Medieval Historical Writing

Medieval Historical Writing

One important thing we need to think about when studying the past is how exactly it was compiled. It is essential that we consider who was writing history and why. What drove people to sit and write down the events of the past in the medieval period. This post examines the process of Medieval Historical Writing.

The Author’s Perspective

The medieval historian inherited his attitudes towards compiling and writing the past from the Roman world. To the Romans, history was a form of rhetoric. Rhetoric means the art of using words, either written or spoken to persuade one’s audience.

In the Roman world, history was not studied as a subject in its own right. Rather it was studied as a branch of grammar and so historians were not trained as historians per se.[1]The majority of medieval chroniclers were professional religious men, in either monastic or secular orders. They had received a university education but were not exclusively trained as historians. Thus both their vocational status as well as their gender have major implications for the composition process as well as what they chose to preserve of past events.[2]

This is something to always bear in mind when we look at medieval chronicles. There are a few exceptions to the rule, however, for the most part, men had a monopoly on historical writing. History was a male-dominated profession which means we have a view of history that was written by large from the male perspective.

Perspective is essential. Gervase of Canterbury claimed: ‘I do not however want to mark all that may be told, but I will relate only things that are worthy to be remembered.’ [3] Therefore Gervase sought to portray a deliberately created and strictly selected version of the past for his audience.[4] It was the historian’s task to decide what was worthy of recording: he essentially decided what history was.[5] The historian could not provide an entire history of all matters – he decided what he wrote and from which perspective he wrote. We must always bear in mind there are always alternative versions of the past. We as historians are gatekeepers, just as our medieval forbearers decided what was handed down to us as historical facts.

Influences on the Writing Process

Yet it was not merely a historian’s own selective process which determined what and how history was recorded. As Lake has highlighted, a range of potentially distorting influences occurring between the event itself and the recording of it could affect the way it was portrayed. These factors could be distortions in oral testimony. For example, the details of the event described could be politicised as time passed. For instance, as one individual or group fell out of general favour, their actions could be then interpreted and written as a way to discredit them. Or the influence of generic conventions could also influence how the past was written down. 

The interpretive framework through which history was written also shaped historians’ texts.[6] This process becomes more complicated when we consider texts prior to the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century that were copied. Prior to the printing press each copy was in some ways a rewriting of the original work.[7]

The motives for writing also greatly influenced the end product as histories were frequently composed in reaction to and in an effort to offer some explanation for a crisis or a particular event.[8] For instance, the proliferation of writing in the early twelfth century that can collectively be called the crusade narratives were a reaction to the First Crusade and to the fortunes of the crusader states and subsequent crusades thereafter. Also, the author and therefore the text was, to a more or less self-conscious degree, influenced by current concerns and events, be they social, political or religious.[9]

The Purpose of History

Medieval historical writing was often utilized as a political tool to advance a particular argument or to support a moral or polemical agenda.[10] However this does not render its contents inherently unreliable, indeed, the author’s concerns and their influence on the text are valuable historical evidence in themselves.

Above all, history was understood to have a didactic purpose, to be a medium for providing examples of good and bad ways to behave. So an important part of individual authors’ motives was usually the desire to impart advice or moral guidance.[11] William of Tyre explicitly remarked on the didactic purpose of history in the final chapter of the Historia Rerum In Partibus Transmarinis Gestarum; when he considered ceasing to write, he recalled his literary predecessors:

‘…by narrating successful achievements, they hope to inspire posterity with courage, while by furnishing examples of misfortunes patiently endured they may render later generations more cautious under similar conditions.[12]

One way of imparting advice was to take examples from the Bible to demonstrate that God rewarded the good and punished the wicked.[13] Historians would often present the information of a particular event in a way that emphasised the virtuous qualities of certain individuals and the role these played in their achievements and success. Yet this does not mean that such accounts should be regarded as essentially fictional.[14] As P. Damian-Grint puts it: medieval history ‘…is important not so much for what it can teach us about what ‘really happened’ as for the instruction and moral exempla it can provide for the edification of the devout reader.’[15]

An author’s frequent reference to scripture was significant evidence of his intensive theological education which inevitably influenced the way they wrote. Furthermore, the author’s inclusion of Biblical material demonstrates that they followed a formula for writing history. Chroniclers were expected to draw upon examples from the Bible.

Medieval chroniclers were also expected to demonstrate their education through reference to or quotations from various classical authors, for instance, Cicero and Virgil. The reference to classical authors demonstrates the author’s eagerness to establish his credentials and to illustrate his awareness of his important classical predecessors who established models of writing to follow.

Convention

The prologue often includes a number of topoi, for example:

  • The author modestly declares he is unequal to the task of chronicling history, his education and intellect is inadequate.
  • Usually, the work is dedicated to a patron, perhaps an Abbot, King, nobleman or noblewoman.
  • The author declares it his intention to tell the truth throughout.
  • Sources are sometimes listed.

Vessey suggests that declarations such as these have little value for they merely demonstrate that the author was well acquainted with the rules of rhetoric.[16] However, these topoi are highly significant for they reveal that the author identified himself as a historian and approached the task with a clear methodology, prepared to adhere to the established rules of the composition of historical writing.

To conclude, medieval historical writing was not an independent enterprise. The historian had to follow a set formula when putting pen to paper. However, just because the author followed a set of guidelines does not render medieval historical writing useless or completely untruthful in any way. Historians had to present the truths of the past through a framework which sometimes meant events were exaggerated or entirely omitted. Indeed medieval historical writing is like picking up a newspaper today – each writer will only give you their perspective of events. If we seek the total truth, we have to consult multiple sources and often use our own skills as historians to sift through the information handed down to us.

See my post Who Was Bede? to learn more about one remarkable medieval historian.


[1] M. Kempshall, Rhetoric and the Writing of History, 400-1500, (Manchester, 2011), p.p. 121-124; B. Smalley, Historians in the Middle Ages, (London, 1974),  p. 17,

[2] B. Weiler, ‘The Latin West: Sources and Historiography’, Forthcoming in C. Holmes, J. Shepard, J. Van Steenbergen, and B. Weiler (ed.) Political Culture in Three Spheres, Forthcoming Publication, p. 7.

[3] ‘Non tamen omnia memorabila notare cupio, sed memoranda tantum, ea scilicet quae digna memoriae esse videntur’; W. Stubbs (ed.) The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, Vol. 1, The Chronicle of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry I and Richard I, (Cambridge, 2012), p. 89.

[4] J. Coleman, Ancient and Medieval Memories, Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past, (Cambridge, 1992), p. p. 299-300.

[5] For the most recent substantial study on medieval historians and history, see M. Kempshall, Rhetoric and the Writing of History, 400-1500, (Manchester, 2011).

[6] J. Lake, ‘Current Approaches to Medieval Historiography’, History Compass, Vol.13, Issue 3, (March, 2015), p. 92.

[7] J. Lake, ‘Current Approaches to Medieval Historiography’, p. 95.

[8] C. Given-Wilson, Medieval Chronicles, The Writing of History in Medieval England, (London, 2004), p. 194.

[9] J. Lake, ‘Current Approaches to Medieval Historiography’, p. 92.

[10] M. Kempshall, Rhetoric and the Writing of History, 400-1500, (Manchester, 2011), p. 67.

[11] N.R Hodgson, Women, Crusading and the Holy Land in Historical Narrative, (Woodbridge, 2007), p. 11.

[12] WT., II, p. 506; Chronique I: ‘…, ut sicut gestorum feliciter narratione posteros ad quandam animositatem erigunt, sic infortuniorum subiectorum exemplo eosdem reddant in similibus cautiores.’ p. 1062.

[13] P. Damian- Grint, The New Historians of the Twelfth-century Renaissance: Inventing Vernacular Authority, (Suffolk, 1999),p. 39.

[14] B. Weiler, ‘Matthew Paris on the Writing of History,” Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 35, No.3, (2009), p. 275.

[15] P. Damian- Grint, The New Historians of the Twelfth-century Renaissance: Inventing Vernacular Authority, (Suffolk, 1999),p. 39.

[16] D.W.T.C. Vessey, ‘William of Tyre and the Art of Historiography’, Mediaeval Studies, 35, (1973), p.436.

1 Comment

  1. Alex Jordan
    25/09/2022 / 9:24 am

    Fascinating topic. I love history

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