Approaches to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Comparison
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the collective name for a set of annals consisting of one fragment and seven manuscript versions, related to one another in intricate and hard-to-decipher ways. (1) The basic scholarly consensus is that the manuscripts are descended from a now-lost original, copies of which were sent to churches from a central point in the 890s. (2) This paper examines some of the issues in interpreting the Chronicle, evaluates trends in Chronicle scholarship, and concludes by examining what the text reveals of the environment in which it was produced. It suggests that the traditional philological approach is not as rewarding in this regard as the newer focus on interpreting the Chronicle's content.
The commonly (though not universally) accepted view is that the Chronicle was maintained at the principal English churches, after they had received copies of the original from Alfred the Great's court, and that this explains why the various versions differ from one another. The project probably originated as part of the revival of learning and of "English national awareness" during Alfred's reign. (3) It was attributed to King Alfred by Gaimar, a twelfth-century Anglo-Norman historian, who wrote that the King had "'caused a book to be written in English about events and about laws and about battles in the land and about kings who made war.'"(4)
The importance of the Chronicle as an historical source cannot be overstated.It is the "first continuous national history of any western people in their own language" (5) (although the possibility was raised by Howorth in 1900 --and subsequently by Cyril Hart-- that it may originally have been written in Latin and then translated, a suggestion that has never been completely discredited). (6)It is the most substantial historical source for Anglo-Saxon England, providing the "historical backbone" for England from the 8th to 11th centuries. (7) Even those who believe that its uniqueness may have been slightly exaggerated concede that while it "is not the only formulaic historical text in Anglo-Saxon England....it is arguably the most wide-ranging in its focus," and "the most self-aware of its identity as a historical and national text." (8) It was recognized as an important historical source at the time, used by the Welsh scholar Asser for his Latin Life of King Alfred and also cited in the Annals of St Neots, which adapted its material for a Latin history with a specifically East Anglian focus. (9) The Chronicle is related in form to Anglo-Saxon charters and, although the latter are written in Latin, they share common characteristics with the Chronicle: "a highly formulaic diction," a preoccupation with "territorial tenure and exchange," and "the function of recording details of persons and events." (10)
Anglo-Saxon writings are often seen as unsophisticated, a judgment which fails to capture the Chronicle's rich textual background. (11) It draws on several different sources, including a Roman cosmography, early annals adopted from the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, genealogies of Mercian and Northumbrian kings, a list of West Saxon bishops up to 754, and a set of West Saxon annals that extend from the Anglo-Saxon invasions to the mid eighth century. (12)
Despite the Chronicle's use in what seems to have been a programme of public education, exactly how contemporaries read the text is far from clear. While there are references in the Chronicle to monastic books as wealth, an idea that was common in the Carolingian Empire (and which suggests that Alfred's distribution of the manuscript may also have been a symbolic gesture of kingly largesse), no insight is provided into how widely reading took place. (13) The relationship between orality and literacy in the Chronicle is a controversial subject.For example, did readers have access to supplementary, orally-transmitted stories passed down through the generations? When names appeared in the Chronicle with hardly any surrounding information, would the reader or the listener be expected to mentally fill in biographical information? Plummer and, later, Harrison argued that Anglo-Saxon oral tradition persisted alongside the text, so that the latter served the function of a memory aid, in a manner similar to Peruvian Quipu. (14) Indeed, the cryptic nature of some entries leads Swanton to speculate that they contain "quasi-poetic mnemonic formulae." (15) The probable debts to a parallel oral tradition, particularly saga, have been widely noted. (16) Bately's analysis of the Chronicle finds places where the chroniclers may have quoted from poetic, oral sources.(17) The opaque story in the entry for 755 of King Cynewulf of Wessex and Cyneheard the Aetheling (a prince eligible for succession to the throne) has been much analysed, due to its "evocations of heroic ethos and....saga-like themes that have often been thought to derive from oral tradition," (18) and its apparent quotations of direct speech. (19) The Chronicle contains some poems, notably The Battle of Burnanburh, that were probably 'ready-made' and then incorporated in their entirety, while Swanton also identifies "poetic or highly rhetorical leanings" in the language of other parts of the manuscripts. (20) Some of these passages may represent oral traditions first written down in the seventh century, in texts that are now lost, and "passed on by word of mouth from men who in their youth received the information from old men who had been alive in the time of Cerdic" (the first king of Anglo-Saxon Wessex, who reigned from 519-534).(21)
TheAnglo-Saxon Chronicle is not only interesting as history, but also from the literary point of view, developing from sparse entries in the earlier years to detailed, narrative, opinionated and almost conversational entries, (22) such as the Peterborough scribe's startled reaction to William the Conqueror's Domesday survey: "He had it investigated so very narrowly that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, nor even (it is shameful to tell-- but it seemed no shame to him to do it) one ox, not one cow, not one pig was left out, that was not set down in his record.And all the records were brought to him afterwards." (23) (This explicit anti-Norman sentiment is not surprising, given Peterborough's location in an area of resistance to the Conquest, and this may also explain why the Chronicle project survived there longest: maintaining a history in the English language may have taken on political meaning of its own following the invasion.)(24) Over time, scribes increasingly deploy rhetoric, and are more concerned with characterization (such as in the ambivalent portrait of William in 1086), though Swanton notes that the overall tone of the text remains one of "customary laconic dryness." (25) Political feeling seeps through increasingly, and in particular following the Conquest, as confrontations between Anglo-Danish and Norman factions lead up to the Anarchy period and its atrocities. (26) One version even includes what seems to be an eyewitness account of the massacre of the monks at Glastonbury. (27) The Chronicle's status as a bridging document between the Saxon and Norman eras makes it particularly fascinating.Indeed, reading through the later text, it is notable that disturbing astronomical phenomena and other possible omens seem to increase in frequency after 1066.
Scholarly approaches to the Chronicle can be divided into two different camps: a focus on what Jorgensen calls its 'internal economy' on one hand, and on the other attempts to read the Chronicle's content for historical insight, particularly in terms of its construction of 'Englishness.' (28) The two methods of reading can sometimes converge, to complement each other. (29) On the whole, however, the philological approach to reading the Chronicle tends to focus mainly on resolving the mystery of how exactly it was compiled (Janet Bately's essays are classics of this approach). Recently codicology, which involves the study of manuscripts as physical objects, has supplemented philology in approaches to the Chronicle, particularly with regard to dating it. (30) The ownership of the manuscripts over time, or what archivists would call the 'chain of custody,' is the focus of another substantial strand of Chronicle scholarship, such as Harrison's article on William Camden's possible ownership of the F-text. (31) These studies seem to explore the changing ownership of the Chronicle texts for its own sake, however, rather than focusing on any possible implications for the manuscripts' reliability as historical sources.
It is understandable that the Chronicle's origins have become a scholarly obsession, since the original does not survive, and the different versions do not make clear the circumstances of their production. (32) The mysterious divergences and convergences of the versions over time have been captured by the recent authoritative scholarly editions edited by Dumville and Keynes, focusing scholars' attention more intensely on the relationships between the texts and the ways in which they may have deviated from the elusive original. (33) One hypothesis as to the relationships has been made by Bately: G seems to be a direct copy of A; part of C may be a direct copy of B; F is based on the archetype of E but is also based on A; and D and E seem to have drawn on a common archetype, and are together known as the Northern Recension.(34) The situation is further complicated by "the evidence of Latin texts with material derived from the 890 Chronicle," which suggests "that all the surviving manuscripts of the Old English version shared a common ancestor which was at least one remove from the original compilation." (35)
Another aspect of textual analysis of the Chronicle that has grown in popularity is the attempt to guess the particular identities and motivations of individual scribes following 890 (36), often with inconclusive results.For example, the possible involvement of Archbishop Wulfstan (d. 1023) has been a major focus, but while Karl Jost argued that two unusually-worded poems in Chronicles D and E are by Wulfstan--a view which achieved general acceptance--this has been recently challenged by Pons-Sanz, on the grounds that Wulfstan's style was widely imitated, making a decision on the authorship of the poems ultimately impossible. (37) Similarly, precisely dating the events described within the Chronicle has been a substantial focus.These attempts have often been frustrated, due to Anglo-Saxon dating conventions (38), which meant, according to Thorogood, that the beginning of the year could be dated in theory "on any one of five different days: the feasts of the Annunciation before and after Christmas, Easter Day, Christmas Day, and 25 September, the beginning of the Caesarian Indictional year." (39) Harrison later suggested that the old lunar calendar could be invoked to reconcile discordant dates over, for example, the origins of Wessex, and cited the Venerable Bede's "confidence in the primitive, pre-Christian reckoning" in support of his argument. (40) The situation is further complicated by the fact that the scribes were vague about the timing of some events, and very precise about others: a much-cited example is "Cenwalh's battle at Posent's stronghold," which is noted as having been fought at Easter in 661. (41)
Dating issues are contentious partly because of their link to the question, occasionally raised, of whether Alfred was in fact responsible for the project.Plummer established the view that Alfred was involved in the compilation of the 890 Chronicle (i.e. the material that was distributed to the different churches), and R. H. C. Davis even suggested that Alfred may have dictated some of the later annals in the archetype. (42) This view was challenged for a time by Howorth's philological investigation, in the course of which he concluded that "the theory that it was composed as we have it in the time of Alfred... is a guess as good or as bad as any other guess," and argued instead that Edward the Elder was responsible for launching the project, in 915. (43) Similarly, Stenton and Whitelock both advanced the theory that, instead of Alfred, a private southwestern individual may have commissioned the manuscript. (44) However, opinion has now returned to the Plummer orthodoxy: it is widely believed that "the 'common stock' of the annals to c. 892, found in all the main manuscripts and so remarkably secular in its ninth-century interests, was compiled in and disseminated from the court of King Alfred the Great." (45) According to Yorke, there is also widespread agreement on the work's context, namely that it was "part of a wider campaign orchestrated by King Alfred and his scholarly advisers," and that its circulation was "the result of 'official' intervention." (46) Nevertheless, Swanton still holds open the caveat that a private, and probably southwestern, commissioner may have been responsible. (47)
The appearance of definitive scholarly editions for the various versions has resulted in an overly atomistic approach to the Chronicle, as Brooks has suggested, (48) enabling a specific focus on "the features that distinguish individual manuscripts from each other." As a result, he argues, historians have come to think of the Chronicle not as a single text with minor variations between the different manuscripts, but as several distinct Chronicles from different times and places, exhibiting distinctive linguistic trajectories. (50) While such approaches produce very detailed results, they can also be somewhat sterile.By obsessively analysing each version of the Chronicle for what can be discovered about its origins, they overlook not only the actual content and the significance of what it is attempting to communicate, but also the commonalities between the Chronicle and other contemporary projects, such as the annals produced in the Frankish realms. (51)
The origins of the Chronicle are of course important, since insight into its provenance would shed greater light on the reasons for its production and thereby enhance its meaning.However, since there is now a consensus that it was an officially-sanctioned project connected with Alfred's court, enough context is available to permit analysis of its content for general historical insight. While the content of the Chronicle certainly cannot always be taken as concrete historical fact (it includes obviously mythological material and frequently adopts a propagandistic or moralizing tone), it provides insight into contemporary conditions and attitudes.
Following this approach, some recent examinations of the Chronicle have asked fundamental questions such as: what was the political agenda behind this officially-sponsored work? For example, Alice Sheppard's Families of the King departs from the traditional textual approach to examine this question (and has been criticised for doing so by Bredehoft, who suggests that 'reading' the Chronicle always requires a reading of its textual history). (52) By adapting the post-colonial theory approach developed by Krishan Kumar in his ground-breaking The Making of English National Identity and applying it to the Chronicle, Sheppard discovers a national narrative which effectively constructs the nation that it describes: the 'Angelcynn,' a political family made up of members of diverse tribes, within Alfred's realm and at his court (West Saxons, Mercians, Scots, Irish, Franks, Frisians, Gauls, Welsh, Irish, and even Danes, who are eventually drawn into the 'family' over the course of the narrative). (53) Sheppard conducts a close reading of the text to determine how it judges performances of lordship, the quasi-familial relationship between people and lord, by three different inhabitants of the king's office--Alfred, Aethelred and Cnut--and how these various performances affected the idea of the Angelcynn. (54) She then turns to William the Conqueror's subsequent abandonment of the lordship strategy, favouring a dominion over a territorial area rather than a relationship with a 'cynn' or people (55), a claim made and embodied by the Domesday survey.The idea of the Chronicle as a nation-building text is certainly not new (56), but Sheppard's focus on its construction of narratives of 'cynn' and lordship, and her analysis of how its language supports its goals, are fresh and radical. In this context, it is notable that the Chronicle shares similar concerns to Bede's earlier Ecclesiastical History, which aimed at "considering all the Germanic-speaking inhabitants of the British Isles, despite their different origins, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, as one nation --English" (57), though in Sheppard's analysis Alfred appears to expand this imagined community, making it no longer exclusively Germanic.
The tone of the Chronicle's construction of Englishness is far from celebratory, however.Jorgensen's analysis of the narrator's moralistic tone in the Aethelredian Chronicle finds that "he seems to be both profoundly identified with the triumphs, sufferings, and failures of the English and strongly disaffected with the way their affairs are conducted," (58)identifying the various betrayals of trust ("of people by their lords, or lords by their people") that have caused the breakdown of social cohesion and undermined the character of the English "as a people who fight and conquer." (59) The portrayal is also surprising in other ways: Foot notes the striking fact that Alfred and other West Saxon kings, in constructing the English,chose "to invent an Angelcynn and not the Saxonkind that might seem more obvious considering their own ethnic origins." (60) (While the idea encompasses substantial diversity, it does so within a bounded geographical space. The Chronicle is careful to focus on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, rather than on the other parts of Britain.) (61)
The Chronicle is a rich source for insight into the lives of politically active noblewomen during the period, and attitudes towards them. Pauline Stafford examines the portrayal of women in the D manuscript, which is commonly viewed as a Northern production. (62) Complex political sympathies emerge from this version, expressing a particularly Northern viewpoint in the aftermath of a Conquest to which the region was especially resistant.According to Stafford, the scribe "articulates a complex response: one which turns inwards to castigate the English elite as much as outwards against the Norman conquerors; one which both generalises a loved 'England/English' yet criticises sections of it, in particular its leaders; one which accepts defeat and seeks its causes." (63) (This is similar to the involved but critical attitude of the narrator of the Aethelredian chronicle, as described by Jorgensen (64), and echoes analyses expressed in Wulfstan, Archbishop of York's earlier Sermon of the Wolf.) (65) The perspective is that of a nostalgic, fatalistic, but also bitter clerical Northern English patriot, his anger particularly focused on William's harrying. (66) Stafford examines the scribe's portrayal of the deposed royal family's female members, particularly the post-Conquest flight to Scotland of Margaret of Wessex (later Saint Margaret of Scotland) and marriage to King Malcolm. (67) She believes that it reflects a view of Anglo-Saxon noblewomen in their traditional diplomatic and dynastic role as peace-weavers, untainted by the political failures of their violent menfolk, and thereby associated with greater political legitimacy; Margaret, and her offspring with Malcolm (who is outside the corrupt elite that succumbed to the invasion) thus represent an implicit challenge to the 'usurper.' (68) Despite Stafford's analysis, it should be noted that the Chronicle also appears to view women's military activities favourably.Notable appearances of more warlike Anglo-Saxon noblewomen in the Chronicle include Queen Aethelburh, who "threw down [destroyed] Taunton," (69) and Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed, praised for her leadership against the Danes, who built strategic strongholds together with her brother Edward. (70) She ruled Mercia alone for eight years after her husband's death. (71)
The Northern Recension (represented by the D and E manuscripts) is also of interest for the way a close reading of it opens up the Chronicle's perspective. (72) While it is often called 'Northern' because it adds more material from Bede and addresses identifiably Northern (and in particular Northumbrian) interests, Bredehoft suggests that this can obscure its real character as "the beginning of a more comprehensively national chronicle" and that, instead of replacing the original Chronicle's West Saxon focus, it supplements and expands it by adding Northern material. (73) Bredehoft focuses on the Northern Recension's removal of the Common Stock genealogies and insertion of Bede's genealogy of Hengist and Horsa, along with a genealogy of Aethelferth, king of Northumbria. (74) The reinstatement of Hengist and Horsa and their part in the invasions, which had been left out of the Common Stock as part of the House of Wessex's attempt "to create an ideological link between the West Saxon dynasty and the heroic age of the Saxon invasion," constitutes a northern reclamation of "a powerful narrative moment." (75) The Northern Recension thereby undermines the ideological association between the heroic age of the invasions and the West Saxons. (76) This particular version of the Chronicle thus achieves a wider perspective, substituting national for dynastic politics. (77) A gradual opening-up of perspective can also be identified in the Chronicle as a whole.Woolf's analysis of the entire text for its references to Scotland and the Scots notes that these increase over time, and are indicative of the widening interests and growing ambition of a formally parochially-minded West Saxon elite. (78)
Indeed, the earlier material --the Common Stock that all the manuscripts share in common until about 892-- has a "strong West Saxon slant." (79) It integrates information that would only have been locally available, such as "the circumstances leading up to the murder of the reeve of Dorchester in 787," and the places in the Somerset swamps where Alfred took refuge prior to his defeat of the Danes in 878. (80)It has been noted that this material, by virtue of its strongly regional focus, provides a particularly rich source for insight into English-Cornish relations. (81)It might be anachronistic to suggest that, in general, the Chronicle's references to other 'British' groups make it useful as a very early source for four-nations history, but these investigations suggest that commentators who have focussed exclusively on the Chronicle's construction of Englishness may be missing its potential for insights into relationships between the English and their neighbours, and their possible impact on English self-definition.
Nevertheless, readings of the Chronicle should be wary of the political context in which it was composed, so as to avoid the pitfalls of a literal interpretation of its content.The depiction of the reign of Aethelred the Unready is particularly instructive in this respect. Unusually, Chronicles C, D, and E are all thoroughly hostile to Aethelred's policies and those of some of his noble advisers, (82) a consensus that has made Aethelred's fecklessness proverbial.However, Keynes warned that this is "the hostile interpretation of a single author, who seems to have been writing, perhaps in London, in or just after 1022." (83) It therefore dates from a time when the Danish Cnut had obtained the throne and was consolidating his power, so that the accounts of Aethelred's inefficiency may be untrustworthy:"a highly unfavourable judgment of Aethelred and of certain of his advisers may.....have been politic." (84) Building on this, Brooks goes so far as to suggest that this section of the Chronicle represents a rewriting of history to suit the new government, that there was "a deliberate recasting.... of an earlier year-by-year record of the reign that had been maintained in the royal household," probably by one of Cnut's priestly servants. (85) Keynes and Brooks' analysis is a warning against interpreting the Chronicle literally: history has too easily accepted the portrait of Aethelred as unsuitable for the throne, in the absence of any independent objective evidence.(The success of the Chronicle as propaganda has, in this respect, been surprisingly long lasting.)Any analysis of the Chronicle should therefore remain aware of the text's propagandistic function.
Similar tendencies are also evident on the regional levels.The Chronicle is an interesting source for differing political sentiments within England itself, particularly for 1035-1066, since these annals "are drawn from texts preserved in three manuscripts" (C, D, and E), which display varying perspectives on the political events that they describe. (86) In particular, they illuminate the tension between the earls of Mercia and the house of Godwine, a feature throughout the period from 1035 until 1066. (87) This rivalry was unusual in that it was purely political, rather than a blood feud, and there were periods of truce and even of co-operation between the two factions.(88) Baxter examines the language of the C, D, and E manuscripts to show how pro-Godwineson or pro-Mercian sympathies on the parts of individual scribes shaped their narratives of political events, such as the outlawry of Earl Aelfgar--for reasons of treason, according to one version, but in another version completely without justification. (89) "C says that Aelfgar was outlawed at a council in London 'butan ælcan gylte' ['without any guilt']; D says that he was outlawed 'forneh butan gylte' ['almost without guilt']; and E says that he was outlawed.... because he was charged with being a traitor to the king and to all the people of the country." (90) Baxter also explores C's poem on the Death of Edward (1065), which is intriguing because it includes "six lines which give a remarkably favourable description of Harold Godwineson's characterand his claim to the throne," contrary to the manuscript's usual anti-Godwineson bias. (91) While Baxter suggests that this may express an element of English rank-closing in the face of the Norman Conquest, he believes that Harold's marriage to Ealdgyth, an important member of the Mercian and Northumbrian dynasties and widow of the Welsh King Gruffudd ap Llewellyn, is the real explanation for the change of attitude. (92) This alliance brought Harold the support of Eadwine and Morcar (Mercian and Northumbrian respectively), which in Baxter's view accounts "for C's sudden and rather uncharacteristic burst of enthusiasm for Harold."(93) It also explains the slant of the entry in C for 1066,"favourable towards Eadwine, Morcar and Harold and hostile towards Tostig." (94) Baxter concludes that C's eleventh-century annals are ultimately "more 'Mercian' than 'anti-Godwineson'" and that this stance is stronger than E's corresponding pro-Godwineson sympathies. (95) Interestingly, his interpretation sheds light on the controversy over C's place of origin, notably the arguments for and against Abingdon. (96) Baxter responds by distinguishing firmly between composition and compilation, and argues that regardless of where the manuscript was compiled, C's mid-eleventh century annals "were surely composed somewhere in the Midlands, probably at one or more of the religious houses in Mercia which favoured the family of Earl Leofric, and were then copied into C at one remove from this original source." (97) It is an analysis that demonstrates the close connection between factionalism and annal-writing, particularly during the mid eleventh century. (98) Baxter's comparison highlights the need to remain aware of possible distortions of fact in the different versions, attributable to regional political alliances.He shows that insight into the Chronicle's origins, the traditional concern of many Anglo-Saxonists, can also be gained from careful reading of its content, which has the potential to supplement the traditional philological approach in determining the Chronicle's background.
Perhaps the most daring recent approach is that of Brooks, who analyses the Chronicle for what it does not contain.He expects to find more reaction to the Norman Conquest overall, and uses the lack of such material as grounds for arguing that the Chronicle must have been centrally produced throughout, not only at the inception of the project.If the core of the text, from the beginning to 1131, "continued to be produced in the royal household, then we might begin to see why the Chronicle should have been so quick to accept new rulers....after the regime-changes of 1016, 1042 and 1066." (99) Brooks appears to be alone in suggesting this, but it is an example of the kinds of questions that a closer reading of the Chronicle's content can provoke.He may, however, be influenced by overly modern expectations of how Anglo-Saxon clerics would have reacted to the Norman Conquest.As already suggested, they appear to have had a rather fatalistic perspective on war and conquest, if Wulfstan's Sermon of the Wolf, the Aethelredian Chronicle and the Northern Recension are any evidence.The view expressed in the Chronicle (where it exists) appears to be that William's victory was attributable to folly and failure on the part of the conquered elite, as well as to his own greed and ruthlessness. (100) It is therefore understandable that reaction to the Conquest and other regime changes in the Chronicle is somewhat muted.