What was or is the Peterborough Chronicle?

The central text in assessing how the archive lost its significance as “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (Foucault 1972: 129) is the Peterborough Chronicle, the E manuscript of the ASC copied around 1120 at Peterborough after the reconstruction of those parts of the abbey destroyed by a fire in 1116. In that year Peterborough Abbey burned to the ground, and with it one of the most important scriptoria in the country was destroyed. All but the chapter house and the dormitory burned, and we have no information as to whether any manuscripts were rescued from the flames.

There is no way of knowing whether a version of the ASC was kept at Peterborough, and perhaps the conviction that a copy of the ASC was destroyed rests on the same kinds of belief as those that spawned the fictive predecessors of the Beowulf manuscript (see chap. 2). Stories are, after all, the discursive framework of myths, and those myths are the backbone of ideological discourses. If there had been a copy of the ASC at Peterborough prior to the fire, this would make the Peterborough Chronicle unique in being the only copy made and stored in the Danelaw area of the country (on the assumption, of course, that there was no York/Ripon copy).

Four puzzling questions present themselves:

  • 1. Why was a copy (or new copy) needed more than 50 years after the Norman Conquest of England?
  • 2. If the A and D manuscripts were used to make the Peterborough copy, why were both those exemplars discontinued shortly after the Conquest, A in 1070 and D in 1080?
  • 3. If D and A were not the models, what was?
  • 4. What sources did the first scribe use to create the entries after 1080?

A facsimile of the E manuscript with a detailed account of its palaeographi- cal and codicological characteristics was published in 1954 by Dorothy Whitelock, and Cecily Clark used Whitelock’s work as the basis for her 1958 edition of the years from 1070 to 1154. Clark describes the manuscript as follows:

It is a parchment manuscript of ninety-one folios (interleaved with paper), in

quires of ten, except that f. 81 is an odd leaf added after the eighth quire. The original size of the book is probably shown by ff. 86-90, which are 9% x 6У2 in. (24 x 17 cm.) and bear on their wide margins (the original written space is 6% x 4 in.) a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Chronicle. Ff. 1-85 and 91 have been cut down to 8% x 5% in. (21 x 14 cm.), with the result that parts of many old marginal notes have been cut through. Since the uncut folios are creased all round as if they had been folded down to the smaller format, the cutting may have taken place some time before the interleaving with paper 12% x 8 in. (31 x 20.5 cm.). The binding (in spite of modern rebacking) is still substantially the seventeenth-century Laudian one. (Clark 1958: xi)

The information about the cutting could well indicate that the interleaving of the so-called “Peterborough Interpolations” was carried out after the text had first been copied from the exemplars and then continued till 1121 and some time before the First Continuation ends in 1131, since the hand is that of a scribe writing up the events between 1122 and 1131. From a linguistic point of view, the interpolations are most definitely not the work of the final scribe from 1132 to 1154.

Palaeographically, the overall manuscript falls into three distinct sections. The first section contains all the entries from the topographical preface (which is based on Bede) and the year 1 to 1121. From around 1000 the entries are very similar to annals such as those in the Latin Waverley Annals (Annales Monastici) from 1000 to 1121, and entries after 1070 are particularly similar to the Latin chronicle compiled by Henry of Huntingdon, the Historia Anglorum (ca. 1125). The scribe may have drawn liberally on Henry of Huntingdon, although it is equally likely that Henry drew much of his material from the Chronicle. Beyond roughly 1090, assuming our scribe to have joined the abbey as a young man, we can posit that his firsthand experience plus that of other monks forms the basis of the entries up to 1121. However, since the ink and the hand are uniform up to that year, the entries must have been put together in one go, say at the end of 1121 after the abbey had been reconstructed. Whether the scribe added comments on the events with knowledgeable hindsight (see the examples in the next subsection) or whether these comments were in the original exemplar that the scribe was copying is unknown.

The second section of the Peterborough Chronicle, often called the First Continuation, takes us from 1122 to 1131. Clark (1958) maintains that because of the frequent changes in ink and hand these entries must have been written up in six blocks (1122, 1123, 1124, 1125-1126, 1126-1127, 1128-1131), and were thus on-the-spot reports of the events of those years. Rather than six different scribes being entrusted with the writing up of the annals, however, Ker (1957) believes that the same scribe who copied out the first section was also responsible for the First Continuation. The variations in writing are minimal and can easily be explained by the simple fact that a person’s handwriting is indeed variable throughout the course of his life. The last section of the manuscript, often called the Second Continuation, takes us from

1132 to 1154, where the Chronicle ends. The hand is completely different from the first part of the Peterborough Chronicle up to 1121 and the First Continuation, and the language has changed considerably. From a linguistic point of view, the first scribe, who, following Ker (1957), I shall take to be responsible for the first part of the chronicle up to 1121 and the First Continuation, is at pains to reproduce the language of the other copies of the ASC—that is, quasi-standard West Saxon[1]—but very frequently introduces Anglian forms, mixes up gender and case inflections and sometimes seems a little unsure of his use of demonstratives and relative pronouns (see chap. 4). Linguistically, the second scribe is a veritable revelation and has turned out to be the historical linguist’s dream: a missing link between “Old English” and “Middle English”. If the first scribe at least tried to reproduce older forms, the second appears to write as he spoke.

To return to the four puzzling questions, at first sight, the only extant copies that continued reporting after 1080 and that could have served as the source were the I manuscript (an Easter Table Chronicle, British Museum, Cotton MS Caligula A xv) and the H manuscript or Cottonian Fragment (British Museum, Cotton MS. Domitian A ix.). However, from the point of view of text type, the I manuscript is definitely not the model from which the Peterborough Chronicle was (re-)created. This leaves us with one of the two Cottonian Fragments (A2 [or G] and H). It is thought that H was prepared from A in Canterbury, but it exists as only one leaf covering the years 1113 and 1114. Both fragments are the remains of manuscripts that were almost entirely destroyed by the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731, which, as discussed in chapter 2, destroyed a large part of the Cottonian library. However, since there is no record of how far into the eleventh century the A2 manuscript reaches, there is no way of knowing whether one of these two fragments served as the basis on which the events of the years from 1080 till the turn of the twelfth century were reconstructed.

From the point of view of my argument, however, we can conclude that the chronicle part of the discourse forming the dominant archive became decentralised toward the end of ^.thelrad’s reign. In addition the entries became longer and more detailed throughout the eleventh century, making them decidedly unsuitable as the written basis of oral transference, and indicating that the ASC had taken on the function of an official or semiofficial written record of events. But question 1, concerning the need for a copy of the ASC as late as roughly 1120, remains. If, as seems quite likely, it no longer served its purpose in the new dominant sociopolitical discourse archive after the Conquest, did it serve the purpose of an alternative antidiscourse, a form of linguistic subversion in a world of increasingly Latin texts in the ecclesias?tical and legal worlds and Anglo-Norman French in the world of administration and bureaucracy? This is what I intend to investigate in the following subsection.

  • [1] I hesitate to suggest, as many have done, that West Saxon was a standard literary language. The scribemay have been aiming at conformity with forms of language that he could still read but that had changed quiteconsiderably in the 50 years since the Conquest, and the refreshing thing is that he never quite makes it. Talkingof a “standard” is not really appropriate here, so I have chosen the halfway stage—“quasi-standard”.
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