As often happens when you think a little out of the box, I learned a little last week and the week before. So for this entry, I’d like to do something that may be a little dry but I think if you read through you may find it interesting.
The source. For an historian, there is no such thing as a neutral one. Practical experience supports that. Watch the football game last Sunday and then listen to ten different witnesses. Anyone can watch every single play that occurred, but you will still have ten different stories. They may mostly have the same heroes and villains but different details will be important.
An historical source is more difficult. Take The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as an example. They purport to have British information back to the fifth century, to catalogue the landings and foundations of Wessex, Sussex, Kent, and Northumbria. But you look a little deeper and you realize East Anglia, Mercia, and Berneich are absent.
Why? A cursory look into the chronicle’s history says it was probably written down while King Alfred was on the run from the Danes in the ninth century. That doesn’t explain the omissions, but it does make you wonder how far back the early information can be believed.
The sources for the chronicles were – mainly – Bede and the Kentish Source. In both materials we have an answer to Mercia; Kent never had to worry about Mercia during the era when it was creating its source, and Bede did his best to erase Mercia from history in his own works. Both also explain East Anglia. The kingdom hadn’t become prominent when Kent was writing, and had fallen into anonymity by the time Bede did. Kent had no records of Northumbrian activities, while Bede was busy creating the image that Northumbria had always been just one kingdom and not the four or five it had been.
Bede had his own interests in writing. He wanted to point out that the Germanic people were better than the Britons, that the Roman faith was better than the Celtic, and that Northumbria was the greatest kingdom. Because of his priorities, he tended to bend facts he didn’t like and ignore events that fell out of his sphere of influence. His sources, well, were extensive. I could probably write another blog later, simply list them, and it might fill up the page. Each of them would have had their own interests and limitations, too.
The Kentish Source was designed to make Kent the first and rightful leading kingdom in Britain. The foundation legend of Kent is utter fantasy, with no basis in archeological or historical fact. The details there were borrowed and expanded from Gildas, who didn’t know how the Germanic peoples had come to Britain himself. The nature of the story made clear that no Germanic group could possibly have landed in Britain before them.
Some Wessex names also suggest an early Wessex source. Of course in making a chronicle the native information had to be fitted into the histories of the Kentish Source and Bede. That is why the settlements are clearly laid out as they are; Bede had said that the first Germanic over-king had been AElle of Sussex, followed by Ceawlin. It was already established that Hengest had settled Kent before everyone else, which meant that Sussex was second and Wessex third.
You might be asking yourself how any of the confusion above could possibly have any relevance except for those of us insane enough to study everthing Arthurian. Simple. Arthur may have confused all the literature that happens to name him in any context, but his fame didn’t effect the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is a typical source. And sources weren’t wholly biased then only to get better as the years went by. Sources from modern times are just as biased, often just as many times removed from fact, and occasionally just as divorced from reality.
On that note, have a nice day 🙂