And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 31. mai 2011

Selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

At first the inhabitants of this island were Britons, who came from Armenia and first occupied southern Britain. Then it happened that the Picts came from the south, from Scythia, with a few warships, and landed first in North Ireland.
- Preface to manuscripts D, E and F of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The first page of the Peterborough Chronicle, also known as the E manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

One of my modules in York was named England in Europe - which I kept referring to as Europe after Rome, thanks to Julia Smith - and it was in many ways a splendid class. As a part of the curriculm we had the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record found in several and sometimes contradictory manuscripts, that was begun in the reign of Alfred the Great (871-900 AD). Its original language is Old English and it chronicles the events of English/British history starting with Gaius Julius Caesar's defeat of the Britons in the year 60 BC.

The chronicle is a complicated set of documents, partly due to inconsistencies and conflicting biases between the manuscripts, but also because of the authors' anonymity. I found it a very rewarding read for several reasons, perhaps most of all for some of its prose which occasionally is terse, pregnant and beautifully concise, although not historically reliable. Below is a selection of excerpts from the various manuscript - imaginatively called A, B, C, D, E, F and G for brevity - all of which struck a chord in me one way or another. Sadly I don't have many photographs of my own which are relevant to the period in question, but unless stated otherwise the pictures are either mine or taken from wikimedia.

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Then after Claudius Nero succeeded to the thone, who finally abandoned the island of Britain because of his sloth.
- Entry for the year 47 AD in the D and E manuscripts

In this year there was an eclipse of the sun on 16 February from daybreak until nine o'clock in the morning.
- Entry for the year 538 in the E manuscript

Natural phenomena were often taken as portents of good or evil that would ensue and occur frequently throughout the chronicle. However, the scribes rarely draw clear connections between the portents and subsequent events, but by juxtaposing occurrences such as comets or eclipses with bad harvests or Viking attacks, the reader is allowed to make his or her own conclusion thanks to beautiful displays of parataxis. An example of this is found below in the entry for 664.

Anglo-Saxon helmet displayed at Yorkshire Museum.

In this year Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the Britons at the place which is called Fethanleag, and Cutha was killed there; and Ceawlin captured many villages and countless spoils, and in anger returned to his own land.
- Entry for the year 584 in the E manuscripts

The above entry is a good example of the clear-cut, terse prose that describes the events in a tone seemingly void of any emotion, but pregnant with meaning and content which come alive in the reader's mind. In addition there is the tongue-in-cheek disdain heavily embedded in the final sentence.

In this year there was an eclipse of the sun, and Eorcenberht, king of the people of Kent, died.
- Excerpt from the entry for the year 664 in the C, A and B manuscripts

Replica of a bird figure from the Sutton Hoo excavation.

In this year there was the great mortality of birds.
- Entry for the year 671 in the C, A, B and E manuscripts

This particular passage has fascinated me ever since I came across it. I suspect it may be a case similar to that of January this year, when dead birds fell to the ground in Louisiana, Arkansas and Sweden. I seem to recall that this stirred up minor occurrences of apocalyptic paranoia in some places, and I can't help wondering what impact a sight like this would have had on the people of 7th century England.

In this year the star called comet appeared; and Bishop Wilfrid was driven from his bishopric by King Ecgfrith.
- Entry for the year 678 in the C, A and B manuscripts

Abbess Hilda and King David as represented on a commemorative cross in the cemetery of St. Mary's Church, Whitby.

In this year Archbishop Theodore presided over a synod in Hatfield, because he wished to correct the faith in Christ; and the same year the Abbess Hilda died.
- Entry for the year 680 in the C, A, B and E manuscripts

Those of you who have read this blog more or less attentively will perhaps recongise Abbess Hilda from my blogposts on Whitby. She was evidently a very important figure, since few women apart queens or widow queens are mentioned in the Chronicle.

In this year there occurred in Britain bloody rain, and milk and butter were turned to blood.
- Entry for the year 685 in the F manuscript

Yes, I do have a certain fascination for the apocalyptic, especially when found in a Medieval milieu which adds extra social and religious dimensions to the horrid portents. The chronicle Annales Cambrenses, by the way, records this to have happened in 689 rather than in 685.

This church vessel was among the items of the archaeological find called the York Viking hoard. It was probably looted from a church by a Viking, or buried by a cleric to hide it from Viking invaders. It is now on display in Yorkshire Museum.

In this year Æthelbald occupied Somerton, and there was an eclipse of the sun.
- Entry for the year 733 in the C, A, B, E and D manuscripts

Much in the same vein as portents described above, yet with a slight reversal of the parataxis, either because the events are recorded to have happened in that chronological order, or maybe to blame Æthelbald for the eclipse. I also have a particular appreciation of an elaboration found in the F manuscript: "and all the circle of the sun became like a black shield." 
Durham Cathedral, where the remains of Bede are now buried.

In this year the moon looked as if it were suffused with blood, and Tatwine and Bede died.
- Entry for the year 734 in the C, A, B, E and D manuscripts

This entry is included mainly for the sake of Bede, whose tomb can be found in the Lady Chapel of Durham Cathedral and who was the hero of 12th century historian William of Malmesbury. In York I purchased his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and I hope it will not be too long until I can devote enough time to read it. His death, however, more likely occurred in 735 rather than in 734.

St. Mary Bishophill Junior, York. This tower is Anglo-Saxon and, if I remember correctly, the oldest remaining ecclesiastical structure in York, which in Anglo-Saxon times was named Eoforwick.

In this year York was burnt down.
- Entry for the year 741 in the D and E manuscripts

Anglo-Saxon bowl from c. 750, currently on display in Yorkshire Museum.

In this year occurred the great winter.
- Entry for the year 762 in the C manuscript, while the A, D, E and F manuscripts record this to have happened in 761. The scholarly edition sets it to 763

In this year a red cross appeared in the sky after sunset. And that year the Mercians and the people and the people of Kent fought at Otford. And marvellous adders were seen in Sussex.
- Entry for the year 774 in the C, D, E, F and G manuscripts, while the A manuscript records this to have occurred in 773. The year in the scholarly edition sets it to 776.

Such constantinian visions as crosses in the sky are reported to have happened later on as well, as was the case in 806 when, according to the F manuscript, "the sign of the cross was revealed in the moon".

If you look closely you may discern two adders intertwined on this Anglo Saxon nose flap. I find that quite marvellous.

Ruins of Lindisfarne Abbey.

In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destoryed God's church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter. And Sicga died on 22 February.
- Entry for the year 793 in the D and E manuscripts

I include this entry primarily for the portents. It is the first time I have encountered dragons in the Chronicle, although invaders labelled Northmen are mentioned in several manuscripts already in 789. These Northmen are called Danish in the C and A manuscripts, whereas manuscripts D, E and F record that the heathens came from Hörthaland in Norway. Some people may find that slightly arousing, I don't. 
Part of the archaeological find named the York Viking hoard, a treasure unearthed a couple of years ago. Treasures like this were often buried to keep them away from the Vikings, or buried by Vikings to keep them away from other Vikings. The date of this hoard is set to 927/928 due to a coin with an inscription pertaining to king Athelstan of Wessex's claim to kingship of Britain in its entirety.

Brihtric had helped Offa because he had married his daughter.
- Excerpt from the entry for the year 839 in the C and A manuscripts

I decided to include this excerpt in order to illustrate what roles Anglo Saxon women could play in English politics, namely as manifestations of alliances. As stated above, women rarely feature in the Chronicle and when they do it is often as pawns in the game of Anglo Saxon politics. It should also be noted that the Offa mentioned above is not the famous Mercian king, he lived in the 8th century.

And the same year after Easter, at the Rogation days or before, there appeared the star which is called in Latin cometa. Some men say that it is in English the long-haired star, for there shines a long ray from it, sometimes on one side, sometimes on every side.
- Entry for the year 892 in the A manuscript

I find the above section very poetic in its terse brevity, and may very well be my favourite description of a comet I've ever come across in the Chronicle.

That same year a bloody cloud was often seen in the likeness of fire, and especially it was revealed at midnight, and it was formed in various shafts of light. When day was about to dawn, it disappeared.
- Entry for the year 979 in the C manuscript

These coins are from the York Viking hoard and come from Afghanistan and Samarkand.

And in this same year the sester of wheat rose to 55 pence, and even higher.
- Excerpt from the entry for the year 1040 in the E and F manuscripts

(...) and Leofgar who was Harold's priest was appointed bishop, and in his priesthood he had his moustaches until he was a bishop.
- Excerpt from the entry for the year 1056 in the D manuscript

I particularly like this brief glimpse into the world of ecclesiastical fashion. The scribe includes this detail clearly out of derision for Leofgar's vanity and unclerical behaviour, and for anyone interested in the mentalities of bygone ages this is gold.

In this year Earl Ælfgar was banished but he got back by violence forthwith through Griffith's help. And a naval force came from Norway. It is tedious to relate fully how things went.
- Entry for the year 1058 in the D manuscript

It appears scribes can sometimes be quite fed up with their work.

This year the king led an army into Wales and there liberated many hundreds of men.
- Entry for the year 1081 in the E manuscript

I wonder whether the Welsh were equally enthusiastic

William the Bastard, liberator of...gas?

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle draws on numerous historical works, ranging from monastery annals to solo-projects like Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The entries naturally vary greatly since this is a joint venture, and since it is written over a period of roughly 250 years. Although exaggerated at some points and frustatingly brief at others, it remains our key literary source to the late Anglo-Saxon period and the early Norman age.

2 kommentarer:

  1. This is a great post. Love the pictures.
    Susan Abernethy

  2. Thank you, I'm very happy to hear that! Most of the pictures (with obvious exceptions) were taken during my time at University of York last spring and I'm very happy to have found a place for them here. At some juncture I hope to compile a second selection from the Chronicle, there's matter in plenty.