Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Notes on the concept of history in Henry of Huntingdon's Prologue

In around 1130 Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, was commissioned by his boss Bishop Alexander of Lincoln to write a history of the English people. The result was the Historia Anglorum, nominally completed in 1135, but which he continued to revise and extend until his death, some 40-odd years later.

The prologue was written in 1135, addressed to Bishop Alexander, and contains some interesting statements about Henry's ideas of historical writing, and about the structure of history itself.

Henry appears to have three central ideas about history: that the study of it is worthy and improving, that it is structured in a comprehensible way by a divine hand, and that its shape demonstrates the ultimate failure and decline of all worldly things.


1. History as genre.
Nothing is more excellent in this life than to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events. Where does the grandeur of valiant men shine more brightly, or the wisdom of the prudent, or the discretion of the righteous, or the moderation of the temperate, than in the context of history? (3)

Cynicism would immediately suggest that, if you're turning to history to find brighter examples of "the grandeur of valiant men" than you can observe in the world around you, the history you're reading probably isn't very historical.  However, this not only imposes modern genre divisions on the twelfth century, but misses Henry's point. 'History' could include, eg, Homer, as Henry proves in the very next sentence.  A catalogue of the Ramsey Abbey library in the mid fourteenth century includes, under the heading 'Books of History', a volume of the Acts of the Apostles - despite having plenty of copies of the Bible and New Testament under other headings [2]. In Henry's view, the purpose of history is (broadly speaking) to teach, and he finds it a more effective tool for doing so than philosophy. 

"Narrative" might, in some ways, be a better term, perhaps with “historical” as a clarifying adjective when necessary. Henry’s estimation of its pedagogical value seems centred on the fact that it tells a story, rather than preaching abstractly.  As Jesus taught effectively by parables, Homer's stories and the examples of men's actions shown within them teach more effectively than the "many volumes of moral philosophy" that Chrysippus and Crantor "sweated to produce".  Narrative demonstrates proper and imitable moral codes "more clearly and agreeably than the philosophers" (3). 

The question of factual accuracy seems not expected to arise. Perhaps, as the events of history are shaped according to divine plan, a written history may be assumed to be true to that plan if it improves the reader.  And truth must surely be ranked above mere accuracy.


2. History as pattern. According to Henry, Homer's characters embody various vices and virtues. Ulysses is prudence, Agamemnon fortitude, Nestor temperance, and Menelaus justice; while Ajax represents imprudence, Priam feebleness, Achilles intemperateness and Paris injustice. 

So far so good – unless you’ve actually read the Iliad.  My predominant impression of Menelaus is not of his sense of justice; I’m sure Priam has some qualities as a ruler besides being old and a little infirm; I’d call Agamemnon irascible before I’d call him strong.

But the list couples them into opposing pairs: Ulysses/Ajax, Agamemnon/Priam, Nestor/Achilles, Menelaus/Paris.  And those pairs are supported and encouraged by the narrative – Homer sets them against each other, with the possible exception of Nestor/Achilles (though one might easily make the case for it, particularly once Agamemnon and Ulysses are already spoken for).  And the most obvious contrast between Agamemnon and Priam could very well be strength and weakness, and Nestor and Achilles certainly contrast in the extent of their emotional self-indulgence.  The competition between Ulysses and Ajax undeniably pivots on some intellectual quality, which one might choose to label prudence.  And Menelaus - justice? Well, if you want an opponent to Paris, and the injustice of Paris’ most infamous action, who else would it be but the husband whose property he stole?

It takes some jiggling and squinting, but the pattern is visible, once you impose it. Henry goes on to do the same for characters in the Old Testament.  Yet this is not literary analysis, but an observation of patterns in history. Man did not put them there, although he may have, through ‘true’ writing, made them clearer.  These events, and the patterns within them, were shaped by God,  creator both of the the participants in history and the medium through which it moves, time. And, of course, of the historian. This is how history is shaped. 

Perhaps this justifies the departure from authority that Henry allows himself in the structure of his Historia.  Bede is his primary source, naturally, but Bede does not anticipate the shape Henry gives to British history.  It is dominated by five invasions, called plagues, visited on Britain by “divine vengeance” whenever her people become too sinful or arrogant (15). The invasions by the Romans, Picts and Scots, English, Danes, and finally Normans thus provide for Henry a structure around which he can shape the events that precede and follow them, repeatedly building up a litany of sin and pride which leads to devastation and pain.  The most recent iteration is, of course, still being feelingly lived in Henry’s lifetime.

For Henry, history is the story of God "raising up and putting down peoples and kingdoms by Thy judgement, that operates sometimes secretly and sometimes openly" (17). History repeats, because the same hand is at work throughout – and that hand seems to deliberately create comprehensible patterns for the moral edification of mankind.


3. O Fortuna, velut luna semper crescis aut decrescis… 
There may be an implicit comfort in the idea of God sitting back and shaping history, but the rise-and-crash pattern isn’t a very comfortable one for those who live through it.  Henry’s view of history is essentially pessimistic, founded on mutability and divine punishment.  What was is lost; what is wil be lost. 

Early in the first book, Henry describes the geography of Britain, both as it is and as it once was.  He gives the names of "twenty-eight very noble cities" for which the island was famous once, many of which have changed or been forgotten, or belong to cities that no longer exist (13).  Then, on describing the division of the island into shires, he decides it necessary to include a list of their names.  For, he says,
with the passage of time it may perhaps come about, in the same way that the names of the cities just mentioned - which were once well loved and highly regarded - are now considered barbarous and ridiculous, that the names of the shires, which are now very well known, may become either unrecognizable or unbelievable.  From this it is clear how pitiably and uselessly we who live in the shires strive to make our own names famous, when even the names of cities and countries cannot survive. (17)
Not only their names will be loss, but their honour.  As the English are now shamefully subject to the Normans, so have their place names suffered a corresponding loss in status: they are now ridiculous. And from the vainglory of a people, to that of a shire, to that of the individual, Henry turns to point his favourite moral.

But notice what remains constant in this tale of ruin.  It is his own individual striving, his own achievement – or at least, that of the men among whom he now numbers himself.  At this future point he envisions, when provinces have shifted and been renamed, when human memory fails, he clearly still expects his history to be present and read to speak the names of the lost shires.  It is history writing which provides the link between past, present and future. Henry knows the names of the old cities because of the books he has consulted in old libraries, and we know them because we have read them in his work.  The people in his future will know the names of the shires for the same reason – and they will also know those of the old cities.  Henry’s work stretches from past to future, linking through the present, sitting in that privileged position that allows him to survey, however mistily, the whole of creation.  He becomes ever so slightly atemporal – and as such, he even rebukes his temporal patron:
And we pray you, Bishop Alexander, father of the fatherland, prince second to the king, that anything we have written well may be brightened by your praise... Here you see kings and peoples whom the lottery of fate has raised up and put down, but judge[3] the future by them.  See, great father, what has become of the powerful: see how the honour, the lustre, the glory of the world come to nothing. (7-9)
Is Alexander, prince second to the king, to be numbered among the glorious powerful, invited to see his own downfall in the pattern of Henry’s history? Well, technically he’s a member of the secular clergy – he is subject to the movements of the saeculi.


4. And one other thing:
History ... brings the past into view as though it were present, and allows judgement of the future by representing the past. (5)
This sounds familiar, but not in application to humans.  According to Augustinian (and Boethian) adaptations of Aristotelian/Platonic philosophy, all created beings exist in time and are subject to it, unable to grasp the past or know the future, existing only in a perpetually fleeting present.  God, by contrast, is not subject to time: it is an aspect of his creation, and he lives in an eternal now which includes all of time and creation. Every moment is equally present to him. 

The conflation of past, present and future suggested by Henry here thus does more than broaden the mind or provide the reader with knowledge.  It places him[4] halfway outside of time, less subject than previously to its constraints, able to grasp a little more of the course and pattern of events and guess at their meaning.  Implicitly, it also enables him to observe enough of time to at least guess at the ideal eternity on which it is modelled, and so glimpse a little of the nature of he who made it.  In short, he rises further above the beast and closer to the divine. 

It is perfectly logical, therefore, for Henry to continue:
The knowledge of past events has further virtues, especially in that it distinguishes rational creatures from brutes, for brutes, whether man or beast, do not know - nor, indeed, do they wish to know - about their origins, their race and the events and happenings in their native land. Of the two, I consider those brutish men to be the more wretched, because what is natural to beasts comes to brutish men from their own mindlessness, and what beasts would not be capable of, even if they wished to be, such men, even if capable, do not desire. (5)
The lives and deaths of these men, he says, are condemned to "perpetual silence" - they do not speak, or they are not spoken of. History does not include them.


[1] All quotations are from Diana Greenway's 1995 edition and translation of the Historia Anglorum (Oxford: Clarendon).
[2] Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis. Ed. W. Dunn Macray. London: Longman and Co., 1886. Rolls Series 83.359.
[3] According to the Latin, this is the imperative, not an indicative sharing its subject with the previous clause.
[4] You know the good thing about studying the Middle Ages? Frequently, you can get away with just using the masculine pronoun, rather than saying "they" (informal), "one" (limited and stuffy), or that ugly "he or she". Given the overwhelming majority of Henry's intended audience would have been male, I think I can legitimately avoid the charge of slighting my own gender.


Anonymous said...

As usual I am slightly awed by the depth of your analysis, but I would add a wrinkle if I may. Where you say:

... a structure around which he can shape the events that precede and follow them, repeatedly building up a litany of sin and pride which leads to devastation and pain.

I agree that this is not Bede's design, because Bede believed in progress, at least he purported to do so in the Historia, but it is the design of Gildas, which is of course in Bede. I don't think this diminishes your analysis, but it may be worth considering that Bede had that example structure and decided against it, rather than that Henry was originating it.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Thank you! I haven't got to Gildas yet, so I'll bear that in mind when I do. Henry does seem to inhabit the structure he uses sufficiently that I think we can call it his, but of course that doesn't preclude the possibility that it was someone else's first.