Monthly Archives: December 2009

An unembellished account of history: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

 


I.

Skimming through The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle(completed in the vernacular English ca. 1070-1077 Anno Domini), one discovers firsthand Britain’s formative period and the rise of the English language.

I refer to G.N. Garmonsway’s 1953 edition (Garmonsway, G.N., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: 1953, J.M. Dent & Sons).

Much of the early Chronicle lists the many, and often tumultuous and short-lived (by Hellenistic/Mediterranean-world standards), dynasties of kings who conquered this or that territory of the British Isles, most notably Roman conquerors with their distinctive Latin names that strike such a stark contrast with the much more primitive/un-learned/un-cultured British.

Specific dates are often ignored, as the passage of what we take for granted as the solar year was not the predominant mode of recording history. The concept of the annal originated, according to Garmonsway’s Introdution, with Church Easter tables. The Introduction includes a photo of an eleventh-century “Easter Table with Annals” (p. xxiv-xxv), showing that the earliest form of chronicle were Easter Tables created by monks to enable the clergy to ascertain the the day on which Easter fell in a given year. These very scrupulous Church scribes used a rubric with eight modes of time with both Biblical and astrological events to calculate where Easter would fall in a particular year. They include: “Year of Grace”, “Indiction Number”, “Epact”, “Concurrent”, “Lunar Cycle”, “Paschal Term” (date of the Jewish Passover – otherwise considered to be the first full moon after Spring Equinox), “Easter Day”, and “the Age of the Moon on Easter Day”.

The Easter tables grew as monks added notes and historical events of import, turning a calendar into the very first “Chronicles”, or annals.

The Romans of course were fundamental to British history and established London (Londinium) out of the Thames estuary during the reigns of Severus and other later, post-Republican Roman kings.

What stands out about the Chronicle is that despite the ubiquity of Latin in Europe, a document scrupulously written over years was done entirely in the vernacular (Old English). Garmonsway argues that the Chronicle is “by far the oldest historical prose” in any Germanic language.”

II.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins with two largely overlapping, yet separately written segments known as the “Parker Chronicle” and the “Laud Chronicle”.

Mostly they mention names of kings who are sons of so-and-so, who is son of so-and-so, son of such-and-such (you get the idea). A relativistic approach emphasizing lineage and lacking an objective “historical method we are now accustomed to, but which, for the time-period, was more easily understood because it mimicks the Bible, with the latter’s emphasis on patrilineal lines of rulers as the primary historical rubric.

What keeps me reading the Chronicle – often difficult to follow for all the above reasons – are the scatterings of history relevant to Britain but also refreshing interpretations of events in the East interpreted from afar, and so providing a fresh perspective in contrast to more conventional, first-hand Roman histories (such as official court scribes for the Roman Emperors, praetors, etc.). For example, the translator Garmonsway’s Parker Chronicle 409 reads, 

In this year the Goths took the city of Rome by storm, and never afterwards did the Romans rule in Britain: that was eleven hundred and ten years after it was built. In all they had reigned in Britain four hundred and seventy years since Julius Caesar first came to the country.

The above is the unembellished perspective of an objective annalist, or chronicler; a gem of an historical angle that can only come from this one-of-a-kind document.

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Do you ever wonder what our nation’s founding fathers, as they’re warmly called, would think of of the current state of their country?

“Rolling over in their graves” is the common summation we hear on what our ancestors would think about the present-day. But this might be an understatement…

If you’ve come across this blog post, you may be familiar with the monthly Harper’s magazine (my personal favorite of all U.S. rags) and its infamous one-page Harper’s Index. There you will find a page full of flabbergasting, yet understated statistics on U.S. culture, economy, and politics – a string, connected down the page by whimsical yet sharply serious themes.

Harper’s Index for January 2010 has the usual mix of simultaneously asinine and disturbing figures reminiscent of the satirical newspaper The Onion:

The 10th statistic in January’s Index reads, “Amount that a Florida attorney spent in 2008 on the cake for Governor Charlie Crist’s birthday party: $52,000.

Then a stat on the number of fundraisers President Obama has attended since taking office [“(26)”].

The 14th on the page reads, “Date on which a Goldman Sachs vice president of ‘business intelligence’ became the head of enforcement at the SEC: 10/13/09”

And so, what would the likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or George Washington think if they rode a time warp and caught a glimpse of the Harper’s Index? They might think they were reading about a society of aliens from another galaxy?

Wait, here’s one more from the January Index, close to the bottom of the page:
“Date on which the fifty-millionth man-made chemical was registered: 9/7/09”

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