The medieval view of history (fl. 600-1600) is the view of the past commonly held during the Middle Ages (500-1400) by Westerners, at least among those who could read and write. Parts of it lasted into the 1700s. Since 1800 the Western view of history has changed considerably.
The medieval view of history was:
- Christian – the main events were Creation, the Fall, Redemption and Judgement Day. That was the framework. Beyond that, history did not have any kind of deep meaning, no “lessons of history”.
- static – things do not change much from age to age. The big changes come from God, and we are not due for another big one till Judgement Day. Till then the great wheel of Fortune rules the world, not the march Progress. History did not come in stages that build on each other, making things steadily better. If anything, sin was making things steadily worse. That is why the past was more glorious than the present. A science fiction future of great inventions was unthinkable till the 1800s.
- anachronistic – because there is little change from age to age, people throughout history wear the same clothes, eat the same food, fight with the same weapons, and so on. There was no sense of how one period was different from the next. History did not become a costume drama till the 1800s.
- legendary – “history” and “story” used to mean the same thing in English: an account of events, true or false. History, for the most part, was not pieced together by scholars through recovered facts. Instead it was passed down through old stories, like those of Troy or King Arthur. They were believed to be true, more or less, but it is not a point people gave much thought to. The word “history” in English did not mean a branch of knowledge till the late 1400s.
- heroic – history was not seen as the play of great forces or unfolding stages, but as the march of great men and women, their words and deeds, their valour and villainy, their good and bad luck. The purpose of history was to entertain and tell of the past, to honour great deeds, and to set an example for the living through its great lovers, saints, wise men and warriors. History’s greatest heroes were:
- The Nine Worthies:
- Three Pagans: Hector, Alexander, Julius Caesar;
- Three Jews: Joshua, David, Judas Maccabaeus;
- Three Christians: Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon.
- The Nine Worthies:
- more epic and more romantic – since there was little difference between history and story, they were told much the same way. That made the history of the Dark Ages (500-1000) seem epic because that is the way people liked to tell stories back then. Likewise, the High Middle Ages (1100-1400) became romantic in its telling. Writers were not so much stretching facts or making them up, as choosing those that would best fit their style of storytelling.
Note that not everyone believed all of this, but it seems to have been the general, default view.
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: “The Discarded Image” (1964) by C.S. Lewis; Etymology Online (2016).
- Isidore – lived in the 600s, helped to shape Western thought till the 1400s.
- Western views of Native Americans
- What “world” history taught me – the current tropes of Western-style history
- The history of Black history
- The future that kind of never was