I must apologise for the lack of recent posts. This has been caused by a: impending work deadlines and b: really interesting research! By way of an apology, I decided to include a little bit of this work in a new post, so that regular readers might be informed on (perhaps) cutting-edge historical research! I apologise if this is perhaps too academic, although I did try to make things as friendly as possible. Tried to keep it short and sweet!
Modern scholarship has long identified a marked increase in English historical writing between c.1080 and c.1154 (Gransden, 1974; Southern, 1973; van Houts, 2002). More histories were written here in these years than in any preceding hundred-year period. However, although historical narratives increased dramatically in number in these years, previous research has struggled to ascertain exactly how much history was actually being read in these years, and for what reasons.
Narrative Histories and Annals
Richard Gameson (1999) has shown that none of the most popular histories in England between 1066 and 1130 were written in the period. Reviewing the character of collection patterns, Gameson concluded that only a small group of very well-established historical texts were acquired in large numbers. These included Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica (nine Anglo-Norman copies); Eusebius’ Historia ecclesiastica (five); Eutropius’ Brevarium historiae Romanae (six, plus one abridgement), with no sign of more recent works by near-contemporary authors.
If we wish to know more about the ways in which and the reasons for which scribes and scholars experienced history in this period, we may turn our attentions away from dissecting the minute pool of canonical texts by currently well-known authors like William of Malmesbury, John of Worcester, and Henry of Huntingdon, which do not actually seem to have been widely read until later centuries. It is more useful to study the copying and compilation of other classes of more widely-ready historical texts, and in particular, historical annals. Gameson (1999) noted the production or acquisition of ten sets of annals in Anglo-Norman England, while Paul Hayward identified eight English breviate world chronicles, and six sets of Norman annals from the same period (2010, vol. 1: 13-15). These figures suggest that Anglo-Norman scribes and scholars were far more likely to have engaged with contemporary historical writing through the study of the annalistic chronicle than through narrative history.
Reasons for compilation
How does a textual source containing material relating to the past earn the label ‘history’? We might today define a written historical source, as anything containing information useful to the study of the past. But in the medieval period, the conceptualisation of historical studies was very different from our own. Notable ‘historians’ including William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, were in fact polymaths, not specialists in history alone (Black, 2006; Thomson, 1978).
This realisation may be extended towards the study of the annalistic chronicle. Almost all Anglo-Norman examples appear in manuscripts housing a variety of other materials which do not relate to the study of history. Two examples from twelfth-century Durham illustrate this point. One set of annals appears within Durham Cathedral Library manuscript Hunter 100; the other in Glasgow University Library, manuscript Hunter 85 (T.4.2). Both annals have been shown to have been originally housed alongside a variety of other texts relating to the study of computus (the calculation of time) (Gameson, 1999: 86-9). They are not given their own space, but instead appear in the margins of numerical tables used to calculate the moveable feast of Easter.
To what extent may these two collections of annals be understood to have represented the study of history? The most obvious point is to note that they all certainly provide information about events from the past: in most cases, a single historical fact alongside the year in which it happened. While it cannot be argued that either source enabled the Durham monks to study the theory and practice of narrative historiography, they might nevertheless be seen to have facilitated the construction of a skeletal historical narrative. For example, entries relating to the Carolingian dynasty inform readers that Charlemagne died in 814; that he was succeeded by his son, Louis, and that Louis reigned for twenty-six years until he died in 840. Further along, the tables record the series of civil wars that dominated the reigns of Charlemagne’s sons and successors. Although it would require knowledge of the systems used to construct the tables, it is perfectly possible to compile an outline of Carolingian succession using the Durham Easter-table annals.
However, the locations of these records suggest that the study of history was not their primary intended purpose. The lack of later continuations and additions suggests that both annals were compiled in one sitting. Furthermore, listing the years and dates of many of the same events in these two, and at least two other known Durham annals at that time, does not suggest that these sources existed merely to record events. The original location of the Durham annals confirms that history was not the prime motivator. Both manuscripts collected many extracts and short texts as possible relating to the calculation of Easter and the organisation of the calendar, including Bede’s De temporum ratione; Isidore’s De natura rerum; the computus of Abbo of Fleury; Robert of Losingia’s Expositio de computo, and Dionysus Exiguus’ letter on the dating of Easter. Could it be that the Hunter 100 annals do not represent history at all?
Contextualisation of these annals supports Paul Hayward’s thesis on the nature and purpose of contemporary annalistic histories. Hayward argued that annals were deployed towards the needs of communal religious life, and in particular the accurate observance of the liturgical cycle. To deliver the correct prayers on the correct days required the study of computistical treatises and the mastering of schematic diagrams, including Easter-tables. Hayward argued that the addition of historical information provided ‘a basic map of what had happened over the longer term’ which ‘supported the teaching of computus’, and provided a visual representation of the passing of time (2010, vol. 1: 37). He thus concluded that such sources were ‘controlled by the needs of religious life (and the institutions that supported it) rather than by those of history as a forensic discipline’ (2010, vol. 1: 60).
Historical information within the calendar and Easter-tables of Hunter 100 thus made the study of computus more interesting and perhaps more relevant, and inevitably more easy. For example, if you know that Charlemagne died in 814, you know that the section above is 813, and the year below is 815. So the delivery of the liturgical cycle and the maintenance of the calendar are assisted by historical information. As such, these sources cannot be seen represent history, but they most certainly have history in them, and it can be argued with some conviction that this history allowed readers to orientate themselves within the broader patterns of world history, and to acknowledge the anniversaries of important historical events, and to thus gain a deeper sense of historical awareness.
Black, Winston (2006) ‘Henry of Huntingdon’s lapidary rediscovered and his Anglicanus ortus reassambled’, Mediaeval Studies, 68, 43-87.
Gameson, Richard (1999) The Manuscripts of Early Norman England, (c.1066-1130). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gransden, Antonia (1974) Historical Writing in England (3 vols.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Hayward, Paul A. (2010) The Winchcombe and Coventry Chronicles: Hitherto Unnoticed Witnesses to the Work of John of Worcester (2 vols.). Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Southern, R. W. (1973) ‘Aspects of the European Tradition of Historical Writing: 4: The Sense of the Past’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, vol. 23, 243-263.
Thomson, R. M. (1978) ‘William of Malmesbury as Historian and Man of Letters’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 29: 4, 387-413.
van Houts Elisabeth (2002) ‘Historical Writing’, A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World, eds., C. Harper-Bill and E. van Houts. Woodbridge: Boydell, 103-21