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

mandag 27. februar 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 1 - Sowing the Wind

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind
- Hosea 8:7
In the course of my thesis work I have been dealing quite a bit with English Medieval historians, scouring chronicles for representations of Edward the Confessor and compiling lists of how he is portrayed by the various scribes of the High Middle Ages. I enjoy this work greatly as it allows me to delve into primary sources and catch small glimpses of a past world seen through the eyes of monks, perched on their vantage point often at the very fringe of society. Sadly, however, I am no expert in this field and my scant grasp of Latin, together with an ever-nearer deadline for my dissertation, prohibits any close reading of great length. Nonetheless I have become familiar with a few historians and in a series of blogpost I aim to present selections from their work featuring passages that have caught my interest or amused me. The title of this series - Flores historiarum - is taken from a chronicle begun in the mid-13th century that encompasses the history of the world from Creation and until the accession of Edward II in 1307. This particular chronicle was long attributed to one Matthew of Westminster, but this is a confusion of Matthew Paris - whose Chronica Majora this work draws heavily on - and the chronicle's Westminster provenance. Flores historiarum was written by a number of anonymous hands and Matthew of Westminster never existed.

The aim of this series is partly to introduce my readers to various historical figures and maybe even one or two lesser known facts from Medieval history. I hope to achieve this primarily through presentations of individual writers, but also through discussion on topics related to Medieval historiography. In this first blogpost I want to start gently with a brief illustration of the transmission of knowledge in the literary world of the Middle Ages.

My example is a brief note I came across serendipitiously while skimming through Historia Regum by Symeon of Durham (fl. c.1090-c.1128). In the conclusion of a paragraph chronicling the year 1052 the following passage was included:

Eodem anno in nocte festivitatis sancti Thomæ apostoli tantus tamque vehemens extitit ventus, ut multas ecclesias domusque dirueret, et innumerabiles arbores frangeret vel radlicitus erueret.

Roughly translated the passage recounts a vehement wind that occurred at the night of the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle - December 21 - and which shook many churches and houses and uprooted innumerable trees. I'm not sure why this passage stuck in my mind, but I presume it owes to the hurricane that ravaged Norway December 26 2011.

The above passage is not original to Symeon, but a translation - and an emendation - of the entry for the year 1053 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a work Symeon relied on quite heavily for his own opus although feeling free to add the details about how fierce the wind was. What is even more interesting is that I happened to come across this passage in another Medieval chronicle, namely that attributed to Florence of Worcester (d. 1118).

The authorship of this particular chronicle is a matter of contention and it may well be that the bulk of the labour was performed by John of Worcester (fl. 1095-1140) rather than Florence. In any case, the passage concerning the great wind of 1053 is found also here in a translation almost identical to that of Symeon, the only difference being "domosque" in the Worcester chronicle and of course the wind being ascribed to the year before. Both Florence and Symeon rely on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for their passages.

Later I came across this passage again in the chronicle of Roger Hoveden (d. 1201/02), also here placed in 1052. Roger Hoveden belonged to what William Stubbs has termed the Northumbrian school of historians, a term encompassing historians from the Venerable Bede and onwards. The Northumbrian provenance of Roger may suggest, as Stubbs hints at, that he relied on Symeon of Durham for this passage. What is interesting here, however, is the way it was rendered in Roger's chronicle, which deviates from both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Symeon and Florence of Worcester. In Roger's chronicle it runs accordingly:

Eodem anno, in nocte festivitatis Sancti Thomæ apostoli, tantus tamque vehemens exstitit ventus, ut multas ecclesias domosque diueret, et innumeras arbores frangeret vel radicitus evelleret.

What I find interesting about these repetitions and modifications is the way they illustrate in part the transmission of knowledge and literature in Medieval England, and also how they suggest the importance of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in that literary sphere. Later on, presumably due to the shift from Anglo-Saxon vernacular to Anglo-Norman, the Chronicle waned in importance and left fewer traces throughout the pages of Medieval historians.

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