Seminar V: Rhetorical Histories
The subject of this week’s seminar is the production of grand, rhetorical,
history in the early and high Middle Ages. The Greco-Roman world bequeathed
to the Middle Ages two basic models for the writing of this kind of history:
the classical monograph as practiced by historians such as Sallust, Tacitus
and, in late antiquity, Ammianus Marcellinus; and the ecclesiastical
history, a genre which was invented in the early fourth-century East by
Eusebius of Caesarea and transmitted to the West when his Historia ecclesiastica was
translated into Latin and continued by Rufinus of Aquileia. Both types
of history were written to persuade, but their methods were quite
classical monograph is typically concerned with a self-contained story
or event of relatively short duration, such as a war, a crisis of some
kind or (under the principate) the reign of a particular emperor or dynasty.
Taking its organisation from the event/story itself rather than from
a larger chronological system, it seldom concerns itself with dates.
Except in so far as fate and divination figure as recurring motifs, the
monograph avoids religion. Its usual subject matter is res
deeds of great men and, on occasion, women. The ecclesiastical history,
on the other hand, takes a long-term perspective, being concerned with
the history of the Church since its inception in the time of the Apostles.
Its usual themes were first defined by Eusebius, who declared in his preface
that he would give an account of (i) the bishops of the most illustrious
sees, (ii) the heralds, oral or literary, of the Word of God in each generation,
(iii) heretics, (iv) the fate of the Jews, (v) pagan attacks on the Word
of God, and (vi) the sufferings of the faithful witnesses to the Word.
Ecclesiastical history is very much concerned with defining the boundaries
between the true Church, the community of genuine Christians, and its ‘others’,
the various non-Christian communities. (The influence of this template
helps to explain why historians like Gregory of Tours, who was much influenced
by this model, are concerned with Jews and heretics even though their actual
significance to the history of his region, sixth-century Gaul, was minimal.)
Another key point of difference is that whereas the monograph conceals
its textual sources, avoiding any reference to them, the ecclesiastical
history puts documentary evidence in the foreground. As Robert Markus puts
and paste were the classical method of ecclesiastical historiography.’ Letters
and tracts are often quoted at length, or rather this is how the argument
is constructed, for ecclesiastical historians were not above editing and
even on occasion fabricating proofs. Ecclesiastical history was also marked,
in its earlier manifestations, by a certain outward simplicity—by an avoidance
of ornate prose and of devices such as the invented speech, which was one
of the hallmarks of the classical monograph. Both genres were vehicles
for argument, but they articulated their arguments in contrasting ways.
It should also be noted briefly that the classical world bequeathed to the medieval
historian another significant model in the form of two histories by the
Jewish apologist Titus Flavius Josephus (AD 38–100), the Jewish Antiquities and The
Jewish War. These works were transmitted to the Latin world in three-versions:
(i) the free paraphrase of the The Jewish War written in about 370 by
a Christian historian known as ‘Pseudo-Hegesippus’ or sometimes simply
as ‘Hegesippus’; (ii) the literal translation of The Jewish
War produced by Rufinus of Aquileia (d. c. 410/11); and (iii) the
translation of the Antiquities and of Against Apion (a short
defence of Judaism) which the sixth-century thinker Cassiodorus commissioned ‘from
his friends’. The Antiquities were certainly known to Bede and
there is ample evidence that all three works were widely known in England
from the first half of the twelfth century onwards. Cassiodorus, more to
the point, writes of Josephus as though he were a not a Jew, but a Christian:
he cites his works as examples of ecclesiastical history before turning
to those of Eusebius and his successors (Institutes,
Many rhetorical histories were produced in the Middle Ages, but none—except
perhaps for the History of the Tyrants of Sicily attributed to Hugo
Falcandus, a tremendous imitation of a classical monograph—adheres exactly
to either of these two models. Rather the typical pattern is that rhetorical
histories produced between 500 and 1400 are ‘hybrids’ in which some
passages resemble the entries one finds in annalistic chronicles, other
sections the material found in classical monographs, others that in ecclesiastical
histories, and others that in hagiography. It is as
though the classical monograph and the ecclesiastical history provided
models, less for the organisation of a history as a coherent whole, than
for how to make a certain type of point or for how to write up a certain
type of event.
The manuscripts in which ‘rhetorical histories’ are preserved are
seldom very distinctive in their layout. There was, in contrast
to the pattern with annalistic chronicles (and list-chronicles, another
important sub-genre), no need to maintain a specific format: the books
in which they were written might be large or small, lavishly or simply
decorated, carefully or informally written, laid out in strictly observed
double columns or with wide margins so that futher information could be
inserted with signes
de renvoi, ‘signs of return’. Where rhetorical histories
were concerned scribes were usually required to make copies which reproduced
their exemplar’s text as exactly as possible, modifying the presentation
only in so far as the script and the artwork had, of necessity, to follow
the practice of their own house. One often finds, however, that there are
or versions of these works. Indeed, it was quite common for medieval historians
to continue tinkering with their texts long after the first ‘finished version’ had
gone into circulation with the result that the surviving copies often fall
into distinct groups, each deriving from a different stage in the author’s
revision of his text. One common pattern, for example, is that the author
will remove or water down passages in which important historical figures
response, perhaps, to negative feedback from those persons’ relatives or
from the author’s
colleagues. In any case, these patterns of ‘publication’
are amply illustrated by the surviving manuscripts of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta
regum and Gesta pontificum Anglorum and by those of Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia
The significance of these patterns of ‘publication’ also
lies in what they reveal about the demand for new historical writing
in the Middle Ages. For the speed with which texts went into circulation
suggests that that demand was urgent: religious communities
seem to have been so keen to acquire histories of the
recent past that they sought them out for copying as soon as they got news
that such a text had been completed. Yet the evidence of the surviving
library catalogues shows that works about theology and the religious life
took up vastly more space in the holdings of most religious establishments.
Most religious houses owned a few copies of the ‘classics’—Eusebius,
Josephus, Bede, and also Geoffrey of Monmouth, the one major addition to
the canon in the twelfth century—but copies of other rhetorical histories were rarities. This much is true even
in the case of the wealthiest houses. The writing of new histories
was, it seems, an unusual but significant event: such works were seldom
attempted; when they were undertaken, they were avidly sought out and read;
but as soon as their moment had passed, they became objects of rare and occasional
attention, of interest only to scholars.
Topics for Discussion
- The Classical and Judaeo-Christian background to the writing of rhetorical
history in the Middle Ages.
- The methods of rhetorical historians, including their use of annalistic
sources, eye-witness reportage, invented speech, documents in
quotation, and satire.
- Attitudes to truth and the manipulation of received historical material.
- The balance between the secular and the religious in medieval rhetorical
- The significance of variant texts in the manuscript traditions of medieval
Texts (and manuscripts) for Discussion
- Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis
- Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapodosis
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum
- Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum
Sample texts should be downloaded from the Moodle website.
Strongly Recommended Reading—Available on Moodle
Some influential guidance as to how to write history was provided by classical
rhetorical manuals, many of them associated with the great Roman orator, Marcus
Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC):
- Cicero, De
oratore, ed. and trs. E. W. Sutton, Loeb Classical Library,
2 vols. (London, 1942), ii.51–64 (pp. 234–47). In ‘On
the Orator’, Cicero discusses the difference between annals
and history, and sets out various rules as to how the latter ought
to be written.
Herennium de ratione dicendi (Rhetorica ad Herennium),
trs. H. Caplan, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1954), i.8.12–9.16
(pp. 22–28). The tract ‘On the Logic of Speaking’ addressed
to Herennius was widely attributed to Cicero in the Middle Ages,
and this passage provides instructions about literary method that
could be applied to the writing of history.
- Cicero, De
inventione, ed. and trs. H. M. Hubbell, Loeb Classical Library
(London, 1949), I.xx.28–30 (pp. 56–63). In this early
Composition’, Cicero advises the orator to adjust his presentation
of the facts in order to better win the argument!
These passages can be downloaded from the Moodle website.
Histories Mentioned Above—and a Few Other Examples
- Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trs. F. J. Tschan, The Records of Civilisation 53 (New York, 1959). Available as an ACLS Humanities E-Book and at MIY.K.
- Blatt, F., The Latin Josephus, vol. 1, Introduction and Text:
Antiquities, Books I-V, Acta Jutlandica 30 (Aarhus, 1958).
- Cosmas of Prague, The Chronicle of the Czechs, trs. L. Wolverton, Medieval Texts in Translation (Washington, DC, 2009).
- Eusebius/Rufinus, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. E.
Schwartz and T. Mommsen, Die Kirchengeschichte [mit] der lateinischen ‹bersetzung
des Rufinus, in Eusebius Werke, vol. 2, Die griechischen christlichen
Schriftsteller 11, 1–3 (Leipzig, 1903–9). For translations, see Eusebius, The
History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trs. G. A. Williamson
with an introduction by A. Louth (Harmondsworth, 1989) [PO.A]; Rufinus,
T., The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia: Books 10 and 11, trs. P. R. Amidon
- Helmold of Bosau, The Chronicle of the Slavs, trs. F. J. Tschan, Records of Civilisation 21 (New York, 1966). Available as an ACLS Humanities E-Book.
- Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People), ed. D. E. Greenway, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1996). MVC.
- Historia Falcandi Siculi de rebus gestis in Siciliae regno, trs. G. A. Loud and T. Wiedemann, The History of the Tyrants of Sicily by ‘Hugo Falcandus’, 1154-69, Manchester Medieval Sources Series (Manchester, 1998). MFWE.Q.
- Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum, ed. E. Koestermann (Heidelberg, 1971). Ask Enquiries: 7XJ.S169. Medieval MSS of the Bellum Iugurthinum often
contain T–O maps like the one shown above: see E. Edson, Mapping Time and Space: How Medieval Mapmakers Viewed their World, The British Library Studies in Map History (London, 1997), pp. 18–21 [DQL3].
- Ussani, V. (ed.), Hegesippi qui dicitur historiae libri V, Corpus
Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 66, 2 vols. (Vienna, 1932–60).
- Warner, D. A. (trs.), Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester, 2001). MHBD.T.
- Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons, trs. B. S. and D. S. Bachrach, Medieval Texts in Translation (Washington, DC, 2014). Available at JSTOR.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, ed. and trs. R. A.
B. Mynors, Rodney M., Thomson and Michael Winterbottom, 2 vols., Oxford
Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1998–9). MVB.C.
Medieval Rhetorical Thought
- Auerbach, E., Literary Language and its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, trs. R. Manheim (London, 1965). XJQ.
- Alberic of Monte Cassino, Flores rhetorici, ed. D. M. Inguanez and
H. M. Willard, Miscellanea Cassinense 14 (Montecassino, 1938), pp.
31–59; trs. J. M. Miller in Readings in Medieval Rhetoric, ed.
J. M. Miller, M. H. Prosser and T. W. Benson (Bloomington and London,
1973), pp. 131–61. YUV3.B.
- Damon, P., ‘Allegory and Invention: Levels of Meaning in Ancient
and Medieval Rhetoric’,
in A. S. Bernardo and S. Levin (eds), The
Classics in the Middle Ages: Papers of the Twentieth Annual Conference
of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, Medieval
and Renaissance Texts and Studies 69 (Binghamton, NY, 1990), pp.
- Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Documentum de modo et arte dictandi et versificandi: Instruction in the Method and Art of Speaking and Versifying, trs. R. P. Parr, Mediaeval Philosophical Texts in Translation 17 (Milwaukee, WI, 1968). XJR.V6. A formative text for the development of rhetorical thought in the later Middle Ages.
- Minnis, A. J., and I. Johnson (eds), The Cambridge History of Literary
Criticism, vol. 2, The Middle Ages (Cambridge,
2005). YBRH. Note esp. J. J. Murphy, ‘The Arts of Poety and Prose’ (pp.
- Morse, R., Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation
and Reality (Cambridge, 1991). Probes the foundations of medieval narrative
literature, mainly historiography and biography. YUV.
- Murphy, J. J., Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical
Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles,
CA, 1975). YUV3.B.
- Troyan, S. D., Medieval Rhetoric (London, 2004).
Other Useful Readings—Just a Sample
- Albu, E., The Normans in their Histories: Propaganda, Myth and Subversion (Woobridge,
- Bagge, S., Kings, Politics, and the Right Order of the world in German
Historiography c. 950–1150, Studies in the History
of Christian Thought 103 (Leiden and Boston, 2002). Important, but not held at Lancaster.
- Bartlett, R., England under the Norman and Angevin
Kings, 1075–1225, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford, 2000).
MVE. Chapter 12 (pp. 616–33) provides an excellent overview
of historical writing in 12th-century England.
- Beer, J. M. A., Narrative Conventions of Truth in the Middle Ages, Études de philologie et d’histoire 38 (Geneva, 1981). Treats the claim to be telling the truth to be literary device which could be legitimately parrodied and manipulated by authors.
- Bouchard, C. B., ‘Episcopal Gesta and the Creation of a Useful Past in Ninth-Century Auxerre’, Speculum, 84 (2009), 1–35. Journals L6.
- Brandt, W. J., The Shape of Medieval History: Studies in Modes of Perception (New Haven, CT, 1966).
- Collins, S., ‘The Written World of Gregory of Tours’, in J. Glenn (ed.), The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources (Toronto, 2011), pp. 45–55. MB.
- de Nie, G., ‘History and Miracle: Gregory’s Use of Metaphor’,
in K. Mitchell and I. N. Wood (eds.), The World of Gregory of Tours,
Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions: Medieval and Early Modern Peoples 8
(Leiden, 2002), pp. 261–79. MSC7.
- de Nie, G., Views from a Many-Windowed Tower: Studies of Imagination in
the Works of Gregory of Tours (Amsterdam, 1987).
- Deliyannis, D. M. (ed.), Historiography in the Middle
Ages (Leiden, 2002). A general survey by a team of authors. L43.B.
- Galbraith, V. H., Historical Research in Medieval England (London, 1951). Pamphlet L43ea.
- Gantner, C., R. McKitterick, and S. Meeder (eds), The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2015).
- Geary, P. J., Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End
of the First Millennium (Princeton, NJ, 1994). MBLE.I.
- Gerberding, R. A., The Rise of the Carolingians and
the Liber Historiae Francorum (Oxford, 1987). MSC.
- Glenn, J., Politics and History in the Tenth Century: The Work and World
of Richer of Reims, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th
ser. 60 (Cambridge, 2004). MSEC.J.
W., ‘Bede’s vera lex historiae Explained’, Anglo-Saxon
England, 34 (2005), 111–6. Cambridge Journals Online
- Goffart, W., The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D.
550–800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton,
NJ, 1988). MBB.
- Haahr, J. G., ‘William of
Malmesbury’s Roman models: Suetonius and Lucan’, in A. S. Bernardo
and S. Levin (eds), The Classics in the Middle Ages: Papers of the Twentieth
Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies,
Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 69 (Binghamton, NY, 1990),
- Heinzelmann, M., Gregory of Tours: History and Society
in the Sixth Century, trs. C. Carroll (Cambridge, 2001). MSC.
- Loud, G. A., ‘History Writing in the Twelfth-Century Kingdom of Sicily’,
in S. Dale, A. W. Lewin, and D. J. Osheim (eds), Chronicling History: Chroniclers
and Historians in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (University Park, PA,
2008), pp. 29–54. MFP.I. Discusses Alexander of Telese, Falco of Benevento
and ‘Hugo Falcandus’, providing extracts in translation from the
former two authors’ histories (pp. 49–54).
- Markus, R. A., Bede and the Tradition of Ecclesiastical Historiography,
Jarrow Lecture 1975 (Newcastle, 1975) [PN.DM.B35]. Rpt. in Bede and his
World: The Jarrow Lectures, 2 vols. (Aldershot, 1994), i, 385–403 [MVC7].
It should be read in conjunction with Markus, R. A., ‘Church History and
the Early Church Historians’, in D. Baker (ed.), The Materials Sources
and Methods of Ecclesiastical History, Studies in Church History 11 (Oxford,
1975), pp. 1–17 [PO7]. Both articles are rpt. in Robert A. Markus, Sacred
and Secular: Studies on Augustine and Latin Christianity, Variorum Collected
Studies Series 465 (Aldershot, 1994), nos. II and III.
- McCready, W. D., Miracles and the Venerable Bede,
Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Studies and Texts 118 (Toronto,
1994), esp. chps. 8, ‘Vera lex historiae’, and 9, ‘Truth and
- Morrison, K. F., History
as a Visual Art in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (Princeton, NJ, 1990).
- Mortley, R., ‘The Hellenistic
Foundations of Ecclesiastical Historiography’, in G. Clarke with B. Croke,
R. Mortley and A. E. Nobbs (eds.), Reading the Past in Late Antiquity (Rushcutters
Bay, NSW, 1990), pp. 225–50.
- Nichols, S., Romanesque Signs: Early Medieval Narrative
and Iconography (New Haven, CT, 1983). YU.B. Late tenth- and eleventh-century
- Partner, N. F., Serious Entertainments: The Writing
of History in Twelfth-Century England (Chicago and London, 1977). L43ea.
- Paxton, J., ‘Lords and Monks: Creating an Ideal of Noble Power in Monastic
Chronicles’, in R. F. Berkhofer III, A. Cooper, A. J. Kosto (eds), The
Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350: Essays in Honor of
Thomas N. Bisson (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 227–36. MBM7.
- Paxton, J., ‘Textual Communities in the English Fenlands: A Lay Audience
for Monastic Chronicles?’, Anglo-Norman Studies,
26 (2004), 123–37.
- Pizarro, J. M., ‘Mixed Modes in Historical Narrative’,
in E. M. Tyler and R. Balzaretti (eds), Narrative and History in the Early
Medieval West, Studies in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout, 2006), pp. 91–104.
- Pizarro, J. M., A Rhetoric of the Scene: Dramatic Narrative in the Early
Middle Ages (Toronto, 1989).
- Pizarro, J. M., Writing Ravenna: The Liber pontificalis of Andreas
Agnellus (Ann Arbor, MI, 1995).
- Ray, R., ‘Bede and Cicero’, Anglo-Saxon England, 16 (1987), 1–15. MVC.
- Ray, R., ‘Bede, the Exegete, as Historian’, in G. Bonner (ed.), Famulus
Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the
Birth of the Venerable Bede (London,
1976), pp. 125–40. MVC5.* Mostly concerned with Bede’s concept of
historical truth and its relation to his theories of scriptural truth.
R., ‘Bede’s lex vera historiae’, Speculum,
55 (1980), 1–12. JSTOR; Journals L6.
- Ray, R., ‘The Triumph of Greco-Roman Rhetorical Assumptions
in Pre-Carolingian Historiography’, in C. Holdsworth and T. P. Wiseman
(ed.), The Inheritance of Historiography 350-900, Exeter Studies in History
12 (Exeter, 1986), pp. 67–84. L43.
- Ray, R., Bede, Rhetoric and the Creation of Christian
Latin Culture, Jarrow Lectures 1997 (Newcastle, 1997). Discusses the influence
of Cicero’s De inventione on Bede (either directly or through
Marius Victorinus’s commentary) and suggests that this first-hand knowledge
provided the impetus for his attempt to build a Latin Christian culture.
PAH can supply copies.
- Reynolds, B.
R., ‘Latin Historiography: A Survey, 1400–1600’, Studies
in the Renaissance, 2 (1955), 7–66. JSTOR.
- Schreckenberg, H., and K. Schubert, Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early and Medieval Christianity (Assen, 1992). PN.I.
- Shopkow, L., ‘Dynastic History’, in D. M. Deliyannis (ed.), Historiography
in the Middle Ages (Leiden, 2002), pp. 217–48. L43.B.
- Shopkow, L., History and Community: Norman Historical
Writing in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Washington, DC, 1998). MTC.I.
- Spiegel, G. M., ‘Historical Thought in Medieval Europe’, in
L. Kramer and S. Maza (eds), A Companion to Western Historical Thought (Malden,
MA, 2002), pp. 78–98. Available as an electronic resource and at L43.
- Stein, R. M., Reality Fictions: Romance, History and Governmental Authority, 1025–1180 (Notre Dame, IN, 2006).
- Trompf, G. W., Early Christian Historiography: Narratives of Retributive
Justice (London and New York, 2000). PO.A.
- Tyler, E. M., and R. Balzaretti (eds), Narrative and
History in the Early Medieval West, Studies in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout,
- Van Houts, E. M. C., ‘Historical Writing’, in C. Harper-Bill and
E. M. C. van Houts (eds), A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World (Woodbridge,
2002), pp. 103–21. MVE7.
- Van Houts, E. M. C., Memory and Gender in Medieval
Europe, 900–1200 (London, 1999). MBM.
- Vessey, D. W. T. C., ‘William of Tyre and the Art of Historiography’, Mediaeval
Studies, 35 (1973), 433–55. Y6. Ask at Enquiries.
- Ward, J. O., ‘Some Principles of Rhetorical Historiography in the Twelfth Century’,
in E. Breisach (ed.), Classical Rhetoric and Medieval Historiography, Studies in Medieval Culture 19 (Kalamazoo,
1985), pp. 103–65. The fundamental account of the Res gestae in the twelfth century.
- Wilcox, D. J., ‘The Sense
of Time in Western Historical Narratives from Eusebius to Machiavelli’,
in E. Breisach (ed.), Classical Rhetoric and Medieval Historiography,
Studies in Medieval Culture 19 (Kalamazoo, 1985), pp. 167–237.
- Wolf, K. B., Making History: The Normans and Their Historians
in Eleventh-Century Italy, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia, PA, 1995). MFP.