history: Medieval Historiography

Medieval Historiography

The concern with separating fact from fiction and legend often disappeared in medieval historiography. Medieval works tended to divide into two types of histories. One was the universal history, which found some inspiration in St. Augustine's City of God; it was outstandingly illustrated by Paulus Orosius and continued by such lesser men as Isidore of Seville. The other was the chronicle, ranging from the crude and simple annals of local monasteries to more orderly and organized accounts such as those of Saxo Grammaticus, Otto of Freising, Roger of Wendover, and Matthew of Paris. The two forms were not infrequently mixed. Attempts at broader histories of peoples, such as the history of the Goths by Cassiodorus (preserved only in the compendium of Jordanes) and the history of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, were early and had few successors. The chronicles tended to be parochial. Since learning was restricted to the church, the chroniclers were generally biased in favor of the church, and often they were little concerned with politics and secular rule. Among the better medieval histories was Bede's Ecclesiastical History, an early model in a branch of historiography that has been of great importance. The biographical or semibiographical accounts of knightly deeds in the Crusades gave rise to the critical history of William of Tyre.

Contact with Byzantines and Muslims broadened history writing by showing the Westerners other points of view. Byzantine historians had also early fallen into the writing of chronicles, although the greater unity of the Byzantine Empire and the persistence of a unified culture gave somewhat more literary quality to the Byzantine works, from Procopius through Anna Comnena to the 13th-century writings of George Acropolita and the Acominatus brothers. Medieval Islamic historians such as al-Tabari and al-Masudi wrote histories of great scope, often employing sophisticated methods to separate fact from fable. But by far the greatest medieval Arabic historian was Ibn Khaldun, who created an early version of sociological history to account for the rise and decline of cities and civilizations. In 12th-century Europe secular history writing emerged, shown in the work of Geoffroi de Villehardouin, and the chronicles of Jean, sire de Joinville, Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Comines in successive centuries.

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