Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sources of Early English History

Britain 500 C.E.

The Early History of England is very poorly known although both Archaeology and Genetics may now be providing much greater information on the origin of England.1

However the textual information on the early history and origin of England and the English is based on 4 sources. Which are in chronological order:

1, On The Ruin of Britain, by St. Gildas, written c. 520-560 C.E.

2, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Bede, written c. 720-731 C.E.

3, The British History, attributed to Nennius, written c. 820-830 C.E.

4, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Author(s) unknown, written c. 870-890, (originally and subsequently much added too).

To discuss in order.

On the Ruin of Britain, is easily the most polished of the works, written in quite idiosyncratic but very good Latin. It is however a polemic and attack against the corruption and violence of the Britain of his day and despite an invaluable short historical introduction is of very limited historical value. This value is further undermined by the fact we don't know very well when Gildas lived so that some of the chronological indicators he gives have been given dates as far apart has a generation.

For example he gives the date of the battle of Badon as the year he was born and the date of him writing this short book as 44 years later. But when was he, Gildas, born? The result is that the battle of Badon is placed, usually, some time between 490 and 520 C.E.

Further his account is choleric, angry and basically a polemic alternating with a lamentation. in fact the nickname of the book is "the complaining book". Its portrayal of decadent, declining Britain attacked by murderous Anglo-Saxons is interesting but hard to evaluate. Its use was and will probably remain maddeningly limited.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written by Bede, nick named the venerable Bede, and in good but not brillant Latin. Bede was a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria. Is the writing of the first great English writer and historian. A man of strong belief, but at least when it comes to historical fact a quite judicious writer. The book is basically a celebration of the conversion of the English people to Christianity.

Bede also give in the course of his book invaluable information on the early history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Given that the information he had to use was oral, he did a remarkably good job with it. Unfortunately his concentration on the process of conversion and miracles seems to have distracted him from history proper. Further Bede had a basically negative attitude towards the Welsh, although he did use Gildas' book.

Precisely because his sources for early English history were so poor he doesn't have a lot to tell us but what he tells is invaluable, and for his own time it is a first rate source.

The British History, attributed to a Welsh monk named Nennius. Certainly written in the northern Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd. The book is a collection of historical miscellany gathered together and written up in latin. The text is to put it mildly a complete mess, and many different versions exist with different material in it according to the version.

Nennius or who ever wrote it seems to have made a complete hash of it. The book is however a invaluable source on Welsh beliefs concerning their early history and the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons. Just how reliable those traditions are is to put it mildly subject to much debate. although the consensus is that it probably isn't a lot.

Nennius does preserve what seems to be a song celebrating Arthur's victories and some other fragments of what otherwise would be lost documents. Still its very hard to take seriously.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, originally compiled during the reign of Alfred the Great. It was later continued by later additions, and in fact one version goes to 1154 C.E. It was written in Anglo-Saxon. The early (pre-Alfred) sections were compiled of various written sources like Gildas and Bede and a rich oral tradition. For Alfred's reign and later periods it is invaluable and quite good. But for the early period questions arise.

The information given in the early parts seems strongly hit or miss, doubles seem to exist and much seems purely legendary and / or nonsensical. The lack of Saxon defeats in the early parts is telling and so is the rather weird fact that the first king of Wessex, an alleged ancestor of Alfred, has a Celtic name (Cedric). Its value seems to be not just whatever history is in the text but simply what it tells us about ideology at King Alfred's court.

Its use, like Gildas for early English History, seems very limited.

That's it for our 4 primary textual sources on early English history and it doesn't add up to a lot.

Here are some locations on the web where they can be found.

For On the Ruin of Britain, see Here

For The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, see Here

For The British History, see Here and Here

For The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, see Here

1. See An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, C. J. Arnold, Routledge, London, 1997. and Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland, Bryan Sykes, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2006.

Pierre Cloutier

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