Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 July 2018
A wide selection of surviving manuscript and book-list evidence combines to suggest that the cathedral priory of Durham built up a complex corpus of historiographical resources in the period c. 1090–1150. Durham's Anglo- Norman library collection is remarkably well-attested, thanks to the high survival rate of manuscripts, and to two book-lists dateable to before 1096 and 1149, respectively. This evidence records the presence of over forty narrative histories, collections of annals, and accounts of local events relevant to the history of the community. The study of these books offers valuable insights into the status and potential uses of history books in one of the best-recorded monastic libraries of Anglo-Norman England.
Durham's Anglo-Norman cathedral priory traced its origins back to a monastic community that had existed at Lindisfarne from 635 until 875 before transferring first to Chester-le-Street from 882/3, and then to Durham in 995, with several years of itinerant travel in between. Written before 1107x15, Symeon of Durham's Libellus de exordio atque procursu istius hoc est Dunhelmensis, ecclesie recounts this origin story of the Durham community. It climaxes, in Book IV, with a narration of how Bishop William of Saint-Calais implemented a Benedictine reform of the community of secular clerics in 1083, thereby reinstating the conditions believed to have been in place under the leadership of St Cuthbert, who was first prior and then later bishop of Lindisfarne. As will be shown below, the varied history of St Cuthbert's community, after its departure from Lindisfarne in 875, made it essential that the community should know its origin-story. This ensured that from as far back as it is possible to know, history, and the historical texts through which it was known, were at the centre of how the community articulated its identity and its inheritances.
This sense of historical awareness appears to have peaked during the later eleventh and early twelfth centuries, during which time texts of varying lengths were copied and composed by Durham authors, Symeon principal among them. The number and variety of historical texts collected and composed at Durham during the Anglo-Norman period has been noted by several commentators, including Hilary Offler, Alan Piper, David Rollason and David Dumville, who described medieval Durham as a ‘hot-bed of historiographic activity’.