A Scribe’s Life (5): The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes (except not really this time – we’re more focused on the source itself).

Scribe: Multiple, unknown
Lived: c.890 – c.1154
Location: England
Notable works: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

The texts collectively known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (which I’ll call ‘the Chronicles’ throughout), form an inherently complicated source. Many modern readers who are exposed to the Chronicles as quoted in history books, or who own a translated edition could be under the impression that it is a single homogeneous text. It is far from that though! Setting aside partial texts, lost texts, the chronicles of Æthelweard, and that of St Neots, we are actually working from six different texts each with their own nuances resulting from where they were maintained and when they were copied.

While in some ways this makes the Chronicles more reliable sources than many other historical documents – the texts can often be compared to correlate narratives – in others it makes them even more complicated, as the political leanings of regions, of individual scribes, of their religious houses and patrons, come into play. This means that at times accounts conflict between texts, that dates can be incorrect, that often a single text of the Chronicle is the only one that preserves certain details. For example, as discussed in our article on Æthelstan’s hegemony in York, the D-text of the Chronicles preserves a number of unique entries relating to Æthelstan. This likely derives in part from the fact that the D-text draws from a version/parallel source maintained in or around York, while the A, B, and C manuscript traditions rely more heavily on southern recensions. It was in the political interest of the northern scribes to record Æthelstan’s victories there, while it was in the political interest of the southern scribes to whitewash these (considering those gains were lost by Æthelstan’s successor at the start of his reign). That is just one example, and one of the more obvious ones – if we went through every variation between the texts, this would be a very long article!

Rather, what I thought I would do here is give a brief summary of each of the texts (A-F), their composition, and how they relate to other texts (I was also going to give a little background to the chronicles of Æthelweard, and of St Neots, but the article was getting pretty long – another day!).

Before we do that though, a note on the origin of the Chronicles. The extant texts contain what is usually termed the Common Stock. This is the ‘base chronicle’ composed during Alfred’s reign c.890-892, likely at his instigation. Beginning with Julius Caesar and sketching a brief history of the decline of the Roman Empire and the arrival of English, it becomes more detailed through the formation of the various English and Saxon kingdoms, and even more so as the struggles of the Wessex kings with their neighbours and the Scandinavian invasions of the ninth century come the fore. The composition draws on numerous sources including Eusebius and Isidore, Bede, royal genealogies, and on (hypothesised) non-extant histories – particularly those of the southern kingdoms of Wessex and Kent. The latter entries are, of course, composed by contemporaries with access to witness accounts of events (Asser clearly had access to these entries for use in his Life of Alfred). This is not to say that this section of the texts were all written at the same time – though the A-text through to 891 preserves a near-original copy of the Common Stock  – but rather that they all draw from a base text (either directly or through the copying of intermediary Chronicles texts) composed in the reign of Alfred with pro-Alfred/Wessex leanings. So, with that understood, let’s look at the extant MSS.

A Text Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 173

The Parker Chronicle

A-Text

This is the earliest extant version of the Chronicles, all entries from the Common Stock having been written by a single scribe whose hand dates to the late ninth century. The age of the document also means that far more scribal hands are at play than in any other MS, with the text coming closer to having the character of annals (updated annually) than any other version of the Chronicles (which tend to be recorded as blocks of years). It is also notable that scribes go back through and annotate the text through the years. We know that the MS was held at Christ Church Canterbury by 1100 (it is a secondary exemplar for the F-text), but its contents and the character of its scripts indicate it may have been maintained at Winchester. Given the text’s overt interest in the Wessex monarchy, particularly the reign of Edward the Elder of whom A preserves some unique entries, and apparent local interest in Winchester in the records for the years 925-955, it certainly seems it was housed there to at least the mid tenth century.

From the late tenth century the A-text coverage becomes very sparse in contrast to the records preserved in C, D and E. In the late eleventh-century A was substantially revised by the F-text scribe (who also had before him a progenitor of the E-text). There does exist a transcription of a copy of A from before this editing process known as G (long story with the short answer of: the Cotton Library Fire), which perhaps preserves A in its unaltered state.

Scribal hands: 13-34

Composition dates: c.891 (Common Stock), early 11th c. (last)

Coverage: 60 BC, 1-1093 AD

B Text London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A VI

B-Text

We’ll cover B quickly. This is the work of a single scribe and is shorter than most of the other ‘full’ versions, ending in 977. It is closely related to C, and both are at times referred to as the Abingdon Chronicle. With the exception of two short Latin notes, a list of popes, and a West Saxon genealogical regnal list, B is remarkably similar to C for the entries it contains (though it does omit some). There is some suggestion that the B scribe and C scribes for this period worked from the same antecedent.

Scribal hands: 1

Composition dates: 977-1000 AD

Coverage: 60 BC, 1-977 AD

C Text London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B I

The Abingdon Chronicle

C-Text

The C-text is likely the best-known of the Chronicles texts, being the basis for many English translations over the past century. The text was not written as a single document like B, but rather shows progressive development. This is not to say the project itself was not conceived in order to copy an existing Chronicles text – it was almost certainly that, with all entries from 60 BC through 1048 composed by two scribes. However, the subsequent five scribes each wrote entries covering only 1 to 3 years and give the impression of contemporary records. The final scribe, writing in the twelfth century, augments the 1066 entry of the final contemporary scribe (attempting, not wholly successfully, to copy the style of his English forebears’ script). The scribes of both B and C seem to have been well-resourced, not only working from an exemplar, but drawing on texts such as the Mercian Register (896-924), and hypothesised annals of the reign of Edward the Elder.

The C-text shows a specific interest in southern England, particularly the south-west, noting a number of events of specific local importance relating to ecclesiastical appointments and deaths. This is most prevalent in the short period from the end of B and 982. From 983 C comes into its own, being one of our primary records for the reigns of both Cnut and Æthelred II (at times called the Æthelredian Chronicle), passages which also find their way into the D and E texts. These entries, extending 983-1016 are remarkable for their complexity and detail (the Chronicles can be incredibly laconic). For the period after Cnut’s death, the C-text is also notable for its hostile approach to Earl Godwine and his contribution to the instability of English politics at this time.

Scribal hands: 7-8

Composition dates: c. 1040-1070

Coverage: 60 BC, 1-1066 AD

D Text London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B IV

The Worcester Chronicle

D-Text

The D text is, in many ways, the most puzzling and most interesting of the texts.

D is a text derived from the ‘Northern Recension’ (alongside E and F) – a non-extant version of the Chronicles which evolved in the north and shifted some of the Common Stock’s orientation away from the West Saxons to the Northumbrians. Interestingly, the compiler of the Common Stock in this text seems to not have simply copied from the Northern Recension as the E scribe did, but to have actively compared it with the Alfredian original (producing composite entries). To which end, right to 1066 the D scribes appear to have worked from progenitors related to those used for both the E-text (primary/Northern) and C-text (secondary/Alfredian), before becoming wholly independent from 1066 to its close in 1080. Additionally, and pointing to the fact that D appears to have been composed in a well-resourced centre of learning, the scribes also had access to the Mercian Register. The evidence is that this was not copied from the archetype for B or C (which give it more-or-less intact), but an independent version with some minor variations and, moreover, the scribe attempted to dissect it and integrate it within the chronology of the Chronicles text. D also has parallels to Simeon of Durham/Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s Historia Regum up to 981 (though the entries from 926-981 are patchy as a whole).

A final note on the name ‘the Worcester Chronicle’. Worcester is where the MS was found after the Dissolution, and its more independent material shows specific interest in the diocese of Worcester and York – at times linked by pluralist clerics such as Wulfstan lupus between 1002 and 1016, or by men who held both roles at different times, such as Ealdred (1046-1062/1061-1069). On balance, the bulk of the D-text was likely compiled in Ealdred’s time at Worcester c.1060.

Scribal hands: 10-18

Composition dates: c. 1060

Coverage: 1-1080 AD

Lacunae: 261-692 AD, 1016-1022 AD

E Text Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 636

The Peterborough Chronicle

E-Text

Let’s try do E quickly too, before this article gets entirely out of control. E is most interesting in its latter sections as it is maintained to a later date than any other version (1154), and allows us to observe the transition from Old English to Middle English.

The version of the Chronicles maintained at Peterborough Abbey was destroyed c. 1120 (so obviously not the one we are dealing with), but the Abbey clearly decided it was a document worth maintaining. This inclination is also implied by how long they continued to update the record after the Conquest. The Abbey therefore made a copy, apparently using a Canterbury exemplar similar to that used for the D-text (though the archetype for the E-text diverges from that of D after 1031). Both D and E contain the Æthelredian Chronicle as does C, but E does not contain the Mercian register. A single scribe did the copying work up to 1131; a second the material from 1132-1154 which, though poorly dated, relates the civil war under Stephen. While the copied material displays a West Saxon Old English to 1121, the continuations by the Peterborough scribes are characteristic of an Early Middle English (East Midlands dialect).

Scribal hands: 2

Composition dates: 1121-1154

Coverage: 60 BC, 1-1154 AD

 F Text London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VIII

Domitian Bilingual

F-Text

Unsurprisingly the thickest volume of the Chronicles on my desk, the Domitian Bilingual was composed by a single scribe, with every Old English entry followed by a parallel Latin entry. This too comes from Christ Church Canterbury and appears to have used the same text as E as its base, though with reference to A which, as we have seen was in Canterbury at this time and was altered by the F scribe. This places F within the Northern Recension group of texts, though the progenitor of both E and F ceases to be an overtly northern chronicle after 1031. We can’t really say that F contains lacunae so much as we can suggest that the F scribe heavily abridged his version of the text. Indeed, the whole text gives the impression of a hastily compiled project. To use the words of Francis Magoun, ‘the script deteriorates steadily until it can only be described as hasty, careless, slipshod, and mean’. Nonetheless, the F scribe’s accuracy is not poor, he corrects such errors as he notes in his exemplar, and he makes additions to the text drawing on local Canterbury sources. Indeed, we should be thankful for the F scribe’s sloppy hand – it is how we know he also annotated the A text! There are some small contributions by two other scribes.

Scribal hands: 3

Composition dates: c. 1000

Coverage: 60 BC, 1-1058 AD

So that is where I will leave this overview of the Chronicles texts, I hope it of use to you – I began writing it a number of weeks ago after one of our followers suggested historians take the Chronicles at face value. We don’t, and I hope that emphasising the plurality of the sources will help to see why!

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: The Abingdon Chronicle (C-Text), opening page.
  2. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. General editors, David Dumville & Simon Keynes, vols. 3-8 (Cambridge: Brewer, 1983-2004)
  3. Thomas A. Bredehoft, Textual Histories: Readings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)
  4. Alice Jorgensen, (ed.), Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010)
  5. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965).

 

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

A Scibe’s Life (1): William of Malmesbury

A Scribe’s Life (2): John of Worcester

A Scribe’s Life (3): Snorri Sturluson

A Scribe’s Life (4): Saxo Grammaticus

See our bibliography on Chronicle Editions

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