Christian (Medieval) Historiography

The Greco-Roman historiography was succeeded by the Christian medieval historiography. The age was characterized by the writings of many church fathers such as Origen, St. Werdne, St. Seneca, St. Augustine, St. Theresa, Festus, Julius Africanus, Ambrose, Eusebius and Arch-bishop William of Tyre. Of all these Christian fathers, Eusebius and St. Augustine were the greatest. The Christian historiography also had a number of characteristic features.
The first feature of Christian historiography is that it was not critical in outlook. This is not surprising as the attitude of the founder of Christianity – Jesus Christ  was unhistorical. For instance, he told his disciples that “You Must be born again”, urging them to forget about the past and look forward to the kingdom of God. Christianity lay emphasis on faith and thereby discourages any attempt at enquiry. Consequently, there was no critical analysis in the writings of the Christian fathers. They merely added their religious view point to materials collected from other sources. In fact, throughout the age, the Donation of Constantine  was dogmatically accepted as the basis of Pope’s authority. The Christian writers were mere commentators and not historians and they wrote mainly to defend and expand the Christian faith. “The History of Deeds Beyond the Seas”  by Arch-bishop of Tyre  is a good example.
Another feature  of this historiography was its universalism; Christianity looked at all men as members of a single family. Thus the histories of the church fathers concentrated not on a particular society but on mankind as a whole. For example, Venerable Bede wrote what could be regarded as the first history of Christiandom whilst Festus Julius Africanus attempted to date the origin of the world. Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Chronicle, also set himself the task of composing a Universal History where all events were brought within a single chronological framework instead of having events in Greece dated by Olympiads and events in Rome by the CONSULS.
Another feature of Christian historiography was the massiveness of religious pamphlets: Origen’s commentaries on the Song of Songs, St. Augustine’s Confession and Eusebius’ Chronicle and The History of the Church.  No doubt, Christian Historiography placed emphasis on faith rather than reasoning. As St. Augustine wrote “One must first believe before one understand”.
Providence was another feature of Christian historiography. Quite unlike Herodotus, history was not conceived in a humanistic manner; no concerned with activities of man per se but with a plan already mapped out by God which man must follow blindly. For example, history, according to Augustine, was the majestic unfolding of a divine plan in which the appearances of the church marks a decisive moment. He laid such stress on the Doctrine of Original Sin and the Patristic Doctrine.
Finally, the church fathers like Bede attempted to unfold the plan which God had mapped out. He divided history into two periods with the birth of Christ as a watershed. The first was the forward looking period before Christ in which man walked blindly in darkness. The second was the backward looking period after Christ. (ANNO DOMINO). This introduces an intrinsic element into History (eschatology). The Christian writers looked into the future like a prophet whereas the historians’ proper business is to master the past as a key to the understanding of the present and possibly the future.
Eusebius, “the father of ecclesiatical history” , was born C. 250, probably  in the city of Caesarea in Palestine. We know that as a young man he was prominent in the household of Pamphilus of Caesarea, a teacher and theologian who had assembled a large library upon which Eusebius was later to draw in writing his histories. Eusebius entered the priesthood and after some years of travel and imprisonment and threatened martyrdom during the decade of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians (303-313) he was consecrated Bishop of Caesarea (314). In 325 he assisted at the council of Nicaea the violence of the theological controversies then racking the Church. At that time, too, he was apparently the ally and counselor of the great convert to Christianity, the Emperor Constantine, at whose side he sat during meetings of the Council and whose friendship he maintained until Constantine’s death in 337. Eusebius himself died  339.
In the midst of his very active career Eusebius had managed an impressive literary achievement. He wrote numerous works against pagans  and heretics, many theological treatises, and essays of Biblical  exegesis, forty-six works in all, of which only a small number have come done to us.  Among the books we have are two histories: the Chronicle, written in 303 but repeatedly revised down to 325, and The History of the Church (or The Ecclesiastical History, as it is variously called), written and re-edited between 311 and 325. The Chronicle is Eusebius’ contribution to historical chronology  for the correctly perceived that an accurate chronology is  essential to historical studies. Eusebius drew upon classical and Christian historians and chronographers and assembled a composite chronology, arranged in a parallel columns, of all the ancient kingdoms. The historical development which these columns appear to depict is one of gradual, ineluctable movement toward the Christian era. History, mathematics, geometry, all neatly compressed within this chronicle, reveal the Providence of God at work guaranteeing the triumph of Christianity.
Eusebius, in the Chronicle, sought to demonstrate the Christian goal of history not through appeals to received authority or pious hopes but rather through the presentation of historical facts. This attitude was carried over into his History of the Church. Eusebius was conscious of the fact that the Church in his time had undergone and survived intact a period of harsh persecution. He also had suffered for his beliefs and yet kept the faith. But the age of persecution, the testing time, had given way first to an age of toleration, then to one of official acceptance; from Church Persecuted to Church Triumphant.
The historical  record, Eusebius could legitimately  maintain, surely indicated “the gracious and favouring interposition  of God”. Eusebius thus turned with confidence to secular history, locating  the Christian Church within the context of the Roman Empire. In his  History of  the Church,  he relies heavily on the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and Philosophy. The great library  of Pamphilus served him in good stead and we know he used the church library and royal archives at Edessa. Convinced sources with a scholarly reserve and respect for methodological correctness not otherwise to be expected from a high official of the Church writing of the institution whose mission was his life. He collected the important documents pertinent to his History, weaving many of them into this narrative; he exercised notable caution whenever his sources presented him improbable or contradictory accounts; he sought after and often enough attained accuracy in his own account.
The history of the church is an “Apology” but it is a critical apology, the work of a historian engage. Eusebius could afford to be critical, for looking at history, he drew comfort from it. His Church had weathered the storm, Christianity had been adopted by the Roman Emperors and honoured by “the most populous of all nations, and most pious towards God, alike indestructible and invincible in that it ever find help from God,” In this hour of triumph, Eusebius composed The History of the Church, confidently placing Christianity securely within the traditional context of the “eternal” Roman Empire. Before the century was out, however, another great churchman and historian, Augustine, was to find it necessary to recast the history, and, more, the interpretation of Eusebius. But he was to build on the achievement of that “most important and reliable historian of the ancient Church”.
Biographical Profile  
St. Augustine was an African, one of the renowned African church fathers, catholic bishop, doctor of the church, theologian – philosopher and, Augustine inarguably the greatest African contribution to Western thought.
He was born at Tagaste,  Numidia (Now Souk-Ahras, Algeria) on November 13, 354AD. His father was Patricius, a traditionalist Roman official while his mother, Monica, was a zealous Christian and she was instrumental to Augustine’s late but total acceptance of the Christian  faith. In early years, Augustine was traditionally, known by the Latin name Aurelius Augustinus.
Augustine started his formal education when he was about 11 years old at Madauros where he gained a deep knowledge of the Latin literature. In fact, he later received a thoroughly literary education with strong emphasis on the Latin masters: Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Parro.
Although St. Augustine devoted the bulk of his time to Episcopal duties, he was also a gust literary man. It is said that his written works filled fifteen standard Encyclopedia volume, many of which now form a substantial part of the basis of medieval theology. Some of his works were also polemics against the Donatists, Plegians and Arians. Indeed, his autobiography, Confessions, completed in C. 390, is certainly one of the classics of Western literature. One of the most independent thinkers in the history of Western thought, St. Augustine in his City of God (413-426) wrote a magnificent philosophical history and the meaning of history and of Christianity. Among other major works by Augustine are; On the Trinity (400 – 416), On the Happy Life (386), On the Immortality of Soul (387), On Free Will (389-395), On Nature and Grace Soliloquies (387), On True Religion (399-391).
Although the above list is not exhaustive of St. Augustine’s works suffices it to say that the doctrines originated or developed by him is called Augustinianism. St. Augustine, “the greatest of the doctors of the Church,” died on August 26, 430 AD, while his ‘beloved city was being overrun by the Vandals. In fact, after the conquest of Carthage and Hippo the Vandals destroyed all of it except Augustine’s Cathedral and library which were left unscathed. According to existing tradition,  the remains of St. Augustine rests in Pavis, Italy, while the date of his death is celebrated an his feast.
St. Augustine’s City of God was primarily motivated by the accusations of traditional man against Christianity, after the sack of Rome, that the empire had been immune from foreign invasions until it embraced Christianity and forsook her ancient gods. In this work St. Augustine presented an articulate defence of the role of Christianity in the Roman Empire. He denounced the power of the pagan deities and even affirmed that those deities were incapable of defending themselves against temporal calamities. He tried to show that temporal authority was of little importance. What was more important was spiritual salvation which could be procured only through Jesus Christ. Although much as his work could be classified as theocratic, there are certain doctrines embedded in these arguments which are very important from a political angle. In the City of God, he developed the idea that there is a heavenly city and earthly city. These two cities are two societies and members of each city are bound together by common love.
Members of the earthly city live and pursue matters of the flesh or appetite and their reward is anguish and eventual damnation but members of the City of God  are those united in true love of God and their desire and will is to obey God; their true home is heaven; their reward is everlasting bliss. Although members of the City of God might be on earth, they are only on pilgrimage to heaven.
His earthy city is not exactly conterminous with the state because in the state we have people who are not necessarily members of the city, i.e. Christians and people who have the grace of God. These people belong more to church than the city. But the similarity between the earthly city and the state is a very close one. Similarly, the heavenly city is not exactly like the Church because the City of God has members and people who were not members of the church on earth e.g. the departed saints, good angels and those who lived in the pre-Christian era. But again, the similarity between the church on earth and the city of God is a very close one, for the Church is a channel through which the grace of God flows to the members of church on earth. Therefore for practical purposes, one might almost say that the City of God might be the church and that the earthly city was the state. But it should be borne in mind that they are not exactly identical.
For St. Augustine, the state would not have been necessary but for the original sin As a result of the original sin, man had become degraded and wicked and it became necessary to form a state to provide opportunity for man to obtain a partial remedy for his sin. Therefore, the state has its origin not in nature as Aristotle has maintained. The state is natural to men, it had arisen from sin. The state therefore is an unfortunate necessity brought about by the fall of man and it exists to provide a partial remedy for the conflict and the discord caused by the original sin of Adam. The State is not a moral agent and cannot set standards for the citizens. This, again, marks a radical departure from the concept of state as an ethnical institution in the past. Whereas according to Aristotle, the state is the source of moral values for all the in the state and therefore its main function is to mould the character of the citizens and control the system of education, law and order. But since the state now has its origin in sins it is therefore incapable of giving moral guidance to the citizen.
In relation to St. Augustine’s concept of origin of state is his concept of justice. To him, justice is conformity to order, and he believed every society could necessarily have a certain amount of order. Yet justice can both be relative and absolute depending on the type of the society. In a family there can be some amount of justice because there is some order necessary for the family.  But such justice in the family is only relative to justice found in the society which is larger than the family, e.g., the state.
Also justice that can be found in the state is only relative to justice which can be found in the universal society of men and it is only the justice of the universal society that is absolute.  St. Augustine affirmed that any society without justice is no society at all and any state, therefore, without justice and order cannot be a state.
Any justice which a state can achieve must be in conformity with the absolute justice of the universal society, otherwise any laws made by the state against the natural and absolute principle of justice of the universal society would be invalid and irrational because the absolute justice of the universal society is the justice of God.  He rejected as sheer nonsense any kind of justice that takes man from the true God and gives him to the condemned fiend.
Ancillary to the concept of justice is the Augustinian concept of peace.  To him, peace lies in a system of harmonious relationship involving order and concord, and like justice this peace of earthly city is a relative one involving the satisfaction of physical desires and emotions but this peace is relative and we have absolute peace only in the heavenly city and this involves true and perfect union in the love of God.  This peace is absolute.
But St. Augustine maintains that the peace of the earthly city is essential for the attainment of   peace in the heavenly city but it is the peace of the heavenly city that is more important. This peace represents the final goal of man especially for man because Christians can only receive salvation by the attainment of this heavenly peace.  Apart from the considerable impact of these ideas on the development of political theory, his description of the earthly and heavenly cities may be strange to anyone with very little religious inclination and to the Christians, it cannot be too easy to see the practical working of the heavenly city in the world.
But probably most striking is the idea implicit in his development of the relationship between the earthly city and the city of God. St.  Augustine maintains that the laws of the earthly city, and by implication the laws of the state, must not conflict with the laws of the heavenly city, and by implication the laws of the church.  In this way, St. Augustine seems to have set up two separate authorities. On the one hand you have the church supreme in religious matters. The church leads man to the highest goal – salvation and it also achieved perfect justice and perfect peace.  The church therefore has more important duties to perform than the state and it would be the duty of the state to assist the church in achieving the noble goal of man.
In addition, even the authority of the state in secular matters is not unlimited for the laws, regulations and orders issued by the state should be in conformity with the standards of absolute justice and heavenly peace which can only be found in the city of God and in the church. To all intents and purposes, therefore, it is the church which is supreme over the state in this dichotomy of powers.
Another implication in the theory of St. Augustine is that of the principle of individual conscience especially for the Christian.  For the Christian is a member of two societies the state and the church. As he represents the citizens obviously he has some loyalty and allegiance to the state but this provides a partial remedy for his unlimited sins and also enables him to embark on his pilgrimage to the true home of Christians in heaven. Apparently, the Christian citizens cannot be expected to obey any laws of the state which will hinder him in his true worship of God to attain his goal in the world beyond.  He therefore reserves the right to disobey such laws that prevent him from attaining salvation and absolute peace. This is the principle which was later developed into the principle of individual conscience – a theory that has gained ground till modem times, even till today.
So far, St. Augustine cannot be credited with originating these ideas because he was virtually interpreting the concepts of natural law from a Christian point of view.  However, his theory of the supremacy of the church was eventually developed into the concept of papal plenitude of power – which is the idea that full and absolute power belongs to the Pope by virtue of being the head of the Church and the direct successor of St. Peter.  Also the idea that the state was not natural to man was later developed by philosophers in modern time such as Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau and even Hegel. These philosophers believed that the state has to be created in order to rectify certain weaknesses in man.
For the greater part of the early medieval period St. Augustine’s ideas held sway especially his theory about the authority of the Pope.  It was generally believed that the Pope was largely responsible for spiritual matters and that the emperor was only supreme in temporal matters.  The two spheres were however dependent on each other. The emperors needed the priests and bishops for the sake of eternal life, as much as bishops and priests needed the state in order to ensure law and order.  But it was also generally believed that the spiritual sphere was more important and that the state would have to consult the church before taking any action which might involve the Holy See. This in actual practice meant that the Church and Pope had the right to supervise the state even in temporal matters.  This ultimately led to the Pope having full authority both over the Church and the state. The idea that the Pope had two powers was further supported by other arguments.  It was said that Christian community was one and it was only reasonable that the Pope should direct the entire affairs of this Christian community. It was also argued that the Pope was the direct successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ who received the keys of the Church.  It was also argued that the emperor Constantine handed over all his political and temporal powers to the Pope at the time of Coronation and as a result of his Donation, the Pope had become the inheritor of all temporal powers in addition to the spiritual powers which he had inherited from St. Peters and Christ.  All through the medieval times people generally believed in the supremacy of the Pope, with the corollary of the supremacy of the church over the state.
There were however some thinkers who challenged the papal plenitude of powers, but their influence was inconsiderable and it was not until the close of the medieval times that the voice of dissent became loud and clear.  Until then, most people stood for the church against the state and supported the theories of St. Augustine.
In the City of God, St. Augustine propounded the first and outstanding philosophy of history.  First, there was a serious and conscious effort on his part to organize human past in terms of significant periods; though the categories employed were biblical.  He, in fact, utilized the account of creation in Genesis as a key to the division of world history. In the context, the first “day” is the first period from Adam to the flood, the second from the flood to Abraham, and subsequently, there are three epochs which take us down to the coming of Christ; one from Abraham to David, a second from David to exile in Babylon, and the third extending to the coming of Christian faith.  The sixth epoch, spanning from Christ’s birth to the culmination of history in the Second Coming, was the period which occupied medieval historians and chroniclers. Whatever, may be the weakness in St. Augustine’s periodization of history, it still remains an attempt to meet the historian halfway in their “study of society in time perspective.
Another contribution of St. Augustine to Christian – Western historiography is that he demonstrated that historical knowledge was possible.  In his Patristic Doctrine, he launched attack against the substantialist idea in Greek thought that the historian could not know the substance.  He contended that only God is eternal, unchanging and fixed; all other substances are changing. Since all things are created they could be probed, studied and understand.  This was a profound revolution in historical thinking.
Again, St. Augustine was an advocate of universalistic concept of history.  In the City of God, he offered a new interpretation of the history of mankind.  Not satisfied with rebutting the “pagan” assault on Christianity, he postulated a philosophy of history which exonerated Christians and sought to persuade “pagan of the truth and justness of the Christian view.”  Thus the first chapter of his work opens with a discussion of “that most glorious society and most celestial city of God’s faithful, while the last chapter concludes triumphantly with the internal felicity of the City of God. Human history took on a new meaning and direction with St. Augustine’s City of God. Just like other Christian fathers, St. Augustine believed that all men are created equal in the sight of God, there is no chosen people, privileged race or class.  All peoples and all nationalities are involved in the working out of God’s purpose and therefore the historical process is everywhere and always of the same kind. The idea overcomes not only the characteristic humanism and the substantialism of the Greco-Roman historiography but also its particularism.
However, Augustinian interpretation of history has its own shortcomings for the practice of history.  In the City of God the history of the temporal city was relegated to a secondary, irrelevant position while that of the celestial city gained primacy.  It was better and safer for mankind to sojourn in the eternal rather than the ephemeral city. Thus, history became a specifically Christian drama with the implication of consigning to a state of irrelevance all those subjects and themes historians had attached much importance to the Persian War, the rise and growth of the Roman Empire, etc. In the unfolding scenario, the events of Augustinian importance included the Fall of Adam, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Promise of the Second Coming, etc.  In short, St. Augustine subordinated history to the service of theology.
Above all, St. Augustine was a bad historian as his attitude to historical facts was always one of preconceived, predetermined theoretical bias; one must first believe (he wrote) before one may understand.  Besides, no matter the weight of any historical evidence or force of any argument, the Bible remained to him the most impeccable source of authority. In spite of the methodological shortcomings of St. Augustine, his analysis of the historical process became the accepted and undoubted interpretation of history among the Catholics for more than 1000 years.  Besides his magisterial philosophy of history, the Christian West also adopted his views on the state and society, on human sexuality, on the relationship of Christians to the Earthly City. Indeed, so great was the impact of St. Augustine throughout the Middle Ages that great thinkers of the period appealed to his authority. His influence was clearly over-whelming in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albertas Magaus, Peter Lombard, the numbers of the Franciscan and Victorian schools while St. Anselm was only formally Augustinian.
Undoubtedly, St. Augustine remains Africa’s greatest contribution to Catholicism and even Western thought.  He was also one of the greatest and influential figures in the history of thought and his fame rested on his monumental History of the Church and City of God.

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