What was the archive of which the ASC was an instantiation?

The first part of the ASC up to the time of King Alfred gives a chronological record of events in the Christian world as these affected England and tells the story of setting up the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the important political figures controlling the destiny of Anglo-Saxon England, and the quarrels, disputes and wars between the kingdoms. The sociopolitical purpose of these annals was not simply to give a chronological account of the events leading up to the time of Alfred, but rather to highlight his (largely successful) attempt to unite the kingdoms under West Saxon suzerainty. Important Church matters were recorded, as were other important political issues since they were also part of this overall policy.

The annals of the ASC were quasi-official records used for the diffusion of selected information in the service of the political aims of the West Saxon royal house. If we look at them from within our own archives, they are not what we might expect from other forms of chronicle. They certainly detail annual events in chronological order, but the way in which the events are reported and the possible use to which the reports were put are very different from the Latin chronicles of the twelfth century on, or, for example, from Holinshed’s Chronicles in the sixteenth century.[1] They contained neither social comment on the plight of the lower orders of the social hierarchy nor information on socioeconomic conditions in the country at large, nor any overt or covert criticism of government. When this kind of information begins to appear in the ASC, as indeed it does shortly before and most definitely after the time of the Norman Conquest, it can be taken as the indication of a significant change in the archive.

Official information was read out to the witenagemote, assemblies of so-called witan (wise or learned men), in the presence of the king or his representatives with the intention that the information should be diffused orally to as large a section of the population as possible. For this reason, the ASC needed to be in the vernacular Anglo-Saxon and not in Latin. The meaningful statements imposed by this archive were those of a dominant discourse promoting, in secular terms, the legitimacy of the monarch and his claim to rule over the whole of England and not just the area to the west and south of Watling Street (i.e. non-Danelaw England) and, in religious terms, the Christian religion and the dominance of the Church of Rome.

I argue that the ASC was originally the instantiation of an archive whose meaningful statements exuded royal authority and whose rules of production emanated from royal assemblies in which the written word was used as the authoritative basis on which quasi-official, historical, genealogical, documentary and religious information was meant to be spread orally among the population. But in the course of time and even before the putative Жthelredian Exemplar was prepared, some of the annals became less formulaic and longer, indicating that their use as a written record on which the oral diffusion of authority was based was being transformed into that of an official written record of events. This does not change the meaningfulness of the statements, but it does suggest a change in the rules of discourse production.

The Parker Manuscript is an interesting mixture of historical, legal and ecclesiastical texts, and it opens with the ASC, followed by the laws, the papal and episcopal lists and the Sedulius text. When the codex was copied and transferred to Canterbury at the beginning of the eleventh century, the lists preceded the laws and the Sedulius was ignored. By the end of the sixteenth century, when the codex came into the possession of Archbishop Parker, the order of its contents had been changed yet again, so that the Sedulius preceded the laws (Wormald 1999: 165-166). The confusion as to the order of the contents has led certain scholars to assume that there was no connection between the laws and the other texts. Wormald, however, argues on the basis of palaeographical and codicological evidence that nothing could be further from the truth:

It is reasonably deduced, then, that the laws were written at about the time when they were added to the Chronicle; and it can be argued that they were copied in order to be added to the Chronicle. Even the most hard-headed scholar can hardly deny that the laws were consciously associated with the Chronicle half a century after their composition. (1999: 166-167)

What immediately becomes apparent from this analysis of the manuscript evidence is that the latter part of King ^.thelrad II’s reign is characterised by a decentralisation of the ASC (see fig. 3.3). For this to have happened, we need to assume that the sociopolitical functions of the ASC—the archive to which it, the charters and the law codes belonged—had changed significantly between the time of ^.thelrad’s accession to his death in 1016. Chronicle writing had become dissociated from the writing of laws. This corresponds to the increasing length and linguistic complexity of the annals themselves. If it is correct to say that they had changed from being, like the laws, a written record on which the oral diffusion of authority was based to an official written documentation of historical events, then it is also feasible to suggest that they may have become open to political propaganda (cf. Wulfstan’s Жthelredian Exemplar).

  • [1] Patterson (1994) argues that in the first 1577 edition of the chronicles that bear his name Holinshedmakes great play on the need to report on past events “indifferently”, by which he means “objectively” or notin a partisan spirit but in such a way that a variety of opinions concerning an event can be expressed. Themultivocality of the chronicles is upheld by the variety of writers who wrote contributions to that mammothproject. The provenance of the contributors is evidence of the fact that “the Chronicles, especially when theydeal with the sixteenth century, are an expression of citizen consciousness” (1994: xiii). The discourse instantiated by Holinshed’s Chronicles thus forms part of an unofficial, nondominant discourse that aims at questioning the events of the past, especially the immediate past, and the official interpretations of those events. Itsignals the imminent breakdown of an archive, whereas the ASC constituted an important part of theconstruction of the archive at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period of English history.
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