Seminar CCXXXIX: medieval fragments of the Father of History

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.

The River Ganges at Benares in the nineteenth century

The River Ganges at Benares in the nineteenth century, by which time other tactics of control had been adopted from those described below; photo from A. V. Williams Jackson (ed.), History of India volume IX: historic accounts of India by foreign travellers Classic, Oriental, and Occidental, ed. A. V. W. Jackson (London 1907), p. 6

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.

Roman bust of Herodotus in the Palazzo Massimo del Terme, Museo Nazionale di Roma

You gotta wonder though. This bust is supposed to be Herodotus, and to be a Roman copy of a Greek original of the fourth century B. C. It only entered the collections of the Museo Nazionale di Roma, where it can even now be seen in the Palazzo Massimo del Terme, in 1940, but is apparently known to have been found in the Porta Metronia area. Even if all that’s reliable, we obviously can’t tell if it was around to be seen in the Middle Ages or already buried. If it had been, though, would they have known who it was? And, really, how do we? Image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Manuscript illustration of Peter the Venerable

Manuscript illustration of Peter the Venerable transmitting his knowledge, from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 17716, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

6 responses to “Seminar CCXXXIX: medieval fragments of the Father of History

  1. Prof. Anderson

    This is just the kind of thing that keeps me reading your excellent, scholarly updates! Some day.. SOME DAY, you’re going to turn over a stone and we’re going to find a manuscript of drawings of a traveling “play cart from northern Germany or Sweden/Norway/Denmark from the 8th or 9th C.

    Just letting you know I am stuck like flypaper to your research.


    Dick Anderson, MATT&S, Master Teacher of College Theatre USC Union Theatre Dept

  2. Let’s not forget oral transmission. Ideas, concepts, stories have been traveling by millenia outside the writen world. That’s why I like so much to follow the history of concepts, the building blocks of cultures.

    • Oh absolutely! I’m not sure how much more can be done with this than what Frazer did with the Golden Bough, doing a kind of tree linguistics with folklore, but the shared stories are there. The trouble is that as with most other early history of ideas, when you have only the ends of a connection it’s very hard to know what the nature was of the part that joined them…

  3. On t’other hand, the knowledge that the Norfolk Broads are a human artefact was completely lost in much less than a thousand years.

  4. When I read the Decameron, I noticed a story which smells like it was copied from Ctesias’ Persika. Ctesias was one of the authors who was very popular in the Greek Christian world into the middle ages, but did not survive it, and was never translated into Latin or a vernacular. Its not hard to see how a Latin in 14th century Italy could have gotten access to knowledge which only foreigners could get from the source, but I don’t have time or training to explore the details and make sure its not also in Justin or Isidore or someone like that.

    Even today, it can be very tempting to copy a text and a gloss from someone else, maybe giving the source a quick glance but not reading it carefully or looking around it to understand the context.

    • My standard expectation is that those stories are in Isidore, I admit, but sometimes that doesn’t solve the problem, as the version that he has is not the one you can find from beforehand… And of course even Isidore couldn’t compile everything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s