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Historians

Historians

The Venerable Bede

Born 672

Died 735

Anglo-Saxon historian and theologian

Al-Mas'udi
Died 957
Arab historian

Ssu-ma Kuang
Born 1019
Died 1086
Chinese government official and historian

Anna Comnena
Born c. 1083
Died 1148
Byzantine princess and historian

"As such peace and prosperity prevail these days, many … have laid aside their weapons … rather than study the arts of war. What the result of this will be, the future will show."

The Venerable Bede

T he work of historians is always important, seldom more so than in the Middle Ages. Not only did people then lack modern forms of communication, but in Western Europe at least, the medieval period was a time when the pace of learning slowed for several centuries. Thus it became all the more important to access the wisdom of the past, a time when communication and learning had flourished under the civilizations of Greece and Rome. But history was also important as a means of guessing what might happen in the future. When the Anglo-Saxon historian St. Bede noted that the people of England had ceased to study the arts of war, he hinted that this might have disastrous consequences. Four centuries later, another English historian, William of Malmesbury (c. 1090–c. 1143), would describe the consequence of the English lack of preparedness when he chronicled the then-recent invasion led by William the Conqueror (see entry).

Bede, al-Mas'udi, Ssu-ma Kuang, and Anna Comnena came from a variety of places, as their names suggest: respectively, England, the Middle East, China, and Greece. Each had a different viewpoint on history, informed by differing life experiences. One was a priest, another a traveler, the third a government official, the last a princess—and as a woman, she had a particularly unique perspective. To varying degrees, each wrote history to serve their own purposes, yet each performed a service to the world by preserving a record of their time and place.

The Venerable Bede

Bede, often referred to as "The Venerable Bede," was born in England more than two centuries after Anglo-Saxon invaders from what is now Germany and Denmark swept in and conquered the Celtic peoples who had controlled Britain for nearly a millennium. To Bede, that invasion was a central event of his people's history, though later critics came to believe that he missed a larger perspective: in fact the invasion had been coming for a long time, and was not so much one event as a series of events.

As was typical of intelligent young men in medieval Europe, Bede was trained for a career in the church. This began for him at the age of seven, when his parents put him in a monastery, a place where monks studied the Bible and the writings of early church fathers such as Augustine and Gregory I (see entries). His primary teacher was the abbot— that is, the head of the monastery—Ceolfrid (CHAYL-frid).

In 686, when Bede would have been about fourteen years old, the abbey was devastated with a plague, or an epidemic of disease, but he continued his studies. Despite the fact that he lived in England, far from the Italian and Greek centers of ancient European civilization, Bede became a master of the Latin and Greek languages, and even learned some Hebrew. He advanced rapidly in the church, becoming a deacon at age nineteen, even though that position was usually reserved for men much older. He was ordained as a priest at the age of thirty. Apart from a few short trips—most notably a visit to Lindisfarne, a celebrated English center of learning off the coast—Bede traveled little during his life.

Bede wrote numerous works on history and theology, or the analysis of religious faith. As a medieval scholar steeped in the teachings of the church, he saw history as an unfolding of God's purposes, and in his view, church history was history. Accordingly, his most famous work was Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731). The term "ecclesiastical" refers to the church, and Bede's historical writings in general make little mention of secular events, or things of a non-spiritual nature.

Despite the shortcomings in some of his historical analysis, most notably his reliance on questionable information concerning the distant past, Bede offered a valuable record of events in the early part of the medieval period. He died on May 25, 735, at the age of sixty-three, and within a century, the term "Venerable," meaning distinguished, was attached to his name. In 1899 he was canonized, or recognized as a saint.

Al-Mas'udi

The writings of al-Mas'udi (mahs-oo-DEE) illustrate the heights that Arab and Islamic civilization reached in the Middle East during the medieval period. His engaging style and talent for insightful observation, along with his comprehensive approach to the history of his people, earned him great acclaim. Later generations in Europe would dub al-Mas'udi the "Herodotus of the Arabs," a reference to the first true historian, Herodotus (hur-AHD-uh-tus; c. 484–c. 424 b.c.) of ancient Greece.

Born in Baghdad, now the capital of Iraq, al-Mas'udi descended from a close friend of the prophet Muhammad (see entry). He apparently traveled widely during his life, though the extent of his travels is not clear, and it appears that he never actually visited Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) or the China Sea, as he claimed. Yet in the period from 915 to 917 he traveled eastward to Persia and India, then voyaged to Zanzibar on the east coast of Africa and Oman on the Arabian Peninsula. He made a number of other journeys, to Palestine, the Caspian Sea, and other areas, over the decade that followed. As to the purpose of al-Mas'udi's journeys, this is not known. Perhaps like Herodotus centuries before, he was collecting information for his historical writings; in any case, his travels certainly informed his writing, which shows an impressive range of knowledge.

Of the more than thirty writings attributed to al-Mas'udi, only two can be clearly identified as his. The more famous of these has been translated as The Meadows of Gold, and consists of two volumes that respectively recount the history of the world prior to and after the time when Muhammad brought the Islamic message. His work has provided historians with valuable insights on the life of Arab leaders such as Harun al-Rashid (see box in El Cid entry) and others. Al-Mas'udi spent his later years in Cairo, Egypt, where he died in 957.

Ssu-ma Kuang

Unlike most historians, Ssu-ma Kuang (sü-MAH GWAHNG) participated not only in the writing of history, but also—in his capacity as a government official in China's Sung dynasty—in the making of history. In fact, it was his high position in the court that led the Sung emperor to commission him to write a history of China, known in English as the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government.

A talented young man, Ssu-ma Kuang completed his education at age nineteen and, as was the custom in China, took an examination to enter the civil service, or government bureaucracy. He rose quickly through the ranks, and legend has it that he made a name for himself when he saved a drowning child by breaking the water tank into which the child had fallen.

When it came to changes in the government and life of China, however, Ssu-ma Kuang favored a more deliberate approach than the one he had used to save the drowning child. He was committed to the principles of Confucius (c. 551–479 b.c.), a highly influential ancient Chinese philosopher who taught respect for elders and people in positions of authority. Like Confucius, Ssu-ma Kuang was a conservative, or someone who favors slow change. This put him at odds with Wang An-shih (1021–1086), another prominent government official who favored sweeping reforms to the Sung government.

Ssu-ma Kuang's work as a historian began some time before 1064, when he presented the emperor with a chronological table, or timeline, of Chinese history from its beginnings to the present day. The emperor was so impressed with this and later work that he ordered Ssu-ma Kuang to prepare a full-scale history of China, which would become the Comprehensive Mirror. At about the same time he received this directive, however, Ssu-ma Kuang clashed with Wang An-shih, and was forced to leave the court. During the years that followed, he devoted himself to the writing of his history.

The Comprehensive Mirror is not the most exciting work ever written, but it is certainly thorough. Ssu-ma Kuang and the scholars working with him carefully checked a range of historical documents, and were painstaking in their efforts to achieve accuracy. Finally, in 1084, he presented it to the emperor, who gave it his approval. So, too, have many later historians, who have seen the book as a significant milestone in the development of history as an area of study. In part from Ssu-ma Kuang's writing, the Chinese developed a view of history not as a straight-line progression, but as a series of cycles, with the rise and fall of each successive dynasty merely a part of the cyclical process.

In his later years, Ssu-ma Kuang became increasingly involved in power struggles with Wang An-shih, and by 1085 he had returned to a position of influence. He was able to defeat many of Wang's reforms by 1086, the year in which both men died. So great was Ssu-ma Kuang's position of honor in the government that all business in the Chinese capital ceased on the day of his funeral. But his victory over Wang was not complete: subsequent years saw a continued battle in the Chinese leadership between those who adhered to Ssu-ma Kuang's conservatism and those who favored Wang An-shih's reformist approach.

Anna Comnena

Not only was she the world's first notable female historian, Anna Comnena (kahm-NEE-nuh) had a remarkable front-row seat for one of the most monumental events in history. It so happened that she was the eldest daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexis I Comnenus, who in 1095 requested help from the pope in fighting the Turks, who were threatening his land from the east. The result was the First Crusade (1095–99), in which the Western Europeans marched through the Byzantine Empire on their way to seize Palestine from the Muslims. About twelve years old at the time, Anna saw these events unfold, and recounted them in her Alexiad, a record of her father's reign.

Anna was born in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), which at that time was Europe's leading center of culture. As a princess, she received a highly advanced education, and like many Greeks of her time, she came to regard Western Europeans as uncouth barbarians compared to the highly civilized people of the Byzantine Empire. Her later experience with the crusaders would reinforce this opinion.

In 1097, when she was fourteen, Anna married Nicephorus Bryennius (ny-SEF-ur-us bry-EN-ee-us), a historian eighteen years her senior. Despite the fact that the empire had once been ruled by a woman, Irene of Athens (see entry), Anna had no plans to take the throne, especially because she had a younger brother, John. Yet at the age of thirty-five, she launched an unsuccessful plot to make her husband emperor. John found out about the conspiracy, and sent Anna away to a monastery for the rest of her life. There she wrote the Alexiad, a history of the period from 1069 to 1118—that is, from the time her uncle Isaac Comnenus established the dynasty to the end of her father's reign.

The suffix -ad in Greek usually means that a work is the glorious tale of a great nation, and certainly Anna's history provides an image of the Byzantine Empire under her family's rule as a highly civilized realm. In her writings on the behavior of the crusaders from Western Europe, she portrayed them as greedy invaders who, while pretending to help her father, were actually interested in taking advantage of him. Though there is no question Anna had a prejudiced view toward Western Europeans in general, and the crusaders in particular, her assessment was largely accurate, as subsequent events illustrated. The crusaders did little to help the Byzantines, and in 1204 they actually turned against their supposed ally, seizing control of Constantinople and holding it for fifty-seven years.

For More Information

Books

Barrett, Tracy. Anna of Byzantium. New York: Delacorte Press, 1999.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Hill, Frank Ernest. Famous Historians. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966.

Web Sites

"Bede the Venerable, Priest, Monk, Scholar." [Online] Available http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/169.html (last accessed July 26,2000).

"Female Hero: Anna Comnena." Women in World History. [Online] Available http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine5.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Medieval Sourcebook: Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di (Masoudi) (c.895?–957 ce) The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 ce."

Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/masoudi.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Medieval Sourcebook: Anna Comnena: The Alexiad: On the Crusades." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/ halsall/source/comnena-cde.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"The Venerable Bede." [Online] Available http://www.cohums.ohiostate.edu/history/people/crisp.23/bede.htm (last accessed July 26,2000).

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