Not so much ‘Unready’, more ‘No-Idea’

Tom Shippey

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle edited and translated by M.J. Swanton
    Dent, 364 pp, £20.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 460 87737 2

In some respects The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a classic Post-Modern text. For one thing, it does not exist. It is a ‘construct’ of much later historians, obsessed with the discovery/invention/creation of a ‘national Chronicle’ as opposed to ‘merely local annals’, to quote the most influential of them, Charles Plummer, whose 1899 edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has still, significantly or ominously, not been replaced. Since the Chronicle is a Post-Modern work, even this brief account contains slurrings or inaccuracies, but one could press on by saying that even if it didn’t exist before, it certainly does now. No modern historical work on the period is without its long index entry on Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while the libraries of the world contain scores, if not thousands of books with that title on their spines, the product of equally large numbers of scholars. So of course ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ exists. You could argue that it is a product of later English scholars rather than of Anglo-Saxons, but you could not deny that Anglo-Saxons wrote it, or them, or at least the words out of which it has been made. So, to put it Post-Modernly, what is this Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and what do we mean by ‘wrote’? How is the complexity which underlies the familiar three-word title to be presented in a manner true enough to be useful and simple enough to follow?

The last problem has not yet been solved and may with present technology still be insoluble. Seven complete manuscripts of what we call The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle currently exist, along with a fragmentary eighth, but none, at least of the five major manuscripts, constitutes any more of a unity than the Chronicle itself. Take the ‘E’ manuscript, the ‘Peterborough Chronicle’. We know the manuscript we have was copied in Peterborough in the year 1121, as it is written out in the same handwriting up to that date. Since it is known that Peterborough Abbey suffered a disastrous fire in 1116, it is usually thought that the copy we have was written to replace a manuscript destroyed in the blaze. However, the 12th-century monk copying away in his scriptorium no doubt saw the fire as a (perhaps literally) heaven-sent opportunity to get the 12th-century Peterborough version of events accepted as part of an authentic-looking seventh-century text. His version of the Chronicle, and his alone, contains a long account of the foundation of the abbey by King Wulfhere in 656, with a firm statement by the King to the effect that within the boundaries given ‘nan man ne haue pær nan ofsting buton seo abbot ond se muneces’ (‘nobody shall have any authority there except the abbot and the monks’), that ‘pær ne be numen of na geld na gaule buton to pa munecan ane’ (‘neither tax nor rent shall be taken from it except for the monks alone’), and that it should be regarded on a par with Rome as a place of pilgrimage. There is no doubt that this is 12th, not seventh-century work: apart from the obvious self-interest, no real Anglo-Saxon would have put a masculine singular definite article in front of a plural noun (‘se muneces’), nor produced the strange conflation of singular and plural, nominative/accusative and dative, seen in ‘to pa munecan ane’. Those words were written at a time when the Old English inflectional system was breaking up, or had broken up, though the copyist made no effort to modernise the archaic forms of his original.

If the date of original composition could so easily be erased every time a manuscript was copied, are any annal numbers or any palaeographical indications in any of the manuscripts trustworthy? The general view, and the very foundation of the ‘national Chronicle’, is that the concept of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – it has already become a concept not a text – was arrived at in the last years of King Alfred’s reign, as a record of the victory over the Danes and the beginnings of a true national state. This relies on the fact that the ‘A’ manuscript is written up to the year 891 in one hand. Alternatively, did Alfred issue instructions, say, in the year 890, for a record of his deeds and those of his ancestors to be created for posterity, with continuous circulation of authoritative supplements – ‘bulletins’ is the term Professor Swanton uses – to keep all copies up to date and all in line? Or did one man in Winchester, like the later monk in Peterborough, simply copy out a good deal of pre-existing and perhaps heterogeneous material, and cast it onto the waters of chance?

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