How much truth is in the claim that the Byzantine, Arab and Chinese worlds were better recorded/documented at the time than Medieval Europe?

Mar 2016
559
Australia
#1
I'm referring more to the Early and High Medieval eras, where there seemed to be a greater disparity between these different parts of the world compared to the Late Medieval Era where Europe was at the very least equal or even surpassed these other parts of the world in this matter.
 
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Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,605
Blachernai
#2
The short answer is that the Byzantine world is almost consistently more poorly recorded than western Europe. Arguably, Byzantium might have more material for the seventh century if one includes all the non-Greek stuff, but after that we encounter the same problem that dogs Byzantine history well into the late period: the archives have been destroyed. We have massive evidence for written correspondence. Byzantine lead seals for closing documents exist in the tens of thousands, and this is only the tip of the iceberg since such items were normally destroyed after use. But those documents are all gone, whereas the west has scraps of surviving material from the Merovingian, and then quite a bit from the Carolingian periods. After that it just takes off. To put it into perspective, the Byzantine archival materials from Athos, Patmos, and few other places that have survived have been or are in the process of being published. The published volumes fill an average sized home book case. Of course, there are histories and letter collections and poems and whatnot, but overall, it's not much. The big difference here that you don't get in the west are languages, though: with Byzantium, there's comparative material in Arabic, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic to provide another perspective. There are other languages in the west as well and the emerging vernaculars, but none have the corpus of material that is available in, say, late antique Syriac.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#3
I'm referring more to the Early and High Medieval eras, where there seemed to be a greater disparity between these different parts of the world compared to the Late Medieval Era where Europe was at the very least equal or even surpassed these other parts of the world in this matter.
It seems to me the early medieval history of the Islamic and Byzantine world are not much better documented than Western Europe. Despite Heraclius importance, some of of our key sources about him, Theophanes the Confessor and Nicephoeus , .date a century or more after his life. That is worse than for Charlemange, and Gergory of Tours was writing less than a hundred years after Clovis.

For Muslims, the situation is even worse. More than a hundred years separate the life of Muhammad and our first biography, and it was written in a completely different social environment that was geographically remote from where the events it described took place. The Arabs had also undergone drastic social changes in the same time, and what meager outside sources from the time we have don't agree with what the Muslims say. When we compare Muslim sources for the Battle of Tours, the Muslim sources don't appear any more reliable or more accurate than the Christian ones.

As for China, I am not that familiar for the early medieval period.

For the high middle ages and later , our sources for Europe are just as good as the others, William's Doomsday Book as good any thing simar from China or the Islamic world. We know quite a bit more about King Henry V ship the Gracd Dieu than we do about Zheng He ships of the same time period. Even the name of Zheng He's ships are unknown, and we don't even know the name of his flag ship, nor is there any certainty as to the exact size of his ships, for example.
 

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,594
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
#4
At any one time a large part of the medieval "Byzantine" Empire was in Europe.

And places like Muslim Spain and Muslim Sicily, both in Europe, were a smaller but still significant fraction of the total area of the medieval "Arab" world. In the late middle ages a Muslim power came to rule the Balkans, which are perhaps a 5th or a 6th of all Europe.

As for Chinese history, the usual rule in every region and all of history is the more recent the period the more records remain. If the medieval period is from about 500 to about 1500 I would think as an amateur historian that Chinese history may have been much better documented in the early middle ages that western European history. But experts can say how much more documented Chinese history may be in some respects and how less it may be in other respects, and how it changes from period to period.
 
Mar 2016
559
Australia
#5
At any one time a large part of the medieval "Byzantine" Empire was in Europe.

And places like Muslim Spain and Muslim Sicily, both in Europe, were a smaller but still significant fraction of the total area of the medieval "Arab" world. In the late middle ages a Muslim power came to rule the Balkans, which are perhaps a 5th or a 6th of all Europe.
Let me rephrase the question to be more specific, then: How much truth is in the claim that the Byzantine, Arab and Chinese worlds were better recorded/documented at the time then Christian Western, Central and Northern Europe, which often get the blame for ushering in a "dark age" because of the nature of Christianity in the West somehow being regressive. I'm not really counting the Ottomans in this discussion, because by the time that they conquered most of the Balkans and Greece it was well and truly the Late Medieval era, and this is outside the scope of this specific topic.
 
#6
Can we fix what and where we are discussing? There is little doubt in my mind that Europe was reasonably well documented in the period say 1100 to 1500, with charters of institutions (particularly church ones), whole books still extant, records of laws, and even a large number of buildings still in use from then. Go back to the 6th century, and the situation is very different, with not much surviving from that time, at least in Western Europe, very few manuscripts or maintained buildings. There again, if we are talking about Constantinople, we do have records and buildings. For China, I would expect there to be government records, and some other documents too, throughout the period. For the (much smaller) Arab world, I expect there would be more no more documentation than in europe.
 
Feb 2011
6,148
#10
This is a list of what I have so far compiled so far for the early Chinese Medieval period (400 AD -1000 AD). It is by no means comprehensive. After doing one full page I just got tired of compiling. I only included histories that covered the early Medieval period AND whose authors lived in the early Medieval period, even if it was just barely. This is what I have so far:

Classic of the Grand Orign, 300-600 AD, by Wang Tong (584-618 AD)
---Commentary written by Xue Shou (624 AD)
---Commentary written by Ruan Yi (1027 AD)
Imperial Diary of the foundation of the Great Tang, 518 AD, by Wen Daya (572-629 AD)
Comprehensive Calendar, antiquity to 618 AD, by Ma Zong (823 AD) and Sun Guangxian (900-968 AD)
Book of the Jin, 26 AD to 420 AD, headed by Fang Xuanling (579-648 AD) and Chu Suiliang (596-658 AD)
Book of the [Liu] Song Dynasty, 420-479 AD, by Shen Yue (441-513 AD)
Book of the Southern Qi, 479-502 AD, by Xiao Zixian (489-537 AD)
Book of the Liang, 502 – 557 AD, by Yao Silian (557-637 AD)
Book of the Chen, 557-589 AD, by Yao Silian (557-637 AD)
Book of the [Northern, Eastern and Western] Wei, 386-556 AD, by Wei Shou (507-572 AD)
Book of the Northern Qi, 550-577 AD, by Li Baiyao (565-648 AD)
Book of the [Northern] Zhou, 557-581 AD, by Linghu Defen (583-666 AD)
Book of the Sui, 581-618 AD, supervised by Wei Zheng (580-643 AD) amongst many others in a team
History of the South, 420-589 AD, Li Yanzhou (659 AD)
History of the North, 386-618 AD, by Li Yanshou (659 AD)
Old Book of the Tang, 618-907 AD, by Liu Xu (888-947 AD) and Zhang Zhaoyuan (877 AD)
Old History of the Five Dynasties, 907-960 AD, by Lu Dou Zun (934-985 AD) amongst others
New Book of the Tang, 618-907 AD, by Song Qi (998-1061 AD) amongst others
Veritable Records from Jiankang, 222-589 AD, by Xu Song (~760 AD)
Spring and Autumn of the Jin Dynasty, 265-520 AD, by Du Yanye (Tang Dynasty)
Essentials about Politics from from the Zhengguan reign, 627-649 AD, by Wu Jing (Tang dynasty)
Feng Tian Lu, by Zhao Yuanyi (Tang Dynasty)
Records of Outstanding Persons, 618-907 AD, by Li Ao (Tang Dynasty)
Biographies of Eminent Monks, by Huijiao (497-554 AD)
Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, by Daoxuan (Tang Dynasty)
Treatise on the Southern Barbarians, by Fan Chu (Tang Dynasty)
All about Histiography by Liu Zhiji (710 AD)

The vast majority of this list I got from here: www.chinaknowledge.de
The site in itself is by no means comprehensive either, as when I made a similar list for the ancient period, I added a lot of things that were missing from the site. However, the site do have a lot.
 

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