Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Different “Type” of History: Medieval Historiography and Thomas Becket

by Rosanne E. Lortz

One of the most startling differences about the way medieval historians “did” history and the way modern historians do it is the medieval use of typology. Defined briefly, typology is the use of a real (historical) person, thing, or event as a metaphor for another real person, thing, or event. 

Typology is the language of the Bible. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac typifies—or prefigures, if you’d prefer a different word—God the Father’s sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ. Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale typify the three days that Christ spent in the tomb. 

Medieval historians, many of them monks and steeped in Scripture, were used to expressing themselves with the same language and ideas that they saw in the Biblical text. They evaluated historical personages, saw them in a Biblical framework, and drew typological connections for their readers’ benefit. There was no strangeness to them in considering their historical king Alfred to have the same role as the Biblical king David—a ruler who typified Christ. 

One of the beauties to be appreciated in the medieval historians is their subtlety in using this literary device. Most of their typological connections are hidden in the text, wrapped in allusion, and veiled with implicit metaphor.

They did not treat the reader like an obtuse child. They did not say: “Now, when Germanus came over to give the gospel to the pagan Britons, he was acting like a type of Christ, and we know this because….” No, rather they simply told the story, and told it in such a way that the reader (or at least the Scripture-literate reader) would make the connection himself. 

Consider this example from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. In this passage, the bishop Germanus is coming across the English Channel to evangelize the Brits. A storm has arisen, threatening the safety of the ship: 
"As it happened, their leader, the bishop, was worn out and fell asleep. Their champion having thus deserted his post (or so it seemed), the storm increased in fury and the ship, overwhelmed by the waves, was about to sink. Then St Lupus and all the rest in their dismay awakened their leader so that he might oppose the fury of the elements. More resolute than they in the face of frightful danger, Germanus called on Christ and in the name of the Holy Trinity took a little water and sprinkled it on the raging billows. At the same time he admonished his colleague and encouraged them all, whereupon with one consent and one voice they offered up their prayers. Divine help was forthcoming, the adversaries were put to flight, peace and calm followed, and the contrary winds veered round and helped them on their way."
St. Germanus
Those conversant with the Scriptures will see the obvious allusion. Germanus, awakened from sleep by his “disciples”, calms the wind and the waves, just like Christ did in the Gospels. This parallel action (and not the voice of the narrator) tells us how we should think of Germanus—as a type of Christ.

In this subtlety, the medieval historians were mimicking the subtlety that the Bible itself often displays. In the Book of Acts, Luke does not tell us outright that Stephen in his martyrdom is a type of Christ.

Rather, he signals it to us by recording and emphasizing the last words of Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:59-60). These words closely echo the words of Christ on the cross, and thereby evoke (rather than simply tell) the typological connection. 

This typological tradition of historiography continues on from Bede into the following centuries. One of the chroniclers of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s life wrote this about the dispute between Becket and King Henry:
"And when he [Henry II] continued to press, asking again and again if the archbishop of Canterbury would promise to observe his customs entirely, absolutely and without adding the exception of his order, he was unable to obtain what he wanted from the vicar of Christ [Becket]. Therefore the king was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him, and in this heated mood he left London without notice, with all his business unfinished, and lawsuits left hanging."
Did you catch it? The line at the end that says, “the king was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him”? 

This allusion is a zinger of an accusation. By quoting Matthew 2:3 (“When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”), the historian lets us know more about Henry and his ambitions than he could have explained in ten pages of plain language. Henry is Herod, the enemy of the Messiah. All of the negative baggage that the name Herod carries is hereby transferred to Henry. 

In the above passage, we see that Henry’s enemy is in fact Thomas. This leads us to another typological connection: Herod’s enemy was Christ, Henry’s enemy is Thomas, and so Thomas represents Christ in this story. He is Christ’s “vicar” in a very real sense.

The events surrounding the quotation in its original context also affect the text of the chronicle. What is the context of Herod being “troubled” in Matthew 2:3? It is when he sees the Magi—when they inform him that there is another King besides him. This is the same thing that troubles Henry. There is another King besides him in England, a King whom Becket is choosing to honor instead.

In the book of Matthew, Herod follows his agitation with action. He slaughters the innocents. This gives us an indication of how far Henry will go. He will not stop at murder to keep this other King from capturing the obedience of his kingdom.

Massacre of the Innocents (10th c.)
I strongly doubt that medieval historians, when using these typological connections, considered them to be a mere literary device that they themselves had imposed on the story. To the writer of the above excerpt, Henry was Herod. Becket was Christ. The typological connections were not something that historians had to invent—they were already there, written into the real-life story and waiting to be discovered. 

With the story seen through this typological framework, it would have made perfect sense to the chroniclers that when Becket returned from exile, there was a crowd waiting to greet him in England, throwing down their coats before him and shouting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” His time of martyrdom must be preceded by a Triumphal Entry, even as Christ’s was.

For modern historians, however, the similarities between Biblical and medieval accounts can create doubt as to the veracity of the medieval historians. Was Germanus really asleep in the boat during the storm, or was that just a convenient way for Bede to make the allusion to Christ? Did the English really shout, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” or did Becket’s chroniclers ad lib some dialogue that fit the scene they wanted to depict?

That subject could be debated to good purpose and with interesting points from either side. But instead of questioning the accuracy of medieval historians, I find it far more interesting to ponder this question: did historical personages of this era see themselves as types of Biblical figures in the grand scheme of a divinely-ordained history?

Let me explain…. In one instance, when Becket is rebuking his fellow clergy members, he says, “Who put a spell on you, foolish bishops?” This is more than reminiscent of Paul’s rebuke to the Galatians (cf. Galatians 3:1). He goes on to disparage them for serving man to the detriment of serving God: “If an angel came down from the sky and gave me such advice I would curse it” (cf. Galatians 1:8). 

If the chronicler’s quotation of Becket’s words is accurate, it causes one to wonder—were these just convenient quotations to use, or did Becket see himself as a type of Paul, one who had formerly persecuted the Church as Henry’s chancellor and was now her champion after a Road to Damascus experience? 

Perhaps it was not just the medieval historians who were determined to draw typological connections. Perhaps the subjects they wrote about were determined to bring those connections about.

Perhaps Becket, who prophesied his own death before he returned to England, was determined to be a type of Christ. And perhaps the chroniclers, with all their typological language, were merely giving his actions their stamp of approval and acknowledging how successful his efforts had been.

Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.



Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Edited and translated by Judith McClure and Roger Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Staunton, Michael, trans. and ed., The Lives of Thomas Becket. NY: Manchester University Press, 2001.


  1. What an absolutely fascinating post--I feel like reading the Bible cover-to-cover so that I don't miss all the references in the future!


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