Historical sources rundown

A lot of what we know about the history of the Dark Ages comes from written documents of the time such as land grants, wills, sagas, chronicles and annals either written during the period under study or soon after. For the information i need when writing historical fiction and blog posts i try and use these documents as much as other books and websites and i thought it would be a good idea to share some of these so that when i mention that we know so and so through the writings of such and such, you will know what i am talking about and hopefully understand a little bit about how we know so much about this time period, or more accurately so little.

To begin with you should know what a chronicle and an annal are, as they are the two most used sources for me.
An annal comes from the Latin word annalis meaning yearly. It is more concise in its listings of historical facts and events than a chronicle, though both list events year by year. The more concise annals are supposed to be devoid of bias or emotional motives or reasons, simply stating the year and what happened, e.g. 866AD the Danes attacked York and killed its kings, Aelle and Osbert. The medieval annals are mostly a product of early Irish clergymen beginning in the 7th and 8th centuries, although there are examples from Wales and Scotland as well. These annals give a good alternative and sometimes further evidence to the chronicles that were popular amongst the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the time.

A chronicle can be a bit more descriptive with what happened and the causes. Like the annal it is organised in chronological order and often under yearly headings (hence the name chronicle). Chronicles are typically written from firsthand knowledge through witnessing or participation but can also make use of information passed down by word of mouth. A lot more bias can be deciphered as well, such as if the author is writing from a southern English perspective or northern, or if the author is writing under the patronage of a favoured king (such as Asser) or in order to discredit a particular person or persons (the Vikings, Ceolwulf of East Anglia).

Of course there are many written sources that are available to use, many more than i have included here. These are just some of the ones that i return to the most, or perhaps stay away from, or ones that were before the time i write in but are important and interesting anyway.

Gildas

Britain, c. 540, in the time of Gildas

Britain, c. 540, in the time of Gildas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The sermon of Gildas known as the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the ruin and conquest of Britain) is one such important document on the early history of Britain, yet unfortunately does not shed any light on 9th and 10th century Northumbria. He was a christian cleric of Britain (rumoured to be Welsh) and lived during the 6th century. This manuscript was not written with the intention of being used as an historical source for later scholars, it was an open letter to his colleagues and contemporaries, admonishing them for letting the country degenerate since the abandonment by the Romans. The information we can use comes from the arguments he uses to substantiate his point of view. Writing a little over a hundred years after the Romans, Gildas was well placed to reflect on the changes, including the battle of dominance between the native Britons (or probably more realistically by this time Romano-British) and the invading Jutes, Saxons, and Angles. It is the only substantial source for history of this period written by a near contemporary. He also makes a reference to one of the most famous of post Romano-British battles at Mons Badonicus. Here, under the direction of Ambrosius Aurelianus (who many suggest is the progenitor of King Arthur), the island tried to resist the invading Saxons. Gildas also informs the reader that this battle occurred in the same year as his birth. Within the text there are references to other kings and historical figures and their kingdoms as well which may otherwise have been lost to us. The actual date for this document is not really known, though a provenance of the 540s or possibly earlier is generally accepted based on Gildas’ perceived date of birth.

The Venerable Bede
Also known as Saint Bede (feast day 25th May in western church and 27th in orthodox), he was a Northumbrian monk who lived in the monastery of Monkwearmouth in north east England. A man of many talents he was known to be an author and scholar of many subjects not only on the christian faith but on linguistics and the natural world around him. Yet it is for his historical writings for which he is better known for, even earning him the title ‘father of history’. The most famous of his books is called ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’.

Depiction of the Venerable Bede (CLVIIIv) from...

Depiction of the Venerable Bede (CLVIIIv) from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Historia was completed in 731 with the help of Albinus, abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury. It begins with the invasion of England by Caesar in 55 BC up until the time of writing in the early 8th century. The monastery of Wearmouth is known to have had an excellent library at this time. Estimates suggest that over 200 books had been sourced from the kingdoms of England as well as those from continental Europe. Bede was then well placed for reference materials in which to draw information from including the histories from ancient Greek, Roman and other early christian translations, as well as Gildas.
He is naturally biased towards a favourable view of the Church and to modern eyes towards a christian view point of the world which isn’t at all surprising for this time period. Like Simeon of Durham later on in history he includes a lot of Northumbrian and northern English events in his writings. He is one of the few writers in the medieval period that expanded the writing of history beyond short notations of facts with many of his entries being narratives and descriptive accounts of the process of events and the people involved. Many later sources such as the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, Simeon of Durham, Florence of Worcester and Asser all make use of the histories provided by Bede.
Unfortunately in my case Bede died before the Vikings did too much damage. The earliest of the sources i can use begin with Asser writing at the end of the 9th century.

Asser
Asser was a Welsh monk from Dyfed in south west Wales. In 885 he was invited to the court of King Alfred the Great to become part of his intellectual circle of peers. Thanks to Alfred’s patronage he soon rose to the position of Bishop of Sherborne. Asser was a very close friend and confidant of Alfred’s and in 893 he wrote a biography of the King of Wessex called ‘The life of King Alfred’. The only surviving copy to survive was destroyed in 1731 in a fire but thanks to several separate transcriptions and other material from Asser’s writing a reconstruction is now available once more to us. It is the main source of information we have on the life and times of Alfred and his family, and of the kingdom of Wessex in general. It is rare and important because there are hardly any contemporary sources on these subjects other than the short entries that are provided in the chronicles and annals. The biography ends abruptly in 893 and seeing as Asser lived for at least another 15 years and Alfred for another 6, it is thought that the main reason behind this is that the copy which survives was actually a draft manuscript. As expected this source is terribly biased towards Alfred and Wessex and leaves out a lot of the histories of the other kingdoms, yet without this amazing work we would not be able to realise the full extent of Alfred’s legacy to his people and the future of England.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicles

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle...

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle, marked secondarily by the librarian of the Laud collection. The manuscript is an autograph of the monastic scribes of Peterborough. The opening sections were likely scribed around 1150. The section displayed is prior to the First Continuation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This chronicle is one of the most consulted tracts for early medieval history, primarily because of the extent of history covered as well as the factual and concise way the information is presented. Thought to have been written at the time of Alfred the Great, it is an account of the history of England from the time of Caesar’s arrival on the island until the beginning of the 12th century and the heirs of William the Conqueror. Despite the original chronicle being lost to history, we have Anglo-Saxon monks to thank for making many copies of the original manuscript which eventually found their way across the country. Over time, different scribes have added their own regional histories and accounts to these copies, resulting in several versions (a process typical of most of the annals and chronicles. It is very rare to find such sources written in the hand of one scribe or author). Hence, today when we talk about the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, we are actually referring to nine versions which have survived. These are: The Parker/Winchester Chronicle (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge), The Abingdon Chronicle 1 and 2 (both at the British Museum, Cotton MS), The Worcester Chronicle (British Museum, Cotton MS), the Laud or Peterborough Chronicle (Bodleian), The Bilingual Canterbury Epitome (British Museum, Cotton MS), Cottonian Fragment (British Museum, Cotton), An Easter Table Chronicle (British Museum, Cotton MS).
By and large these versions only differ in the finer details and most of the more modern translations of the ASC include in the main body of the work or as footnotes the disparities encountered in each. As a point of interest the Parker/Winchester Chronicle is the oldest known surviving version of the ASC and the original is thought to have been commissioned by King Alfred the Great around 890-891AD.

Aethelweard
Aethelweard has the unusual distinction of being an historian yet not a monk or cleric of some sort. He was in fact an aeldorman and may even have been a descendant of the royal house of Wessex (through King Aethelred 1 the elder brother of King Alfred the Great, unsubstantiated). He wrote ‘The Chronicon’ and dedicated it to his cousin Matilda, abbess of Essen around the year 980 (who was the great granddaughter of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great through his daughter Edith wife of Otto 1 the Holy Roman Emperor). It is a translation of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ and all that survives of the manuscript are the entries from the years 893-975, with additional burnt fragments showing that it had once continued into the reign of Aethelred the Unready (978-1016). He doesn’t write in the same format of the ASC, listing events under yearly headings. It is more a collectio’n of extended paragraphs and stories of the events with dates peppered through. This can mean that some events and their chronology are confused as is the case of the battle of Corbridge and whether it happened once in 918 or twice (914/5 and 918). Unfortunately there is only one known version of the manuscript which was partially destroyed with many other ancient sources and manuscripts in the fire at the British Library in 1731. This is why the years 893-975 are all we have left. This manuscript is from the early 11th century.

The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto
‘The History of Saint Cuthbert’ is an account by an unknown author of the history of the bishopric of St Cuthbert from the time of Saint Cuthbert himself in the 7th century until 1031. Thanks to the Viking incursions in Northumbria the bishopric was forced to abandon Lindisfarne in the 870s and at various points up until 1031 was based at Norham, Chester-le-street and then finally at Durham. The original has long since been lost but there are several copies still available, the earliest from 1100. There are three versions or copies of the history, in Oxford, Cambridge and London, none of which are complete. The Oxford version is believed to be the earliest of the three which is generally attributed to have been a copy by Simeon of Durham (who would have also used the text in his own histories). The Cambridge version was written by an unnamed copyist and most probably dated to the 14th century in Lancashire or Durham. The London version is the most complete of the three. It probably also came from Durham and dated to around the 15th century. The original from which these versions were copied are probably from the 10th century, about the time of King Edmund.

Florence of Worcester
Despite the feminine sounding name, Florence was a dude. He was a monk from the second half of the 11th century from Worcester who co-authored the ‘Chronicon ex chronicis’. For many years scholars ascribed this chronicle largely to Florence (though as in the case of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there were other authors as well), which is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester’. However in recent years it has been suggested that the version of the chronicle that we have today is the work of a monk called John of Worcester from the early 12th century. The chronicle doesn’t differ much in style and content from the ASC, both are a compilation of entries by year up until the 12th century. However the chronicle starts its history from the day dot, which is from the time of creation and not with the beginning of the Roman occupation.

The fragmentary annals of Ireland
These annals are thought to have come about through a splicing of two earlier annals or chronicles from the 11th century or earlier. This is because the surviving fragments include entries that are short and concise as is customary of an annal, as well as longer narratives typical of chronicles. The person who organised the original manuscript did so in a very haphazard way, resulting in a confusing and sometimes inaccurate sequence of events. Over the years it had been further copied and altered with various addendums made to it until the current version. This was made in 1643 by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh for the Galway historian Dr John Lynch, taken from a now lost 15th century vellum version of the original manuscript. This is the only know version surviving today and is held in Brussels.
The disorganised nature of the original and subsequent versions with their haphazard copying and changes is where the ‘Fragmentary Annals’ get their name from. Large pieces of history and narration are missing and there is evidence of some events being confused with others and misdated. What we do know however, is that the entries seem to relate primarily to the Irish histories of the Ui Neill clan near Leinster as well as to Osraige (approximately the later earldom of Ormond). ‘The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland’ were written in Latin and cover a time period from roughly 573-914.

Ireland, early peoples and politics. Redrawn from a map in Duffy’s Atlas of Irish History. (source: Wikipedia)

Simeon (or Symeon) of Durham
Another chronicler monk from the early 12th century, Simeon is the author of a number of works. ‘The little book on the origins and progress of the church, that is of Durham’ is obviously about the history of Durham, and the ‘Historia Regum Anglorum et Dacorum’, translated as ‘The history of the English and Danish kings’. The Historia again is similar to the ASC and Florence’s Chronicle, but with a notable northern flavour. For historical events before his time he seems to have drawn on knowledge and possibly other annals and chronicles which have since been lost to us, concerning the history of Northumbria which has been neglected in other sources.
In addition to this he wrote a brief account on the history of the Archbishops of York.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, tapestry, c. 1385

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a 12th century cleric best known for his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (History of the Kings of Britain) and specifically with his history of King Arthur. Over the centuries many people have assumed him to be Welsh however, there is no real evidence for this other than the addition of ‘of Monmouth’ to his name, which was actually a self-imposed moniker. Most of his adult life seems to have been spent away from Wales, notably at Oxford, and by some accounts he also seems not to have exhibited a firm grasp on the Welsh language in his writings, very strange for an apparent Welshman of the time. These are just some of the reasons why modern scholars now believe that he may have been from a French background, that his parents were possibly Bretons who came across to settle (and control) the welsh border country in the years after the Norman conquest. Either way, he did develop a fascination for the country and an affinity with the Arthurian legends.
The ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ is a history of Britain from the fictional first settlement by Brutus (a descendant of the character Aeneas from the Illiad and the Aeneid), the very real invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar, the life and times of King Leir (who is also considered a myth) up until the death of the real life 7th century King Cadwalla of Gwynedd. Scholars consider the ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ as containing little reliable history; however as a work of fiction and interest it still entertains to this day. I am sure that entertainment was the primary impetus for Geoffrey writing the book as he is known to have complained about earlier works being too dry and stuffy.

Roger of Wendover
Roger and i have a bit of a love hate relationship, although i do feel that hate is probably a little too harsh. The problem is that compared to sources such as the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and the annals he is too flowery in his languages and descriptions, mixing too much myth and tall tales with fact. Although he is nowhere near as bad as Geoffrey of Monmouth, it can be very frustrating when you are trying to piece together an already confusing and anomalous history. Usually right when i think i have my facts sorted, Roger will throw me a curve ball. In saying all this though, it isn’t entirely his fault.
He started out as a monk in the 13th century at St Albans Abbey before being promoted to Prior of the Cell of Belvoir (a post which he later lost because he was caught wasting the community’s money). ‘The Flores Historiarum’, or ‘The flowers of history’, is generally attributed to Roger even though most of the early part of the book’s events before 1216 were written by a monk called John de Cella of Wallingford, and after Roger’s death by an unknown monk who may have been called Matthew of Westminster (who may or may not be Matthew Paris). Much of the earlier information by John is heavily influenced by myths and legends, which is then exacerbated by Roger going through at a later period making his own revisions and additions. The result is of course a really fascinating story, but one where the historical accuracy is sometimes hard to see. I know i should therefore be blaming John de Cella for sending me grey prematurely, but alas poor Roger gets the brunt of it.
Despite this the ‘Flores Historiarum’ can still be used as a fairly accurate source, i would probably just read it alongside other sources such as the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ for consistency (and really the more sources you use together the more accurate information you will find). The book deals with the history of England from creation until 1326 and during its time was a very popular book amongst those who could read and had an interest in such things. Roger supposedly wrote most of the entries between 1216 and 1235, ending the entries in the year before his death at St Albans Abbey on the 6 may 1236.

The Annals of Ulster
The last of the sources, and one i use a lot for a different context on the Anglo-centric chronicles, are the ‘Annals of Ulster’. This book spans the years AD 431-1540 with the vast majority compiled by the 15th century scribe Ruaidhri O Luinin. Entries written after 1489 are authored by several unknown scribes. Despite writing about events that happened over a thousand years after the fact, Ruaidhri and his fellow scribes were able to make use of earlier books and scriptures from the 6th century. As in most Annals, the entries for each year are short and concise though written in a mixture of Latin as well as old Irish. Despite the brevity, the annals are an amazing source of information on the death and rule of kings, battles, raids, the different kingdoms, chieftainships, their people and towns/villages of Ireland in the early to late medieval period in Ireland. It is also a fantastic source of information on Viking activity on the island. Very rarely do the ‘Annals of Ulster’ mention events in Britain and Scotland but in regards to the last nation and even of Northumbria, it has often provided me with information that has been illusive in the British sources.

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3 thoughts on “Historical sources rundown

  1. Thank you for your post. I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of a resource you mentioned, ‘The little book on the origins and progress of the church, that is of Durham.’ I can’t find it anywhere and would love to use it. I’ve contacted the library at Durham Cathedral and they have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m sorta stuck!

    Thanks so much.

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