The Medieval Review 14.11.28


Burgess, R. W., and Michael Kulikowski. Mosaics of Time, The Latin Chronicle Traditions from the First Century BC to the Sixth Century AD: Volume I, A Historical Introduction to the Chronicle Genre from Its Origins to the High Middle Ages. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 33. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xiv, 444. €100.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9782503531403 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


William Adler
North Carolina State University
William_adler@ncsu.edu

This impressive volume, the first of a planned four-volume series on the Latin chronographic tradition, represents a robust challenge to the widely-held and largely unchallenged assumption that the medieval annals derived from notices embedded in the margins of Easter tables of the seventh and eighth centuries. To make their case that so-called "annals" are part of a continuous and ancient pre-Christian tradition extending back long before the development of Easter tables, Burgess and Kulikowski (hereafter B. and K.) trace the development of the chronicle genre from its beginnings in ancient Egypt and the Near East, concluding with the twelfth-century universal chronicle of Sigebert of Gembloux.

Underlying the communis opinion about the medieval origins of annals is a putative distinction between "chronicles" and "annals." More sophisticated in structure and style, the former are traditionally thought to originate, either directly or indirectly, in the great Christian universal chronicles of the third and fourth centuries. The terse annotations and tabular listing of years that make up the content of annals reveal their more humble roots in medieval Easter tables. Insofar as it misleadingly reinforces an artificial disjunction between annals and the older chronicle tradition, the authors discard the category of "annals" altogether, subsuming it instead under the broader category of "chronicle." In their usage, the term chronicle encompasses works marked by a year-by-year annalistic structure, wide scope, paratactic style, and brevity in the narrative of events. Subsets of this genre would include consularia (annotated consular lists) and Paschal chronicles (chronicles written within the framework of an Easter table).

In their systematic dismantling of the received wisdom about the origins of medieval annals (or, more properly, medieval chronicles), B. and K. first demonstrate that the chronicle genre was neither uniquely nor even primarily Christian in character. Nor did the Christian adoption of the chronicle, at least initially, have anything to do with the Easter computus. For Julius Africanus (early third century), the study of chronology was at least in part a matter of providing an empirical foundation for Christian apocalyptic speculation. Following the precedent set by Hellenistic Jewish authors and representatives of other peoples of the Near East, Christian apologists also found comparative chronology a highly effective means of confirming both the antiquity of their religion and the derivative character of Greek civilization. Early Christian experiments in comparative Greco-Jewish chronology contained the seeds for more ambitious undertakings, including the great universal chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea.

Eusebius's chronicle plays a justifiably outsized role in the authors' exposition of the antecedents of the medieval Latin chronicle. His incorporation of material from Hellenistic olympiad chronicles, his fresh approach to long-standing chronological problems, and the inventive tabular structure of the second book of his chronicle (the so-called Chronici Canones) show it to be a truly original piece of scholarship. Thanks to the translation and continuation of the Canons by Jerome, the work became well-known in the Latin-speaking world, offering Christian writers in the West a vision of the past that securely integrated Christianity and Rome into the panorama of the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms. Under its influence, the chronicle soon became the dominant form of historical writing throughout the Middle Ages. At the same time, however, medieval chroniclers found it difficult to take over Eusebius's system of reckoning time without modification. In place of olympiads, regnal years and the Abrahamic era, medieval chroniclers found other systems more to their liking, including consular dating, universal years, and most significantly, the Dionysian anni domini familiar from the Easter Tables of the seventh and eighth centuries. While the so-called medieval "annals" may have introduced some new wrinkles into the genre, they have closer links with the ancient chronicle tradition than do the fuller narrative "chronicles" of the Latin West. Aside from the name, the latter have nothing in common with the chronicles of Late Antiquity.

Apart from its value as a corrective to--indeed, a complete inversion of--the conventional explanation of the origins of medieval "annals," the wide scope of this volume (and a thorough index) will make it an excellent, albeit occasionally demanding, introduction to the chronicle in Antiquity and the Middle Age. To avoid taxing readers with potentially distracting details, eight appendixes (as well as appendixes to the footnotes) elaborate at greater length topics treated in the body of the narrative. While a single thesis informs the treatment of the evidence, the authors never lose sight of the sources themselves, the analysis of which is painstaking and nuanced. In anticipation of Burgess's planned monograph on the textual relations and origins of the Irish chronicles, B. and K. set forth an original argument identifying hitherto overlooked ties between Irish chronicles and the medieval and late antique chronicle tradition. Although the overall orientation is in a westerly direction, the authors also include a brief but instructive account of the development of Byzantine chronicles. If interest in chronology is defining of the genre, many Byzantine works termed "universal chronicles" are better classified as breviaria, no more deserving of the designation "chronicle" than their medieval Latin counterparts. Why the annalistic style of recording the past virtually disappears after Theophanes in the ninth would require a study of its own. But the authors' decision to extend the scope of their analysis eastward helps to bring their findings about the Western tradition into sharper focus. To keep the study within a reasonable length and to avoid digging into subjects with which they are less familiar, the authors limit their discussion of Eastern chronicles to Byzantium (227). But as they rightly recognize, sources from the non-Greek speaking Eastern churches can offer another perspective on the survival and transmission of the ancient chronicle tradition. Because they preserve closer ties with Eusebius and Alexandrian chronography, Syriac and Ethiopic chronicles are in some ways better witnesses to this older tradition than their Byzantine counterparts.

The authors are also to be commended for their exemplary exposition of the durability of a genre often caricatured as an inferior and sub-literary form of historiography, amounting to little more than an uncritical accumulation of disjointed events. In response to the charge that they lacked any unifying narrative thread, the authors compare the structure of the ancient chronicle to a mosaic (hence the title of the book). Like the tiles of a mosaic, "the meaning of history...lay not in the details, but in the overall picture offered by the complete work" (33). Claims about the inferior literary quality of the chronicle are both true and irrelevant. As a branch of technical and scientific literature, chronicles, unlike narrative histories, were meant to be used, not to be read as self-standing literary monuments. The practical applications of the chronicle, its underlying "macro-narrative," and its treatment of the past uno in conspectus also explain the survival of the ancient chronicle tradition well into the Middle Ages. In this new setting, the genre proved flexible enough to accommodate various styles and content, ranging from brief notices inserted into Easter tables to more discursive annalistic records. The decentralization of power brought about by the collapse of the Carolingian empire had its own role to play in the spread of the genre to remote parts of the former Frankish kingdom and beyond. Historians involved in the work of fashioning national identities found the long reach and open-ended tabular structure of chronicles like Eusebius' Canons an ideal way to fuse local events with the broader sweep of world history. And because rhetorical skills or even extensive research were not mandatory, the composition of a chronicle was within the reach of writers of only modest literary aptitude. The accessibility of the genre in the Middle Ages resulted in what B. and K. call a "democratization of history": "anyone could be a historian and many took up the task" (129). At the end of their discussion, one thing is unmistakably clear: whether it served as a tool for antiquarian research, apologetic, apocalyptic speculation, or Easter reckoning, the chronicle was a highly functional instrument, in constant evolution and reinvention.

Occasional lapses and questionable claims are virtually inescapable in a work of dense technical content, ranging over more than 1300 years, and traversing so many regions and cultures. It is an overstatement to say that Philo's voluminous allegorical commentaries on the Pentateuch were intended mainly to establish the dependence of Greek philosophers and lawgivers on Moses (108). While it is true that the foundational principle of Africanus's chronicle was millennialist his interpretation of Daniel was, interestingly, non-eschatological. The terms of Daniel's apocalypse of seventy weeks were in his view completely satisfied in Jesus's ministry (cf. p. 117). In their discussion of the reception of Eusebius's chronicle, the authors state that Syncellus criticized Eusebius' Alexandrian critics Panodorus and Annianus (fifth century) for misdating the Incarnation by following pagan wisdom (i.e. Claudius Ptolemy). Syncellus actually faults only Panodorus for this failing (229).

In some cases, the authors also overplay the influence of apologetic on ancient Jewish and Christian chronicles. The two were not necessarily inseparable. From the admittedly little that survives from Demetrius the Jewish chronographer, there is little reason to suppose that he was at all interested in establishing the superior antiquity of Moses and the Jews. Sorting out chronological and exegetical problems in the biblical text, not comparative chronology, seems to have been uppermost in his mind. In their discussion of Christian chronicles, B. and K. state that "apologetic was the essential purpose of Christian chronography" (120). That observation would probably apply better to Tatian, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria than to Africanus and Eusebius. While the latter writers were undoubtedly influenced to some extent by apologetic, they were hardly beholden to it. At a certain point, the scientific requirements of the discipline required them to direct their energies elsewhere. For Africanus, the comparative dating of Moses is more a question of historical method than fodder for anti-Greek polemic. From reading the preface to Eusebius's Canons, one might reasonably draw the conclusion that "even had he wanted to," Eusebius "could hardly have dissociated himself from the apologetic tradition" (120). But his handling of conventional topoi of Christian apologetic chronology invites a different conclusion. In the first book of his chronicle, Eusebius allows that in the pursuit of chronological accuracy, no sources from the past should be exempt from scrutiny and doubt, not even the biblical record. Although initially making the de rigueur case for the overall superiority of Septuagint chronology to competing versions of the Bible, Eusebius (unlike his predecessors) does not adhere dogmatically to its testimony. And after determining that his predecessors had drastically inflated the length of time from the Exodus to the building of the temple under Solomon, Eusebius arrives at a date for Moses much later than the one sanctified by tradition. What all of this suggests is that even a writer as committed to the defense of the Church as Eusebius could dissociate himself from time-worn clichés of Jewish and Christian apologetic when he found them at odds with his own independent judgments.

To the extent that nomenclature lies at the heart of their thesis about the origins of medieval chronicles, the authors' lengthy exposition of the essential features of the chronicle genre is bound to elicit the most interest and criticism. B. and K. recognize that ancient writers are not nearly as scrupulous as they are in their terminology. They also allow that their fine-grained distinctions between "chronicles," "chronicle epitomes," "chronographs," "breviaria" and "epitomes" are unlikely to fine wide acceptance among medievalists (62). But they do make a compelling case both that the differences are substantive, and that any progress in reconstructing the development of the chronicle will require a more descriptive taxonomy than the one currently in scholarly use. There are places in the narrative, however, where the strict terminology becomes unwieldy, especially when it comes to describing hybrid works. To remain true to their own exacting standards, many works ordinarily classified as universal chronicles now have to be categorized as something else, either as "chronographs" (Africanus and Syncellus), or as history "tricked out with the clothing of the chronicle" (Dexippus, p. 285). The more fundamental question is whether their claims about a connection between medieval "annals" and the ancient chronicle tradition are true by definition. That is, do compositional and structural similarities based on their own definition of the chronicle genre establish historical continuity? The authors have not ignored the question. As their painstaking analysis of the textual history of the Latin chronicle shows, the similarities between "annals" and ancient chronicle are not purely generic; there are also direct and traceable genealogical links.



Copyright (c) 2014 William Adler



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