You might think I am being excessively rude about how history is determined. But an uncritical acceptance of how history is written is no different from a belief in the myths and legends that 19th Century historians attempted to overcome.
In Part 8 of this 9 part series, I discussed some of the assumptions found within 19th Century historical thinking, which continues to shape modern notions of the past. With our notions of history clarified, in Part 9 (and final part) I will explore the Early Medieval approach to historical writing.
Modern historical writing 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. Events derived from different sources are then aggregated into a single chronology – on the assumption that once verified as true, an event can exist independently of the original story from whence it came.
Early medieval stories, and indeed, many Classical stories as well, can be read in reverse: a story-teller began with a narrative – they wanted to tell a story about how something happened, such as an origin story to explain how the Anglo-Saxons came to England – once the land was ruled by Romans and now it was ruled by Anglo-Saxons; therefore, according to the Anglo-Saxon story-tellers, a great origin story was waiting to be told. They then fleshed out the story with plausible sounding events – many of which might already be known to the audience from other stories – such as saying that Portsmouth was named for the Anglo-Saxon chief that conquered the town (‘Port’); saying that the Britons must have given the land of Kent to the Anglo-Saxons, because the settlers had retained its British name, and so on.
Therefore simply ‘mining’ an Early Medieval source for facts will always, ultimately, be fruitless. Some events can be verified, in a sense, by cross-referencing with similar descriptions in other sources. The Anglo-Saxon settlement of England, for example, is found in multiple sources. Therefore the common elements can be assumed as being truthful (note the word ‘assumed’ in the absence of a contradictory evidence). Alternatively, material evidence (i.e. archaeology) can be analysed. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, archaeology can provide indicative dating and descriptive evidence for the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements. However, history and archaeology tell us different things about the past – history tells us about the people that may have lived in the past, whilst archaeology tells us how and when they lived. But the two disciplines do not necessarily contribute to understanding the same story.
Where does this leave us? At the very least, we possess a corpus of entertaining stories – comprising both the early medieval stories AND the 19th Century interpretations of the past. Yet if we disregard the superficial analyses – a legacy of so-called modern scholarship – we can immerse ourselves instead in the world-view of the original story-tellers and get closer to their original intent.
In a future blog series, I will return to the early medieval sources and in which I will reflect upon the the Adventus Saxonum (‘Coming of the Saxons’) as chronicled in the key sources: Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
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|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.|