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Classical historians
1st - 5th century AD
Medieval and modern
     Two early medieval historians
     History in the recent millennium
     Historical materialism

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Two early medieval historians: 6th - 8th century

History is not a discipline well suited to the medieval mind, which is more attracted to mysteries, miracles and monsters than to the cool analysis of evidence. But the early medieval centuries are blessed with two historians who provide invaluable accounts of the time when northern Europe and Christianity are moving into a fruitful relationship.

The earlier of the two is Gregory of Tours. A busy bishop of Tours, at a time of unrest and uncertainty, he somehow contrives to write numerous books. The most important is his Historia Francorum (History of the Franks) to the year 591, in which he recounts what he regards as the great achievement of his age - the spread of Roman Catholic Christianity in Gaul.


Gregory's hero is Clovis, the founder of the Frankish kingdom and a pagan convert to Roman Catholicism, who has died only a generation before Gregory's birth. Before the time of Clovis, Gaul was in the hands of Arian Christians - Visigoths and Burgundians.

Gregory is therefore celebrating the victory of the faith in his own region. To this end he tells the story of the Franks (kings, clerics, martyrs) who have achieved that victory. Precisely the same blend - of pious purpose, involving a particular people - is found in the work of the other great medieval historian, known affectionately in England as the Venerable Bede.


Bede, living a century later than Gregory, is a more humble cleric than his predecessor. He is a monk in the monastery at Jarrow, rarely leaving it apart from a rare visit to York or Lindisfarne. But he is a prolific author, particularly of the lives of saints and abbots, and his fame is sufficient for an abbot of Canterbury to suggest that he undertake a history of the English church. The abbot sends Bede some historical documents from Canterbury, and arranges for a priest to go to Rome to transcribe others.

Bede completes the work in 731. The title reveals its Christian slant (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Ecclesiastical History of the English People). But it is also, as it says, a book about the English.


Bede begins his story with the Romans in England, but he concentrates on the centuries after their departure - the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and the rivalry between the Celtic and Roman strands of Christianity.

This a burning issue of his own time (the synod of Whitby is held only a few years before his own birth), and it is one of the subjects which he treats most fully. On many other topics he records details which would have been otherwise lost, and records them with a good sense of narrative and a critical eye. His work is the main source for a later undertaking in medieval English history - the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


History in the recent millennium

For the non-specialist reader, works of history written in recent centuries are only familiar if they have also acquired a high reputation as literature. A good example is Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

Previously the most famous historical works, such as those of Thucydides, Julius Caesar, Josephus or Bede, are themselves the main sources of surviving information for the periods or events which they describe. From the later Middle Ages to our own time this ceases to be the case. Chronicles of the times are written, often with some distinction (by Jean Froissart, for example, in 14th-century France). But the information they convey can be more reliably assembled by modern scholars from other sources.


An exception to this rule is the personal accounts of people involved in great events, such as the vivid contemporary histories written about the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Peru.

Another rather different example from the same period is Francesco Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia (History of Italy), which describes - with a properly critical attitude to his sources - four eventful decades (1494-1534) during which he has himself played an active part in the tumultuous politics of the Italian states.


Works of this kind remain of enormous value to the specialist and often of great interest to the layman as well.

But in general it is true to say that history written in the past 1000 years lasts, for the non-specialist reader, only until a more recent work on the same subject (introducing new material thrown up by research, or reinterpreting old material in keeping with more recent theories) displaces it on the shelf - if only for another equally brief spell of tenure.


Historical materialism: 19th - 20th century

A new feature of history in the 19th century is the development of explanatory theories, claiming to discover some pattern in the past and a related chance of predicting the future. Until now God's will has provided historians with an unassailable (even if also incomprehensible) explanation of why past events have happened. But this convenient opt-out is no longer available to the rational minds of the Enlightenment.

Outdated theories of history soon become, for the most part, of interest only to the specialist. But the historical materialism postulated by Marx and Engels achieves its own historical status, as the official dogma of half the world in the 20th century.


Marx and Engels argue that development in human society is driven not by people's will or by any cultural, legal or political achievement, but by a single economic factor - the inexorable advance in the technology of production.

In the Marxist theory of history, changes in methods of production lie behind mankind's progression through certain predictable stages. In the recent past there has been feudalism, which has now given way to the 19th-century triumph of the bourgeoisie. In the future there is the imminent Dictatorship of the Proletariat, after which an interim period of Socialism will give way to the final achievement of Communism.


This progression is not, as liberals would wish, a gradual evolution. It is a series of violent upheavals in the struggle between the classes. One such occasion has been seen in France, where the bourgeoisie has overthrown the remains of feudalism in the revolution of 1789.

Once the new production methods of the Industrial Revolution have reached a critical point, crowding together a sufficient number of exploited workers in slum conditions in the cities, the stage will be set for the next revolution. The proletariat (a word used by Marx for the industrial working class) will smash the bourgeoisie and will appropriate their accumulated wealth for the common cause.


In the subsequent Dictatorship of the Proletariat all other considerations will be subordinated to safeguarding the revolution. This stage ends once everybody is a member of the proletariat. With only one class left, the class war is over. The next and penultimate stage is Socialism.

In the classless society of Socialism it is anticipated that mankind will live in harmony (class exploitation being the root of all evil). Now it will be possible for the apparatus of state gradually to wither away. The final Marxist paradise of Communism will operate on a simple and just distribution of work and wealth - in Marx's words, 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs'.


It is a safe rule of thumb that most theories are false (except in the physical sciences, where they can be tested), and that the more confident the theory the more likely it is to be wrong. Moreover the strident certainties of Marxism seem all too evidently rooted in their own time, in the squalor of 19th-century slums and factories.

But Marxist theory has itself been a profoundly important part of history. Its optimism has been the lifeblood of left-wing politics (the guarantee of a better future for the working class, like Christianity's promise of a heaven for the poor, gives Marxism a religious quality). At the same time the ruthlessness of Marxist analysis has served to justify many 20th-century dictatorships.


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