After the conquest of England in 1066 by Duke William of Normandy, historians on both sides of the English Channel tried to record and explain the political and social circumstances in which they found themselves in the context of larger conceptions of history. The twelfth century, in particular, saw a surge in the popularity of historical writing in the lands controlled by the kings of England. Among the authors whose histories are still widely known and studied are Orderic Vitalis, John of Worcester, Symeon of Durham, William of Malmesbury, and later Ralph of Diceto, Gerald of Wales, Roger of Howden and Matthew Paris. The crafting of new works also led to a renewed interest in earlier historical writing about both the Norman and the Anglo-Saxon past, most notably Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, and new copies of older texts were made. History was thus being read, reproduced, discussed and reworked, as well as written, in the years after 1066. Moreover, the process of making manuscripts sometimes involved the selection and combination of texts in a single volume, or the exploration of the past through the addition of imagery. Most of the essays collected in this volume take as their starting point individual manuscripts or references to particular history books. Through the examination of text, script, design and imagery they explore different facets of the creation and use of history books in the lands controlled by the kings of England between c. 1066 and c. 1250. The emphasis here is on narrative histories, rather than other forms of documentation, and the essays explore how historians approached their task, notions of time and place, and the varied potential uses of writing about the past.
One of the major challenges of working with manuscript evidence is the limited survival of medieval books. Those writing history in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries included both monks and secular clerics with access to the royal court, and these authors addressed their works to a range of audiences, including their own monastic communities, kings and members of the nobility. However, manuscripts appear to have stood a much better chance of survival if they were preserved in monastic libraries, which probably distorts the evidence available to us.