Viewing history with medieval eyes

Double-helix staircase at the Château de Chambord in France’s Loire Valley

Double-helix staircase at the Château de Chambord in France’s Loire Valley

In C. S. Lewis’ scholarly work The Discarded Image, he describes how medievals viewed the past:

John Barbour (ob. 1395) at the beginning of his Bruce sets out what he thinks the true reasons for studying history. Stories, even when untrue, give pleasure. But, if so, true stories told well (‘said on gud maner’), ought to give a double pleasure; pleasure in the ‘carpyng,’ the narrative as such, and pleasure in learning what really happened (‘the thing rycht as it wes’). And thirdly, it is only fair to record the deeds of great men, for they deserve fame – ‘suld weill have prys.’ Historiography has then three functions: to entertain our imagination, to gratify our curiosity, and to discharge a debt we owe our ancestors.

* * *

Medieval historians dealt hardly at all with the impersonal. Social or economic conditions and national characteristics come in only by accident or when they are required to explain something in the narrative. The chronicles, like the legends, are about individuals; their valour or villainy, their memorable sayings, their good or bad luck. Hence a modern finds those of the Dark Ages suspiciously epic and those of the High Middle Ages suspiciously romantic. Perhaps the suspicion is not always justified. The elements of epic and romance, like those of economic and social history, exist at all times in the real world; and historians, even in dealing with contemporary events, will pick out those elements which the habitual bent of their imagination has conditioned them to notice. Perhaps past or future ages might wonder at the predominance of the impersonal in some modern histories; might even ask, ‘But were there no people at that time?’

* * *

Medieval and nineteenth-century man agreed that their present was no very admirable age; not to be compared (said one) with the glory that was, not to be compared (said the other) with the glory that is still to come. The odd thing is that the first view seems to have bred on the whole a more cheerful temper. Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration. And, thanks to his deficiency in the sense of period, that packed and gorgeous past was far more immediate to him than the dark and bestial past could ever be to a Lecky or a Wells. It differed from the present only by being better. Hector was like any other knight, only braver. The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own amours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

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