Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/September 1895/Professional Institutions V
V.—BIOGRAPHER, HISTORIAN, AND LITTERATEUR.
HOW, in their rudimentary forms, the several arts which express feelings and thoughts by actions, sounds, and words, as well as the professors of such arts, originated together in a mingled state, we have seen in the last two chapters. Continuing the analysis, we have now to observe how there simultaneously arose, in the same undifferentiated germ, the rudiments of certain other products, and of those devoted to the production of them. The primitive orator, poet, and musician, was at the same time the primitive biographer, historian, and litterateur. The hero's deeds constituted the common subject-matter; and, taking this or that form, the celebration of them became, now the oration, now the song, now the recited poem, now that personal history which constitutes a biography, now that larger history which associates the doings of one with the doings of many, and now that variously developed comment on men's doings and the course of things which constitutes literature.
Before setting out to observe the facts which illustrate afresh this simultaneous genesis, let us note that in the nature of things there could not be any other root for these diverse growths; and that this root is deeply implanted in human nature. If we go back to a group of savages sitting round a camp-fire, and ask what of necessity are their ordinary subjects of conversation, we find that there is nothing for them to talk about save their own doings and the doings of others in war and the chase. Though they have surrounding Nature and its changes, sometimes striking, to describe and comment upon, yet even these are usually of interest only as affecting men and influencing their lives. Human actions are the perennially interesting things; and obviously, among human actions, those certain to be most discussed are those which diverge most from the ordinary—the victories of the courageous man, the feats of the strong man, the manœuvres of the cunning man. Thus in the first stages, merely from lack of other exciting matter, there goes, after the narratives of individual successes in the day's hunt or the day's fight, a frequent return to the always-interesting account of the great chief's exploits, his ordinary doings, his strong sayings. Gradually the description and laudation of his achievements grows into a more or less coherent narrative of his life's incidents—an incipient biography. As a reason, too, why biography of this simple kind becomes an early mental product, let us note that it is the simplest—the easiest both to speaker and hearer. To tell of deeds and dangers and escapes requires the smallest intellectual power; and the things told are, fully or partially, comprehensible by the lowest intelligence. Every child proves this. The frequent request for a story shows at once the innate liking for accounts of adventures, and the small tax on the mind involved by conceptions of adventures. And it needs but to note how the village crone, mentally feeble as she may be, is nevertheless full of tales about the squire and his family, to see that mere narrative biography (I do not speak of analytical biography) requires no appreciable effort of thought, and for this second reason early takes shape.
Of course, as above said, biography of a coherent kind, arising among peoples who have evolved permanent chiefs and kings, grows gradually out of accounts of those special incidents in their lives which the priest-poets celebrate. Let us gather together a few facts illustrative of this development.
Its earlier stages, occurring as they do before written records exist, can not be definitely traced—can only be inferred from the fragmentary evidence furnished by those uncivilized men who have made some progress. The wild tribes of the Indian hills yield a few examples. Says Malcolm, "The Bhat is both the bard and the chronicler of the Bhils." He also states that certain lands of the Bhils were taken by the Rajpoots, and that—
So, too, concerning another tribe we read, in Hislop:—
Here, then, the priest is the narrator and his narrative is biographico-historical. It consists of leading facts in the lives of persons, and these are so joined with accounts of tribal deeds as to form a rudimentary history.
In Africa where, for reasons before named, loyalty to the living ruler has not usually given origin to worship of the dead ruler, we meet with only the first stage in the development.
In Dahomey, too, the union is between the courtier and the historian. In that kingdom, where women play so dominant a part, there are, as we have seen, female laureates; and "these troubadours are the keepers of the records of the kingdom of Dahomey, and the office, which is hereditary, is a lucrative one."
From Abyssinia we get an illustration of the way in which the united germs of biography and history make their appearance during burials of notables.
When the deceased person is a conquering monarch, this funeral laudation by professionals, the first step in apotheosis, begins a worship in which there are united that account of his life which constitutes a biography and that account, of his deeds which forms the nucleus of primitive history.
From the accounts of ancient American civilizations, facts of kindred meaning come to us. Here is a passage from Bancroft concerning the Aztecs:—
Again we read:—
It is instructive to observe how in this sacred book, as in other sacred books, religion, history, and biography were mingled with secular customs and knowledge.
Early civilized societies have bequeathed similar proofs. The biographico-historical nature of the Hebrew scriptures is conspicuous. As in other cases, incidents in the life of the national deity form its first subject-matter—how God created various things on successive days and rested on the seventh day. Accounts of his personal doings characterize the next books, and are combined with accounts of the doings of Adam and the patriarchs—biographical accounts. In what we are told of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we see biography dominant and history unobtrusive. But with the transition from a nomadic to a settled life, and the growth of a nation, the historical element comes to the front. Doubtless for a long time the genealogies and the leading events were matters of common traditional knowledge; though we may fairly assume that the priest-class or cultured class were those who especially preserved such knowledge. Later times give some evidence of the connection, as instance these sentences from Kuenen and Neubauer.
A few relevant facts are afforded by the ancient books of India. Describing some of their contents Weber says:—
Kalhana, who wrote a history of Kashmir, in 12th cent. a. d. was "more poet than historian.""In some princely houses, family records, kept by the domestic priests, appear to have been preserved."
From ancient Egyptian inscriptions come various evidences of these relationships. How naturally the biographico-historical element of literature grows out of primitive worship we see in the fact—allied to a fact above named concerning the Abyssinians,—that in an Egyptian tomb there was given in the ante-room an account of the occupant's life; and, naturally, that which was done on a small scale with the undistinguished man was done on a large scale with the distinguished man. We read in Brugsch that—
Here are kindred passages from Bunsen and Duncker:—
Thus it is clear that in Egypt the priests were at once the biographers and historians.
Preceding chapters have indirectly shown the primitive connections between religion, biography, and history among the Greeks. The laudation of a god's deeds, now lyrical now epical, rhythmically uttered by his priests, involved with the sacred element both these secular elements. But a few more specific facts may be added.
"In and near the sanctuaries the most ancient traditions were preserved.""A list was kept of the priestesses at Argos and an account of the priestly dignity also of the Kings of Sparta. . . and thus arose historical archives."
And then, after the secularization of rhythmical speeches or songs, first uttered in honor of the gods, the biographico-historical character of their subject-matters is retained and developed. In hexameters, first employed by the Delphic priests, Homer, in the Iliad recites a story which, mainly historical, is in no part biographical—the wrath of Achilles being its most pronounced motive. And then in the Odyssey, we have a narrative which is almost wholly biographical. But though mainly secularized, these epics have not wholly lost the primitive sacred character; since the gods are represented as playing active parts.
As before said, Roman society, so heterogeneous in its composition, had its lines of normal evolution broken by intruding influences. But still we trace some connection between the priest and the historian. According to Duruy and others—
"The pontiffs were concerned in keeping up the memory of events, as accurately as possible. Thus the Romans had the Annals of the Pontiffs, or Annales Maximi, the Fasti Magistratuum, the Fasti Triumphales, the rolls of the censors, etc."
Further, by its associations, the body of fetiales was apparently shown to have had some sacerdotal character.
Though but indirectly relevant to the immediate issue, it is worth while adding that the earliest Roman historian, Ennius, was also an epic poet—"the Homer of Latium," as he called himself. The versified character of early history exemplified in his writings, as also we shall presently see in later writings, is, of course, congruous with that still earlier union of the two, which was seen in the laudatory narratives of the primitive priest-poet.
Of evidences furnished by Northern Europe, we meet first with those coming from the pre-Christian world. Though the stories of the Teutonic epic, The Nibelungen, were gathered together in Christian times, yet they manifestly belonged to pagan times; and we may fairly assume were originally recited, as among other European peoples, by attendants of the great—courtiers while these lived, priest-poets after they died. But for a long time after Christianity had been victorious, the Christian narrative alone, in which, as in other primitive narratives, biography and history are united, furnished the only subject-matter for literature, and priests were its vehicles.
So, also, the 57 authors named by Guizot as belonging to the 9th and 10th centuries (of whom only five were laymen), were doubtless similarly occupied.
Nevertheless, while the ordinary biographico-historical matter which priests devoted themselves to was that which their creed presented or suggested, there appear to have been, after the 8th century, some cases in which such matter furnished by other than Christian traditions, occupied them; as in the Rolandslied and Alexanderslied, written in the 12th century by the monks Konrad and Lamprecht.
For the rest it will suffice if we take the case of our own country. Chronicles and histories "were mostly compiled in the monasteries." Taking the illustrations in order, we come first to Bede, who was monk and historian; Cynewulf, bishop or abbot and writer of sacred history; Gildas, monk and chronicler; Asser, monk and biographer. The Anglo Saxon chronicle was a yearbook of events recorded by monks from the 8th to the 12th century. After the Conquest the chief authors were still ecclesiastics, and their works were usually chronicles or lives of saints. Among them were Marianus Scotus, Florence of Worcester, Eadmer, Ordericus Vitalis, William of Malmsbury, Wace, Geoffrey Gaimar, Henry of Huntington, Fitzstephen, Thomas of Ely, and so on through subsequent reigns, in which the relationship continues for a long time to be marked, but during which the rise of secular competitors in the sphere of literature becomes gradually manifest.
Even without specification of such facts we might safely infer that since, during mediæval days, there was scarcely any culture save that of ecclesiastics, the writing of biography and history was, by the necessities of the case, limited to them.
That fiction has developed out of biography scarcely needs proof. Unless a biographer is accurate, which even modern biographers rarely are and which ancient biographers certainly were not, it inevitably happens that there is more or less of fancy mingled with his fact. The same tendencies which in early times developed anecdotes of chiefs into mythological stories of them as gods, operated universally, and necessarily produced in narratives of men's lives exaggerations which greatly distorted them. If we remember the disputes among the Greeks respecting the birthplaces of poets and philosophers we see how reckless were men's statements and how largely the actual was perverted by the imaginary. So, too, on coming down to Christian times it needs but to name the miracles described in the lives of the saints to have abundant proof of such vitiations. As in our own days the repeater of an anecdote, or circulator of a scandal, is tempted to make his or her story interesting by making much of the striking points; so, still more in early days, when truth was less valued than now, were stories step by step perverted as they passed from mouth to mouth.
Of course the narrator who gave the most picturesque version of an adventure or achievement was preferred by listeners; and, of course, ever tempted to increase the imaginary additions, passed insensibly into a maker of tales. Even children, at first anxious to know whether the stories told them are true, by and by become ready to accept untrue stories; and then some of them, thus taught by example, invent wonderful tales to interest their companions. With the uncivilized or semi-civilized a like genesis naturally occurs among adults. Hence the established class of story-tellers in the East—authors of oral fictions. And how gradually by this process fiction is differentiated from biography, is shown by the fact that at first these stories which, as exaggerations of actual incidents, are partially believed in by the narrators are wholly believed in by the listeners. In his Three Years in a Levantine Family Mr. Bayle St. John tells us that when The Arabian Nights were being read aloud, and when he warned those around that they must not suppose the narratives to be true, they insisted on believing them: asking—Why should a man sit down to write lies? So that after fiction comes into existence it is still classed as biography—is not distinguished from it as among civilized nations.
The early history of these civilized nations shows that in the genesis of imaginary biography the priesthood at first took some part. In Henry I's time Wace, a reading clerk, was also a romance writer. So, in the next reign, we have Walter Map, chaplain to the king, who wrote religious and secular romances; and there are subsequently named romances which probably had clerical authors though there is no proof. But the general aspect of the facts appears to show that after that time in England, the telling of tales of imagination became secularized.
Meanwhile derivative forms of literature were showing themselves, mostly, however, having a biographical element. As a writer on Church government the Saxon abbot Dunstan diverged somewhat from the purely clerical sphere; and after the Conquest Sewulf, who, becoming a monk, wrote his travels, gives us a deviation into an autobiographical, as well as a geographical, form of literature. Then in Henry II's reign we have Nigel Wireker, a monastic who wrote a satire on the monks, as did also the chaplain Walter Map, in addition to his volume of anecdotes. Under Richard I there was Geoffrey de Vinsauf, an ecclesiastic who was also a critic of poetry, and Giraldus Cambrensis, who wrote topography. In the reign of Henry III came the monk Mathew Paris, who, in denouncing pope and king, wove biographical matter into a satire. In subsequent reigns Wiclif, John Trevisa, and others, added the function of translator to their literary functions; and some, as Bromyard and Lydgate, entered upon various subjects—law, morals, theology, rhetoric. Here it is needless to accumulate details. It is enough for us to recognize the ways in which in early days the priest took the lead as man of letters.
Of course along with the secularization of biography, history, and literature at large, men of letters have become more diversified in their kinds. History, at first predominantly biographical, has divided itself. There is the unphilosophical kind, such as that written by Carlyle, who thought the doings of great men the only subject-matter worth dealing with, and there is the philosophical kind, which more and more expands history into an account of national development: Green's Short History being an example. Then biography, besides dividing into that kind which is written by the man himself and that kind which is written by another, has assumed unlike natures—the nature which is purely narrative, and that which is in large measure analytical or reflective. And besides the various classes of writers of fiction, laying their scenes among different ranks and dealing with them in different ways now descriptive, now sentimental, now satirical—we have a variety of essayists—didactic, humorous, critical, etc.
There is little to add respecting the special unions which have accompanied these general separations. Men of letters, taken as a whole, have only in recent times, tended to unite into corporate bodies. The reasons are not difficult to find.
Carried on chiefly in monasteries or by endowed ecclesiastics, the writing of books in early days had not become an occupation pursued for the purpose of gaining a livelihood. Even after the invention of printing there was for a long time no public large enough to make literature a bread-winning profession; and when, at length, books were written to get money, miserable lives resulted: such rewards as could be obtained being chiefly obtained through the patronage of the wealthy. Indeed, it is curious to see how the modern man of letters for a long time continued to stand in the same relative position as did the minstrel of old. He was a hanger-on either of the king or of the great noble, and had to compose, if not in verse then in prose, fulsome laudations of his patron. Only in recent days has he been emancipated, and only by the extension of the book-buying public has it been made possible for any considerable number of writers to make tolerable incomes. Hence, until lately, men of letters have not been sufficiently numerous to make professional union feasible.
Remembering that in France the Academy has long existed as a literary corporation, we may note that in England our generation has witnessed movements toward integration. Forty odd years ago an effort was made to establish a Guild of Literature and Art, which, however, did not succeed. But we have now a Society of Authors, as well as a special periodical giving voice to authors' interests; and we have sundry literary journals which, at the same time that they are organs for criticism, bring the body of authors into relation with the general public.