The Revd Dr Robert Evans is Chaplain and Director of Studies in theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
As with a great many of its members, I have found the EHS a deeply welcoming academic home, ever since joining in 2016. I have found this to be especially valuable for someone whose interest spans both history and theology. Whereas in other contexts I might have to explain myself, fellow EHS members regard these twin-interests as perfectly healthy and nothing to be ashamed of! I am delighted to be serving on the committee of a Society which manages to be so broad and versatile in its interests without losing a shared focus.
I studied history as an undergraduate before moving to theology to train for ministry in the Church of England at Ridley Hall. I did my doctorate as a historian under Rosamond McKitterick (EHS President 2018/19) and I am now the chaplain and director of studies in theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge. In fact, I owe much of my Christian faith to the study of history – it was reading some of Martin Luther’s works for A-Level that first overturned my teenage apathy about Christianity. Since then, I have been very keen to emphasise the importance of history for Christians today, as well as the importance of Christianity in the world’s history more generally.
Since my first term as an undergraduate, I have been especially fascinated by the early middle ages – one period among many when the church and its beliefs mattered to politics and culture. My research focuses on the relationship between theology and culture in early medieval societies. How did specific theological ideas – some of which are quite tricky to understand – actually shape the way people lived and thought about life?
My doctorate focused specifically on theology and the writing of history. It hinged on a phenomenon which most medievalists (and some modernists) will have come across; that moment when a chronicler says that an event happened because of God – barbarians attack ‘because of God’s judgement’; armies win victories ‘with God’s help’; famines are relieved ‘by God’s mercy’; pagans convert to Christianity ‘through God’s grace’; great bishops and theologians defend the faith, ‘inspired by God’. The list goes on…but what are we to make of such statements? They are so common that it is tempting to dismiss these statements as mere cliché – something that subconsciously slipped from a scribe’s stylus simply because they were Christian, perhaps a symptom of a more ‘primitive’ understanding of history.
On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that early medieval historians were very careful and deliberate about how (and when) they attributed events to God. One example of this is that of God’s judgement (the subject of my article forthcoming in the SCH volume on law). Although divine judgement might seem an easy way to explain why God allowed bad things to happen, it needed to be handled carefully. The kind of disasters that could be explained by divine judgement were precisely those which fell on the communities for whom these histories were being written. It was not necessarily pastorally sensitive for a historian to blame his or her audience for their own misfortune when they were still traumatised by the events in question. Instead, early medieval historians could take a range of theological approaches to disaster. Some historians simply omitted to mention God’s involvement in a disaster while making much of his help and mercy elsewhere in the community’s life. Other historians wrote of God’s judgement only on opposing nations or communities. Still others framed God’s involvement not as stern and unrelenting anger but as loving correction which invited repentance and reform. This is simply one way in which early medieval historians proved themselves perfectly capable of theological subtlety.
These historians are important because they still provide the basic narrative structure for studying this period. They are still the sources undergraduates are first sent to read to get to grips with the period. Furthermore, the way in which communities saw and recorded their past(s) provides an enormous insight into their view of the world. It would be unwise to dismiss a theme in these histories which was so important to their authors. These statements about God and history offer a glimpse into how theology shaped the way in which early medieval historians wrote their narratives. They took a large and complex theological idea (God’s providence over history) and applied it to the particular kind of text they wanted to write (history). In this way, they both reflected and shaped the beliefs of their audiences. My first article in the SCH looked precisely at the educational and pastoral role of such histories.
There are plenty of other avenues such questions could take and I look forward to tapping into the expertise of the Society for many years to come! Like many members, I benefited enormously from the EHS as a graduate student and have already made great friendships and collaborations through the Society. I look forward to continuing these into the future.