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Writing the first draft of history in the Middle Ages

There are times when history seems to be moving at an unusual speed, when one piece of remarkable news can hardly be apprehended before it is overtaken by another even more extraordinary. Such was the case at the end of the twelfth century and the start of the thirteenth when England was ruled by the Angevin dynasty—the era of Henry II and Thomas Becket, Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine, of rebellions at home and crusade abroad. That we are able to appreciate this as a time of major incident and development is due not only to the events themselves, but to the fact that it coincided with a burst of creativity in historical writing; in writing the first draft of history chroniclers preserved a monument to those times, but also a record of how learned, curious, and politically engaged people at the time saw the world, and tried to understand the changes that were happening around them.

When Henry II became king of England in 1154 he ruled lands extending from the North Sea to the Pyrenees, thanks to his inheritance of Normandy and Anjou and his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. But historians took little interest in his early successes, and it was only when crisis began to follow upon crisis that they began, in great numbers, to write the history of his reign, and that of his successor Richard. First, in 1170, there was the shocking murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after, Eleanor and her sons leagued against the king, and although Henry crushed the rebellion, his son Richard would eventually wrest the crown from him in 1189. Then there was the series of events triggered by the Muslim leader Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187, Richard’s expedition to the East, and his imprisonment and ransom on return. Meanwhile, England was shaken by anti-Jewish pogroms and the conspiracy of Richard’s brother John, who would eventually succeed him when the Lionheart was felled by an arrow just after ten years of rule. And throughout, there were incidents that seem less dramatic to us, but preoccupied people at the time—famines and floods, local disputes and personal rivalries—and also the fainter but yet perceptible signs of change in government, in intellectual life, and in relations between the English and their neighbours.

Contemporaries were aware that, for good or ill, these were remarkable times. In the 1190s William of Newburgh, a Yorkshire canon, explained that he had chosen to write a history of recent affairs in England because the events of his time were so great and memorable, and not to write about them would be a cause of shame to his generation. The royal courtier Walter Map declared that although every age despises its own modernity and harks back to an earlier age, the present times demanded writers to bear witness to them. His friend Gerald de Barri was so moved by the sequence of notable recent occurrences that he kept a list. It should be no surprise, then, that such a large number of writers should choose to write contemporary histories within the space of a few decades.

Illustration of Matthew Paris, historian (c.1200-1259) by the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Angevin England had the dramatic material of history, but it also had the right people to write it. Whereas England’s older religious houses had long dominated historical writing, a new kind of historian now emerged—closer to the centres of political power, with access to royal agents, senior ecclesiastics, and ample documentary evidence. The royal administrator Roger of Howden kept a diary of the king’s movements, and collected any useful records that he could lay his hands on, describing the noteworthy events of each year in exhaustive detail. Other writers took a more reflective approach, asking how the news—often puzzling and disturbing—might best be explained. They asked what it meant that a great king like Henry II should be brought low by his sons, and why God had allowed Jerusalem to be taken by the Muslims, and they answered with sophisticated interpretations, based on their extensive learning and their knowledge of earlier history. Nor did these writers concern themselves solely with matters of high politics: we are also presented with character sketches, tales of the supernatural, geographical descriptions, and discourses on everything from the eating habits of the people of Poitou to woodworm in ships’ hulls.

Though diverse in approach, the historians of Angevin England were united by a fascination with their own times, and an awareness of the importance in rendering them. Here we have a precious trove of information on a time of great incident. But, just as valuable, these contemporary witnesses give us a sense of what it was like to live through such a time, in all its exhilarating excitement and troubling uncertainty.

Featured image credit: Map of Britain by Matthew Paris, circa 1250. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Maria

    Very interesting time in history.

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