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9 - The writing of history in the early Middle Ages: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in context

from II - EARLY ENGLISH LITERATURE

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2013

Clare A. Lees
Affiliation:
King's College London
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Summary

The earliest manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins, famously, with a genealogy linking the monarch under whose patronage the project was likely undertaken, Alfred of Wessex, to a foundational moment of Anglo-Saxon history: the arrival in Britain of Alfred’s legendary ancestors, Cerdic and Cynric, in 494. Beginning dramatically with the words ‘ÞY GEARE ÞE WÆS AGAN FRAM CRISTES ACENnesse .cccc. wintra ⁊.xciiii. uuintra, þa Cerdic ⁊ Cynric his sunu cuom up æt Cerdicesoran mid .v. scipum’ [In the year when 494 years had passed since the birth of Christ, Cerdic and his son Cynric landed at Cerdic’s Shore with five ships], the Parker Chronicle, now known more commonly as MS A, places this event alongside another key historical point of reference, the birth of Christ. The text then goes on to record two genealogies: one stretching from Cerdic back to Woden, and one tracing the line from Alfred’s father, Æthelwulf, back to Cerdic. These prefatory genealogies fill the first recto of the manuscript, and they tell us a great deal about how the reader is meant to understand the chronicle entries that follow it. Begun under the auspices of the Alfredian intellectual reforms of the late ninth century, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an ambitious historiographical enterprise. It sets out to document the history of the Anglo-Saxons on the island of Britain; but as this opening genealogy attests, its earliest version envisions that history as the history of a particular group of monarchs – the Cerdicings, or descendants of Cerdic – with a particular ideological impetus. Its project is to offer a single, monolithic vision of English history. Many of its annals are brief, but they sketch out a dramatic story, full of tales of family honour, which sees dominion as a genealogical inheritance and includes its readers in that inheritance by virtue of their subjection to the West Saxon monarchs. Its beginnings sketch out a legendary translatio imperii, and its end-point is the realization of that empire in the final defeat of the Danish invaders and the glorious reign of Alfred himself. In its opening pages, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle declares that English history is not the history of a place, but of a people – Alfred’s people.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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