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Historiography: Medieval historiography (Augustine, Bede, Otto, Al-Biruni & Ibn Khaldun)

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Jul 09, 2022 , Updated: Jul 18, 2022 · 17 min read

During the Middle Ages, medieval historiography included the works of chronicles in medieval Europe, Islamic histories by Muslim historians, and the Korean and Japanese historical writings based on the existing Chinese model.

Christian historiography

From the third century onward both Greek and Roman historiography showed signs of decline in quality, integrity, and dignity.

The rise of Christianity had a direct share in the decline of historiography in the West.

The earliest Christians thought that history was about to end, because Jesus had said that some of his disciples would still be alive at his second coming.

Fired with such apocalyptic expectations, all they needed to know of history was that God had broken into it through the Incarnation (embodiment of a deity in some earthly form) and that Jesus had conquered death through the Resurrection (coming back to life after death).

Thus, it was hardly inevitable that Christians would develop an interest in history, much less their own philosophy of history.

But the authors of the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) regarded the Hebrew Bible as authoritative and reinterpreted it to accord with the new revelation (disclosing of truth or knowledge through communication with a deity).

In their view many prophecies (भविष्‍यवाणी) of the Hebrew scriptures referred to Jesus, and many of its stories prefigured his life (thus, Jonah's three-day sojourn in the belly of the great fish was a foreshadowing (पूर्वाभास) of the Resurrection).

Incorporation of the Hebrew Bible into the Christian canon helped to shape the Christian understanding of history.

By tracing their history to Adam and Eve and the other figures who preceded Abraham, Christians encompassed all of humanity within their worldview.

Reflecting the influence of the Hebrew prophets, the early Christians held that sins were inevitably followed by divine punishment and that the plot of history was the unfolding of God's will for humanity.

Disasters represented punishment for sins; prosperity indicated divine favour to faithful humans.

Thus, the earliest Christians, too otherworldly and intent upon spiritual life, seemed to have little place for ordinary history.

Christianity itself was making history and it became necessary to record and preserve its traditions for the instruction and edification of the faithful.

There were decisions of the church in Jerusalem to be remembered, martyrs to be commemorated, and stories to be told about the missionary work in the Roman empire.

Above all, it was necessary to answer pagan (विधर्मी) charges against the new faith.

In this way, by the end of the third century, a Christian interpretation of large-scale ordinary history was gradually developed.

The earliest constructive achievement of Christian or ecclesiastical (ईसाई चर्च-विषयक) historiography was the formulation of the concept of universal history.

Paul the Apostle (christian saint who spread the teachings of Jesus in the first-century world) had a philosophy of history which was a compound of revelation and Neo-Stoicism - god had made all people of one blood, the children of Adam and Eve.

Christian teaching held that Christianity had been predestined from the foundation of the world to become the universal religion, the religion of all mankind.

Eusebius (260-340 AD)

Eusebius was a bishop and historian whose account of the "first centuries of Christianity", in his Church History, is a landmark in Christian historiography.

Eusebius lived and worked all his life in Caesaria in Palestine.

Here was the foremost Christian library in the Roman world which had fortunately escaped destruction in the persecution under Diocletian (Roman emperor).

Eusebius wrote the Chronographia, Ecclesiastical History, Lives of the Martyrs of Jerusalem, and the Life of Constantine.

The greatest of all church chronicles, Eusebius's Chronographia was a comparative chronology of all the peoples known to the author.

He also produced a biographical work on Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, who was Augustus between AD 306 and AD 337.

Although Eusebius' works are regarded as giving insight into the history of the early church, he was not without prejudice (प्रबल नापसंदगी या अविश्‍वास), especially in regard to the Jews.

Eusebius blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus, he nevertheless also states that forgiveness can be granted even for this sin and that the Jews can receive salvation.

Eusebius harmonized all the ancient chronological systems - Biblical, Egyptian, Assyrian, the Greek Olympiads, and the Roman consular fasti.

It is to Christianity that we owe the establishment of chronology as an auxiliary science to the study of history.

Orossius (380–420 AD)

Paulus Orossius was a disciple of St. Augustine from Spain.

Orosius was a defender of early Christian orthodoxy, theologian, and author of the first world history by a Christian.

As a priest, Orosius went to Hippo (Algeria) about 414, where he met St. Augustine.

In 415 AD Augustine sent him to Palestine, where he immediately opposed "Pelagianism".

Pelagianism is a heretical (विधर्म-संबंधी) Christian theological position that holds that the original sin did not taint human nature and that humans by divine grace have free will to achieve human perfection.

At a council summoned that July by "Bishop John" of Jerusalem, Orosius ineffectively accused Pelagius (british monk) of heresy (अधर्म).

Early in 416 AD he returned to Augustine, who asked him to compose a historical apology of Christianity - "Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans".

Paganism is a term first used in the fourth century by early Christians for people in the Roman Empire who practiced polytheism or ethnic religions other than Judaism.

In it Orosius describes the catastrophes that befell mankind before Christianity, arguing against the contention that the calamities of the late Roman Empire were caused by its Christian conversion.

Augustine (354-430 AD)

St. Augustine, also called Saint Augustine of Hippo was a bishop of Hippo from 396 to 430 AD, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church and perhaps the most significant Christian thinker after "Paul the Apostle".

Augustine divided history into six ages, comparable to the six ages of the individual human life span: from Adam and Eve to the biblical Flood, from the Flood to Abraham, from Abraham to King David, from David to the Babylonian Exile, from the Exile to Jesus, and from Jesus to the Second Coming.

Two of his books belong to the classics of the world.

The "Confessions", his autobiography, is written with great honesty and sincerity, and addressed directly to god.

The "City of God" in twenty-two books composed between AD 413 and 426, is one of the greatest texts of the world.

In AD 410 Rome was taken and sacked by the Goths under Alaric.

The calamity that the city had suffered was attributed by pagans to Christianity - as a punishment for the neglect of the old gods.

Augustine maintained against the pagan charge that Rome was punished not for its new religion but for its continued sins under paganism.

He saw history, sacred or salvation history, as conforming to a divine plan.

The Graeco-Roman humanistic idea made man the wise architect of his own fortunes.

But Christian doctrine based itself on human insufficiency, and held that man's unaided intellect and efforts cannot plan and achieve ends without divine grace.

Human action is blind, a blindness derived from man’s original sin. The human achievements are not due to forces of human will and intellect, but due to god’s grace.

· · ·

Pagan historiography disappeared in the fifth century.

Most historical writing in the West for about eight hundred years thereafter was done by Christian writers almost every one of whom was a cleric.

They wrote history according to a pattern which could be safely termed Christian and medieval.

Lay-written historiography almost disappeared until the thirteenth century.

Early Germanic and English histories

The fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD) actually resulted from the successful attempt of Germanic peoples to occupy its lands and enjoy its benefits.

The Germanic peoples were historical groups of people that once occupied Central Europe and Scandinavia during antiquity (8th C. BC - 6th C. AD) and into the early Middle Ages.

Goths, Lombards, Franks, and other Germanic peoples carved out new kingdoms from the moribund Western empire and adopted its traditions and even its identity.

Yet there were difficulties in fitting the Germanic invaders into this pattern.

They were non-literate and preserved their memories of the past orally in heroic poems such as Beowulf.

Historical writing was almost all done by clerics, in Latin.

Gregory of Tours (538–594 AD), for example, wrote "Ten Books of Histories", a history of the Franks from the perspective of the old Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

St. Bede the Venerable (672–735 AD) composed the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People".

For both authors, the invaders, once converted to orthodox (Roman) Christianity, were instrumental in repressing heresy: the Franks opposed Arianism (which held that Christ was not divine but created), and the Anglo-Saxons suppressed the irregular practices of the Celtic church.

Gregory (538 – 594 AD)

"Gregory of Tours" was a Gallo-Roman historian and Bishop of Tours (France), which made him a leading dignitary of the area.

The sixth century was a century of hopeless disorder in Europe, yet, in Gregory of Tours, we have one of the most genuine of all medieval historians.

He is the primary contemporary source for Franks history.

The Merovingian dynasty was the ruling family of the Franks from the middle of the 5th century until 751 AD.

The Franks were an alloy of the three essential elements of medieval European culture - the Roman, Christian and German - their kingdom was destined to be the most enduring and constructive in the Middle Ages.

Gregory's History of the Kings of the Franks is the only history of the early Franks we have.

His most notable work was his "Ten Books of Histories", better known as the "History of the Franks", a title that later chroniclers gave to it.

St. Martin's tomb was a major pilgrimage destination in the 6th century, and St. Gregory's writings had the practical effect of promoting this highly organized devotion.

Bede (672-735 AD)

Bede, also known as the "Venerable Bede", was an English monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in England.

He was an author, teacher and scholar, and his most famous work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, gained him the title "The Father of English History".

His ecumenical writings were extensive and included a number of Biblical commentaries and other theological works of exegetical erudition.

With an intellectual honesty equalled only by his piety and fidelity to his monastic order, Bede encompassed every department of human thought.

He wrote on theology, chronology, grammar, mathematics and science.

But his enduring fame depends chiefly on his historical work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation - AD 731.

Bede was one of the greatest teachers and writers of the Early Middle Ages and is considered by many historians to be the most important scholar of antiquity (284-700 AD).

Bede's sources almost exhausted the available material of the age.

He had all the documents available at the time in England; he collected others from Rome, Frankish Gaul and Germany.

In 1899, Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church.

Chronicles and Hagiographies

Although Gregory and Bede wrote histories, early medieval historiography typically took one of two other forms: chronicles and hagiographies (a biography that treats its subject with undue respect), or lives of saints.

A chronicle is a historical account of events arranged in chronological order, as in a time line.

Typically, equal weight is given for historically important events and local events, the purpose being the recording of events that occurred, seen from the perspective of the chronicler.

Only events—human deeds and natural prodigies were listed.

Although history is presented only in terms of human actions, the absence of causal language makes agency appear limited.

For the early medieval chroniclers, bestiaries (encyclopedia of animals) praised animals for their quasi-human virtues (e.g., elephants for chastity and bees for industry) and plants owed healing powers to their likeness to parts of the body (walnuts were eaten for disorders of the brain).

It was therefore significant when fountains oozed blood or clouds assumed symbolic shapes, since they were indications of the divine will.

Chronicles became richer in the later Middle Ages.

They proved to be invaluable resources to later historians, especially in cases in which the chronicler had personal knowledge of the events recorded.

Reporting what actually happened was not necessarily the primary goal of even the best chroniclers.

Emulation or imitation was valued, and criticism of sources was usually subordinated to copying.

Nevertheless, changes in consciousness gradually developed as the Middle Ages wore on.

Hagiographies increasingly began to resemble modern biographies, as their writers took more interest in the individuality and development of their characters.

The chronicle form disappeared in the 15th century.

As chroniclers recognized human actions, rather than impersonal forces, as the stuff of history, it is not surprising that biography flourished, especially hagiography, or saints' lives.

The genre conventionally included details of the saint's childhood, the miracles he performed, and his eventual martyrdom.

Understanding of individual character was much less important than the moral lessons and encouragement conveyed by the story.

12th Century Renaissance

The best expression of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance in Germany is Otto of Freising's (AD 1158) chronicle of universal history titled "The Two Cities".

Otto (1111–1158 AD)

Otto, the uncle of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, had received the best education available in his time, which meant studying dialectic and theology in Paris.

Because history was not regularly taught in medieval schools or universities, it is not surprising that Otto adopted a more philosophical approach in his "Chronicle or History of the Two Cities".

As its title indicates, the work was inspired by Augustine (454-430 AD).

Beginning, as many chronicles did, with the creation and ending in 1146, it reflects abundantly on the miseries of "wars and tottering kingdoms."

Otto, like Orosius, identified the City of God with the church.

Yet the Chronicle deals with ecclesiastical affairs with remarkable objectivity, considering Otto's kinship with the German emperors.

Otto participated in the Second Crusade (1146–48) but did not write about it.

The Crusades were a series of religious wars initiated, supported, and sometimes directed by the Latin Church in the medieval period.

The Crusades raised interpretative problems that historians had not faced before.

Because nothing like the Crusades had ever happened, they posed new issues of historical causality.

They brought Europeans into massive—though not invariably hostile—contact with Islamic civilization, and they inspired new kinds of historical writing.

Islamic historiography

Tarikh in Arabic means the organization of material by date and hence, by extension, history.

The Quran, the sacred text of Islam, contains allusions (संकेत) that constitute the basis of a providential history of humankind from Adam through Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

Another valuable resource for Islamic historians is the Hadith (the traditions or sayings of Muhammad), which is arranged in such a way that lines of transmission can be traced back to those who knew the Prophet.

Muhammad Ben Ishaq (AD 767) is said to have been the earliest recorder of Muhammad’s campaigns.

Al-Ṭabari (839–923)

The greatest early Islamic historian, al-Ṭabara was reputed to have memorized the Quran at the age of seven.

Legend credited him with producing a 30,000-page commentary on the Quran and an equally long universal history (both survive but are only one-tenth as long).

His chief virtues as a historian were his accurate chronology and his scrupulous faithfulness in reproducing authorities.

Like Christian annalists, he depended on the Hebrew Bible (as interpreted by Islam), though the world he inhabited was basically Egypt and Muslim Asia rather than Western Christendom.

Al-Biruni (AD 973–1048)

Al-Biruni was a Khwarazmian Iranian scholar and polymath during the Islamic Golden Age.

He has been called variously the "founder of Indology", "Father of Comparative Religion", "Father of modern geodesy", and the first anthropologist.

Al-Biruni was well versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences, and also distinguished himself as a historian, chronologist, and linguist.

He studied almost all the sciences of his day and was rewarded abundantly for his tireless research in many fields of knowledge.

Royalty and other powerful elements in society funded Al-Biruni's research and sought him out with specific projects in mind.

Influential in his own right, Al-Biruni was himself influenced by the scholars of other nations, such as the Greeks, from whom he took inspiration when he turned to the study of philosophy.

A gifted linguist, he was conversant in Khwarezmian, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, and also knew Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac.

He spent much of his life in Ghazni, then capital of the Ghaznavids, in modern-day central-eastern Afghanistan.

He followed the conqueror to India where he lived for thirteen years studying Sanskrit and translating several books from Sanskrit into Arabic, as well as rendering several Arabic translations of Greek originals into Sanskrit.

Al-Biruni's most famous work, the Kitab-ul-Hind (Book of India) is a deep sociological study characterized by a rare spirit of inquiry, modern scientific attitude and sympathetic insight.

He was, for his time, an admirably impartial writer on the customs and creeds of various nations, his scholarly objectivity earning him the title al-Ustadh ("The Master") in recognition of his remarkable description of early 11th-century India.

Ibn Batuta (1304–1377 AD)

Ibn Battuta, was a Berber (ethnic group) Maghrebi (Region in Africa) scholar and explorer who travelled extensively in the lands of Afro-Eurasia, largely in the Muslim world, travelling more than any other explorer in pre-modern history, totalling around 117,000 km.

Over a period of thirty years, Ibn Battuta visited most of southern Eurasia, including Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Byzantium, Persia, Arabia, Turkestan, India, Sri Lanka, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, the Philippines, and China..

In 1334 he was in Delhi.

Muhammad Tughlak appointed him qazi (judge) of the imperial city which position he occupied for eight years.

Unfortunately he lost the sultan's favour and was imprisoned.

Soon, however, he was released and was sent as Muhammad's ambassador to China in 1342.

Shipwreck drove him to Maldives and as a consequence he visited Sri Lanka and Madura.

Near the end of his life, he dictated an account of his journeys, titled "A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling", but commonly known as "The Rihla".

His picture of the Tughlak monarch is in perfect harmony with that of the historian of the Delhi sultanate, Barani.

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)

The sophistication of Islamic historical thought was dramatically illustrated by the Muqaddimah ("Introduction") of the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun.

This introductory volume of a universal history reveals Khaldun’s ideas about history—something chroniclers hardly ever did.

The subjects Khaldun considered in his work include historical method, geography, culture, economics, public finance, population, society and state, religion and politics, and the social context of knowledge.

Khaldun held high office and was often exiled or imprisoned.

Late in his life he had the opportunity to discuss history with the Mongol emperor Timur the Lame, who was besieging Damascus.

Timur wrote his own memoirs, and he was evidently interested not only in what Khaldun knew about North Africa but also in his philosophy of history.

Khaldun lived with the Bedouins of North Africa and in the sophisticated Muslim cities of Granada and Cairo.

These experiences were the source of one of his main ideas: that humans first lived in Bedouin tribes and then achieved civilization, but civilization became decadent with increasing wealth and luxury.

No dynasty or civilization, he believed, could maintain vitality for more than four generations (though the only example he gives is the decline of the Israelites after Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph).

Khaldun contrasted his writing with "surface history," which was "no more than information about political events" and was used to "entertain large, crowded gatherings."

Historians of his day, he thought, were too credulous in accepting tradition.

As for their frequent moralizing about the misconduct of certain caliphs, Khaldūn asserted that people like to justify their own misconduct by looking in histories for examples of the great who have done the same things.

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