I’d like to continue with my thought of last year about history and sources. We already know that post-Roman Britain has a handful of historical sources while, say, the JFK assassination involves hundreds if not thousands of sources of information. So what exactly constitutes an historical source?
It seems like a stupid question at first. Most people would say anything written by an historian at about the same time while people who have studied a little more might say anything like annals, archaeological finds, and in modern times a newspaper. Also, contemporary letters might shed a little knowledge on any era. Just like your letter to friends, lovers, and relatives a letter will make certain assumptions about political climate, economy, pop culture, and other commonly known things but with a careful eye and some cross-referencing a good historian can often make connections that aren’t readily apparent.
How about a movie? Sports? They’re not directly telling us anything, nor are they even intended to be truthful. Still, authors have made some interesting conjectures about the twentieth century based on cinema or boxing. Can you deny that we were hopeful in the 1950s and sour in the 1960s? Have you ever noticed that the 1950s and 1980s movies ALWAYS have a happy ending, while the 1960s and 1970s usually end with the people we like dying?
Alright, back to the periods with fewer historical source materials. The only two people in or from Britain to write during the fifth and sixth centuries were Patrick and Gildas. Gildas wrote what looks like a legal argument against the British people. Patrick wrote two letters, one trying to intimidate a British king and another where he answered accusations made against him. They’re undeniably sources, but not strong ones.
What else? A Kentish history in the early seventh century that added to Gildas’ story in order to claim that Kent was the first and only true Germanic kingdom on the island. Another political history written down at the end of the same century probably based on information written down around 600. A few poems, one extremely long but many more only as long as a sonnet. Put that way the poems, speaking of military actions and kings, seems like the best source of information for the period. They are the medieval equivalent of a news article, after all.
How far can we take that? Would a book based on the personal letters of World War II have value? Undoubtedly! Properly picked they might provide insights on people, tactics in a battle, or personal relationships among key figures. How about a movie based on the same materials? Probably, there would be more tendency to make things more dramatic but it could still have useful thoughts. But how many times could the same movie be reworked, with access to some and sometimes all the original materials, before it lost all value? When looking at Bede (twice removed), Historia Brittonum (four times removed), and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (three times removed except for certain late sixth century entries) you have to wonder.
The nice thing about the Middle Ages is that they had no concept of fiction. Don’t get me wrong, they knew what a lie was. Still, it was believed that everything good had already been done. Therefore the only way of creating something new was to reinterpret it. That might not sound too good for an historian but it does mean that the essential facts couldn’t change. That’s why the same stories were repeated over and over again and why the same characters kept showing up. It’s also why so many people like to use Historia Brittonum, Bede, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to understand fifth-century Post-Roman Britain. It’s also why I like to use non-traditional sources like the many variants of the abduction (three to eight times removed) and grail (two to eight times removed) stories, though I screen each story to see if it contains original