The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 1. The Chronicle

IT seems permissible to treat the year 901, when king Alfred died, as the dividing line between the earlier and later period of Old English literature. According to this classification, nearly all the poetry composed in this country before the Norman conquest would fall within the first period; while the bulk of the prose writings in the vernacular would be included in the second. It was, indeed, during the tenth and eleventh centuries that our language in its Old English stage attained its highest development as a prose medium. The circumstances of the time were unfavourable to the production of sustained poems. This may be owing to the gradual break-up of Old English tradition and to the influence of another Germanic literature, then at its height, in the English court. The chief poetical fragments that have survived from these years deal with contemporary events, and seem to be the outbreak of emotions too strong to be suppressed.

Like feelings find their expression also in the prose literature of these centuries, which saw not only the rise of the West Saxon kings to full mastery over England, but also the victories of Dane and Norman, and the quenching of all hope of English rule over England until the conquered should absorb the conquerors. There was scarcely a year during this period in which the harassed rulers of the kingdom could afford to lay aside their arms; though during the time of comparative quiet between the death of Aethelstan and the accession of Aethelred England took an active part in the monastic revival which was so marked a feature of contemporary European history. In these times of struggle, letters and learning found, for a time, their grave, and long years of patient struggle were needed to revive them.

The gloomy tale is nowhere better told than in the Chronicle which, written in simple language, alone marks for more than half a century the continuance of literary activity in England

The beginning of the Chronicle is usually ascribed to the influence of Alfred, and it continues for two and a half centuries after that king’s reign, long after the last English king had been slain and the old tongue banished from court and school. Its principal recensions differ from one another not in the main story, but in the attention given to various details, and in the length to which they are carried. Owing to the number of hands employed in its composition, the literary merit is very unequal; sometimes the entries consist of a date and the simple statement of an event; at others we find passages of fluent and glowing narrative, as in the record of the war-filled years from 911 to 924. The period from 925 to 975 is very bare, and such entries as exist relate mostly to church matters. It is, however, within this time that the principal poems of the Chronicle are inserted. Under 991 is told the story of Anlaf’s raid at Maldon in which Byrhtnoth fell. In the years 975–1001 the Chronicle is of extreme interest, and the annals for the year 1001 are very full. Some time about the middle, or towards the last quarter, of the eleventh century the present recension of the Winchester chronicle was transplanted to Christ Church, Canterbury, and there completed with Canterbury annals, passages being interpolated in various places from beginning to end from the chronicle kept at St. Augustine’s, Christ Church library having been previously burnt. Before this, the notice taken of Canterbury events was so extremely slight that we do not even hear of the murder of archbishop Aelfh[char]ah (St. Alphege) by the Dances. The MS. known as Cott. Tib. A. VI seems to have been originally meant to serve as an introduction to further annals, which, however, were never written; and it is apparently a copy of the original Abingdon chronicle (itself a copy of the original Winchester, written at Abingdon), which did not reach beyond 977. The MS. under consideration is shown by a mass of internal and external evidence to have been written about 977, the year to which its annals reach. It may fitly be called the shorter Abingdon chronicle to distinguish it from the longer Abingdon chronicle referred to below, with which it has much in common; both, for example, bodily insert the Mercian annals (sometimes called the chronicle of Aethelflamed). These extend from 902–925, and tell, with some detail, of the warlike feats of the Lady of Mercia. It may be noted, in passing, that these Mercian annals occur in the socalled Worcester chronicle where, however, they are distributed, with some omissions, amongst other matter. These Mercian annals are of the greatest interest, both in origin and history. Their chronology differs considerably from that of other chronicles. Perhaps the original document, or some copy of it, in which they were contained, is to be traced under the record Cronica duo Anglica in the Catalogi veteres librorum Ecclesiae Dunelmi, where we also find the record of Elfledes Boc in the same place. This at once suggests to us the existence of these annals in a book of Aethelflaed, telling of her fight for English freedom. Thus the inscription and record bring us into close connection with what may well have suggested and stimulated the heroic poem of Judith.

The (Longer) Abingdon chronicle is so called because, from its references to the affairs of that monastery, it is supposed to have been written there. This longer chronicle is not expanded from the shorter, nor the shorter extracted from the longer. Both have a number of independent annals up to the very year 977 where the common original ended. It may be surmised that the author of the recension under notice found the original Abingdon ready up to 977 (when the troubles consequent on Edgar’s death may have accounted for many things), and further annals up to 1018, to which he made later additions. The MS. tells of the election of Siward, abbot of Abingdon, as archbishop of Canterbury in 1044, the appointment of Aethelstan as his successor to the abbacy, Aethelstan’s death in 1047 and archbishop Siward’s return to the monastery after his retirement from office in 1048.

In 892, a copy of the southern chronicle was sent to a northern cloister, and there was revised with the aid of the text of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. There seems, also to have been a northern continuation of Bede’s History, and, from this, were woven into the chronicler’s text annals 737–806. Fifteen of these annals are wholly, and sixteen party, Northumbrian. That these annals were taken from some such source seems to be proved by their being found also in other works. The chronicler then followed southern sources until 904, when he began to weave into his text the book of Aethelflaed, mingling with it southern and northern records. From 983–1022, he returned to his Abingdon source. After this he struck out on his own line. From the original thus created was copied the extant MS. commonly known as the Worcester or Evesham chronicle which shows especial acquaintance with the midlands and north. The close connection between Worcester and York is shown by the fact that the archbishop of York is mentioned simply as “the archbishop.” The chronicle shows strong feeling on the subject of Godwin’s outlawry, and in every way supports that nobleman. Alone amongst the chronicles it tells the sad tale of the battle of Hastings. The original from which the above chronicle was copied, seems also to have been the basis for that patriotic Kentish chronicle, now lost, which was the chief source both of the Peterborough chronicle up to 1123 and the rescension known as Cott. Dom. A. VIII, 2.

The Peterborough chronicle is the longest of all, extending to the year 1154. In 1116 the town and monastery of Peterborough were destroyed by a terrible fire, which left standing only the monastic chapterhouse and dormitory, and when, in 1121, the rebuilding was completed, the annals contained in this chronicle were undertaken to replace those lost in the fire. They were based on the lost Kentish chronicle, which must have been forwarded to Peterborough for that purpose. This original Kentish chronicle is full of patriotic feeling and shows great knowledge of southern affairs from Canute’s death, the burial of Harold Harefoot (the record of which it alone rightly tells) and the viking raid on Sandwich, to the feuds between English and Norman in the reign of the Confessor. It relates count Eustace’s broils with the English of Canterbury and Dover, and the flight of archbishop Robert, leaving his pallium behind him, an annal recorded with dangerously schismatic glee. The scribe had lived at the court of William the Conqueror, and had, therefore, seen the face of the great enemy of the English. The entries for the tenth century are very meagre; but from 991 to 1075 they are much fuller and contain, among other contemporary records, the story of the ravages of Hereward. Towards the end of the chronicle, which is written in a somewhat rough and ready manner, occurs the famous passage, so often quoted by historians, telling of the wretchedness of the common folk during the reign of Stephen and its civil wars.

From the lost Kentish chronicle is derived the recension known as F or Cott. Domitian A. VIII, 2, seemingly written by one hand in the twelfth century, and of interest because of its mixed use of Latin and English. In this it indicates the approach of the employment of Latin as the general literary vehicle of English culture. There is great confusion in its bilingual employment of Latin and English; sometimes English is the original and Latin the copy, at other times the process is reversed; finally, in some passages, Latin and English become ludicrously mixed. Two other recensions exist as mere fragments: one, of three damaged leaves, in a hand of the eleventh century, is bound up with a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History; and the other consists of a single leaf. The manuscript to which the former of these fragments belonged was edited by Wheloc in 1644 before it was consumed in the Cottonian fire.

The following table adapted from Plummer shows the relations of the various MSS. to each other, the extant MSS. being indicated by initial letters: [chart]

The Chronicle is of inestimable value as an authority for the history of the time. The impression it leaves on the reader is one of almost unrelieved gloom. Records of harrying with fire and sword occur on almost every page, and, whether the English ealdorment or the Danes “possess the place of slaughter,” the wild lawlessness and the contempt for human life which prevailed during the greater part of the period are plainly visible. Sometimes the chronicler displays bitter indignation at the misgovernment of the country, as when he tells how Aethelred and his ealdormen and the high witan forsook the navy which had been collected with immense effort by the people and “let the toil of all the nation thus lightly perish.” But the entries are usually of an entirely impersonal kind; the horror and desolation, the fiery signs in the heaven, and the plagues that befell men and cattle upon earth, are recorded without comment; such misfortunes were too common to call for special remark in the days of the long struggle between Dane and Englishman.

It has already been said that this portion of the Chronicle contains several fragments of verse. These will be noticed later. Here, it may, however, be remarked that some passages written as prose are based on songs which have been inserted, after some slight modification, by the scribe; and, towards the end of the Peterborough chronicle, there occur some long stretches of rhythmic prose almost akin to the sung verse of the people. These may be either a development of the loose rhythm of Aelfric’s prose, or may, possibly, result from the incorporation of ballads and their reduction to prose. The subject is, however, still too obscure to admit of any very definite statement on this point, and most of what has been said on this subject seems far removed from finality.