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Medieval Historiography: Religious

During the medieval period, the Christian clerics, monks and scholars in Europe wrote most of the historical literature. Guided by a conviction that Christianity was the true religion, they looked upon the church as the dominant factor in all human activity.

While many of them wrote on the history of the church, others recorded the events of their own times or prepared copies of rare manuscripts of the classical works of Greece and Rome. What they did had an abiding influence upon the growth of historical think- ing and writing of the period that followed.

Despite the importance of Christianity in the history of mankind, the rise of this religion received no attention for historical writing for many years. The church had a humble beginning among the unlettered inhabitants of west Asia. Palestine, where Jesus Christ preached his religion, was looked upon as a remote and insignificant corner of the extensive empire Rome.

The Western writers gave no attention to the developments in the land of the Jews.  When they heard about the emergence of a new religion in the East they could take no interest in a creed that dealt with neither about the world of the past nor that of the present but that of the future.

Before long this situation changed, for Christianity left its oriental frontiers and began to conquer the Greek and Roman world. In their determined bid to check the rising tide of this alien faith, the Roman emperors Nero and Diocletian in particular launched a policy of repression and persecution. But the heroic faith of the Christian martyrs emerged triumphant and won over more of the converts. As opposition seemed futile, Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity in 373 CE. Europe became Christendom. The age of Christian dominance lasted from Augustus to Luther. Christian history began with the triumph of the church.

Church’s Perception of History

The Bible is of considerable historical importance. It outlines the plan of history from the past to the future, centred on certain principal events, the ‘creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the coming of God incarnated as man in Jesus Christ, the evangelical work of the church and the second coming of Jesus Christ to establish the kingdom of God. The fall of Adam and Eve is concerned with the past, the evangelical work with the present and the establishment of kingdom of God with the future. In spite of the historical contents in the Bible, the early Christian church was so theological in its approach to the issues that it appeared indifferent to history.

As Christianity emerged as a universal religion, the church historians began to evince keen interest in historical developments. They elaborated the concept of the ages as given in the Bible and sought to synchronize the Greek and Roman history with Hebrew and Christian history with a view to impart a wider appeal about their universal creed.

Eusebius (260-340 ce)

Eusebius (260-340 ce)

Of the early historians of the church, only a few were of consequence. Among them were Africanus, Hippolytus and Lactantius. Africanus wrote his Chronographia in which he combined classical chronology with the biblical. However, Eusebius of Caesarea is considered the father of church history. Among his works, the most valuable are Historia Ecclesiastica, The Chronicle, the Lives of the Martyrs of Palestine and the Life of Constantine The original works written in Greek language are lost but their translations in Latin, Armenian and Syrian languages have survived. This great work gives the history of the church from the beginning up to 309 CE in 10 books.

The later writers particularly Socrates of Constantinople, Sozomen and Theodoretus wrote the history of the church in continuation. The appointment of Bishops and death of martyrs are noted with as much care as the accession of kings and death of rulers. For the first time, history is treated as a single entity.

St. Augustine (354-450 ce)

St. Augustine

d. Augustine is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church. He emerged as a preacher and writer at a critical time in its history. Now, St. Augustine, as the exponent of the Christian faith, presented to the people the contrast between the temporal empire of Rome and the glorious city of God. Among his many writings the most famous are; The City of God and Confessions written in 21 books, the city of God is undoubtedly one of the greatest works in the world. It explained that the state was an evil, for Cain who killed his brother Abel founded the first city and man who committed sin made the state.

The church was the reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven as it was divine foundation. In his confessions, Augustine describes how God causes temptation by the devil only for the benefit of man and ultimately rewards him for his only for his courage in facing the ordeals. The works of Augustine represented a clear expression of the medieval philosophy  of history. They put God in history and asserted that God ruled over human affairs. The human fortunes or misfortunes were neither to be laughed or wept over but only to be understood as the work of God. He clarified the relations between church  and  state. He also made it clear that the Christian philosopher, St. Augustine, lived during a period in which the Roman Empire declined and Christíanity established itself.

In a sense, the medieval historiography in Europe represented a continuation of Greek and Roman historiography, for the method remained unchanged. The ancient Greeks and Romans had little sense of time, for they gave importance only to the present. The Christian historians looked upon every period as a part of eternity. They divided history into two major periods.

Firstly, the coming of Jesus Christ in the world as a cent factor-the early period leading to him and the later period after him.

Secondly, the particularistic view of history gave way to Universalistic view. History was essential universal in nature, for it was the story of the people over the world involved in the working out of the will of God.

Thirdly, history lost its humanistic character and became theistic. Christianity saw history not as the work of human process but that of the divine will. The achievements of man were not due to his will but it was because of the wisdom of God. God, whom Herodotus considered as destructive, became constructive to  St. Augustine. History became providential and the historian was to explaining of Providence that was as willed by God. Thus, the historical process creates its vehicles and it involves creation as well as destruction.

In fact, Christianity contributed to the development of a new attitude towards history. As a result of its impact, medieval historiography turned theocratic. It recognize working of Providence, sought to forecast the future course of history and looked for detecting the general plan of history. As a result, history assumed a theological and universal character but ignored criticism and to large extent humanism too. The concept that history moved according to a plan to gave rise the concept of philosophy of History.

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