Tag Archives: ecclesiastical history

Christian historiography vs Christian historiographers

Entering Late Antiquity, the ancient historian must come face to face with the Christian religion. Many classicists and ancient historians are not comfortable with Christianity as subject matter; one young Latinist I met referred to himself as ‘allergic to Christianity’. Yet this period of transition from Classical to Medieval has a great many Christian sources, growing in quantity and significance over the centuries.

One of the new Christian things of Late Antiquity is history writing. There is not really any Christian history writing (or ‘historiography’) before Late Antiquity, although elements of historical note work their way into other Christian works, of course — especially acta of martyrs. In particular, the genre of ecclesiastical history does not exist before Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339). Late antique Christians also write other historical works; Eusebius wrote a chronicle, a Life of Constantine, and a work with a certain amount of history for its polemical point, On the Preparation of the Gospel.

Besides the fifth- and sixth-century continuators of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Chronicle (as well as those works’ Latin translators, Rufinus and Jerome), other texts of history writing by Christians include Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (written ca 313-16); Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle (ca 403 — an account from the origins of the world to 400); Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (418, of like scope to Sulpicius); and, later (at least by the 500s), more ‘national’ histories, such as Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, Jordanes’ Getica about the Goths, and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards.

Alongside these, descended from lives of martyrs come the various texts of saints’ lives, with varying degrees of relationship with ancient historiographical norms. We also have some biographical texts, such as the Liber Pontificalis that gives brief biographies of the bishops of Rome, originally composed in the 520s.

(I’m sure I’m forgetting other texts just now.) We also have what is often called ‘Classicising’ history — most notably by Procopius in the court of Justinian, who, I think, is considered a Christian (although I, personally, would be interested to see if there is a case for his religion being traditional Samaritan). Among the fragmentary historians mentioned last post, Malchus was said by Photius to be favourable to Christianity; this is not really the same as being a Christian, though. Eunapius and Olympiodorus were pagans, and I do not know if we know Priscus’ inclinations. Again, I do not know about the religion of the Latin fragmentary Sulpicius Alexander (late 300s) and Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus (early 400s).

Anyway, sometimes people want to find some unifying thread amongst the Christian historiographers, trying to argue for something that makes ‘Christian’ history writing distinct, unique. Style? No, they are too diverse, from the very classical Procopius to the less classical Gregory of Tours. Themes? Once again, not really; Procopius writes about wars, buildings, and terrible things Justinian did, whereas Orosius covers pretty much everything and Gregory of Tours just the Franks.

Perhaps divine causation? While this may not be the most prominent feature of ancient ‘pagan’ history writing, it is not equally present across the board in these historians. So, once again, no.

In fact, I do not think you will find anything that unites late antique Christian historiography. This is because I do not believe that such a thing exists.

There are Christians who are historiographers, or historians, or whatever you wish to call them.

But their style, their content, their themes, are determined by their texts’ genres.

Thus, to take one example, that which makes a chroniclechronicle has nothing to do with Christianity. Christian events take up more space the later a chronicle goes, but that is true with all late antique history. A chronicle is not determined by what sorts of events its author deems fit for inclusion. It is determined by its chronographic outline/obsession and the brevity of its entries. Indeed, there are pre-Christian chronicles, so clearly Christianity has nothing to do with what makes a chronicle.

Christianity does unite the Ecclesiastical Histories, of course, but Eusebius set the path for the genre, and various other features distinguish them from other forms of history writing. They include divine causation, they include extracts from primary sources, they are concerned with the battle against heresy, they are concerned with Christian authors and thinkers. These main features persist in Bede’s eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People where he also brings in evangelisation as a major accompanying theme.

Orosius, on the other hand, is strongly obsessed with divine favour and divine causation, but has a variety of other things going on. His universal history became a very popular model for the Middle Ages, and it is certainly influenced by his Christianity, but I am not certain that it is the defining characteristic of the world history.

However, it is to be admitted that Procopius does allow for divine causation; thus the argument that late antique ‘Christian historiography’ has as a uniting thread such causation. Perhaps my issue, then, is not with the answer but with the question itself.

It simply strikes me that to lump these authors’ heterogeneous works together due to similarities of religion and time period is to start to lose a sense of what makes an ecclesiastical history, an ecclesiastical history; a chronicle, a chronicle; a world history, a world history; ‘classicising’ history, ‘classicising’ history; an epitome, an epitome; a saint’s life, a saint’s life; a national history, a national history.

The differences are, to me, more important. Any similarities must arise less from there being such a thing as ‘Christian historiography’ as simply attributes common to the late antique Christian mindset.

Why do canon law manuscripts have lists of Roman provinces in them?

IMG_20150224_141618The other day I was examining a manuscript of canon law documents and found something quite unexpected — a list of Roman provinces. This was not one of those manuscripts of miscellanea stitched together from different, fragmentary manuscripts. It is an integral whole, put together by a single scriptorium in the eleventh century. It starts with the canons of church councils, and ends with papal decretals (which in contemporary canon law have a universal jurisdiction). So, imagine my surprise when at the end of the church councils I found:

Noticia in prouintia galliarum

The text then lists all of the provinces and civitates of the Gauls in the Later Roman Empire. Then we find:

Nomina omnium prouinciarum

This lists the names of the provinces of the Roman Empire, divided by dioecesis, but missing out Gaul and Hispania — the former because it was already thoroughly described. Some quick e-mails to more experienced colleagues and a bit of searching showed me that the former was the ‘Notitia Galliarum’, the latter the ‘Nomina Provinciarum’ from the Laterculus of Polemius Silvius (mid-5th c.). Both texts were edited by Theodore Mommsen in Chronica Minora Vol 1 back in 1892. Mommsen used this manuscript for the ‘Notitia Galliarum’ but not for Polemius Silvius.

All well and good.

When I looked at Mommsen’s Conspectus Siglorum for these two texts, I observed that a number of familiar shelfmarks were there — Vat. lat. 630, for example, an important ninth-century manuscript of Pseudo-Isidore. In fact, a series of manuscripts of the Carolingian Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana, a collection of canon law documents sent to Charlemagne by Pope Hadrian I in 774, also includes the ‘Notitia Galliarum’. These are manuscripts that I only consulted for Leo’s letters, not being of a mind to consider their other contents.

The question that now strikes me, sitting here this morning, is why did the compilers of canonical collections include these documents — usually the ‘Notitia Galliarum’?

Mommsen argues that this ‘Notitia’ was originally composed between 390 and 413. Some versions, however, have latter emendations, such as ‘hoc est Agustedunum’ following ‘civitas Aeduorum’ (this is what my manuscript has; today ‘Autun’). With these emendations, the text becomes more useful in the Carolingian age; it is in the interest of a Carolingian user of a book to know that the late Roman ‘civitas Agrippinensium’ is ‘Colonia’ (and for a modern reader, ‘Cologne’).

Furthermore, we can see why a detailed list of the major civitates of Gaul and their old Roman provinciae would be helpful to a Carolingian — after all, in the world after 800, were they not living in a revived Roman Empire (most of it in Gaul and Germania)? So this is certainly a useful text. Carolingians are putting it in their useable manuscripts.

And canon law manuscripts are certainly useable and useful. These are books that bishops and others will have used in the daily running of church affairs. No doubt, for most clergy knowing which city was the old metropolis from the Later Roman Empire would be unhelpful. But I can imagine that several Carolingian bishops would have been pleased to know. Especially if they lived in that city.

The Carolingian world was not one where the idea of a separation of church and state existed. The secular authorities were heavily involved in ecclesiastical politics, and the clergy were involved in secular politics. Bishops were often made and unmade by kings. And popes could be involved in the legitimation of one monarch against another in moments of civil war. Kings were wont to bestow privileges upon loyal ecclesiastics — legal privileges, tax benefits, power over monasteries (or, for monasteries, freedom from episcopates).

If you were an ecclesiastic, a compendium of canon law such as the Dionysio-Hadriana would become even more useful if you knew where in the imagined secular order your own civitas stood. Were you a metropolitan? Who was your metropolitan? Was your civitas listed? Was the civitas of an ally or enemy listed? If so, who was his metropolitan? Could you use any of the canons in that book to protect yourself or prosecute your enemies, based upon the organisation of the Roman world (your world) as found in the ‘Notitia Galliarum’?

So perhaps the presence of the ‘Notitia Galliarum’ in canon law manuscripts is not, as it first seemed to me, an aberration. Perhaps, in the end, it makes perfect sense.