but two or three battered books to guide them through the Middle Ages. At the end of the trail lay the fountains of the Renaissance, just in time to save the weary traveler from intellectual death. What little there was of literary creation during this eight- or nine-hundred-year period was monkish, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, the last four adjectives meaning much the same as the first. Therefore, one might dismiss the entire period in any account of serious historical work, save for, admittedly, a certain amount of quite primitive chronicling of battles, crusades, and feudal feuds.

Against this obviously distorted picture we might place a different one—that of a most lively and interesting age, disorderly but creative, in which Christianity developed fully, the Germanic barbarians brought their culture into contact with that of Latin Christianity, and a good deal of ancient classical culture was preserved and gradually added to, especially during the revival of intellectual life from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Or we might protest that so long a period has little unity and choose to divide it up into several parts. How to handle those ambiguously titled Middle Ages still presents problems and is an object lesson in historical periodization.

On any showing, much history was written during this era (or these eras), though it perhaps cannot be said that a genuinely historical outlook prevailed. Western historiography owes a decisive debt to the best of the medieval historians for keeping alive a great tradition, even if they added little to the existing Christian and classical conceptions of history.

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