History of the Armenians, Moses Khorenats'i
Commentary on the Literary Sources by R. Thomson

Moses' attitude toward historiography

It is only fair to Moses that we attempt to understand his own attitude toward historical writing before embarking on this essay in source criticism. At several points in his History he comments on the subject matter, method, and purpose that are legitimate in historiography.

The basic purpose of historical writing, according to Moses, is to bequeath a record to posterity (I 1). From history we learn about the state of civilization in earlier times and about the


course of the world (I 3). But not everything that happened in the past is worthy of record; only the deeds of great men, both heroic exploits and notable acts of wisdom or justice, merit inclusion in books (I 3, 19, 24, 29, 31; II 1 62, 64). Moses thus reflects the interests of a landed aristocracy where valor is assessed primarily on the basis of martial accomplishments. Hence his emphasis is on the tracing of genealogies (I 3)—the raison d'etre of hereditary nobility, but a pursuit that is open to tendentiousness and fraud.

What is remarkable about Moses' explicit philosophy of history, sustained by most of his narrative, is the absence of a didactic or moral attitude toward the lessons that can be learned from history. Unlike the generality of Armenian historians, Moses does not think of historical writing as an essay in expounding God's ways to men. He does not deny God's general providence and purpose or his oversight of specific historical events, but he does not draw lessons of moral conduct that are held up for emulation. Nor does he remind his readers of the ultimate fate that befalls the wicked despite apparent, but transient, success.

This does not mean that Moses has no professed moral standards. "Unsuitable" stories are to be omitted from historical writing, and there is no place for the ridiculous, the unseemly, or the obscene (I 19, Fables; II 63, 70; III 55). The historian thus has certain responsibilities. He must not only deal with elevated material, he must make sure that it is treated in a reliable fashion. He must avoid what may tend to create doubt or disbelief (II 64, 75). Therefore he must introduce no imaginary happenings; falsehood has no place (I 19; II 65, 70; III 63). Nor must the historian's account be embellished with rhetoric to the extent that the truth is obscured (II 6).

Moses several times addresses himself to these two requirements of veracity and elegance. It is important that the style of the historical narrative be suitable for the importance of the topic (II 92). On the other hand, the narrative must be lucid, brief so that the reader is not wearied, and coherent (I 1, 32; II 59). In this last regard, Moses frequently insists on the importance of chronology: "There is no true history without chronology" (II 82). This comment means both that historical events have to be dated accurately in absolute terms and also that the historian must present his narrative in chronological order (I 32; II 27). This order may be broken occasionally for specific purposes; for example, a brief account of some past or future event may be


inserted if its immediate relevance is explained (II 27, 68). But in general a strict chronological order is one of the guarantees of accuracy.

To ensure the accuracy and veracity of his narrative, the historian must use his sources with care (II 75). Information that comes from books or other written evidence must be compared, and only reliable accounts should be followed (I 19; II 13, 75). If what happened is unclear, the historian must truthfully explain the problem and not attempt to give more credence to his story than its source permits (II 64). If the historian is uncertain or perplexed, he must so inform his readers (II 34). But not everything is found in books or archives. Much important information is passed down by word of mouth. The historian must therefore ensure that he quotes from wise men, well versed in antiquarian lore and the stories of past heroes (I 19; II 75). Unfortunately some of these stories are told in allegorical fashion; these should not be taken literally but should be rationalized (II 61).

Moses' understanding of historiography is clear and explicit. To what extent he lived up to these high standards will be seen after a discussion of his use of written sources. But since oral traditions play a large role in his work, it will be helpful first to look more closely at what Moses says about these.

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