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Ecclesiastical Historiography of the English People

The A.D. 44 entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the A.D. 113 entry of the
Second Continuation of the Peterborough Chronicle represent two very different
styles of writing. The difference lies not merely in the language or in the linguistic
changes that took place in the intervening period, but also in style. In addition to these
two texts, it would be worthwhile to consider two other texts: the ‘Account of the
Coming of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes’ from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the
English People and the Sermon of the Wolf to the English by the homilist, Wulfstan.
Bede’s work poses a problem as we cannot tell for certain when the original Latin
was translated into Old English. It may be safe to assume that the persons in charge of
writing the Chronicles within monastery walls knew Latin and did have access to
Bede’s text, whether in Latin or in Old English.

The A.D. 449 entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle follows a simple mode of
narration. It appears to be an account of the events that took place in Britain at the

Her Martianus and Valentinus onfengon rice, and ricsodon seofon winter. And on
hiera dagum Hengest and Horsa, fram Wyrtgeorne gelaþode, Bretta cyninge, gosohton
Bretene on þæm stede þe is genemned Ypwines-fleot, ærest Brettum to fultume, ac hie
eft on hie fuhton.

Interestingly, one finds it difficult to comment on a piece of prose as utilitarian as this

because of its sparse nature without reference to something more complex.

Đis gære for þe king Stephne ofer sæ to Normandi, and ther wes underfangen forþi ðat
hi wenden ðat he sculde ben alswic alse the eom wes and for he hadde get his tresor –
ac he todeld it and scatered sotlice.

The difference between the two is remarkable, although both are claiming to be
historical records. In the 449 entry we hear that ‘In that year Martianus and
Valentinus assumed kingdom and reigned [for] seven winters. And in their days
Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons, came to Britain to that

place that is called Ebbsfleet, first to give help to the Britons, but soon they fought
them’ (the Britons). In the 1137 entry, we are told that ‘King Stephen went over sea
to Normandy, and was received there because they believed that he should be just
such as the uncle was and because he had got his treasure – but he distributed it and
scattered foolishly’.

In the 449 entry, even though we learn later on that Hengest and Horsa had
understood the “Breta-weala nahtnesse and þæs landes cyste”, the reason is not given
when Hengest and Horsa first start fighting the Britons. This observation is presented
later, when they ask the Angles for reinforcements. Conjunctions (“And on hiera
dagum …”, “…ac hie eft on hie fuhton”) are used to form coordinate clauses in the
449 entry time and again, to form compound sentences, two or more parts of which
are given equal grammatical weight. In the 1137 entry we are told that King Stephen
was received by the Normans for a reason. There is a causal connection between the
beliefs of the Normans and their reception of King Stephen. This psychological
connection is almost never made in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries.

A little further into the 1137 entry, we are told: Þa the swikes undergæton ðat he
milde man was and softe and god and na justice ne dide, þa diden hi alle wunder.
Like the “forþi ðat” in the earlier extract, here too we find an attempt to locate
motivation for action. The qualities of one man prompt action on the part of others.
There are comments on the nature of the characters in the 1137 entry. In the 449
entry, however, we hear of the uselessness of the Britons and the richness of the land,
but that is an observation of someone else that is reported by the historian and not the
latter’s personal observation. The subordinate adverbial clause of time is also used in
the 1137 entry: “and þar he nam þe biscop Roger of Serebyri, and Alexander biscop
of Lincol and te canceler Roger, hise neves, and dide ælle in prison til hi iafen up
here castles” (italics are mine), or for instance: “Þa þe wrecce men ne hadden
nammore to given, þa ræveden hi and brendon alle the tunes, ðat wek þu myhtes faren
al a dæsis fare, sculdest thu nevre finden man in tune sittende, ne land tiled.” Not only
does the latter example illustrate the use of the adverbial clause of time, it also grants
the reader a point of view, positioning him/her in the place itself. This again is rarely
(if ever) found in the earlier entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The 1137 account takes a turn that entries like that of 449 had not prepared us for.
‘The Anarchy’ is described in detail. The language is rhetorically enriched.
Me henged up bi the fet and smoked heom mid ful smoke. Me henged bi the þumbes
other bi the hefed and hengen bryniges on her fet. Me dide enotted strenges abuton
here hæved and wrythen it ðat it gæde to þe hærnes.
The anaphora is employed to telling effect. Rhetorical devices such as these are
entirely absent in the 449 entry. Later on in the 1137 entry we find the author
declaring: I ne can ne I ne mai tellen alle þe wunder ne alle þe þines ðat hi diden
wrecce men on þis lande. We realize that not only is he able to, but he also knows
very well how to recount the tales of misery that befell the poor people of the
kingdom. It appears that the author uses a rhetorical device, (inaccurately) akin to
Aposiopesis, where the author denies the ability to speak (as though overwhelmed by
emotion, or due to lack of skill) only to prompt greater demand on the part of his/her
audience for the words following. (This is similar to the device most notably used by
Antony in Julius Caesar III.ii: “I am no orator…”, or “My heart is in the coffin there
with Caesar,/ And I must pause till it come back to me.”) What is also important to
note is the use of the first person “I”. The detailing is almost baroquial. The excess
detailing, it may be argued, is used in order (as in Counter-Reformist Baroque art) to
impassion the mind so as to make it easier to turn towards faith.

Gif twa men oþer iii coman ridend to an tun, al þe tunscipe flugæn for heom; wenden
ðat hi wæron ræveres
This reference to the general paranoia that is created by ‘the Anarchy’ is probably one
of the first references to the psychology of a community in the Chronicles. The most
celebrated phrase comes shortly afterwards: hi sæden openlice ðat Crist slep, and his
halechen. The account draws to a close, with the kingdom relatively stable. Almost as
an after-thought, the ‘historian’ adds the story of young William’s crucifixion and
God’s deeds thereafter.

The Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History begins, “Ðā wæs ymb
fēower hund wintra and nigon and fēowertig fram ūres Drihtnes menniscnysse Þæt
Martiānus cāsere rīce onfēng and VII gēar hæfde”, as opposed to the sparse “Hēr
Martiānus and Valentīnus onfēngon rīċe, and rīcsodon seofon winter” of the Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle. Bede’s Latin text was available before the time of the composition

of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, even if the Old English translation (usually dated late
10th century) were not available. We cannot tell for certain whether or not the Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle drew upon Bede. The fundamental difference between the two lies
in Bede’s elaborate description (present both in the Latin and in the OE) of the
cruelties that were meted out to the Britons. Bede, however, draws heavily upon De
Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae by Gildas, a 6th century British cleric. Gildas’ prose
is richer in rhetoric even compared to Bede or his translator. Gildas writes:
Then all the councilors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern, the British king,
were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting
in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race
hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing
was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable
darkness must have enveloped their minds--darkness desperate and cruel!
Bede’s translation (fairly true to the Latin) gives us:
Sume for hunger heora fēondum on hand ēodon and ēcne Þēowdōm gehēton wiđ đon
Þe him mon andlyfne forgēafe; sume ofer sǽ sorgiende gewiton.

While Gildas writes:

…others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to
their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favor
that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud
lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation.

The idea of God sending the foreigners in order to punish His people is there even in
Gildas. Perhaps it is possible to locate a linear progression of utilitarian prose in the
three accounts of Gildas, Bede (original and translation), and The Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle. However, this would perhaps be a shallow reading. Gildas has greater
personal attachment to the events he describes, being born in the year of the Siege of
Bath-hill [“which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing
of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.”]. This perhaps explains his
passionate prose. Bede (original and translation) retains the idea of divine
punishment, but cuts down on the employment of rhetorical devices (compared to
Gildas’ account), such as the simile, switching to direct speech, and erotesis.

While Bede’s ‘history’ seems almost to serve the purpose of an Apologue, Wulfstan
addresses his audience directly. The notion of God sending punishment in the form of
one or the other national crisis is carried forward by Wulfstan in his Sermon. The
Sermon (which owes a good deal to Gildas’ account) comes at a time when the
country is under threat from the ‘Vikings’. To blame, of course, are the degenerate
ways of Britons, their turning away from God, and their moral indiscipline. The
Sermon of course does not try to represent history. It is wholly an exercise in rhetoric
of a very high order.

The common thread running through all the four selections is a nation in crisis. There
is an obvious attempt in Bede to connect the sufferings of the people to their fallen
ways; his is after all, an ecclesiastical history. The A.D. 449 entry in the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle does not make this connection. It will be remembered that events in the
particular entry are merely subsequential, not consequential. The 1137 entry in the
Peterborough Chronicle, however, proves an interesting case. Its method of recording
history is somewhere midway between Bede’s and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s1. The
author gestures tantalizingly towards causality by the accounts he offers, without
stating it. Lawrence Stone writes:
Narrative is taken to mean the organisation of material in a chronologically
sequential order, and the focusing of the content into a single coherent story, albeit
with subplots…The kind of narrative which I have in mind is not that of the simple
antiquarian reporter or annalist. It is narrative directed by some 'pregnant principle',
and which possesses a theme and an argument…And finally, they are deeply
concerned with the rhetorical aspects of their presentation. Whether successful or
not in the attempt, they certainly aspire to stylistic elegance, wit and aphorism.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry seems to present us with apparently objective facts,
and in that, one gets the feeling, there is an attempt at secularization of historical data.
It seems to be led by no particular theme or principle.

The Peterborough Chronicle, on the other hand, it seems was guided by some
‘pregnant principle’. The story of the fall of the kingdom with the degeneracy of men
As far back as the fourth century A.D. Eusebius of Caesarea compiled two works:
a Historia Ecclesiastica, which was translated into Latin, French and Armenian (it
perhaps served as a model for Gildas or Bede); and the Chronicon whose second
part appears to be a tabular account of historical events, much like the Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle.

and subsequent rise with their turning to faith was perhaps leading up to the story of
martyrdom. It is noteworthy that even earlier in the account we are told: “for ne
wæren nævre nan martyrs swa pined alse hi wæron”, and “Swilc and mare Þanne we
cunnen sæin we Þoleden xix winter for ure sinnes.” The martyrdom of William and of
the people, then, becomes a key factor in the revival of the kingdom, even though this
is not explicitly declared in the text. These are symbolic of the fact that God has not
forsaken the kingdom altogether. They suffer for their sins and then reawaken
eventually, but by the grace of God. There is use of rhetorical devices, there is
stylistic elegance, wit. The rise and fall of the kingdom and God’s active hand, as
illustrated through the story of St William, are thus juxtaposed and they create
meaning in conjunction, even without the obvious statement of the author. It is a
historical account, like Bede’s and like the 449 entry, but it is neither an explicitly
ecclesiastical history, nor an attempt at recording facts; rather it is an attempt at
convincing us that facts, recorded ‘objectively’ align themselves to point in the
direction of God’s grace.


Sujaan Mukherjee
U.G. III, Roll. 06