My pile of unreported notes makes it look as if by the time I returned from Kalamazoo last year I was very firmly in the conference season, and there’s a good deal of that coming, but there was a brief interlude into which one seminar at the Institute of Historical Research fitted, on 20th May 2015 when Professor Scott Bruce was addressing the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “The Dark Age of Herodotus: shards of a fugitive history in medieval Europe”. This was the only IHR paper of the summer term to which I was able to go, and I picked a good one, not least because of how extremely elegantly it was delivered, but also because of the enigma it set out to explore.
This enigma can be phrased very simply: we think we know that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus was not known in the Middle Ages, so how come Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny can be found using one of his stories, about King Cyrus of Persia dividing up the River Ganges after it drowned one of his soldiers? (Peter was not the only person using this story, either, as Google quickly reveals). The simple answer might be that many Classical texts were copied in the Middle Ages and we’ve just missed one, but no-one mentions Herodotus in Latin between the fifth and fifteenth centuries that Professor Bruce has been able to find, although the so-called Father of History was much better known in the Greek-speaking world. A lost manuscript of the Histories kicking about somewhere probably still ought to be obvious to us in citation. Instead, Herodotus seems to have dropped out of the canon as being too pagan and, unlike Plato or Virgil or more obviously Josephus, could not be wrestled into a framework that made him somehow a precursor or vehicle of the Christian truth later to be revealed.
The alternative, therefore, is that Herodotus was circulating unrecognised and in fragments, as stories without authors transmitted through more respectably Christian or Christianised authors. By dint of considerable labours, Professor Bruce had found two such stories in Western contexts, and this one travels in Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans (where it is of course serving as an example of pagan stupidity), but also in the much earlier Seneca, whose treatise On Anger seems likely to have been Abbot Peter’s source in this case. This all made a really good example of how knowledge was transmitted in the Middle Ages, excerpted, carried around in mental baggage, passed through filters and denuded of its context. As Professor Bruce pointed out in discussion, Seneca doesn’t cite Herodotus as his source for the story about Cyrus; neither does Orosius, and he may not even have known but, given that, there’s no way that Abbot Peter could have known the origin of the story he was using.
Many people were able to throw in other examples of transmission of such ‘shards’ of history and knowledge through their favourite sources, the learned late-antique equivalent of urban legends. As a sign of the way in which giving such a paper can be both a revelation and a danger in the electronic age, in discussion Simon Corcoran managed to find an example of Josephus, whose Antiquities were widely used in the medieval period, using Herodotus, again without citation but recognised by his modern editors, by virtue of knowing where to look and having an Internet-enabled tablet handy while people were talking. Thus another possible transmission route for investigation was opened up in two minutes searching… As Professor Bruce had already concluded, there is a lot more to be done about how people came to know things in the Middle Ages once we start looking down at this level where their information was actually moving, but for any that might not have believed that, this paper certainly showed it.