Early Medieval British history (5th-6th Centuries) is known through its stories. From these stories, we can read about heroes and epic struggles, and clashes between opposing peoples and religious beliefs. Yet for a mind shaped by modern notions of rationality, it is easy to dismiss what we read as fairy-tales or as simply gibberish, and grant plausibility only to selected elements. Yet in doing so, it is easy to miss the value of those stories. Modern story telling is based upon retelling a sequence of events that can be proven (or not easily disproven, as the case may be) and wrapping the events in a narrative – who did what, to whom, when, and why. Instead, early medieval stories can be read in reverse: a story-teller began with a narrative and fleshed it out with plausible sounding events. Therefore distinguishing fact from fiction, in a modern sense, is very difficult and often fruitless exercise.
Fifth and Sixth Centuries occurred in between two more well-known periods in British history: the Roman period (43-410) and the Anglo-Saxon period (7th to 11th Centuries). Therefore study of the early medieval period can suffer from simple neglect – it is often glossed over as simply a ‘book end’ to close off one period or to indicate the beginning of the next period. Alternatively, it can be studied using the sources of one period or the other, with uncritical appreciation of the differences between Roman and Medieval story-telling.
History as Story-telling
The study of history is an intellectual activity, in which the ‘past’ is distinguished from the ‘present’ and the past is knowable through the study of facts. In philosophical terns, history is commonly a study of form and matter – form being the truth about what really happened, knowable by systematic study of various forms of evidence; and matter being the wrapping of hearsay, bias and prejudice that comprise a story that confuses and distorts an accurate view of the past. Historians, for example, focus on written evidence – and favour documents created by ‘reliable’ authors, such as bureaucrats and educated people versus ‘unreliable’ authors, such as prejudiced observers or reporters of rumours and hearsay. When studying modern history, historians have access typically to copious quantities of written evidence – government bureaucratic archives, newspapers, and private papers of informed observers. It is therefore relatively straight-forward to sift and sort the evidence, stripping the ‘facts’ from the sources and cross-reference the facts (to substantiate them) with evidence from other sources. The facts are the forms which are contained within, but independent of, the sources (‘matter’).
History as a study of form and matter becomes very problematic for historical periods in which written evidence is scarce, or where the evidence was prepared by authors unfamiliar with the distinction between facts and hearsay – such the written evidence for fifth century British history. Modern historians are typically divided by the value of the available sources. John Morris (1913-1977), a leading scholar of early medieval British history, reflected that it is easy to dismiss written evidence from this period not easily understood as ‘worthless rubbish’ as a way to avoid the effort of understanding them. Consequently, for historians trained in the use of Roman sources, those sources are favoured generally for their reliability (and the ‘facts’ contained within) over the sources written by early Medieval British and Anglo-Saxon authors. Why? Because classical history has traditionally been seen as ‘proper’ history versus ‘dark age’ history, and classical historians are deemed to be proper historians versus the crude scratching of early medieval writers. Yet such distinctions are unhelpful and contributes the view that any period can treated as unknowable.
Early Medieval history – As the end of Roman Britain [coming soon]
Early Medieval history – As the start of Anglo-Saxon England or Welsh Britain [coming soon]
Early Medieval history – Movies and TV [coming soon]
Blog – Light Where There Was Darkness: Early Medieval Historians [coming soon]
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|Title: Depiction of St. Bede the Venerable
Description: Depiction of St. Bede the Venerable (at St. Bede’s school, Chennai) – Image has been cropped for better presentation
Date: 1 June 2012
Source: Wikipedia Commons
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 John Morris, ‘Christianity in Britain, 300-700: The Literary Evidence’, republished in Arthurian Sources, Vol. 6: Studies in Dark Age History, Chichester: Phillimore & Co Ltd, 1995, p.156.