The Anglo Saxon Chronicles
[click on the picture to see the rest of the list]
This is the oldest history of England to have survived . It was probably commissioned by King Alfred who had copies made for each of the big monasteries in England. Once the copy was delivered the local monks would keep their copy up to date, adding to it year by year, in one case until 1154. This is the first major work ever to be written in English
The illustration shows page one of the Peterborough Chronicle. None of the original documents have survived, vellum dries out and cracks and ink flakes, but as soon as a manuscript became hard to read a fair copy would be made. Eight of these copies, plus one fragment, have survived.
The value of the Chronicle is that major events are recorded for each year. Why were monks entrusted with the compilation of the emerging nation’s history? At the time churchmen were almost the only people who could write. It is thought that King alfred was literate because he has been a cleric in his youth, but generally the kings of England relied upon the civil service of highly trained clerics to read, write and figure for them.
Another good reason is that monsteries always had guest halls and so any messenger travelling with news would stop over night in the travellers hostel and would spread the news by word of mouth. The monsteries also provided banking services, fed the poor and had infrmaries to treat the sick. They were the go-to places so tended to be first to hear about illnesses, invasions or new kings and they made notes to add to their copy of the chronicle.
Some years are very terse, little more than a note. For instance in the 8th century:
A.D. 733. This year Ethelbald took Somerton; the sun was eclipsed; and Acca was driven from his bishopric.
A.D. 734. This year was the moon as if covered with blood; and Archbishop Tatwine and Bede departed this life; and Egbert was consecrated bishop.
A.D. 735. This year Bishop Egbert received the pall at Rome.
A.D. 736. This year Archbishop Nothelm received the pall from the bishop of the Romans.
Short entries about what the monks considered most important. However the following year is more informative:
A.D. 737. This year Bishop Forthere and Queen Frithogitha went to Rome; and King Ceolwulf received the clerical tonsure, giving his kingdom to Edbert, his uncle’s son: who reigned one and twenty winters. Bishop Ethelwold and Acca died this year, and Cynewulf was consecrated bishop. The same year also Ethelbald ravaged the land of the Northumbrians.
So in this year we have long distance travelling, an abdication, a new bishop and an attack on Northumbia. Other years are even more locquacious – 755’s entry runs to several hundred words, concerns a coup and reads like flash fiction – and others give the monks eye view of historical events that are very famous:
A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter. Siga died on the eighth day before the calends of March.
Oh those Vikings!
I like the chronicle because it only takes five minutes reading to provide half a dozen plot bunnies. Always a useful thing.
Oh and a footnote: Here’s wishing Arlee Bird a great big honking happy birthday! And many more of them.