Monday, October 12, 2009

The Cambridge Medieval History (1st. ed.)

I've started to read the Cambridge Medieval History, the first edition, 8 volumes published between 1911 and 1936, and it's really good stuff, no doubt, but still, the pro-Christian bias in the first chapter, and what appears to be a similar bias I've seen in other parts of the work as I browse around, hunt and peck, pick through the indexes, has surprised me. The supervisor of the project, until his death in 1927, was J B Bury, who was a major force in moving western European historical attitudes generally in a more multicultural direction, in removing western Europe's head from its butt so that it was able to see the rest of the world more clearly.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from vol 1, chapter 1, pp. 21-2, by H M Gwatkin, MA, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Cambridge, as he (She? Those British scholars with their so very frequent abbreviation of their first and middle names. A quick and dirty Internet search seems to indicate that, unfortunately, there were no female professors at Cambridge until well after 1911. There are some Misses and Mrs. among the authors of these 8 volumes, however.) sums up the character and achievements of Constantine the Great, who did not quite, as is sometimes asserted, make Rome an officially Christian empire -- Theodosius I did that in AD 380 -- but who probably did more than any other one individual to push the Empire in that direction:

No doubt his Christianity is of itself an offence to Zosimus and Julian, so that we may discount their charges of sloth and luxury: but upon the whole, the judgment of Eutropius would seem impartial, that Constantine was a match for the best emperors in the early part of his reign, and at its end no more than average.

Or in other words: "When pagans disagree with me they're biased slanderers, when they agree with me they're good chaps with sound impartial judgment."

And generally speaking, Gwatkin repeats several times the Christian mantra that the political crisis inherited by Constantine was reflective of a great moral crisis, which was of course solved by the Christianisation of the Empire. Somehow, the people who advance this thesis seem to have no trouble reconciling it with the fact that a more and more completely Christian western Empire disintegrated into pretty complete chaos in the 5th century, and that by the time the western Empire was pretty completely gone, so was any religion other than Christianity which dared to raise its head in public, other than Judaism, which was not better off under the reign of the Prince of Peace than it had been before. (Not to mention the open skepticism of any and all religion, which was also tolerated by Rome before the Christian crackdown.)

But then, it seems to me, sincere Christianity has never been able to exist without pronounced cognitive dissonance. And the study of medieval history in the West in the early 20th century seems to have often been to some synonymous with the propagation of Christian theology: and several of the authors of this History are indeed Reverends. And while this or that pastor or priest of 21st-century England or 18th-century France or 15th-century Italy may be entirely free of any noticeably Christian traits, early-20th-century Cambridge seems to have been much different.

Still, I'm excited about reading the 8-volume history, and impressed by Prof Gwatkin's first chapter despite my reservations -- nobody's perfect, in my opinion -- and I may report here again as I read further. I read Gwatkin's chapter from beginning to end, and it's possible, who knows, that I may eventually read all 8 volumes that way. (I tend not always to read historical works straight through from beginning to end, especially if they happen to be somewhat encyclopaediadic as in this case, but to do a look of looking up and following threads and hunting around and discovering new topics as I investigate the topics I was originally investigating; in short, I have my own way of doing things. I don't claim it's the best way. But I yam what I yam. I spend a lot of time looking over bibliographies, and the bibliographies here, one for each volume and again for each chapter, are long and splendid. For example, I noticed here, not for the first time in a bibliography, a mention of the Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, a collection of source material from medieval Italy, begun in the early 18th century by one L A Muratori, and just a couple of days ago while wondering around in the local university library I happened upon the volumes themselves for the first time anywhere, big folios, mostly very old volumes with crumbling orange covers, magnificent stuff. If the mention of such things does not excite you, you may not be an historian in my sense of the term, or I may not be one in yours.)

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