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How Eusebius, Valla and von Ranke Professionalized History

Eusebius, and other early Christian writers, were pioneers in the practice of citing sources to lend credibility to their work. Continued throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance, the practice of citing sources became especially important when humanist historians developed practices such as textual criticism to ferret out errors inherent in ancient texts which had been copied and preserved in monastic centers. Although some of these works were credited with the reemergence of classical learning, often mistakes were discovered. Lorenzo Valla became famous for his work with philology; analyzing multiple copies of the same text to discover the original and to establish authenticity. Through the reforms made during the Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment thinking and scientific advances, von Ranke is credited with taking a critical look at history and professionalizing the field. Practices established by Eusebius, Valla and Ranke, taken together provide the methodology for the modern intellectual field of history.

Eusebius, as Bishop of Caesarea, concerned about the internal and theological divisions occurring in the Church, sought to accomplish the following primary goals in his The Church History; to “write an account of the succession of the holy apostles” and “those who have governed and presided over the Church”[1] in prominent parishes, and to prove the “pre-existence and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”[2] In his work, Viti Constantini, Eusebius sought to validate Constantine as the head, not only of the Empire, but of the Church as well. This secondary goal, political in nature, was taken on to crush the heresies which were common to other centers of Christianity, such as in Alexandra. Eusebius relied on primary source documents, Hebrew scriptures, works by Greek historian, Valesius and Church historian, Hegesippus, and the account of the martyrdom of James the Just and Julius Africanus which furnished Eusebius with much of the material needed for his chronology. In addition to these sources, Eusebius relied heavily on Christian scripture, especially to relate the dual nature of Christ, God’s plan for humanity as related throughout history, and that the military victories achieved by Constantine were the result of God’s divine providence.

In The Church History, he sought to connect the creation of the world related in the Hebrew scriptures to the prophesies to the birth of Christ and salvation and “joined it to the story of the spread of the Christian faith from the time of Jesus onward.”[3] His chronologies were extensive and sought to prove that the Jewish tradition was older and therefore more reliable than that of Greek historians.[4] He focused on establishing a chronology that was linear, although with elements of a cyclical nature as they were bound up with the “Christian cycle of sin (or apostasy) – judgement – retribution – restoration.”[5]

Eusebius had recognized the value of proving that the Emperor Constantine had aligned himself with Christianity and that his concentration on “the pious activities of his subject” would play well to those in opposition to orthodox teachings.[6] In Viti Constantini, this is Eusebius goal: to prove that Christians have a friend in Constantine and to validate Constantine as the head of the Christian Church. In chapter IV, Eusebius wrote:

And God himself, whom Constantine worshipped, has confirmed this truth by the clearest manifestations of his will, being present to aid him at the commencement, during the course, and at the end of his reign, and holding him up to the human race as an instructive example of godliness. Accordingly, by the manifold blessings he had conferred on him, he has distinguished him alone of all the sovereigns of whom we have ever heard as at once a mighty luminary and most clear-voiced herald of genuine piety.[7]

He offers many examples of Constantine’s commitment to Christianity which have been questioned by later historians. In “What Eusebius Knew” by H.A. Drake, the author carefully examined evidence to show some of the claims made by Eusebius are dubious as he had only been in the presence of Constantine four times.[8] Despite, these doubts about the truthfulness or accuracy of Eusebius’ writings, Popkin reminds us that, Eusebius’ methods provided the “model for what would nowadays be called intellectual history.”[9]

Following Eusebius and throughout the middle ages, the basic purpose of historical writers remained constant, to tell the truth. However, historical writers during this period “adapted history to a new framework, dominated by religious belief, but they still saw themselves as serving the cause of truth. Their purpose, however was to present truths that would convince readers of the appropriate moral and religious lessons.”[10] Following 1450, which modern historians call “the early modern era,” religious belief remained fundamental to European civilization, but with the emergence of the Protestant Reformation, religious questions came to be controversial as Roman Catholics sought to defend the faith from those who challenged the status quo.[11]

Humanist historians enthusiastically looked to the classics as a model for new histories. Whereas ancient Greek and Roman historians focused on the role of man in their histories, during the middle ages, historians placed greater emphasis on the role of God, then, in the early modern era, humanists sought to reprise and reemphasize the role of man in their histories. God was still important, but this new perspective allowed man to see through a political lens and began to focus on affairs of the state in addition to those of the Church. Briesach sums this up well, “…all of them [humanists] were at least nominal Christians and accepted fully the framework of Christian historiography: The Creation, Christ’s central role, and the last Judgement. Renaissance historians, inspired by the ancients, simply granted mankind a greater measure of “home rule,” which in turn made them stress the importance of human deeds and motives in history.”[12]

Renaissance historians stopped using biblical divisions of history and favored instead “three periods, antiquity, a ‘middle age’ from the fall of the western Roman Empire to their own day, and the new era in which they themselves lived…”.[13] As this rebirth in learning and new way of thinking about the world emerged, humanists continued to see history’s purpose as narration “based on true past events.”[14] While historians of the past had sometimes taken care to seek out documents to use as source material, this was by no means, the rule. Lorenzo Valla’s treatment of one of the documents which had originated in the middle ages was The Donation of Constantine. This document, which was purported to have been written by Constantine himself, “immediately after his ‘conversion’ to the Christian faith and his ‘reception of baptism’ by the bishop of Rome, Pope (‘Saint’) Sylvester,” had been used by various Church authorities through the middle ages to bolster their claims to temporal authority.[15] It is now widely believed that this document originated in the papal Curia in the eighth century.[16]

Lorenzo Valla took up the challenge to once and for all debunk the authenticity of the document in his On the Forgery of the Donation of Constantine written in 1440. His masterful use of textual criticism eroded the claim of authenticity using two techniques. Using rhetoric and philology, he proved that this text could never have originated in the fourth century because of the language and terminology used.

Although Valla was not the first to attack the authenticity of the document, the methods he used were original. He split his work into two main sections, rhetorical and philological. In the first section, he writes as if delivering his work to a court of kings and princes. He convincingly demonstrates that Constantine, the most powerful man in the world, would never have given away half of his Empire, to the Pope. He wrote, “I shall assert that Constantine and Sylvester were not such men as, with the former, to want to make a donation, to be in a legal position to do so, and to have in his power the ability to hand over these territories to someone else, and, with the latter, to want to receive them and be in a legal position to do so.”[17] The use of reason and logic are clearly evident in this opening statement of purpose.

The second section is even more convincing as he uses philology and calls upon his expert knowledge of Latin to point out anachronisms. The language Valla uses is entertaining and quite damning of the forger, for example:

How inflated with swollen pride, as in that gloriously exalted through glory, power, dignity, vigor and distinction of empire, which seems taken over though the Book of Revelation, where it is said: Worthy is the lamb that was slain, to receive courage, divinity, wisdom, strength, honor and blessing. Frequently, as will emerge later, Constantine is made to take over epithets of God and to affect an imitation of the language of Sacred scripture, which he had never read.[18]

Using original source material, freely quoting from both Hebrew and Christian scripture, as well as Greek and Roman authors, Valla brought the “same critical spirit to the study of other remains from the past” including his analysis of St. Jerome’s Vulgate Bible.[19]

How and when the Donation was used by the papacy throughout the middle ages continued to be studied even into the nineteenth century, long after Valla had disproven its authenticity. In 1894, historian, F. Zinkeisen, published an article which chronicled all the instances in history where The Donation was mentioned to bolster claims; beginning by Pope Stephen III (II) at the Council of Quiercy in 754 through the demarcation bill of Alexander VI, dated 4 May 1493.[20] At the end of his work, Zinkeisen acknowledges that The Donation was not used as much as has been generally supposed although it was clung to for about a century following Valla’s crushing blow and was even revived nine years prior to the author’s article by the Spaniards in a dispute over the Canary Islands.[21]

These practices of composing linear histories and liberally using source materials to establish chronologies employed by early Christian historians such as Eusebius inspired the humanist practices of the study of language; philology and textual criticism made famous by Valla in his work dispelling the authenticity of The Donation of Constantine. These two early historians laid the ground work for the father of scientific history, Leopold von Ranke.

In the nineteenth century, history would become central to European thought and codified as an academic tradition. Ranke is most famous for his views against moralizing history when he said, “the task of the historian was ‘simply to show how it really was (wie es eigentlich gewesen)’.”[22] This was in opposition to medieval historians whose purpose was to convey the truth of past events as they related to timeless moral and religious truths. During the 1830’s, a period of liberalization and rising nationalism, historians “argued that change was the essence of reality and that each society and every era needed to be understood in terms of its own unique individuality, rather than being seen as an example of some broader category.”[23]

Ranke, who lived from 1795 to 1886, taught at the University of Berlin, founded in 1810 to promote German nationalism and counter the influence of the French who had conquered Prussia in 1806. In his work, The History of the Popes, he wrote to demonstrate how the power of the Church had held back innovation, the development of learning, Enlightenment thinking and national independence. Raised in a German Lutheran household, this undoubtedly influenced his perspective. At a time when national archives were being established, Ranke pioneered a scientific treatment of history with a reliance on original source materials, and the study and practice of both philology and textual criticism.

A young Ranke recognized the relationship between scholarship and art, saying that, “The aim of history-writing [historie] is to bring past life before one’s eyes.”[24] His methodology, based on the classic philological practice of checking “your source for trustworthiness and against its own context,” and his insistence on the seminar for historians, solidified his influence in modern historical methods.[25] He stressed the importance of the state as a civilizing institution, and a contributed to rising sense of pride in one’s nation. For his students, he emphasized the significance of pilgrimages to state archives to discover original documents, and as such, “Rankean history became primarily political history.”[26]

Far removed from humanist thinkers chronologically, Ranke was still influenced by religion and divine providence. What separated Ranke from humanist thinking was the divisions inherent in the formulation of nation states in modern Europe. Ranke believed that states were all manifestations of the divine will and as such arose out of the political climate evidenced by the declining power of the papacy and rise of monarchies. The forces that were transforming society; the rise of reason and free will, contributed to a loss of mysteriousness inherent in spiritual practices combined to change the way the world was viewed and changed the study of history. Despite these changes, practices like citing original material, textual criticism and philology were already well established and served the intellectual historians well.

In the Author’s Preface of The History of the Popes, Ranke explained the origins of his source material. Much came from private collections or state archives, which were relatively new at the time. He also used reports from Ambassadors who had visited Rome; forty-eight in total. He acknowledges his bias by stating, “An Italian or Roman, a Catholic, would enter on the subject in a spirit very different from mine…he would be more elaborate, more ecclesiastical, more local.”[27] In Book V: Counter Reformation – First Period, 1563-1589, this bias is evident as he relates the losses suffered by the Catholic Church. He illustrates this with statements like, “…Protestantism had made vigorous and unceasing progress, up to the time when the Council of Trent closed its last sittings; they extended their dominion far and wide over the Germanic and Sclavonic nations”[28] and when he related that a Venetian ambassador “calculated, in the year 1558, that a tenth part only of the German people still adhered to the ancient religion.”[29] He acknowledged that the spiritual losses suffered by the Church were just as severe as those losses sustained to riches and power.

Using recently made available original source material through archives and private collections, Ranke wrote a comprehensive history of the popes and their conflicts with Protestantism. He used methods well established in the early days of Christianity and those practiced throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance period. What was different about his approach, however, was the focus on individual states and their response to the conflicts with the papacy.

One can trace the threads of these methods of studying history through time, the reliance on facts, especially from original source materials, the development of different chronologies and ways of categorizing historical periods, the use of philology and textual criticism to determine the authenticity of documents and the nineteenth century practice of “showing how it really was” through the scientific study of history as systematized by Ranke. Examples provided here of works and methods used by Eusebius, Valla and Ranke, show how the field of history became professionalized.


Braw, J.D. “Vision as Revision: Ranke and the Beginning of Modern History.” History and Theory, Vol. 46, No. 4. Theme Issue 46: Revision in History (Dec., 2017): 45-60. Accessed March 5, 2017.

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Chicago: The University of Chicago University Press, 1983.

Camporeale, Salvatore I. “Lorenzo Valla's 'Oratio' on the Pseudo-Donation of Constantine: Dissent and Innovation in Early Renaissance Humanism.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 57, no. 1 (Jan. 1996): 9-26. Accessed April 12, 2017.

Drake, H.A. “What Eusebius Knew: The Genesis of the ‘Vita Constantini’.” Classical Philology, Vol. 83, No. 1. (Jan. 1988): 20-38. Accessed March 5, 2017.

Pamphilius, Eusebius. The Church History." Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Accessed May 1, 2017.

Pamphilius, Eusebius. "Viti Constantini." Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Accessed May 1, 2017.

Popkin, Jeremy D. From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story of Historiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Ranke, Leopold. The History of the Popes, Their Church and State, and Especially of Their Conflicts with Protestantism in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by E. Foster. London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden. 1853.

Valla, Lorenzo. On the Donation of Constantine. Edited by James Hankins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Zinkeisen, F. “The Donation of Constantine as Applied by the Roman Church.” The English Historical Review. Vol. 9, no. 36 (Oct. 1894): 625-632. Accessed April 12, 2017.

How Comments Were Incorporated into the Final Essay:

Professor Kaatz provided guidance about how to cite page numbers for ancient texts using chapter and sub-chapter numbers. This was revised for all the Eusebius footnotes. Some punctuation was corrected, changing semi-colons to commas. For the long quotes, I removed the quotation marks as those are not necessary. And finally, sentences were added to the 5th to the last paragraph which was too short to stand alone.

Nick Glasco suggested that there were some minor grammatical errors, those were corrected.

Matt Geesey suggested that the paragraphs should be indented. That was completed.

[1] Eusebius Pamphilius, “The Church History," Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Accessed May 1, 2017,, 1.1.

[2] Eusebius, “The Church History,” 2.1.

[3] Jeremy D. Popkin, From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story of Historiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 39.

[4] Jeremy D. Popkin, From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story of Historiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 39.

[5] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern (Chicago: The University of Chicago University Press, 1983), 77.

[6] H.A. Drake, "What Eusebius Knew: The Genesis of the 'Vita Constantini'," Classical Philology, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jan. 1988): 21.

[7] Eusebius Pamphilius, “Viti Constantini," Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Accessed May 1, 2017,, 930-931.

[8] Drake, “What Eusebius Knew,” 20.

[9] Popkin, From Herodotus to H-Net, 38.

[10] Ibid., 39

[11] Ibid., 47

[12] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern (Chicago: The University of Chicago University Press, 1983), 160

[13] Popkin, From Herodotus to H-Net, 49

[14] Breisach, Historiography, 161.

[15] Salvatore I. Camporeale, “Lorenzo Valla's 'Oratio' on the Pseudo-Donation of Constantine: Dissent and Innovation in Early Renaissance Humanism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 57, no. 1 (Jan. 1996): 9-26, accessed April 12, 2017,, 10

[16] Camporeale, “Lorenzo Valla’s ‘Oratio,’ 10.

[17] Lorenzo Valla, On the Donation of Constantine, ed. James Hankins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 4.

[18] Valla, On the Donation of Constantine, 36.

[19] Popkin, From Herodotus to H-Net, 49.

[20] F. Zinkeisen, “The Donation of Constantine as Applied by the Roman Church.” The English Historical Review, Vol. 9, no. 36 (Oct. 1894): 625-632, accessed April 12, 2017,

[21] Zinkeisen, “The Donation of Constantine,” 632.

[22] Edward Hallett Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 5.

[23] Popkin, From Herodotus to H-Net, 69.

[24] J.D. Braw, “Vision as Revision: Ranke and the Beginning of Modern History.” History and Theory, Vol. 46, no. 4, (Dec 2017): 45-60, accessed March 5, 2017,, 48.

[25] Breisach, Historiography, 233.

[26] Ibid., 234.

[27] Leopold, von Ranke, The History of the Popes, Their Church and State, and Especially of Their Conflicts with Protestantism in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Trans. E. Foster (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), xvii.

[28] Ranke, The History of the Popes, 395.

[29] Ibid., 401.

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