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Historical Consciousness and Institutional Concern in European Medieval Historiography (11th and 12th centuries)

Historical Consciousness and Institutional Concern in European Medieval Historiography (11th and 12th centuries)

By Hans-Werner Goetz

Paper given at the 19th International Congress of Historical Sciences (2000)

Introduction: Since all historiography is a “reflection of discourses with the past” (Franz-Josef Schmale) and per definitionem written with the intention of memorizing the past and visualizing it for the present and for posterity, it is inevitably based on (and at the same time is an expression of) a certain concept of history (Geschichtsbild) and a certain historical consciousness (Geschichtsbewußtsein), the former referring to the author’s conception of the past, the latter referring to his attitude towards this or, rather, towards his own past. Both, however, are determined by interests resulting from the present, they “create” the actuality of history, the “presence of the past”. A “historical consciousness”, as I understand it, is determined by three major elements: a consciousness of a historic nature of the world (Geschichtlichkeitsbewußtsein), a conception of history (Geschichtsbild) and a specific interest in history (Geschichtsinteresse). If the first element, the consciousness of a historic nature, includes at the same time an awareness of the mutability of history itself and of the historic authenticity of individual events, the second element, the conception of history, covers a mental act of organizing the amorphous mass of historical information and knowledge into a systematic process, and the third element, the historical interest, closely combines past and present (and sometimes also the future): then we may conclude that it is exactly the historical consciousness that is responsible for the close relation between the present and the past which is significant for all historiography. And it is this relation, the historiographical function as a narrative “re-presentation” of the past, which is responsible for any uses and misuses of the past. Of course, these are modern expressions which cannot be transferred to a medieval past except in a completely wide and general sense and have to take the contemporary notions of that period into consideration.

In this short, essayistic survey, I wish first (I) to outline characteristic features of the “typical” historical consciousness in occidental historiography of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and afterwards (II) to point out elements of its “actuality” (Aktualität), its uses and, above all, its relation to the institutions from which they were derived and/or for which they were written. This is not so much “the church”, as one might think, or Christianity as a whole (although the so-called universal chronicles recommence to play an important part in this period), and it is only partly the Empire or realm in “imperial” or “regal” chronicles (as a sign of a germinating national consciousness), but first of all ecclesiastical and local institutions: bishoprics and monasteries, but also noble families (lineages) or dynasties, and, later on, cities and territories.

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