Recording History at Worcester Cathedral

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus in Turkey and lived in the fifth century B.C. He is often called “The Father of History” as a result of his famous works, The Histories, nine books of stories from around the world, each one named after one of the Muses.

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Engraving of the bust of Herodotus. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Herodotus stands out among other ancient authors as one of the earliest writers to have consciously recorded and analysed past events. In doing so he broke away from the traditional method of recording history, passing it down orally. This oral tradition caused drastic evolution in stories as they were passed down through the generations and embellished until they became legends with little truth. The purpose of these stories was to entertain an audience and glorify their characters, which is demonstrated in the existence of Clio, the Muse of history. The Muses were believed to provide inspiration for the arts, which shows the Greeks had a flexible and creative attitude to history, whereas Herodotus sought to discover details about events such as the Greco-Persian War and its causes. The word Ἱστορίαι means ‘inquiries’, or ‘finding out’, and The Histories record Herodotus’ discoveries as he searched for truth in local tales from the Persian Empire and elsewhere in the ancient world.

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An excerpt from Herodotus’ Histories (1658), showing the original Greek in the right hand column and a Latin translation in the left. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The importance of recording historical accounts for posterity continued to be felt in the Christian medieval period, when many monks and religious leaders recorded events of the time in chronicles. The word “chronicle” is derived from the Greek χρόνος, meaning ‘time’, as they record the passing of time and events in order of their occurrence. Much of the information in chronicles would have been brought in as news from passing travellers. These texts translated stories from word of mouth to the written word, just as Herodotus wrote down oral tales from around the Persian Empire and beyond.

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, known as Chronicon ex chronicis, documents events from 450 to 1140 AD and, like Herodotus, the volume is an important source for historians on early British history. John of Worcester’s sources include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eadmer’s Historia Novorum and the Gloucester Chronicle.

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A page from an English chronicle (1644). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Both Herodotus and John of Worcester recorded history in a way that is different from modern times. Their work contains anecdotes and detailed accounts of events but lack the precise facts and figures on which so much emphasis is placed in modern day history textbooks. Herodotus’ work, which also contains character sketches and narrative techniques as if he were entertaining an audience, offers an insight into the social history of his time. John of Worcester’s Chronicle, in contrast, takes a step towards modern day ideas of history as it records precise dates and the actions of significant individuals of the time. Both, however, in taking oral accounts of certain events and documenting them, have shaped our understanding of their time and ensured that their stories will live on through the centuries.

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Title page of Herodotus’ Histories (1658). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

This is demonstrated in the Worcester Cathedral library, where an edition of Herodotus – produced in 1658, two thousand years after it was first written –  is kept in the same place that John of Worcester composed his own account of history, almost one thousand years ago. This copy of Herodotus was edited and published in Frankfurt by Friedrich Sylburg, a German classical scholar, and Henri Estienne, a French printer and classical scholar. Both scholars lived in the sixteenth century and their edition of Herodotus was first published in 1566, evidently to endure and be reprinted a hundred years later, before coming to rest in Worcester Cathedral.

 

Eleanor Cliffe

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