By Paul Antony Hayward
A natural starting point for any attempt to know a past society is its histories—the texts with which its members recorded what had happened and was happening in their world. Many precious witnesses of this kind have survived from medieval Europe, but they are not easily used to answer the questions that modern historians would like to ask.
In essence, three types of historical writing flourished in the Middle Ages: chronicles, hagiography, and the rhetorical monograph. The first category refers to seemingly simple lists of events or, to use the current jargon, “factoids.” These texts usually arrange their factoids in some sort of chronological order; many assign them to the anni, or years, in which they took place, for which reason they are often called “annals.” The second type comprises records of things that God has done in this world, through the grace that he has bestowed on his saints and their devotees. The third category refers to narratives that celebrate or criticize the acts of rulers, dynasties, or communities.
All three types clash with modern ways of thinking. Hagiographical texts baffle, because they are the most overtly empiricist and yet, it often seems, the most unreliable. They ask us to believe that God was an active presence in the life of a certain saint and his or her people, that whenever he or she requested divine help he provided diverse wonders, extending from food and water in times of need to the resurrection of the dead. They ask their readers to accept as absolute fact events that most of us find implausible.
Chronicles favor the mundane, but many incorporate miracle stories, and they typically lack two qualities that modern readers require of a proper historical text: “narrativity” and a metahistorical voice. That is, their authors fail to guide their readers with comments that point them toward a particular interpretation—they fail to connect events in ways that tell stories and explain how one gave rise to the next. The third type, on the other hand, has these “missing” elements in excess.