Ferdinand Gregorovius: the man on the spot, still?

A conversation with its originator revealed that I had at least slightly misunderstood the intended slant of the lecture for which I was running through stuff on the early medieval papacy a little while ago, which is just as well given how much I managed to find. I assume that the situation is better in non-English languages, not least Italian I suppose, but really, for the tenth and early eleventh century one does struggle a bit. I mean, there’s no separate coverage of the Papacy in the 900-1024 volume of the New Cambridge Medieval History; it’s subsumed into Rosamond McKitterick’s chapter on the Church, but the papacy is also a state, you know?1 There’s Ullmann’s Short History of the Papacy of course, but it is, well, short, basically institutional and far from recent.2 I was at something of a loss and so a learned colleague offered me a strange kind of rescue in the form of a loan of the relevant volumes of Gregorovius’s City of Rome.3

Volumes III and IV.1 of Gregorovius's History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages

Volumes III and IV.1 of Gregorovius's History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages

Now, you will see that though this is longer it is not newer. I didn’t even know it existed in translation, I knew of it merely by repute as the pavement on which subsequent histories have been based. And it is, in translation at least, an easy and entertaining as well as, for the standards of its time, highly erudite, read. (There are a few ambiguous points that make me suspect that in the German it is probably even clearer, as they seem like problems caused by the loss of the ability to inflect.) But oh lor’, it is of its time. Every successful king is brave and chivalrous (yes yes I know we barely have knights yet, maybe this was the translator’s choice), every losing one craven and malign, every woman who features is either meek and pious (if religious and ineffective) or beautiful, cruel, headstrong and ungovernable (if politically active, though all of those except the beauty were, to be fair, probably entry-level requirements for anyone in Roman politics in this era). There are no in-betweens and everything is straight out of a time of heroes and villains in a struggle between civilisation and barbarism. And of course, sometimes there was some truth in that, but with passages like:

Italy [after the death of King Berengar] sank into chaotic anarchy. Throughout the country we see nothing but smoking cities, upon whose ruins the savage Hungarians hold their wild Bacchanalia, the inhabitants flying for refuge to the mountains. We see kings, vassals and bishops struggling for the blood-stained shreds of power, and beautiful laughing women who, like Furies, seem to head the wild procession. Contemporary chronicles or records of immediately succeeding times are so confused as to present but a labyrinth to the student…

you will readily see what I mean.4 This is Old History Writ Large (very large, in fact, the full set is eight volumes in translation, and some of those volumes are in separate parts), and criticism of the sources, rather than of their subjects, is largely lacking. Gregorovius did insert a fair few footnotes where he dealt with conflicting readings of sources by scholars, or with conflicts between the sources themselves, but they never touch the whole “why is the author saying that anyway?” question we try and get through to our students so much: the closest he comes is a short reflection on whether or not Liutprand of Cremona can be trusted for anything.5 It’s that whole paradigm of ‘reliability’, which is a character judgement and not a judgement of information available to the writer or of his motives, about which I could write a whole separate post.

So, why on earth am I bothering? Well, partly because it is to hand and, however dated, fun. But also because as he says, the sources for this period are a labyrinth. And the big virtue of this old book is that Gregorovius sorted them out. At the end of this you feel like you have a chronology, and a grasp on what actually happened. Now, half of what he reports may be made up, because his method was basically to slot things into a chronology like a jigsaw until everything that was known and found `reliable’ was slotted in somewhere. But it’s from there that critique can start. So I see why this has been the foundation of later work. But I think we could really use building a bit more round these parts, by now.


1. Rosamond McKitterick, “The Church” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. III: c. 900-c. 1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 130-162; look in vain for any help in Guiseppe Sergi, “The Kingdom of Italy”, ibid. pp. 346-371, though on what it does cover it is a masterpiece of concision and analysis. The previous volume, which was some years prior, did cover the Papacy separately (Thomas F. X. Noble, “The Papacy in the Eight and Ninth Centuries” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 563-586) and I don’t know how they felt that didn’t need doing again, but then, the contents of that volume are one of the very few areas where the late Professor Reuter’s judgement has been called into question.

2. Walter Ullmann, A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London 1972, repr. 2003 with introduction by George Garnett).

3. Ferdinand Gregorovius, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter vom V. bis zum XVI. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart 1854-74, repr. Berlin 1889-1903), 4 vols, rev. edn. (München 1978-88); transl. Annie Hamilton as History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages (London 1894-1902), 8 vols in 14, repr. with introduction by David Chambers (New York 2003), 8 vols in 13. Citations here from the original translation, but the new reprint retains the pagination.

4. Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome, III pp. 273-274.

5. Ibid., III p. 249 n. 1; he’s agin’ him. Cf. III p. 250 n. 1: “The Invectiva in Romam relates that John [tenth Pope of that name] usurped the bishopric of Bologna, and reviles him as a Lucifer. The Invective is a production of John’s time, and its words in spite of being inspired by party hate, are not without weight.” Which of course makes it OK! But, in fairness, this is only in a footnote.

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4 responses to “Ferdinand Gregorovius: the man on the spot, still?

  1. It is a long time since I have read Peter Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages (1971), but it goes up to the tenth century and the review in Speculum is reasonably positive. Conrad Leyser’s done some research on the period as well, but unfortunately there isn’t a bibliography of his work online, so I don’t know if he’s published.

    As for the weaknesses of Gregorovius etc, I do remember Tim Reuter pointing out that it was only because nineteenth century positivist historians did so much hard graft on establishing chronologies and other ‘facts’ that late twentieth century historians have the luxury of a framework in which to criticise their predecessors’ conclusions and methods.

    • I’d missed Conrad’s stuff somehow but there do seem to be some interesting things there, if not the synthetic approach I was feeling lacking. That review of Llewellyn is a classic of translation, isn’t it? Word order still almost as it would have been in the French or German (I think the former?) But really, there’s been so much work on Rome itself in the last decade that we must be ready to update this stuff by now, don’t you think? Perhaps Julia Smith and Alan Thacker in collaboration :-)

  2. I love that passage about the “beautiful laughing women who, like Furies, seem to head the wild procession”. It sounds like he is giving vent to a wee bit of personal angst there…

    • I think it’s just an echo of the earlier reference to Bacchanalia, isn’t it? But you’re right in as much as he did blame an awful lot of political mess on calculating selfish queens and noblewomen with no wider political agenda than their own amusement. In that light it’s quite nasty and definitely genders the political sphere in an unpleasant way.

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