What exactly does it mean to be a historian? Most present-day history enthusiasts will probably have plenty to say on this question. A roomful of professional historians will probably have even more views, and probably won’t even agree at the end of it! History usually encourages its readers and students to stop and think bout what it is that they are doing: in what ways our interpretations affect wider views of history, how far we can ever get to the real ‘truth’, and how to interpret evidence with varying degrees of reliability are all key questions for the historian.
It is no surprise then, to note that these issues are present in the histories written in the medieval period: those exact sources that we rely on to do the job today. My role as a historian at Durham has encouraged me to investigate how and why history was studied here throughout the past. With a little carefully-planned investigation, it is possible to witness the study of history at Durham’s Cathedral Priory as early as the 1090s. Durham’s earliest historians laid the foundations of our knowledge surrounding that period and the centuries before, and we continue to rely on their accounts down to the present day.
The much-celebrated story of Durham’s foundation thanks to a wandering brown cow and the obstinate body of a long-dead, but most famous Northumbrian saint, is only known to us thanks to Durham’s early historical authors. Initially founded in 995 by a band of wandering Lindisfarne exiles, the religious community at Durham was re-organised along strict monastic rules in 1083, with the Cathedral as we know it added from 1093 onwards. By this time, Durham’s monastic community had developed a reputation for its scholars and learning, with manuscript evidence informing us that it was appealing to competent scribes, whose manuscripts were collected in large numbers over a relatively short period of time in the few years either side of 1100, and then consistently thereafter. Among the scholars working in this environment were the first Durham historians, the most notable of which was Symeon of Durham, who was active as a scribe and a scholar in Durham between around 1090 and 1130.
Among the most useful of texts for those who seek to understand the role of history in the Anglo-Norman period, is Symeon of Durham’s Tract on the origin and progress of this church of Durham (now available edited by our own David Rollason, Oxford: 2000). Symeon’s text was begun in or just after 1104, and was certainly complete by 1115. It was one of the first full-scale historical narratives composed in England since Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed in 731, and certainly the first major work of Northern historiography in all that time.
The contents of Symeon’s history can be considered alongside the wider trends of Symeon’s own career as a scribe and a student and those of his Durham contemporaries, in order to gain an insight into his motivations to write. In this endeavour, we are fortunate that more than thirty of Symeon’s original manuscripts have come down to us over their 900-plus years of existence, many of them still in situ at the Cathedral library, or nearby in Durham University’s Palace Green Library.
Symeon’s experiences as a scholar stand in sharp contrast to that of the modern historian. His primary duties lay in the copying of manuscripts for Durham’s expanding library. Most of the books which he helped to make contained studies of the Bible and theology, most notably his luxuriously-neat copy of Augustine of Hippo’s City of God (now identified as Durham Cathedral Library, Manuscript B. II. 22). But despite this overall trend, Symeon was nevertheless involved in a number of historiographical ventures. His characteristic handwriting has been recognised in manuscripts featuring William of Jumièges’ famous Deeds of the Dukes of Normandy, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and a selection of annals, which were simple tables of dates and historical events. In addition to this, Symeon helped to revive a religious commemorative text known as Durham’s Liber Vitae. This recorded the names of deceased monks from Lindisfarne as far back as the ninth century, and by adding the names of his own contemporaries, Symeon’s community preserved the memory of these men in their prayers. Despite this work, Symeon did not present himself as a historian. At no point did he describe his Libellus as such. The Latin word ‘historia’ is entirely absent from its introductory preface, and at no point did Symeon even refer to himself as its author.
It is nevertheless possible to see that Symeon saw himself as the heir to the long-established but now vacant tradition of Northumbrian historical writing. He noted that he had used Bede’s writings as a major source, and had ‘assembled and arranged’ the relevant information, ‘concerning the origin and progress’ of the Durham church from this material. However, Symeon’s mission was not simply to update Bede’s account. While he stated that his history existed in order to propagate the memory of the past ‘for posterity’, Symeon’s motivations to do so can be seen to have been very different from those which underscore our own research today. These were dominated by Symeon’s identity as a Durham monk. His history was one that depicted his community as heir to an unbroken chain of continuity stretching right back to the foundation of Lindisfarne Priory in the seventh century. Many scholars, some Durham-based, have therefore argued the history was originally intended as a socio-political tool, devised in order to preserve the continued prosperity and autonomy of the Durham Priory. This aspect of Symeon’s writing can also be seen in his unswerving loyalty to Durham’s patron, Saint Cuthbert, who appeared in numerous visions throughout the Libellus, and even intervened in person on a few occasions.
Such religious and spiritual aspects of Symeon’s writing were reinforced by the role that his history was to play in Durham’s collective spiritual veneration. Many of the individuals featured were also the recipients of prayers thanks to their presence in Durham’s Liber vitae, and his history can be seen as a useful narrative accompaniment to this prayerful veneration. Symeon even included a long list of names for whom he hoped his readers would pray in one of the earliest manuscripts produced under his direction.
In reviewing the motivations the underpinned the work of our early predecessors, it is fitting to end with the religious. While today we might write out of an interest in history for its own sake, Symeon and many of his contemporaries were shaped by their roles in the church: many of them serving as monks, but all of them in some way involved in the church. His mission was to ensure the spiritual well-being and socio-political independence of his home community, with Libellus de exordio the perfect example of how history achieved these aims in early twelfth-century Durham.
If Symeon could see how history was being read and written today, my guess is that he would be firstly amazed at the level of knowledge that has been build up over the nine hundred years since he lived and worked in Durham. After this, he would probably also note the complete lack of religion in our historical writing. We no longer celebrate miracle stories, and nor do we ask for God’s favour or the prayers of our readers in writing our histories. However, one thing remains the same: we’re all fascinated by the events of the past, and (hopefully) we are all contributing to the successes of future historians, as long as our works will last.