On chronicles versus journalism, and ruling versus governing

Ohhhh there is a lot to say, is there not? You think that you have starred fully into the depths of the dumpster fire and fully appreciated its heat, its dazzle, its stench, but it just. keeps. burning.

As a medieval historian, one aspect of said dumpster fire that has interested me of late is the concept of ‘fake news’ and what Trump feels the purpose of the press is. More specifically, it is of interest that apparently Trump feels that the press should be taking on the same function during his presidency as commissioned chroniclers did during the medieval period.

For those of us who haven’t wasted their lives on medieval history PhDs – chronicles, roughly speaking, are historical timelines. They provide a history in a straight-forward linear order. The chroniclers who write them, in general, record a number of incidents that they see happen around them, as well as past events that they are aware of in some cases. They may, therefore report on an event that effects multiple places – like, say, a comet – as well as what the local nobility were doing, or on local miracles. (There are a lot of miracles in medieval chronicles.)

As a result of the genre, chronicles can be a great source for letting us know the day to day events in a particular place. Because we often have chroniclers writing about past events sometimes centuries in the past, we have to be very careful about taking every even and time frame as a given. As historians, we work around this by triangulating sources. If we can find more than one source that gives us a date, we accept it and move forward.

Now, writing a chronicle, though it may seem easy to us now, was a skill. Literacy in the medieval period was not exactly wide-spread, and the majority of chronicles, like the majority of all written medieval work, were written in Latin. To be a chronicler, therefore, you had to be well educated. You also had to have enough time during the day to sit around and write. Keep in mind – in the medieval period, about 95% of all people were peasants, who had more pressing concerns, like farming, on their minds. You therefore also had to have enough free time to take up an undertaking like this.

As a result, most chronicles were written by rich people, for an audience of rich people, and they were, more often than not, paid for by commissions from rich people. The resultant chronicles thus often reflected the opinions of whatever group of rich people had paid for them. The rich people in question were often royalty or nobility, and the chronicles they commissioned often flatter their own families while casting major shade on whatever group they were at odds with.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (shout out to my boy!), for example, commissioned several different chronicles during his reign.[1] You’ll be unsurprised to learn that they usually just talk about how great all of Charles’s projects were. Turning brothels into religious houses? BAM it’s in there. (Charles was SWERF-y. Do better, Charles.) Doubling the size of Prague? Oh yes gurl. Shouting out every goddamn church that Charles had built? You know it.

If he was so awesome why did he need to pay people to write about it? Wellllllll before Charles took the throne in Bohemia, his dad John of Luxembourg was the king. Motherfucker, ran the place pretty much like Trump is running America now, which is to say he didn’t, and he just milked it for money while he travelled around going to tournaments.

The nobles back in Bohemia didn’t like that, or John’s profligate ass, and they paid for chronicles that tore him down. They dragged him for being foreign, and stupid, and talked about how the nobles should rule instead.[2] So basically, when Charles took the throne he had to make sure there were lots of chronicles about that could rebut the older anti-Luxembourg dynasty chronicles, to make sure everyone knew he was great.

In short, chronicles are something that we can read to see what events took place over a particular period, and how a particular group of people felt or wanted us to feel about them. It’s not so much a record of current events, but a specific spin on a series of current events.

This is what Trump wants journalism to be.

Journalism is not a chronicle. In theory, Journalism gathers information and uses verification to report on events. Obviously, because humans are incapable of being totally objective, journalism isn’t either.  However, the idea behind journalism methodologies is that they allow for transparency and that readers can understand how a particular conclusion was reached.

Inherent within journalism, as well, is that it exists to monitor power structures and act as a watchdog. Journalism exists specifically to call into question the actions of the ruling elite. This is why journalism is universally acknowledged as an indispensable tool of democracy, and why more democratic societies have a higher proportion of information sources.

Journalism, thus, acts in exactly the opposite way that a chronicle does. It exists to question power structures, whereas chronicles largely exist to advocate for the viewpoints of the elites who could create them.

It makes sense, then, that in the medieval period, where a group of ruling elites who claimed to have derived their power through God’s will chronicles are what passes for news. Chronicles seldom call into question the motives of their patrons. They may aim scorn at other powerful people who are in opposition to a chronicle’s patron, and more than one chronicle may give you more than one side of a story, but they do not exist to allow the average person a glimpse into the realities of a particular ruler’s court and allow them to critique it.

Journalism exists so that a public which chooses their government (to a greater or lesser extent) can be aware of what is happening and make decisions based upon that information. It is a tool for democracies, not for the ruled.

Obviously what we’ve learned from Trump thus far, is that he wants chronicles, not journalism. H doesn’t want his motives questioned, he wants his works celebrated.

Ask yourself whether that means that he wants to govern, or to rule.

[1] On Charles’s patronage of chroniclers, see Marie Bláhová, ‘Literární činnost Karla IV’, in, Marie Bláhová (ed.), Kroniky doby Karla IV (Prague, 1987), pp. 558–585.

[2] Staročeská Kronika tak řečného Dalimila, (Prague, 1988).


For more on politics and the medieval period see:
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On the medieval separation of Church and state
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and existentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

(This was originally posted 22 February 2017 here.)
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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kanye apologist.

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