Dispatches from the Annals

One of the major challenges to a student approaching mediaeval texts for the first time is adjusting to the very different ways that history was conceived of and written in the Middle Ages. In today’s post, I would like to take time to celebrate one of the most typically mediaeval forms of history writing–the annal–and to highlight some of its weird and wonderful features.

A mediaeval scribe at work, in his monastic scriptorium, from Hs. Brussel, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 213, fol. 2r (http://entoen.nu/hebbanollavogala/beeld-en-geluid/scriptorium)

An annal is any historical work which records events chronologically, year by year, and is far and away the most common form of history writing produced in the early Middle Ages. Although scholars are not entirely certain why and when it became so popular (Roman histories were often full narratives,) but the most popular theory sees the annal developing in a very Christian context.

Because calculating the Easter holiday required complex mathematics, most early Christian churches wouldn’t do it themselves, but instead request an Easter table giving the dates of the festival over a number of years, even decades. Historians believe that it was short annotations added to these Easter tables which began the style of annalistic recording, since the constraints of space, and the yearly structure are characteristic of annals.

A manuscript of the Irish Annals of Ulster, held at the Trinity College Library, Dublin, (http://timothylunney.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/writing-irish-history/)

It’s an elegant little explanation, and it would also give a reason for another of annals’ distinguishing features–their lack of backstory. Notes on an Easter table would be used primarily to keep the years straight by providing key events to jog the memory–dates, accessions to the throne, Viking attacks–and would not be treated as a full historical account.

With these things in mind, we might write an annal entry for our own times, to give a sense of how much (or little) they can mean to historians:

2008: The credit crunched.

Short, simple, and immediately recognisable to us, this fake annal entry becomes almost meaningless without more context. Luckily, most annals provide more detail than the sample above, but length doesn’t always mean that an annal entry is easier to interpret.

Take for example this excerpt from year 846 of the Annals of St-Bertin, a Frankish text:

“Wolves atacked and devoured with complete audacity the inhabitants of the western parts of Gaul [France]. Indeed in some parts of Acquitaine they are said to have gathered together in groups of up to 300, just like army detachments, formed a sort of battle-line and marched along the road, boldly charging en masse all who tried to resist them.” 

Its hard to know whether the author of the annal reported the militarisation of wolves sincerely, or if he used it as a metaphor for the activities of the Vikings that populate the other portions of the entry for 846, or if he had some other motivation unknown to us. We can at least know precisely what the annal means in a literal sense–wolves on the prowl–which is not always the case.

A short entry in the Annales Cabriae, or Welsh Annals, reads like this:

897: Bread ran out in Ireland. Serpents like moles with two teeth fell from Heaven and ate up everything; but they were driven out by fasting and prayer. 

Now, I think this might be about locusts, but each time I read it I become less and less sure. Do you have any ideas? How do entries like these fit into our view on the Middle Ages, and are they useful?

Learn More: 

A number of images of Irish manuscripts, including many annals, are hosted by Irish Script On Screen. 

An online translation of the Annals of St-Bertin, trans. Janet Nelson, is available from Manchester University Press at this website.

The Annales Cambriae are also available online, although the quote above was taken from Annales Cambriae : a translation of Harleian 3859 ; PRO E. 164/1 ; Cottonian Domitian, A1 ; Exeter Cathedral Library MS.3514 and MS Exchequer DB Neath, PRO E. 164/1, ed. and trans. Paul Martin Remfry, (Shrewsbury, 2007).  

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