History – in its various forms – was a popular topic in the Early Medieval world. The output of such efforts typically took the form of long narrative histories – such as Bede’s history of England, which stretched the history of the island back beyond the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th Century to the arrival of the Romans – and the lives of Christian Saints and other Christian leaders.
In Part 1 of this 9 part series, I introduced Bede and his life. In Part 2, I will provide an overview of the major histories written during this period.
Four histories of Early Medieval Britain stand out – two Britons and two Anglo-Saxons. For these scholars, the study of history elevated their respective peoples out of contemporary struggles and placed those struggles into historical perspective. In addition, each of these men had very specific political messages to convey. Gildas, a British monk of the 6th Century; Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the 8th Century; a British monk traditionally known as Nennius who wrote the Historia Brittonuum in the 9th Century; and finally, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote the first entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 9th Century.
Read together, these works tell us a great deal about how historical scholarship was conducted in this period, the standard of education enjoyed by scholars, the availability of historical sources, and also that the politicisation of history is not simply a modern curse.
However, reading such works from the vantage of modern rationality and scientific enquiry it is easy to dismiss these works as colourful story-telling rather than as history as we understand it. Alongside conventional Classical history we find descriptions of Christian miracles, royal genealogies that descend from pagan gods, and simplistic and obviously (to modern readers) erroneous events.
Yet to dismiss these histories as merely colourful stories is to ignore what these sources can tell us about early Medieval Historical writing and about the history of the period. And perhaps most importantly of all, reflection on these sources encourage us to challenge our pre-conceptions about modern historical writing.
In Part 3, I will discuss Gildas and his history written in the 6th Century.
Photo Copyright Details:
|Title: Sutton Hoo helmet reconstructed Description: Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England. Source: Wikipedia Commons Author: Gernot Keller Copyright Statement: This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: brighten & crop. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.|