History | Sem-Medieval European History
H710 | 2693 | Shopkow

T 6:00P-8:00P BH221

Topic: Historical Writing in the Middle Ages

A portion of the above section reserved for majors

R. W. Southern remarks in The Making of the Middle Ages (1953:192) that
"there is something in the writing of  history which has called forth at
all times the best resources of the Benedictine scholar: it opened a field
for the laborious, exacting, patient work of compilation and arrangement
which the spirit of the Rule required...It is to this complex activity
that we owe our best materials for understanding the history of our
period."  This course will examine the nature of this "complex activity,"
the writing of history in the Middle Ages, not only as it was practiced by
monks, but as it was written, commissioned, and read by others.

The most obvious difficulty in approaching medieval historical writing is
understanding what it is.  Is hagiography, for example, different from
other sorts of biography? Are collections of miracula a form of historical
writing?  And what happens when people write history in the vernacular?
While a scholarly debate is currently going on about these issues, the
matter seems unclear.  Another problem is how to think about the many
different sorts of works which most scholars accept belong under the
rubric of history.  The norms of genre, organization, and research we
accept are notably absent from medieval histories; we need to understand
what norms (if any) there were, at the same time avoiding the danger of
assuming that medieval historians were simply stupid and accepted
everything they heard and read.

While we will read a couple of works by "great" historians that were
widely disseminated in the middle ages, we will also read some of the more
local and idiosyncratic medieval historical texts.  We will also read a
little of the secondary literature relating to these works and some
theoretical works which touch on historical writing.  Among the secondary
works we will read are Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths?
And Thomas Heffernan, Sacred Biography,  as well as essays by Gabrielle
Spiegel, Nancy Partner, and others.  Primary works have not yet been

Students will each write a major seminar paper on a historical work or
tradition, vernacular or Latin and compile bibliographies for the primary
works we will read.  A knowledge of French, German and/or Latin is highly
desirable in this course, but not required.