From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 1-16.




Church History and Historians.


IN one of his lectures on Literature, Thomas Carlyle tells us that we should altogether fail to discover the meaning of the Historical Period in the Middle Ages if we did not lay deeply to heart the meaning of Christianity. The story of the church in early days; of how it grew on in neglect and indifference; of how from a passing allusion by Tacitus and another by Pliny, it came to have books of its own, whole libraries, and a department in literature — all this tends to show that Church history is largely the history of the nation’s progress. The pioneers of early ecclesiasticism are the leaders of thought like Justin Martyr, Origen, Irenæus, Tertullian, and Cyprian, and their task was the diffusion of Christian truths, 2 and the spreading of Church work. “The Church and the loyalty of the time,” Carlyle says, “were the two hinges of society; and that society was in consequence distinguished from all societies which had preceded it, presenting an infinitely greater diversity of view, a better humanity, a largeness of capacity.”

The work of writing Church history extends over sixteen hundred years, beginning in its systematic form with the massive treatises of the learned and holy Eusebius of Cæsarea. His “Demonstratio Evangelica” in twenty books, and “Ecclesiastical History” in ten books, mark the beginnings of that ever-swelling stream of Church literature whose actual springs, however, must be sought in the more obscure writings of authors and scribes who lived in the earliest days of the Church’s existence. From the time of the good Bishop of Cæsarea to these days when ecclesiastical works form a library of their own, ever increasing in magnitude, nations have risen and fallen and many dynasties changed, but the history that Eusebius began has been unbroken and still continues. It is a far cry to his times, and far different to his are the methods which historians have since pursued, and still pursue. Eusebius 3 declined to record the divisions of the Christians, believing that the record would be injurious; but now, every section has its chronicler, while the history of theological controversy has become almost of appalling magnitude. Perhaps the most saddening feature of Church history in the main is that it is so largely the history of bickering and dissension, of changes and conflicts, of persecution and martyrdom. Yet in all this, too, some satisfaction is to be found that the Church should have produced such heroes and dialecticians, and should have been endued with such vital and triumphant power.

In its unsystematic and its unconscious form Church history may be said to originate in the records and decrees of the councils, the official publications of bishops, popes, and clergy, the promulgated laws, the liturgies and service books, the inscriptions, calendaries, matyrologies, 1 letters, and reports. These are the stray, casual, disjected sections of the first chapter in that history which has become so voluminous. We owe some of the annals to what would seem to be merely accidental circumstances, and their survival from ancient times is not the least remarkable fact to be noted. That many are of dubious 4 origin is of course inevitable, and yet the primary sources of Church history are by no means so polluted as might have been supposed. In the course of generations, too, the true had been sifted from the false, and the genuine from the fabulous. It devolved upon the earliest historians to collate the assortment of facts presented in these documents, and by investigation to discover how the gaps should be filled, and the disjointed records dove-tailed and connected. The material for history slowly accumulated, but the historian was yet to arise who should marshal the facts in order and systematically undertake a work with one definite purpose and end. Two of the first names associated with such a labour are Eusebius of Cæsarea and Julius Africanus, the fathers of Church history proper. They probably worked from models, but those models can only be vaguely guessed at, and are untraced. Their works formed a basis for the histories which followed in various languages during several succeeding centuries, though the names of the historians are (except to the expert) little more than a meaningless and uninteresting list. Thus we may set down in all its bareness the fact that the history of Eusebius, extending to 324 A.D., 5 was continued by Socrates to 439, by Sozomen to 423, by Theodoret to 428, by Philostorgius to 425, by Theodore to 527, and by Evagrius to 594. An Arabic chronicle fills the gap to 937, and the Greek historians brought the record down to 1330. More important were the Latin writers, a series of whom, beginning with a translation of Eusebius, produced works which stood the test of many centuries and in some cases served as textbooks to the time of the Reformation. The names of Cassiodorus and Jerome stand out most prominently in this brilliant category. Cassiodorus who, in the sixth century, after seventy years of labour for the State founded a monastery, and devoted himself to letters, gave that impetus to monkish literature which has never lost its force. His own library contained the accumulations of half-a-century, and it was under his guidance and influence that the transcription and multiplication of sacred and precious manuscripts began. His system made the monks the finest of scribes, and led to a diffusion of knowledge which, before the era of printing, was as much to be wondered at as commended. His own spare time he devoted to original compositions, and dying at the age of 6 one hundred he left the treasury of sacred literature richer than he found it. From this beginning arose the mass of beautifully transcribed manuscripts which for nearly ten centuries were the world’s only books. The monks wrote and re-wrote the Lives of the Saints, the Creeds, the legends and traditions of good men, the favourite portions of the Church’s history interwoven sometimes with fragments of the nation’s history, and moral disquisitions, such as St. Jerome’s noble and elevated appeal to the rich to practice self-abnegation. In addition they copied the Scriptures with that loving care and embellishment which make the rare specimens as delightful as they are wondrous in the eyes of the present generation. The monastic libraries and scriptoriums kept letters alive, developed learning, and made Church history possible.

The products of these bygone times being difficult of access, the modern student has to trust chiefly to the researches and compilations of learned and zealous men who have drawn from the ancient repositories their wealth of lore. Thus the history of Latin Christianity, including that of the Popes to the Pontificate of Nicholas V., which was completed and published by Dr. 7 Milman, Dean of St. Paul’s, in 1856, will satisfy most requirements. Dean Milman with care and insight went over the voluminous authorities upon which we depend for our knowledge of the Church during the Middle Ages, and his results are set forth with fulness and freedom. In particular he was able to show how in rude times, the clergy by their almost exclusive possession of the advantages of education, by their gifts of reading and writing, by their control of schools and universities, secured a mastery of temporal affairs. “Not only from their sacred character, but from their intellectual superiority, they are in the courts, in the councils, of kings; they are the negotiators, the ambassadors of sovereigns, they alone can read and draw up state papers, compacts, treaties, or frame laws. Writing is almost their special mystery; the notaries, if not tonsured, as they mostly were, are directed and ordered by the clergy; they are in general the servants and agents of ecclesiastics. In every kingdom in Europe the clergy form one of the estates, balance or blindly lead the nobles; and this too, not merely as churchmen and enrolled in the higher services of God, but from their felt and acknowledged pre-eminence in the administration 8 of temporal affairs.” Is it wonderful that these men should loom so largely in national history, and is it surprising that the history of the Church as written by the earlier chroniclers should be to so great an extent a history of the country?

It is just probable that a fabulous element enters into some of the stories of the monkish labours. Of Origen, one of the third century bishops, it is stated that not only did he perform tremendous labours devolving upon him as a head of the Church but that he supervised the production of no fewer than six thousand volumes, himself writing as much as seven notaries could copy every day. There is no doubt, however, that during a long period the brotherhoods were the preservers and the writers of histories, the masters of their crafts, and that to them we owe classic biographies, sermons, creeds, and the unexcelled commentaries of the Fathers. Patristic literature survived by their efforts. It seems the merest chance that some important works have escaped the fate that befell so many others of the same class. The ancient works of Eusebius himself have come down to us almost unimpaired, whereas many of much later 9 date have irretrievably perished. By curious fortune we have left to us the “Chronicon ex Chronicis” of Florence, the Worcester monk, who gathered together the leading facts in Christian history down to the year of his death, 1119. Sometimes there is a difficulty in distinguishing the theologian from the historian. St. Jerome who must be ranked as one of the latter was a great controversialist, and his writings abound in bitter attacks upon all who disagreed with his views and acted contrary to them.

Yet it is remarkable also that these makers of literature, these preservers of material for a history of the Church and Christian progress, have also at times been the great destroyers of books, and the opponents of authors. Abbot Hartmut to satisfy his personal spleen mutilated the incomparable work of Notker, surnamed the Stammerer. The elder Disraeli in his chapter on the “Recovery of Manuscripts” relates how at the restoration of letters the monasteries were searched, and valuable works were discovered rotting in oblivion in dark unfrequented corners in cellars, under piles of rubbish, and in decayed coffers; and after recording some of the instances with indignation and disgust, he observes : “The 10 monks have been complimented as the preservers of literature, but by facts like the present their real affection may be doubted.” It must, however, be remembered that all the difference was made between sacred and “profaneā€ literature, and while the former was treasured the latter was held as of no account, and even Virgil and Horace were designated “dogs.” But the wilful destruction of books by contending sects is one of the saddest chapters in the world’s history, and we are the poorer to-day in consequence of the burning of the libraries at the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of the Eighth Henry. But for this sacrifice how much richer the history of the Church would now be, and what greater magnitude it would assume! Rome, however, which had encouraged literature up to a certain limit, ended by dreading its expansion. Hallam records that “books were unsparingly burned” by order of the Popes, while the “Index Expurgatorius” proved, and still proves, to be as destructive in its effects as fire itself. While destroying on the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church has so done much on the other hand for literature that it would be unjust to condemn the one action without praising the other. The 11 “Acta Sanctorum” of the Bollandists, begun in the seventeenth century and extending to over sixty volumes, must at least be put to the credit of the authors as an unmatched piece of Church history.

Turning to comparatively modern times we find during the great development of letters that the master-works in Church History have been produced by the Germans, whose patient researches and whose exhaustive compilations, to say nothing of their profound arguments, have made their voluminous writings of the utmost value. The Germans have, indeed, exceeded English Divines in this mighty task, and while we can boast of a lustrous line of scholars such as Milman, Hook, Stanley, Newman, Robertson, Stubbs, Wordsworth, and Creighton, the fame of their writings is exceeded by Schröckh’s five-and-thirty volumes, by the impartial and thorough treatises of Ernst Christian Schmidt, by the laborious investigations of Gieseler, and by the masterpieces of Ranke, Jacobi, Hagenbach, and Neander. Nevertheless, England can claim the second place for her Church historians, and it is a long and brilliant line of writers from the time of Bede which can be marshalled to support and to 12 justify the contention. Our prose literature begins with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and his erudition is the more remarkable when we remember that a century later King Alfred said there was not one priest south of the Thames who could render his service-book into English. Thanks to the great King’s stimulating influence learning revived; Caedmon chanted his religious lyrics, and in time the monasteries began to put forth original writings, paraphrases, and scripts. The early poets, if they did not act as historians, kept the ecclesiastical spirit alive, until at last Wyclif arose in the fourteenth century, and began that literary and religious revival which had a permanent influence upon the Church and the people. He ranks both as expositor and historian; Ten Brink very aptly says that though he gave the nation no single work of art he gave it new ideas and a multitude of stimulating influences — influences which were seen immediately in the activity of his followers who helped on the Renaissance made glorious by Chaucer.

The way was rapidly being prepared for poets, philosophers and theologians; literary activity and the systematic chronicling of all great movements connected with the State and the Church 13 became recognised as customary, and to some extent regarded as requisite. Various movements in religious life called for notice, while age-long controversies ever have been, and continue to be, productive of much literature. We find the Benedictines and Oratorians keeping their faithful registers and catalogues, and the patristic writings at least inform us as to the ceremonies observed in early times. But all this was largely a sort of preparation for work of greater scope which was yet to be undertaken. The pioneers were clearing a way for men of a different stamp — for that cluster of writers whose volumes are monumental, for those true and sound historians whose work was planned upon a larger scale than any that had gone before, and who laboured towards a designed end. These were the men of pre-Reformation and post-Reformation times, men like Jewel, Hooker, Bingham, Usher, Fuller, Pearson, Beveridge, and Burnet. Then there was Foxe whose “Acts and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes touching matters of the Church,” otherwise the Book of Martyrs, was an eleven years’ task and an instalment of Church History unparalleled for tragic gloom and horror. The treatise on the Laws of 14 Ecclesiastical Polity to which the “judicious Hooker” devoted his life is a stalwart defence of the Church which seems destined never to be swept away or shaken. These men were writing of the Church out of pure love and zeal, and to know, and spread the knowledge of, its foundation were the surest methods of preserving it against the attacks of Puritans on the one side and of Papists on the other. A favourite form of Romanist attack was to ask, “Where was your Church before the Reformation?” and perhaps no better reply in its way was discovered than that given by Sir Henry Wotton, who asked the inquirer — “Where was your face this morning before it was washed?” It was necessary in those days of bitter conflict, of martyrdom, and pamphleteering “Marprelates,” that the story of the Church’s foundation should be familiar to the Church’s defenders, and herein lay the significance and importance of those annals, chronologies, retrospects, and chronicles by which the learned Usher, Archbishop of Armagh, quaint Thomas Fuller, and numerous others of the same school, with John Knox in Scotland, and Grotius and Calixtus on the Continent, achieved their fame. History for history’s sake alone, however, has 15 seldom been written by theologians and ecclesiasts; sooner or later it merges into controversy. It is amid many of the controversial works of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries that much good history is embedded, as is speedily evidenced by reference to the memorable volumes we owe to Gilbert Burnet, Tindal, Paley, Jeremy Collier, Warburton, Joseph Butler, and Stillingfleet.

Some of the most massive and sustained pieces of literature which the world knows have been those which relate to the Church, and its development, its changes, and its members. Take, for instance, the “Liber Pontificalis,” the work of many hands, containing the lives of the early Popes; and the “Madgeburg Centuries,” thirteen folio volumes, comprising the history of thirteen centuries, written by the Lutherans at Madgeburg. The latter comprehensive work evoked a “reply” of almost equal magnitude, Cæsar Baronius issuing his “Annals” in twelve folio volumes; and this reply became in turn a challenge which was taken up by various sections of theologians. The leading desire in each case was to prove by means of history that the true Church existed on its original foundations. As 16 sects arose, books multiplied. The Lombards, the Puritans, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, the Reformers, English and Scotch, all had their historians, in turn, just as in later times there have been the historians of the Wesleyans and the Puseyites. Germany produced the Pragmatical school represented by Schröckh, and France’s greatest historian has been the free-thinking Rénan. But almost invariably polemics have been mingled extensively with history, and history with polemics, in the writings of the last century.

Great and diverse as are the histories of the Church, how much that can be surmised still remains unwritten. The spirit of the early ages was not so much a speaking or a writing spirit, as a working spirit. The builders of the cathedrals were the chroniclers of their times as surely as the scribes in the monasteries. But whichever way we look we find a literature prolific and monuments magnificent, all alike bearing their testimony to the force which the Church has exerted upon the intellect of the race, the excellence she has drawn from men’s gifts, and the devotion she has won for labourers in all fields.


 1  Matyrologies, is a real word, although rarely used these days (although the Oxford Engish Dictionary does not recognize it). It is a variant spelling for martyrologies. However, although matyrology and matyrologies have both been used by several reputable modern authors citing old texts with this spelling, matyrdom has never been used. The spelling as matyrdom was used on this page and it had to have been purely a typo, (or the author got carried away using older forms). This was emended: see the source code. — Elf.Ed.