Christianity to 843
#2 Historiography

Published by Professor Alan L. Hayes, Wycliffe College

Back to Home Page

Some references

Primary and secondary sources

The University of Victoria Library explains the difference

Reading primary source material

University of Maryland Libraries has some suggestions on interpreting various kinds of primary sources.

Reading secondary source material

Carleton University has some suggestions for reading secondary sources in history. For reading a textbook like the one by González, these suggestions may be helpful if you take each chapter as a unit, rather than applying the suggestions to the book as a whole.

A unit at UCLA has some advice on reading historical documents.

Guidelines for writing essays

These are the guidelines found in the prefatory material in Hayes, Church and society in documents.

Origins of Christian historiography

Arnaldo Momigliano (1907-1987), an Italian historian who taught in the U.K. and U.S.A., discusses fourth-century Christian history-writing, and its differences from pagan history-writing

An introduction to historiography: An article from Wikipedia

The past

People need to know their past. If you've known folks with dementia, you'll understand how disabling it can be to lose your past. They've forgotten the relationships and the stories that have made them who they are. They find it hard to make decisions because they've forgotten the decisions that they've made, and their consequences. They don't know whom to trust, because it's our histories with people that make us comfortable trusting them.

It's pretty much the same with families, communities, nations, churches. Their identity has a lot to do with their common remembered past. That's why people like to make family trees, or talk to their grandmothers about how things used to be. That's why we teach kids the history of their country. That's why city councils put up statues of important people or name streets and towns after pioneers. That's why churches have memorial windows, and plaques commemorating church members who died in war.

But there's a problem about knowing the past. People don't agree about it. After all, we have no direct access to the past, and therefore no sure way to resolve differences of memory. You can probably think of friendships that have been broken or families that have been divided because of something that different people remember differently, a promise that was made or not made, an insult that was said or not said, a criticism that was either harsh or merely whimsical depending on who recalls it. The leading cause of wrongful conviction is witness misidentification, often because of a faulty memory. Recent research in international relations suggests that a reason for conflict between countries is their failure to reach a common memory about their pasts. School history textbooks in Quebec tell a very different story of Canada from those in Ontario.

Here's an example. In July 2021 the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, removed this statue of Lewis and Clark as virile white men who explored the American wilderness in the early 1800s, in order to claim the Oregon territory for the United States; their guide, the Lemhi Shoshone woman Sacagaweya, is seen cowering usefully but weakly next to them. This was the past as white men preferred to remember it. Indigenous peoples see this history differently. Lewis and Clark weren't in a wilderness at all, but on the land of other people who were just as tough and proud and brave as they were, and without whom they wouldn't have had the guides, food, ecological knowledge, or horses they needed to bring their expedition to a successful conclusion.

Two things can go wrong in our understanding of the past. The first is that we sometimes make up the past. For individuals, memory distortion is a common human phenomenon. Those who have studied it say that memory distortion is a functional self-protective adaptation, even though it can cause damage. They say that memory is always at least partly reconstructive: our minds give us narratives to make sense of things that we think we've experienced. Communities create pasts for themselves too. For instance, the Highlanders of Scotland were a dependency of Ireland until the late eighteenth century, and then they created traditions, clans, tartans, badges, ballads, heroes, and epics to give themselves an ancient history and a present independent identity. They weren't being frauds; they were simply eager to believe stories that could justify their patriotism. Later in this course we'll see how some eighth-century forgers created a history of papal authority which wasn't debunked until the fourteenth century.

If the first thing that can go wrong with memory is that we make things up, the second thing that can go wrong is that we select things out. In our personal lives we may repress memories that hurt. Or we choose to recount stories that are to our advantage,while omitting those that aren't. Communities do the same. The state of Texas refuses to approve school history textbooks that identify slavery as a significant factor in the U.S. Civil War. In Canada, schools until recently didn't tell kids how Indigenous peoples were removed to make way for settlers, or how Blacks and Asians were prevented from immigrating before 1962. They selected out stories that weren't consistent with a view of Canada as just, fair, tolerant, and multiculturally inclusive.

So, to recapitulate: we need a past because it gives us a sense of identity; but sometimes we manipulate the past to protect the identity that we prefer. That's true of individuals, and it's true of groups. It's true of the Church.

In the Church, a principal reason for the divisions of the Church isn't theological disagreement. It's stories. Each denominational tradition clings to stories that justify its separation from all other denominational traditions. Some of these stories make things up; others of them select things out. Every Anglican knows about Henry VIII's divorce, but few have read the Thirty-Nine Articles.

In my view, the main vocation of historians is twofold. One is to deconstruct the untrue stories about the past that cause damage, hurt, division, and injustice. There are a lot of them. The other is to construct a past that with integrity takes account of different perspectives, one that is commonly recognizable.

Accordingly, this is a course about (a) deconstructing versions of the Church's past that aren't really true but serve someone's need for falsehood, and (b) constructing versions of the past that come as close to the truth as we're likely to get.

The term 'historiography'

'Historiography' means 'the writing of history', and the term can be used in different ways.

Primary and secondary sources

A primary historical source is one which has authority for our knowledge of a past event or situation.

For example, an eyewitness report of an event is a primary source. If you're studying Augustine's Confessions, the Confessions itself is the primary source. As a parallel, if you apply for a Canadian passport, you will have to produce primary source material proving that you're a Canadian citizen, such as a birth certificate, or certificate of citizenship. In a court of law, if the Crown wants to prove that the defendant has committed a murder, primary evidence will have to be produced, such as eyewitness testimony, or forensic evidence.

Primary source material isn't necessarily true. An eyewitness can lie, for instance.

Historians most often use historical texts as their primary evidence. But they sometimes use non-textual sources, such as coins, art, and archaeological remains.

A secondary historical source is a report about the past which does not have authority.

In principle secondary sources build on primary sources. A book or article on encyclopedia entry by a scholar about the historical past who is building on primary evidence is a secondary source. Thus, González' textbook Story of Christianity is a secondary source.

Reading sources critically

The fundamental skill that historians use is the skill of reading texts critically.


Reading a textbook

A textbook is assigned for the course in order to (a) give students a sense of the overall connectedness of events, (b) provide some fundamental chronological and thematic structure which will not need to be repeated in the course lectures, and (c) at some points offer alternative interpretations to the lecturer's.

Textbook writers often assume a rather olympian tone (see the illustration!), and readers who are beginning their historical study may be tricked into thinking that the textbook they're using is full of generally agreed information. This is a mistake. Be sure to read the text historiographically — that is, with attention to the author's premises, stated purposes, "hidden agenda," intended audience, method, and so on. Writers of textbooks have neither privileged information about the past nor objective interpretations. Different historians disagree. What is this author doing, and why?