Strange Weather, Volcanoes, and a Roof Collapse: Secrets of the Medieval Chronicle

By Jenny Weston

This past June, a great news story was published about a set of Irish medieval manuscripts that helped a team of  scientists study the relationship between volcanic eruptions (!) and changing climates. In recent months, a team of researchers embarked upon the (momentous) task of sifting through over 40,000 entries in a set of Irish annals dating from the 5th to the 17th centuries. They discovered that for centuries medieval Irish monks had been reporting a variety of ‘extreme weather conditions’ in their historical record books, including abnormally cold temperatures and heavy snowfalls. The team of researchers then suggested that these reports corresponded with volcanic activity in the region—noting the possibility that volcanic eruptions typically resulted in periods of cooler temperatures.

Click here for a link to the full news story.

Click here for a link to the full news story.

This recent study demonstrates the continued importance of reading and studying medieval chronicles—either for the collected benefit of scientific knowledge or just for fun! Indeed, these books might be described as a treasure-trove of weird, interesting, and sometimes frightening historical accounts, many of which offer us a tantalizing glimpse into the medieval past.

One of the most famous surviving examples of this type of historical text is known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. 

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Originally composed in the 9th century in Old English, these works cover the history of the Anglo-Saxons from the birth of Christ to 1154 AD. The full text is now available online and can provide hours of good reading for those interested in pirate-raids, land battles, murders, marriages, unusual weather events, comet-sightings, episodes of famine, and bouts of pestilence (to name just a few of the topics covered in the chronicle). Here are a few of my favourite entries:

1) The entire nation of the Picts apparently ganged up on a poor fellow named Burt:

A.D. 699.  This year the Picts slew Alderman Burt.

2) An unfortunate roof collapse in the 10th century (and a gymnastic save by Dunstan):

A.D. 978. This year all the oldest counsellors of England fell at
Calne from an upper floor; but the holy Archbishop Dunstan stood
alone upon a beam.  Some were dreadfully bruised: and some did
not escape with life.

3) Just a great description in general…

A.D. 473.  This year Hengest and Esc fought with the Welsh, and
took immense Booty.  And the Welsh fled from the English like
fire.

Because we love to study manuscripts here in Leiden, I was curious to see what these medieval chronicles look like. Are they easily-identifiable types of texts? Do they have a standard layout?

Having examined various examples, it seems that the medieval chronicle is typically presented in two different layouts—essentially the ‘short version’ and the ‘long version’.

The short version is fairly easy to identify as it features the year in the margin (usually in red or blue ink), followed by a line of blank space where the scribe can fill in certain events. As you might notice, there is little room for detail in this layout and the scribe must therefore be quite selective in what he chooses to add!

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Click on the image for a closer view! (British Library, Harley 447)

In this 13th-century copy of an English annal, it is possible to make out some of the years and records. In the middle of the page, for example, you can see the year 414 AD with the note added in red:

CCCCXIIII. ‘Aug[u]stin[us] de ciuitate scripsit hoc tempore’

[In this year, Augustine wrote De civitate dei].

One might also notice that a few years have been left blank. This provided room for a scribe to fill in more events or details at a later time.

Then there is the ‘longer version’. Unlike the ‘short version’ this layout does not feature one year per line, but instead offers more flexibility for the scribe to add as much (or as little) detail as he would like for each entry. Of course this also meant that there was less opportunity for later adjustments or additions:

Twelfth-Century Chronicle (Harley 3775 fol. 61)

Twelfth-Century Chronicle (British Library, Harley 3775 fol. 61)

While it is always great to look at these chronicles in manuscript form, I admit that the true fun lies in reading them. So perhaps the next time you have a spare moment, you can (make yourself a cup of tea), track down your nearest medieval chronicle, and spend the day immersing yourself in the wild and wonderful tales of the medieval past.

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