The Baptism of Clio

Taking classical Greco-Roman historiography as a starting point, we can now see what continuities and changes can be observed in the course of the history of Western Christendom during the Middle Ages. Of course, there are sufficient continuities between the two of them for the identity of that term to reflect strong parallels as regards content: the investigation and narration of past events that really took place, centring on the historian’s own political community, for instruction in matters of morality and government, carried out by culturally and socially outstanding men (always males), often “well born and educated in the trade of important business” (as Montaigne was to say, referring to Commynes).

Nevertheless, it may well be between the historiography of the classical world and that of medieval Christendom that we can observe the greatest modification; a change undoubtedly greater than the one that was to take place between the latter and the Renaissance-Baroque phase; a change also probably of greater importance than the one that occurred between the history of Renaissance-Baroque period and Enlightened historiography. The baptism of Clio means a substantial change in approach, in different aspects, insofar as the way personal and collective human adventures were considered. It was a great change, above all, if we concentrate on early medieval history, written within the shelter of the cloisters.

There was also a change as regards contents: the history of salvation, of Christianization, of sanctity (religious and ecclesiastical history) dominated or was added to the history of political developments. With regard to the aims and objectives, reflection upon change and the fragile nature of human constructions (“maquinas transituras”) had religious edification, rather than political instruction, as its goal. It led not to stoical imperturbability but to Christian humility and hope. The first clear “consolations through history”, by Augustine of Hippo and Otto of Freising, appeared, for finalistic theological saturation (human history is a pilgrimage and is unitarily oriented towards a total future plenitude offered by God) was a fundamental characteristic of medieval historiography, clearly contrasting in this respect with classical works. This virtual universalism of medieval historiography, reflected in general or universal chronicles, did not prevent the geographical scope from hardly varying in comparison with that of Greco-Roman historiography insofar as the understanding of processes and specific historical events was concerned. Until the end of the Middle Age, Western Christendom was a geographically enclosed world, only marginally opened up by the Crusades. As regards the chronological dimensions, the interest in the earliest stages of mankind, from their Biblical origins in the time of Adam onwards, was not endowed with either the methods or the sources (unless biblical descriptions are taken into account) required to satisfy the objectives.

If we consider the characteristics and qualities of historical writing, together with their truthfulness and clarity, which continued to be sought, it appears to us to be (likewise in contrast with classical historiography, which was rhetorically far more elaborate) fresh in its simplicity, in the style of the Bible, both as regards autobiographical narratives (Muntaner and Commynes) and also works based on other people’s evidence (such as the works of Bede, Otto of Freising and Alfonso X).

This change in values and social relevance also had an effect on the type of individual authors within medieval historiography: churchmen (monks and bishops) were added to rulers and educated nobles, in writing histories that, in immediate terms, continued to reach, in most cases, a fairly narrow public, since neither parchments nor papyri were easily reproduced in overwhelmingly illiterate societies

F. Sánchez Marcos