A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The ‘bibles’ of Mediaeval history were Frank Stenton’s Anglo Saxon England, George Sayles’ Mediaeval Foundations of England and – last but far from least – The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. They were all available in the school library, and not supplied as text books, but it made life much easier if you had your own copies, so I persuaded my long-suffering parents to buy them for me – my pockets at that time not being long enough to extend to even a second hand ‘Stenton’.
Very shortly after securing my History ‘A’ Level (yes, we’re talking about THAT long ago … when ‘A’ levels still existed and dinosaurs roamed the playing field) I cavalierly disposed of both the Stenton and the Sayles on the perfectly reasonable grounds that:
(a) I didn’t have the slightest intention of ever so much as OPENING either of them again and
(b) I could get good money for them in any one of the many second hand bookshops in Oxford.
My ‘Everyman’ copy of The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, however, I hung on to and still own – tatty, stained and a bit battered – but very much a treasured part of my library. My reason for keeping it all those years ago was very simple: even at the tender age of 17, I’d actually enjoyed reading it – it had become more than just a textbook to me. My reason for still owning it, even after many of my other books have vanished in various purging exercises, is that I now know what I then only suspected – that The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is a massively important part of our literary and historical heritage as well as being a jolly good read to boot (at which point I should probably add the caveat, ‘If you’re interested in that sort of thing’).
Crucially, and unlike (I’m fairly certain) most of my fellow students, rather than just dipping into it to pull out the bits I needed for my essays, I read my edition all the way through, starting with G N Garmonsway’s lengthy but highly illuminating introduction.
George Garmonsway was, I subsequently discovered, Professor of English Language at the University of London. As such his interest in The Anglo Saxon Chronicle was that of a scholar of Mediaeval literature rather than a Mediaeval historian, although his knowledge of the period was prodigious.
The Chronicle should, strictly, be referred to as The Chronicles – and indeed some modern editions do use the plural – because although they are all transcripts of a now lost original, there are in fact nine surviving chronicles, seven of which are written in English – or rather Anglo Saxon.
The original is generally agreed to have been written by a scribe in Wessex in the 9th Century. It was, put simply, an annal charting the history of the Anglo Saxons. It was ‘a highly composite document’ (H M Chadwick: Origin of the English Nation) which drew on ‘at least eight sources of information’ (ibid), foremost amongst them the Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Multiple copies were then sent out to monasteries around the country, where they were then independently updated with national and local events, copied again and further distributed. The result is that although much of the material in the surviving copies is similar and sometimes identical, there are also significant regional variations and entire sections which are unique to each of the chronicles. And the relationship between the extant copies is far from straightforward, either:
(Chart courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Untangling the history of and web of relationships between the chronicles is a specialist field in itself and an area into which I have no intention of setting foot … my real interest was and is in the substance of them.
Reading The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (which I shall henceforth refer to as ‘The ASC’) can have rather the same hypnotic effect as listening to the shipping forecast: as the catalogue of Cwichelms and Aethelberhts and Eadwigs passes before your eyes you drift off into a sort of reverie, until something or someone pops up to smack you upside the head and make you sit up and pay attention. Like Pippin. Yes, Pippin. In the middle of the Aethelwulfs and Aelgifus, there’s a Pippin, not to mention an Eomer – and that’s when you remember that Tolkien was a Mediaevalist who was very familiar with The ASC …
There’s also the totally unexpected and unheralded story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard in the chronicles of 755 … One minute, you’re trundling through a list of births, deaths and mayhem and the next, completely out of the blue, you’re in the middle of a tale of brotherly revenge and loyal-unto-death thanes. It’s exactly like the dinner party raconteur who’s in the middle of a rather tedious monologue when he (and it’s always a ‘he’, isn’t it?) suddenly remembers a really great story, which he promptly launches into before you can stop him. The tale is some 30 years out of its correct chronological order – reinforcing the feeling that it’s something the scribe just remembered, and wrote down as light relief from the endless repetition of names, dates and reports of the occasional comet sighting. It also smacks of folklore … a tale with a basis in fact, embellished by subsequent generations of story-tellers. For that is what the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard is – the first short story in the English language, as well as being ‘the only piece of Anglo-Saxon saga material which has been handed down to us in the original vernacular”. (H M Chadwick, again.)
(If you’re curious about what Anglo-Saxon might have sounded like … there’s a creditable stab at it HERE … it’s the Cynewulf/Cyneheard story in the original Anglo-Saxon. Listening to it is rather like listening to Pidgin English with your heard stuffed in a bucket of water* – you keep getting flashes of words you recognize and half-recognize.)
The Cynewulf story is not the only ‘first’ in The ASC, either. It also boasts the first recorded patriotic poem in the English language – a rousing tribute to Athelstan’s victory at Brununburh which paints an extraordinary portrait of a full-on, no-quarter-given pitched battle:
All through the day the West Saxons in troops
Pressed on in pursuit of the hostiles peoples
Fiercely, with swords sharpened on grindstone,
They cut down the fugitives as they fled.
The ASC is written throughout in simple and unmannered Old English prose (and I should point out now that I DON’T actually read Anglo-Saxon well enough to cope with vast tracts of it … a single paragraph gives me a headache. The Everyman edition is a modern English translation). But the very absence of literary embellishments adds the punch to the narrative. When Alfred erupts from the mists and myths of the Athelney marshes and into the pages of history, with an onslaught so ferocious it simply sweeps the Danes before it, he does so not with a grandiloquent ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ flourish but with a simple:
… he fought against the entire host and put it to flight
Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments. The reign of King Stephen – a king locked in a civil war with his cousin Matilda and a monarch almost as contentious as Richard III – is portrayed particularly vividly (if not necessarily particularly objectively) as being hell on earth: a period when – in possibly the most famous phrase in the whole of The ASC – ‘Christ and His saints slept’.
In general though – and a few moments of triumphalism, character assassination and purple prose aside – it’s the matter-of-factness of the writing that is so alluring – that, and the touches that tell you some of the chroniclers were speaking from personal experience. While much of The ASC is of debatable accuracy (see above) and is never held up as incontrovertible evidence of anything at all, there are places in it when you sense you’re seeing an authentic snapshot of a moment in time.
In 1066, surely one of the most tumultuous years English history, poor beleaguered King Harold was fighting wars on two fronts. Having seen off Tostig and Harold Hardrada at York and Stamford Bridge, he then dragged his entire army down to the south coast to confront Duke William of Normandy. They met, famously, at Senlac Hill, six miles north west of Hastings.
The ASC tells us, simply, that Harold came to oppose Duke William ‘at the grey apple-tree’ … as if we should all know where that was. It’s plainly a local man, talking about a local landmark – presumably an apple tree encrusted with grey lichen – and a striking image.
I can’t recommend The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to you as a must-have page turner. It isn’t. What it is is one of the most important English language documents in the world: the very beginnings of English prose – with a side order of local gossip, a bit of poetry and a jolly good fireside yarn or two thrown in for good measure.
The edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shown is my own and now out of print, but still readily available second hand. I recommend it for the introduction, and the quality of the translation.
* Not that I have ever done this, and please don’t try it at home.