Of individuals and crowds

News travelled very slowly in the past. Just as it took months for individuals to reach distant lands, so did news reports reach different individuals and communities with significant retardation.

In premodern Europe, oral information circulated more speedily than written reports. In the medieval period, necrologues travelled quickly from one monastic community to another. Before monks found out what was happening in other regions, they learned about who died and how they died.

Necrologues were important sources for monastic chronicles everywhere in the West. Historians often didn’t have anything to report for certain years except that an abbot or a prominant brother or sister died. This was newsworthy information and was often incorporated into annals and chronicles. The business of the dead was as important as the affairs of the living, especially in a culture where death was a stop on the way to eternal life.

That is why even during periods of political upheaval and social disruptions, many chronicles don’t have much to add other than some people died. And, at least before the 14th century, the record of their death did not push historians to find out more about the departed. The general impression one gets from perusing many medieval chronicles is one of strict objectivity and cold indifference.

As biography rises in importance during the last centuries of the medieval period, chroniclers begin to record more information about the people that had previously only received a passing remark. That is because these writers start asking questions. That is because the person rises above the community to become an object of discussion. In the visual arts, the individual leaves the amorphous crowd to become a full-featured object of representation. And then we enter the Renaissance.

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