Thinking across the Past

  • Don LePan


A lack of chronological awareness — and a lack of a sense of ‘whenness’ generally — is one of the most immediately striking aspects of medieval historical writing, particularly before the twelfth century. It is true that a number of the very early Christian historians exhibit a great concern for chronology, but their concern is a very different thing from the modern desire to place events within a framework of abstract and objective time. In the fourth century we find Eusebius of Caesarea attempting ‘to compose a universal history where all events were brought within a single chronological framework’.1 In the seventh century Isadore of Seville succeeded in inventing the single universal chronology, by which all events are dated from the birth of Christ, and in the eighth century Bede did much to popularise this system.2 Not only did he sprinkle dates liberally throughout the text of his Ecclesiastical History, but he also appended ‘a chronological summary of the whole book’.3 What all these writers have in common is the desire to establish a single pattern in human history; a pattern directed by God, with the birth of Christ at its centre.4 The effort is thus not made with any idea of there being an intrinsic usefulness in relating events to one another in time. Rather, it represents an attempt to discover patterns in the dates that reveal the direction of an extra-human force: it is no accident that the events narrated by medieval chronologers and historians are so often in temporal units of three, seven or forty — numbers that were considered to be invested with mystical significance.5


Twelfth Century Medieval Period Sequential Memory Visual Imagination Universal History 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History (Oxford University Press, 1946) pp. 50–1.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Bede, The Venerable, A History of the English Church and People, L. Sherley-Price (trans.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955) p. 322.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For discussions of this phenomenon, see Collingwood, The Idea of History and Le Goff, J., Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages (University of Chicago Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Johnson, J. W. ‘Chronological Writing: Its Concept and Development’ in History and Theory 11 1962, p. 131. Johnson is overstating the case somewhat in calling the efforts to date the origins of the Goths and Huns ’the single outstanding effort of medieval chronologers to depart from Biblical exegesis’. A strong case can be made for the efforts of the Normans to establish their origins and cultural identityGoogle Scholar
  5. detailed in Davis, R. H. C., The Normans and Their Myth (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979). This effort, however, like that of the Goths and Huns, is directed solely towards establishing origins rather than towards relating events to one another over the broad sweep of time: in this respect it parallels rather than contrasts with the efforts of other ‘historians’ to establish the date of the Creation, and of the Apocalypse.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Malmesbury, William. Chronicle of the Kings of England in McGarry, D. D. (ed.) Sources of Western Civilization, vol. 1 ( Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1962) p. 226.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Murray, A., Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 175.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Fowler, R., Old English Prose and Verse (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) p. 3.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Brandt, W., The Shape of Medieval History (Yale University Press, 1960) p. 66.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    Tuchman, B., The Zimmerman Telegram (New York: Mentor Books, 1967, orig. pub. 1958) pp. 136–7.Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    Dickinson, J., Introduction to John of Salisbury: The Stateman’s Book: The Policratus (London: Russell and Russell, 1927 and 1963), p. xxxi.Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    Patrides, C. (ed.) Raleigh’s History of the World (London: Macmillan, 1971).Google Scholar
  13. 29.
    Yates, F., The Art of Memory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964) p. 249.Google Scholar
  14. 34.
    Thirteenth-century confessors’ manual, as quoted by Murray, A. in ‘Confession as a Historical Source in the Thirteenth Century’, in Davis, R. H. C. and Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. (eds) The Writing of History in the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1981) p. 277.Google Scholar
  15. 35.
    Trapp, J. B., Medieval English Literature (Oxford University Press, 1973) p 10.Google Scholar
  16. 39.
    See, for example, Cross. C., Church and People 1450–1660 (London: Fontana, 1976) p. 34.Google Scholar
  17. 41.
    Bailey, A. G., The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures 1504–1700 (University of Toronto Press, 1976, orig. pub. 1937 ) p. 127.Google Scholar
  18. 45.
    Ibid., p. 87. A number of other examples of this sort of feat are reported in Neisser, U., Memory Observed (San Francisco: Freeman, 1982) pp. 241–73. It should be emphasised that the strong sequential memory abilities found among so many primitive peoples do not, however, involve memorisation of stories word for word. As Neisser observes, ‘people who have attended school are… much better at list learning, categorized recall, and all forms of rote memory than non-schooled subjects’ (p. 241). The various experiments demonstrating that primitive peoples ’(literate or otherwise) recall stories better than Americans’ are ’based on scoring for themes and episodes, not words’ (p. 242).Google Scholar
  19. 49.
    Applebee, A. N., The Child’s Concept of Story (University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 123.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Don LePan 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Don LePan

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations