Wednesday, April 09, 2008

History of History

This looks like good fun. As any book written by an admirer of Gibbon ought to be.

So, too, with Mr. Burrow's playfully mocking account of Gregory [of Tours]. By the time the reader of "A History of Histories" reaches the chapter on this chronicler of an age of darkness, he has already been thoroughly exposed to the most brilliant lights of the ancient world: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus. Those Greek and Roman writers not only invented the very discipline of history, they created some of its most lasting monuments; in some ways they have never been excelled. By the time Gregory came on the scene, the Roman Empire had fallen in the West, and the historian's horizons, intellectual and geographical, had shrunken pitifully. "Gregory's life and the contemporary events he records were centered on, though not entirely confined to, the Loire valley," Mr. Burrow writes. In his chronicle, as in a medieval painting, the sense of perspective has been lost: "A great many things keep happening," one after another, but there is no way to distinguish great from small, or even fact from legend.

The last of which is certainly true and puts Thucydides in a different class than Gregory as a historian -- though modern classicists have a devil of a time peeling away the biases and spin in the narrative told by Thucydides, who, after all, was a controversial actor in the story as well as its author.

And Thucydides' geographical scope was not all that much greater than Gregory's, except for the expedition to Sicily. It's just that we find the events of 5th century B.C.E. Hellas far more inspiring, tragic, urgent, and important to ourselves than the events of 6th century central France. A medieval Frenchman might have thought otherwise.

And Thucydides, in his introduction, most unhistorically dismisses everything before his own time and outside his own nation as unimportant and not worth writing about:

Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world - I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters.

While Gregory, with Christian humility, admits his inadequacy to the task and at the same time puts it in what was -- then -- the full context of the history of the world, beginning with Adam and Eve.

Hearing continually these complaints and others like them I [have undertaken] to commemorate the past, [in] order that it may come to the knowledge of the future; and although my speech is rude, I have been unable to be silent as to the struggles between the wicked and the upright; and I have been especially encouraged because, to my surprise, it has often been said by men of our day, that few understand the learned words of the rhetorician but many the rude language of the common people. I have decided also that for the reckoning of the years the first book shall begin with the very beginning of the world, and I have given its chapters below.