1902 Encyclopedia > History > Roman Historians. Historians in Middle Ages Through to French Revolution.

(Part 5)

Roman Historians. Historians in Middle Ages Through to French Revolution.

Continuing this vein of reflexion, we might remark that it is a noteworthy fact that in history alone the Romans came nearest to their Greek models. Copyists in everything else, and inferior copyists, in history they equalled if they did not excel their masters. It is most point with many whether Tacitus should not be placed above Thucydides. In any case of history. Why was this so? Obviously because the Romans possessed a robust national life in many respects more lofty and inspiring even than of the Greeks. The genius of individual men was kindled by the propitious milieu. And a disastrous milieu, injurious to all productions of the mind, is peculiarly fatal to history. The decay of historical writing in the later period of the declining Roman empire is a sufficient proof. Noting so debased as the Augustan History can be found in any other province of Latin literature and when a man of real power like Ammianus Marcellinus appears, if we compare him with Claudian in another department, we perceive that the muse of history is more austere than her sister.

The Middle Ages would offer the historian of history ample scope for connecting the quality of historical writing with the social surroundings of the authors. The great houses, such as Malmesbury, St Albans, Eu and many more, would be shown to have been such schools of history as they were, for very efficient reasons. The appearance of the modern Herodotus, Froissart, would seem meant expressly to show the union of opportunity and genius needed to produce great historical work. It was no accident which gave us the immortal chronicles.

The first instalment of the Hundred Year’s War between France and England, the grand but abortive outburst of Parisian democracy under Étienne Marcel, the energetic action of the first serious States General of France these were subjects to arrest a real historical eye, such as Froissart had, in spite of his many shortcomings.

The dramatic struggle between feudalism and monarchy in the 15th century found a competent if somewhat rustic Tacitus in Comines, more friendly but on the whole not less severe to his bourgeois Tiberius, Louis XI.

In the stirring times of the 16th century historians abound -- Italians, Frenchmen, Dutchmen -- too numerous to mention and too distinguished to be passed over with perfunctory notice here. But how much would an historian of history have to say of Fra Paolo, Davila, De Thou, Grotius, to name only the chief? And then occurs a really surprising phenomenon. History disappears from the continent of Europe for a century and a half. Between the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War the Continent produced no historians whom the world cares to remember, for Mézeray is remembered, though hardly read, on account of his quaint and occasionally graphic style. Yet this was the great age of Louis XIV., the classic age of French literature and philosophy, and the commencement of French science.

But history withered under the bright of the Catholic and monarchical reaction. History was indeed being written in France, the most witty, profound, and graphic since the days of Tacitus; but it was history which the author kept for himself and a remote posterity ; not for a hundred years was the world to be permitted; to memoirs of St Simon.

But Rebellious and Revolutionary England gives us Clarendon and Burnett -- cause and effect as usual. A review of the 18th century and its performances in history would conclude this interesting retrospect. But it is time to return from this digression to our more immediate subject.

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