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Lecture explores ‘shards of a fugitive history in medieval Europe’

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

Scott G. Bruce, professor of medieval history and director of the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, gave this year’s annual University of Massachusetts/Five College Graduate Program in History Distinguished lecture. Bruce’s lecture, titled “The Dark Age of Herodotus: Shards of a Fugitive History in Medieval Europe,” was given in Campus Center Room 163 on Wednesday evening.

Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian, touted by some as the “father of history,” and was widely read by monks living in Europe’s medieval monasteries. Yet, according to Bruce, none of his greatest works regarding accounts of the Greco-Persian Wars were ever recorded. Bruce’s lecture sought to explain this disconnect and described how these tales were able to travel from the ancient Mediterranean world to Northern Europe and beyond.

Bruce described that a composition of texts written between the sixth and eleventh centuries reveals that shards of the histories entered the medieval literary tradition through various ways, most often through the agency of late Roman intermediaries. The 2,000 or so surviving Latin manuscripts written on vellum, parchment and papyrus from the years 500 A.D. to 800 A.D. are believed to represent the notion of the European Dark Age.

He explained that in 800 A.D., the Frankish ruler Charlemagne fostered an intellectual climate that encouraged the collection of works by Roman authors. Charlemagne’s educational reforms created the foundation of several Frankish monastic schools in the heartland of Northern Europe, as well as a standardized curriculum that included Roman authors and their classical elements.

These developments ensured that the demand for these Latin manuscripts didn’t diminish in the centuries to follow. Bruce said that the largest monastic libraries contain the manuscripts of hundreds of books, including a generous amount by Roman authors.

“Writing at the end of antiquity, Orosius and other authors of historical compendia played a vital role in transmission of Greek and Roman history into the abbeys of Western Europe, including stories directly or indirectly from the histories of Herodotus,” said Bruce.

Anna Taylor, an associate professor of history at the UMass, commented on the false nature of how the Dark Ages are often portrayed.

“What we learn from Professor Bruce’s lecture is that though Greek works were supposedly ‘lost’ in the West, they had a vibrant legacy during the so-called Dark Ages which is often widely ignored,” Taylor said.

Brian Ogilvie, chairman of the history department, spoke about the necessity of understanding antiquity to fully grasp the following decades of history.

“From my standpoint as a professor, I cannot understand the 16th, 17th, 18th, and so forth centuries without first understanding the ancient world. The ancient world, as well as its literature and culture, can help to be understood by the survival of Herodotus’ works.”

When asked how he felt about being chosen to give this year’s annual UMass/Five College Graduate Program in History’s Distinguished lecture, Bruce expressed great gratitude.

“It’s an incredible honor for me to be chosen to give this speech. Many people who have given this lecture in the past have been heroes and some even teachers of mine,” said Bruce.

Jacqueline Hayes can be reached at jacquelineha@umass.edu.

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