Histories and chronicles


Histories and chronicles

In the Middle Ages history was understood as a linear process with a beginning and an end. History began with the creation of the world by God and would end with the Final Judgment. God was understood to be the creator of and ruler over world and time. It was the aim of historiography not only to relate what has happened, but also to educate, to encourage to do good, and to warn against doing wrong.

Modern research divides ‘historiography’ into different genres.  Chronicles are a detailed and continuous register in order of time, in prose or verse, usually without literary ambition. They not only give us information about events in the past, they also convey the historical, political and cultural attitudes of their writers and their medieval audience. One of the most famous examples is the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was originally compiled in the late 9th century at the court of King Alfred the Great, drawn from a variety of earlier written sources, including Bede's Historia ecclesiastica and now lost annals. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides the basis for our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history. Often, the authors of chronicles are unknown, especially when they record the history of a specific region like the Chronica regum Manniae et Insularum (1000–1374) or of a reign, like the Chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II or the Chronica Pontificum Ecclesiae Eboracensis

Major centres for the production of chronicles were monasteries. Monks were literate, they could read and write and knew Latin, and were often keen to record the history of their monastery, especially if they could use it to defend rights and property against claims from other monasteries or laymen. Examples for monastic chronicles are the Chronica Buriensis (1212–1301) or the Chronicon abbatiae de Evesham (c700–1214). John of Worcester's Chronicon ex chronicis (Creation–1140), Gervase of Canterbury's Chronica (time of Augustine of Canterbury to 1199) and Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon anglicanum (1066–1224), to name just a few, were written by monks in, and often for, their monasteries. 

Texts like Gildas' De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, to name just two influential historical narratives of the Anglo-Saxon period, or post-Conquest chronicles like William of Malmesbury's De gestis regum Anglorum and De gestis pontificum Anglorum and Matthew Paris's Historia Anglorum sive historia minor (1066–1253) and Chronica majora (Creation–1259) not only give us information about historical events, but are influential literary works in their own right. Similarly influential became Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum which covered the period from 55 BC to 1154. Although Orderic Vitalis's Historia ecclesiastica (1–1141) deals at least in part with English history, it was written and circulated in Normandy.

Annals are like chronicles a narrative of events, but they were written year by year in retrospective, recording significant events of the past year. Similar to chronicles, they were often written in monasteries, like the Annales Cestrenses (Creation–1297) or Annales monasterii de Oseneia (1016–1347) or recorded the 'official' history of a city (like the Annales Londonienses, 1195–1311) or a reign (like the Annales Regis Edwardi Primi, 1285–1307, or the Annales Ricardi Secundi, 1392–9).