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An unembellished account of history: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

December 15, 2009

I.

Skimming through The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle(completed in the vernacular English ca. 1070-1077 Anno Domini), one discovers firsthand Britain’s formative period and the rise of the English language.

I refer to G.N. Garmonsway’s 1953 edition (Garmonsway, G.N., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: 1953, J.M. Dent & Sons).

Much of the early Chronicle lists the many, and often tumultuous and short-lived (by Hellenistic/Mediterranean-world standards), dynasties of kings who conquered this or that territory of the British Isles, most notably Roman conquerors with their distinctive Latin names that strike such a stark contrast with the much more primitive/un-learned/un-cultured British.

Specific dates are often ignored, as the passage of what we take for granted as the solar year was not the predominant mode of recording history. The concept of the annal originated, according to Garmonsway’s Introdution, with Church Easter tables. The Introduction includes a photo of an eleventh-century “Easter Table with Annals” (p. xxiv-xxv), showing that the earliest form of chronicle were Easter Tables created by monks to enable the clergy to ascertain the the day on which Easter fell in a given year. These very scrupulous Church scribes used a rubric with eight modes of time with both Biblical and astrological events to calculate where Easter would fall in a particular year. They include: “Year of Grace”, “Indiction Number”, “Epact”, “Concurrent”, “Lunar Cycle”, “Paschal Term” (date of the Jewish Passover – otherwise considered to be the first full moon after Spring Equinox), “Easter Day”, and “the Age of the Moon on Easter Day”.

The Easter tables grew as monks added notes and historical events of import, turning a calendar into the very first “Chronicles”, or annals.

The Romans of course were fundamental to British history and established London (Londinium) out of the Thames estuary during the reigns of Severus and other later, post-Republican Roman kings.

What stands out about the Chronicle is that despite the ubiquity of Latin in Europe, a document scrupulously written over years was done entirely in the vernacular (Old English). Garmonsway argues that the Chronicle is “by far the oldest historical prose” in any Germanic language.”

II.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins with two largely overlapping, yet separately written segments known as the “Parker Chronicle” and the “Laud Chronicle”.

Mostly they mention names of kings who are sons of so-and-so, who is son of so-and-so, son of such-and-such (you get the idea). A relativistic approach emphasizing lineage and lacking an objective “historical method we are now accustomed to, but which, for the time-period, was more easily understood because it mimicks the Bible, with the latter’s emphasis on patrilineal lines of rulers as the primary historical rubric.

What keeps me reading the Chronicle – often difficult to follow for all the above reasons – are the scatterings of history relevant to Britain but also refreshing interpretations of events in the East interpreted from afar, and so providing a fresh perspective in contrast to more conventional, first-hand Roman histories (such as official court scribes for the Roman Emperors, praetors, etc.). For example, the translator Garmonsway’s Parker Chronicle 409 reads,

In this year the Goths took the city of Rome by storm, and never afterwards did the Romans rule in Britain: that was eleven hundred and ten years after it was built. In all they had reigned in Britain four hundred and seventy years since Julius Caesar first came to the country.

The above is the unembellished perspective of an objective annalist, or chronicler; a gem of an historical angle that can only come from this one-of-a-kind document.

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