Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Subdividing History in the 14th Century

How did 14th century people think about periods of history? They obviously didn’t think they were living in the Middle Ages.

Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, written in the early 14th c. and translated into Middle English by Trevisa in 1387, gives one Anglocentric structure for organizing the past.

Following St. Augustine he divides pre-Christian history into five ages. The first runs from the
Creation to the Deluge, the second from the Flood to the birth of Abraham, the third from Abraham to the death of Saul, and the fourth from David’s reign to the Babylonian Captivity. These form Higden’s second book, his first book having been devoted to geography.

Higden’s third book covers the fifth age of man, ending with the advent of Christ. Augustine’s sixth age was expected to run from the coming of Christ to his Second Coming, but by Higden’s day, with the Second Coming less imminent than originally expected, shorter periods were more convenient for historians of the Christian era.

Higden’s fourth book ended with the coming of the Saxons, his fifth with the coming of the Danes, his sixth with the Norman Conquest, and his seventh brought history up to his present.

Higden, following a tradition leading back to Eusebius, also interwove other chronologies with the Biblical one, placing the siege of Troy and the foundation of Britain by the eponymous Brutus in the third age and Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar in the fifth. King Arthur was an important figure in Higden’s fifth book.

Educated but less learned contemporaries might not have recognized Higden’s Augustinian ages, but they would have recognized the historical landmarks that defined them.

Christine de Pizan, writing slightly later, drew a distinction between “the ancients” and later times. She clearly considered Vegitius, writing between 383 and 450 AD, part of the ancient world. The most common modern date for the beginning of the Middle Ages is the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476. This somewhat arbitrary date seems to have not have been considered a big deal at the time, but Higden’s coming of the Saxons, dated to 449 by the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle, is in the same historical ballpark. A French historian might have chosen the coronation of Childeric I, the first Merovingian, in 457, or Clovis I, first king of the Franks in 509, with similar results.

For more recent events, an individual might refer to family oral history to speak of events in his father’s or grandfathers’ time. Both my grandfathers served in WWI, and one in WWII. I still have heirlooms from my great-grandfather.

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