On history versus chronicles

I wrote a piece, years back at the beginning of the Trump administration about the difference between journalism -wherein facts are both reported and various narratives scrutinised to a larger public- and chronicles, a sort of narrative timeline wherein various theoretically important events occur. This week I have been thinking about this again, as well as the general public’s relationship to how we transmit information, given a fairly chilling announcement from the UK government.  

The Tory party, presumably in order to distract from worst Covid death rate in the world which they have gleefully overseen, has recently announced that it is going to be directly attempting to censor academics. This it characterises as an attempt to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. They demand that “public funds never be used for political purposes” as a part of that. (You can read an article about it in the Tory rag the Telegraph here, if you wish, but maybe don’t give those ghouls the clicks.)

What does this mean? Well, for example, a  current research project being conducted at Leicester University in conjunction with the National Trust, called Colonial Countryside, “A child-led writing and history project exploring the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at 11 [National Trust] properties” has been singled out for defunding. This is explicitly because pointing out that some of the big houses in the UK got built by families who made their money from the slave trade is apparently an impetus “driven by ideology”, while simply never mentioning that these people got rich from the slave trade is totally politically neutral.

Colonial Countryside does really cool and important work like this, telling us more about the history behind houses. Support it!

This is, of course, nonsense. It is completely impossible for any history to be apolitical given that history is written by human beings. There is no way to cast aside your own beliefs and step outside of your own culture in order to do the work of historical analysis. Moreover, the complaint rings totally hollow when used in conjunction with attempts to stop historical work being done. If what these people are complaining about is a drifting away from a mythological apolitical truth, adding more information and more context to any given historical artifact, museum, or source generally aids us in our quest for a more clear picture of how or why something happened, even if our own biases are on display when we do so. There is no way to relate to the nebulous conception of history and at the same time argue against more information and context in order to draw conclusions.

Given that they are attempting to act as though there is an apolitical narrative that we can access, and that we should at all costs stop more historical information being added to any discussion of history, I would argue that this collection of ghouls is calling for is a halt to history, and a return to chronicling.

MFers be like, “history is just like, uh reading the Bayeux Tapestry and translating the Latin for us, right?”

In many ways chronicles are much more like what the great majority of people think that history is. For a lot of people history is simply a series of notable or “great” events, and it is the job of historians to simply record those events for posterity. This view is often bolstered through many people’s only exposure to what history is: the textbook. Textbooks often form the backbone of classroom history classes and are chosen at a national level, or at times for example in the United States at a State level. Essentially, whoever controls the curriculum can decide on what the textbook is.

You will be shocked to learn that governments often select the textbooks that paint their country in a favourable light, or which advance a narrative which the government is particularly favourable towards. For example, in 2015 in the United States the College Board who oversee the Advanced Placement United States History Exam (a sort of test where geeks like me are allowed to study more intensive history for a year, take a test, and then get college credit) were forced to rewrite their framework specifically to downplay the effects of slavery, genocide and racism after a group of Republicans said that actually America was really great and everyone loved all the murder.

Those who never cracked a history book after high school are thus presented with the idea that the past is a fixed and agreed upon place. In their minds what historians are meant to do is continue to report a thing that happened, and then the next thing that happened as a result, into perpetuity, perhaps while ensuring that they do not “do” whatever country they are working in “down”.

That is not a description of how history works, but it certainly is a description of chronicles.

Chronicles were often commissioned by powerful people who were explicit in the things that they wanted recorded. My boy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378), for example commissioned several chronicles which he used to record a version of his life and works that he liked. He hired Beneš of Krabice Weitmil (d. 1375) to write what would be called the Chronicle of the Prague Church (Chronicon Ecclesiae Pragensis), which recorded the events of about 1283-1374.[1]

It’s Charles IV looking fly AF in his portrait by Theoderic of Prague!

These dates were included for a very important reason, Charles’s father John of Luxembourg (1296-1346) had only recently taken control of the Bohemian throne after the last male hair in the Přemyslid dynasty, Charles’s uncle King Wenceslas III (1289-1306) died. Krabice was also sure to remind his readers about all the work that Charles had done setting the kingdom to rights after a period of weak royal rule, unmortgaging castles and reestablishing a strong and centralized rule of law. He also spent time waxing lyrical about Charles’s side projects, like his work with Jan Milíč z Kroměříže (d.1374) (shout out to a legend) at the Jerusalem community where he funded work with former sex workers and preachers.[2]

Now these are all very big and impressive projects, to be sure, but they were not included simply out of interest or theoretical historical merit. Each of these inclusions was a deliberate decision on the part of Krabice that benefitted the specific narrative that Charles wished to put forward.

Including the exploits of the matrilineal side of the family, and then transition seamlessly into the Luxembourg rule, the chronicle made it clear that Luxembourg rule was not only inevitable, but desirable after the exhaustion of the Přemyslid line.[3] Indeed, Charles’s swift work setting the kingdom to right was also meant to be interpreted as evidence of his fitness to rule. More to the point, Charles was paying for chronicles like this to be written because they were by no means the only ones floating around at the time, and they didn’t all paint the same glowing story about the Luxembourg ascendancy to the throne.

An illustrated version of the Chronicle of Dalimil.

The Chronicle of Dalimil (Dalimilova kronika, or, Kronika tak řečeného Dalimila), for example, a rhyming Czech language chronicle from the early fourteenth century spent a lot of its time recording the historical exploits of the Slavic peoples, and was vehemently against the rise of what the author saw as the foreign power of the Luxemburgs in Bohemia. It railed against Charles’s father John, his inability to speak Czech, and insisted that the kingdom ought to be run by the Czech-speaking nobles, whom it described as ‘true Czechs’.[4]

We can understand the Chronicle of the Prague Church, therefore as a direct attempt to control the narrative of rule in Bohemia. Charles wanted to make sure everyone knew that he was the rightful heir to the kingdom. The nobility that the Dalimil Chronicle promoted needed to be countered vehemently, and so Charles paid good money to ensure that he had a chronicle on his side.

Both the Chronicle of the Prague Church and the Chronicle of Dalimil do exactly what chronicles are meant to do: the put forward a specific vision of history which benefits those who wrote and commissioned them and presenting that as an objective and observable truth. My job as a historian is to look at both of the chronicles and consider the contexts they were written in, and why the events included within them are there. When I wire a history I am then meant to interpret these competing versions of the same time period, and explain them to an audience to give them a clear picture of the period.

My interpretation of this situation lies somewhere between both chronicles. I agree with the Dalimil Chronicle that John of Luxemburg was a terrible ruler who had no business anywhere near the Bohemian crown, and whose poor rule vastly disadvantaged the people in his kingdom while he pranced around Europe being a wanker at various tournaments. However, I think Charles was a skilled ruler, whose desire to prove himself as a rightful ruler bound him more closely to the kingdom and allowed for some wonderful new innovations. This weighing is the job of history. It is the entire point. As a historian I find both of these sources immeasurably useful in illuminating the particularly volatile political situation of fourteenth century Bohemia, but I have to interpret them for them to be any help at all whatsoever in terms of writing history.

Guess what, this image of Charles IV depositing relics also has a political purpose, which is to make you consider him as pious and therefore a deserving ruler. It is not neutral. Nothing is neutral.

What the UK government is currently asking from historians, anthropologists, and curators is to move away from the business of doing history. It wants an uncomplicated narrative of the British Empire which allows people to identify with it, untroubled with any thoughts of the violence that underlie its ability to accumulation vast amounts of wealth in one country, and more specifically in the hands of a very select few individuals. It wants a history that is akin to the Chronicle of the Prague Church without all of the inconvenient noise from dissenters that makes such chronicles necessary in the first place. One can certainly purchase such narratives, but to suggest that asking for that is apolitical is a farce.

Of course, this government can go ahead and demand that we only write things that they want to hear, but historians in the future will know that they did that. They will read the newspaper articles where the government demanded that we stop telling the full story of colonialism, look at the work that the government deigned to fund in this period, and come to the quite correct conclusion that the work was written as explicit imperial apologia, much as I see the Prague Chronicle as a specific attempt to big up Charles IV. It doesn’t matter how badly you want to stop historians from contextualising, it is inevitable.

History, as I have written before, is a discipline, not a virtue. It is not an unchanging object which we relate to passively, and need to uphold from the slings and arrows of, um, more history. History is an ongoing process wherein we work to explain the world around us based upon the events of the past. You can threaten people who are trying to do that work all you want, but that has a record as well, and you had best believe that we are going to use that when this lamentable period of UK history is written.

Oh, and also we know right now that you are a censorial douchebag who thinks that he personally is the British Empire when you do this too. I just to make that clear, you absolute spoons.

[1] Beneš of Krabice Weitmil, Chronicon Ecclesiae Pragensis, in Josef Emler (ed.), Fontes Rerum Bohemicarum, vol. IV (Prague, 1884), pp. 457–548.
[2] Ibid., p. 485 and p. 546, respectively.
[3] Jaroslav Pánek, Oldřich Tůma, et al., A History of the Czech Lands, (Prague, 2009), p. 141; Eleanor Janega, Jan Milíč of Kroměříž and Emperor Charles IV : Preaching, Power, and the Church of Prague,  (2015), pp. 155-156. (Citing myself again. Can’t stop. Won’t stop.)
[4] On anti-German sentiment in the Dalimil Chronicle see Oldřich Tůma, et al., A History of the Czech Lands (Prague, 2009), p. 121; Hugh Agnew, The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Stanford, CA, 2004), p. 30.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on politics, see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
Religious iconography has always been a prop
On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
On Q Anon and systems of knowledge
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

One thought on “On history versus chronicles”

  1. These sorts of people, to generalize (only a bit), are the sort of empty, bloviating sort that live by the idiotic and untrue maxim of the absolutely-unremarkable “conservative” asshole G. W. “Shrub” Bush: “Oh, I don’t know [what history will say about me, because] I’ll be dead when they finally figure it out.”

    This is what assholes consider, along with jokes about Jews, women, non-whites whom they are not currently doing business with, “wit”.

    Speaking metaphorically, these people aren’t really human beings as they now live and “think” – in fact, it’s hard to speak of such banality and dishonesty as being a “living thing” at all.

    As always, your take is interesting and thought-provoking.


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