Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
   The term Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers not to a single text but to a group of anonymous texts written in OLD ENGLISH prose compiled at various places around England and all deriving ultimately from an original core text. The Chronicle is the chief written source for the history of Anglo-Saxon England, particularly from the reign of King ALFRED THE GREAT (871–899) through the Norman Conquest and in some manuscripts somewhat later. Linguistically, the Chronicle is important also because it was written in the vernacular rather than Latin. The construction of such a chronicle was probably initially inspired by the keeping of “Easter tables,” which were lists of years used by clergy to compute the dates of Easter, and often included brief notations in Latin of the major events that took place each year. The author or authors of the original compilation seem to have used material from existing annals in Kent,Mercia, and Saxony, from available “universal histories,” and from ninth-century Frankish annals, as well as from the Venerable BEDE’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Following Bede’s example, the chroniclers reckon dates from the birth of Christ, using anno Domini or “the year of our Lord” to designate years. The original material in the Chronicles, sometimes called the common stock, covers the period from about 60 B.C.E. (from the Roman conquest of Britain) until the year 891, apparently the year in which the first compilation was completed under King Alfred, and probably at his command. Perhaps the text was intended to provide a common history for the English peoples and help to unite them during Alfred’s wars against Norse invaders.
   The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle survives in seven complete manuscripts and one fragment. The manuscripts vary in precisely what they record. But each records the common stock. It seems likely that the original manuscript, produced under Alfred’s patronage, was distributed from his capital at Winchester to significant regional centers, where clerics and sometimes laymen continued to add to them. There seems to have been some attempt to update them systematically, probably with royal “continuations” sent out periodically from Winchester. But in addition, most of the regional centers began to include matters of local interest in their versions of the Chronicle, and after about 915 the different manuscripts diverge from one another significantly.
   The chroniclers follow the examples of the earlier Easter tables and Latin annals for the years up until 449. But beginning with that year, and the arrival of Hengest and Horsa, the first Saxon invaders of Britain, the chroniclers begin to record more substantial entries. The entry for 755, relating the story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, has been called the first “short story” in English. The entries concerning Alfred’s wars against the Danes from 893 to 897 are very important as a historical source. The death of King Edward in 975 and of Prince Alfred in 1040 and the martyrdom of Bishop Aelfheah in 1011 are memorable entries. The histories of the reigns of Ethelred and of King Edward the Confessor in the earlier 11th century are told in the most detail. But perhaps the most significant entry of all is the memorable Old English heroic poem called The BATTLE OF BRUNANBURH, which serves as the entry for the year 937.
   Only one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle extends past the year 1080, and that is the text called the PETERBOROUGH CHRONICLE, which extends the history through the reign of King Stephen until 1154. That individual text is valuable in its own right, though in general the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle remains the most important source for the history of England between the time of Bede in the eighth century and the Norman Conquest in the 11th, and was the main source for that period in later Anglo-Norman histories of England.
   ■ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated and edited by M. J. Swanton. New York: Routledge, 1998.
   ■ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: According to the Several Original Authorities. Edited, with a translation, by Benjamin Thorpe. Rolls Series. 2 vols. London: Longman, Green, and Roberts, 1861.
   ■ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation. Edited by Dorothy Whitelock, David C. Douglas, and Susie I. Tucker. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1962.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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