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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > Guest Articles > Sheila Brynjulfson (1)

Guest Author:
Sheila Brynjulfson
(1960 - 2005)
Sheila Brynjulfson

Award-winning Sheila Brynjulfson (21-01-1960) was the webmaster of the brilliant website Little Bohemia on the Hinkson, where she published not just her very well-liked historical articles about Arthurian Britain, but also much-appreciated poetry and literature.

Ms. Brynjulfson was a woman of many interests and talents. In the 1970s she performed in the musical "Gomez and the Catnip Mouse". She owned two vintage clothing stores and was a member of a feminist performance band in the 1980s. She graduated summa cum laude in 1994 from Columbia College with a degree in history.

She taught history at Truman State University while pursuing her master’s degree.

She dabbled in knitting, auto mechanics, (off-beat and often off-key) songwriting and genealogy, was a graphic designer for D-Sport and enjoyed flower gardening and bird watching. She also enjoyed vacations in Minnesota, professional wrestling, football and auto racing. Sheila has an ongoing Web site that can be accessed by going to the following Web address: www.littleboh.com.

Sheila L. Brynjulfson, 45, passed away early Friday, Nov. 25, 2005, at her home in Columbia. She had lived her entire life in Boone County. She is survived by her mother, Freda Taylor; her brother Michael Brynjulfson; two nephews, of Lakeland, Fla.; and her lifelong friend and companion, Barry Josh Bowden.

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Guest Articles
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Historiography of the European Middle Ages,
400-1200 C.E.

Sheila Brynjulfson (1960-2005)

Little Bohemia on the Hinkson
first published on
Little Bohemia on the Hinkson

In the year 410, Alaric the Visigoth and his forces sacked the city of Rome. This single event, which was but one of many nails in the greater Roman empire's coffin, initiated profound and gradual repercussions which would ripple throughout the western empire. Just as only one of Rome's legendary twin founders survived and prevailed to become the city's king, so too did the Roman empire, itself divided into rough twins, share a similar fate. The eastern empire survived; the western empire, already ailing at the time of Alaric's attack, did not. This particular Gothic assault upon Rome, through one of those strange coincidences which sometimes shape history in ways disproportionate to the event itself, prompted one man on the other side of the Mediterranean to put pen to paper in defence of the besieged religion which its accusers claimed had failed to protect Rome, and which had caused her demise.

The chronicler Jordanes, writing in the mid-sixth century, recorded Alaric's campaign against Rome from the Gothic perspective. Theodosius, the last emperor of an undivided Roman empire, had been a "lover of peace and of the Gothic race," and during his reign relations between the Goths and Rome had been amicable. But when Theodosius "passed from human cares" in 395 the empire was once again divided, and its inheritors were no friends of the Goths. When it became clear that the successors of Theodosius were not going to deliver the "customary gifts" to the Goths, they began to reconsider their position within the empire.[1] They appointed Alaric, a man of exceptional lineage, to be their king. Alaric organized the Goths and marched on the royal city of Ravenna to appeal to the new emperor of the western empire, Theodosius's son Honorius. If the Goths were allowed to settle peacefully in Italy, said Alaric, then the Goths would continue their alliance with Rome. If not, he warned, then he and his people would seek to carve out their own empire by force.[2]

Honorius, fearful of either alternative, consulted with the Senate. The provinces of Spain and Gaul had recently been under assault by the Vandals, and were nearly lost. As a solution to his immediate problem, therefore, Honorius proposed the following to the Goths: they were welcome to remain allies of Rome and to carve out their own territory, but not in Italy. Instead he would give them Spain and Gaul. Alaric agreed to this compromise, and thus he and his army headed west to claim their territory. After "they had gone away without doing any harm in Italy, Stilicho the Patrician . . . treacherously hurried to Pollentia," where "he fell upon the unsuspecting Goths in battle, to the ruin of all Italy and his own disgrace." The Goths won the field that day, and outraged over their betrayal, then turned their fury toward the city of Rome.[3]

These were the circumstances under which the Goths sacked the Eternal City. Jordanes mentioned that the invaders, under Alaric's express command, "did not set the city on fire, as wild peoples usually do, nor did they permit serious damage to be done to the holy places."[4] To Jordanes, this was a sign of the civility of the Goths. To Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, it was a clear indication that the hand of God had intervened on behalf of the Christians. It should not be claimed, wrote Augustine, that the Christian churches were spared due to simple good luck (and presumably not due to the good behaviour of the Goths), but rather it should be attributed "to the spirit of these Christian times, that, contrary to the custom of war, these blood-thirsty barbarians spared them, and spared them for Christ's sake."[5] Ultimately, Augustine's view of the fall of Rome would prevail, with a vengeance.

Before the time of Alaric and Augustine, western historiography had begun to take a stylistic and philosophical turn away from the pagan histories of the Greeks and Romans. The Christian religion, once just another minor mystery cult in the context of the Roman empire, had grown and gained a wider popularity. By its very nature, Christianity required an historical basis. It had originally been classified as a mystery cult because it, along with many other cult-like religious societies, celebrated the dying and resurrected god. This concept was as old as the Mesopotamian fertility cults, but in its Christian form it assumed a new characteristic: instead of happening every year, representing the cycle of fertility and vegetation, the Christian resurrection happened only once. This was the uniqueness of Christianity, and therefore Christianity required a fixed historical reference in which to place this superlative event. Furthermore, Christianity had branched off from Judaism, and Judaism had for a millennium asserted that Yahweh the One God intervened in history at His pleasure. Therefore, Christianity had both a pre-existing historical tradition, and a new historical imperative to fulfil.

The earliest Christian historical works were chronologies designed to link events from scripture with political events, and to create a universal history of mankind. The first of these chronologies was produced by Sextus Julius Africanus, the Chronographia, which extended to the year 221.[6] This work and others like it served to legitimise Christianity by firmly anchoring it to definite worldly historical events. In 313, when Constantine declared official toleration of Christianity and when persecution of Christians temporarily ceased, the way had already been prepared for a new historical form. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea was propitiously positioned to step into the role of the "father of ecclesiastical history." Eusebius was fortunate enough to live and work near the most complete Christian library of his time, which had (also fortunately) somehow escaped the wholesale destruction of Christian literature which had been sanctioned under the order of the emperor Diocletian. Eusebius first produced a chronology, similar to those written by Sextus and others, which began, naturally, with the Creation and extended to 324 C.E. Unlike the earlier chronologies, which linked only the classical and Judeo-Christian calendars, Eusebius's work incorporated precise chronological systems of every civilization known to him, including the Assyrian and Egyptian calendars as well as the Greek olympiads and Roman consulates.[7]

The Chronicle of Eusebius was important, but not groundbreaking. His contribution to the genre was to expand and refine the format, and was largely built upon the efforts of earlier writers. The real innovation of Eusebius was his Ecclesiastical History. This new historical concept developed from the earlier chronological forms, inasmuch as it linked different historical spheres into a universal whole. But Eusebius went far beyond the dry, bare-bones structure of the chronology. While maintaining the temporal linkages in the Ecclesiastical History, he abandoned the strictly chronological arrangement. Instead of tracing Judeo-Christian history from Abraham onward, he instead focused primarily on the years since the Incarnation, reaching backward in time only to bolster and justify the Christian doctrine which he expounded. All events in Eusebius's history refer back to the birth of Christ either directly or indirectly, and attempt to show that all history, from the date of Creation and the beginning of time, was moving deliberately and inexorably toward the Incarnation.[8]

Official tolerance did not necessarily mean acceptance, as the early church writers were acutely aware. As Christianity's influence continued to spread, it continued to be haunted by its old mystery cult stigma. Eusebius employed every device which he could contrive to dissolve that negative association. To this end, he divided sacred history from profane history, and then reunited them in an hierarchy, with the latter being clearly subordinate to the former.[9] The distinction between the two coexisting historical realms tacitly argued for the uniqueness of Christianity; through the act of declaring its existence, Eusebius had given the sacred a separate historical validity. Eusebius and other Christian writers sought, by firmly establishing the historicity of the acts of God and the holy martyrs, to set Christianity apart from and above the cult-like pagan religions. Yet in spite of their efforts, the veneration of saints still looked suspiciously like hero worship, and the Trinitarian doctrine established by the Council of Nicaea in 325 still appeared to many as blatant polytheism.

Meanwhile, as Christianity gradually flourished, Rome steadily declined. It was already in an advanced state of debilitation by the time Theodosius, friend of the Goths, declared Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 380. But after the death of Theodosius in 395 and the subsequent betrayal of the Visigoths by Honorius, Rome functionally ceased to exist as an empire. Alaric's incursions into Italy, culminating with the ransacking of Rome in 410, was a blow from which the Empire never recovered. To judge by the writings of Augustine, the greatest question on the collective Roman mind was how this could have happened to Rome, the "eternal" city. One answer offered by pagans was that Rome had, by abandoning her native gods in favour of Christianity, and had brought their retributive wrath upon the wayward city.

It is this question which Augustine addresses in City of God. City of God begins as a lengthy refutation of the pagans' assignment of culpability to the Christians for the fall of Rome. To accomplish this aim, Augustine must have answered every question which had ever been asked, as well as every other question he could think of, to support Christianity and to disprove the notion that it was responsible for undermining Roman civilization. This he achieved, brilliantly. Drawing from the writings of Greek philosophers, Roman statesmen, the epic poets and, of course, the Bible, Augustine relentlessly reasoned his way through the first ten books of City of God, inexorably ploughing his way toward the ultimate vindication of Christianity. In striking contrast to the later claims of Jordanes that the Goths' mercy was quite conscious and deliberate, Augustine claimed that the "savage barbarians showed themselves in so gentle a guise" due to "the name of Christ, and to the Christian temper." Yielding no quarter, he continued, "[f]ar be it from any prudent man to impute this clemency to the barbarians. Their fierce and bloody minds were awed, and bridled, and marvellously tempered by [God]."[10]

What ostensibly began as an answer to pagan accusations gradually develops into a body of doctrine which would have a profound effect on the concept of history, and on the western outlook in general, for more than a thousand years. One question which Augustine addressed was why did God, although He caused the asylum seekers in the churches to be spared, allow atrocities to be committed upon other Christians in the city. In response, Augustine explained that "when He exposes us to adversities, it is either to prove our perfections or correct our imperfections; and in return for our patient endurance of the sufferings of time, He reserves for us an everlasting reward."[11] What happens in the temporal world is the will of God; earthly events are naught but trials for a higher purpose, to direct humankind not toward the false comforts of the city of man, but rather to test and temper the soul for admission to the eternal city of God. It was therefore the duty of man to simply endure the worldly hardships which befall the pious as well as the ungodly, and to know that the hand of God was upon the world, guiding history according to His indiscernible will toward one definite end: the second coming of Christ.

The huge success of City of God can be attributed to, for lack of a better term, being the right book at the right time. Before Alaric's attack on Rome, the western empire was already in a severe state of decay. To judge from Augustine's writings, the sack of the city in 410 was a sign to its inhabitants that civilization was indeed near its end.[12] Addressing himself to this concern, Augustine explained that "because some live according to the flesh and others according to the spirit, there have arisen two diverse and conflicting cities," the former of man, the latter of God.[13] This dualistic concept of reality echoes the Eusebian division of history into the categories of sacred and profane, yet Augustine took it a step further by affirming the coexistence and intermingling of each as an epic Manichaean struggle. The division between the two cities explained the apparent disintegration of society: it was pagan Rome, the Rome of the flesh, which was ruined; Christian Rome, the Rome of spirit, had survived.

The underlying premises of Augustine's City of God affected the way in which the western world would henceforth view history in several fundamental ways. First, it shifted the focus of history from one of causality to one of meaning. Causality became certain and unquestionable: it was God Himself who drove the cosmos toward one definite final event. Second, because God was directing history toward one end, the repeating historical cycles of the Hebrews and the Greeks were subsumed by a linear concept of time.[14] Third, due to the new assumption that time was finite and linear, a sense of progress could be seen in history. No longer was history simply the endless turning of fortune's wheel; Augustine had given it a clear and definite direction, one in which every event had its own significance.[15]

City of God also continued the Eusebian tradition of ecclesiastical history, and he developed it into a more complex form. Not only did Augustine weave scriptural and secular events together in a continuous chronology, but he also imbued biblical events with a new historicity by convincingly arguing for their credibility. Employing his relentless logic, Augustine methodically explained the many anomalies and incongruities found in the Hebrew bible, particularly those in the book of Genesis, and tied each into his greater scheme of the two cities. It was Cain who built the first city, the city of man. Augustine wrote:

At present it is the history which I aim at defending, that Scripture may not be reckoned incredible when it relates that one man built a city at a time in which there seem to have been but four men upon earth, or rather indeed but three, after one brother slew the other ...[16]

In answer, Augustine explains that the Bible does not necessarily speak of all the people who may have been alive at that time, but only the men who fell within the scope of the incident at hand. He goes on to remind the reader that the antediluvians named in the Bible all lived to be at least 753 years of age, which was ample time to generate a population large enough to build and occupy a city.

He then goes on to explore biblical chronology, to explain why Methuselah appears to live beyond the time of the Flood even though he was not on the Ark, and to generally affirm the literal truth of scripture through rational explanation. He also affirms the existence of miraculous occurrences, citing examples of well-known natural phenomena to support his claim.[17] Finally, Augustine wraps up City of God by addressing certain questions concerning the details of the resurrection of the faithful which would come at the end of the millennium. Because the resurrection would include the restoration of one's earthly body, Augustine also had to refute the Platonists who claimed that bodies would be too heavy to stay in heaven, as well as answer many questions concerning the condition and appearance of resurrected bodies.[18]

In sum, City of God consolidated the tradition of ecclesiastical history begun by Eusebius and developed the sacred/profane dichotomy into the paradigm of the two cities. Into this format Augustine also introduced an eschatological element to history. This he did through the simultaneous explication of history and theology, weaving them tightly together into a nearly seamless doctrine of the steady march, according to the will of God, toward the end of days. Also, in the hands of Augustine, history became teleological, focused on the great purpose of fulfilling God's plan. This doctrine, the development of which was motivated by the destruction of Rome, was intended to encourage the citizens of the crumbling empire to hold tight to the Christian faith, for although the world seemed on the brink of disaster, it was intended by God to be so. To adhere to their faith and submit to their fate was the obligation of every Christian. In this way, Augustine (although he may not have been aware of it) more or less closed the book on one civilization, that of the Roman empire, and opened the window to a new one, medieval Europe.

And indeed, just as Augustine had suggested, to the average inhabitant of early medieval Europe, the world certainly seemed to be declining toward the eschaton. After the final collapse of the western empire, after the departure of the relative order which it had imposed, came chaos, or so it must have appeared to those who still remembered Rome. During the fourth and fifth centuries, the Gothic and other "barbarian" tribes of northern Europe and the steppe country were consolidating their massive migration westward and southward, as they ultimately occupied most of what had been the western empire. Europe became increasingly fragmented. In the absence of a strong, centralized force which could bind them together, isolated and diverse regional cultures began to develop independently across the continent. Thus the once-universal culture of Rome degenerated into a shifting cluster of ethnic communities, about which we know very little. Each was its own dark and mysterious room into which one can now barely peer. Across the continent, literacy declined precipitously, and was kept alive almost exclusively within the Church. Hence the history, as scarce as it was, written during the early middle ages was tinted with the distinctive shade of Christianity, based on the doctrine of Augustine.

Even so, the resulting histories were by no means uniform. Most were written by clerics of one sort or another, and most reflect, to a greater or lesser extent, the Augustinian world view and the hand of God upon history. The clerical historians varied greatly with respect to education, style, ecclesiastical status, and the quality of their sources and scholarship. Some, like Bede the Venerable, were learned men of high rank within the church who had ready access to source materials. Others such as Jordanes apparently had at least some access to sources, but his status within the Church is less than clear. Still others, like Nennius, were poorly educated monks forced to rely on remote sources and oral tradition. The number of historical works produced between 500 and 1000 is few, and the number which have survived until the present is fewer still. It is therefore difficult to generalize about the historiography of this period.

It is, indeed, difficult to generalize even within a limited geographical area. A study of the isle of Britain, "situated on almost the utmost border of the earth, towards the south and west, and poised in the divine balance, as it is said, which supports the whole world,"[19] proves this. Of the period defined as the latter half of the first millennium C.E., British history suffers from a lack of surviving sources worse than any other region in Europe. The oldest of the few which remain is De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written by a Welsh monk named Gildas.[20] Gildas, who wrote between 540 and 547, is almost universally panned by historiographers as being inaccurate, hysterical, and biased. And indeed, the tone of De Excidio is not particularly calm or rational. Gildas was no Augustine, but Augustine's influence is quite visible in Gildas' epistle. In his hyperbolic style, Gildas viewed the social and political decay of fifth century Britain as an apocalypse.

It was not Gildas' primary purpose to write history; rather, as he freely admits, the "subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land."[21]He apparently used no sources, relying solely upon what was widely known about the events of the limited period of time of which he wrote. Yet if the reader can forgive his extended agonizing and garment rending over the pitiful state of politics and morality of his day, one will find kernels of historical fact, as even his many critics are grudgingly forced to admit. Gildas is the only source for the crucial period during which the Roman legions departed Britain and the Germanic peoples moved in. His is the only account of the fateful collaboration between the indiscreet British King Vortigern and his Saxon mercenaries against the persistent Pictish invasions from the north, and of the subsequent adventus Saxonum in Britain. It was this latter event, the arrival of "the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men," which caused Gildas the most distress, and which inspired his most colourful use of language. The chronology of De Excidio is practically nonexistent; its only temporal clue comes from a passage wherein Gildas describes the siege of Badon Hill, which he dates as "forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity."22] It is assumed that the reader would know when the Saxons had landed, and to which Saxon landing Gildas referred.

The next narrative history to originate from England was much different in character than that of the strident Gildas. In 731, the Venerable Bede completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was also a monk, and it appears that he spent his entire adult life at the monastery in Jarrow, Northumbria. The Ecclesiastical History is but one of many scholarly works which Bede produced, yet it is the one for which he is most famous. This is probably due to the absolute paucity of English historical work during the early Middle Ages, as well as to the high quality of the work itself. While many modern historians curl their lips and sneer at poor Gildas, none would dare do so to Bede. His Ecclesiastical History is universally lauded as a scholarly work of the highest order.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this broad acclaim is that to the twentieth century mind, Bede's history, unlike that of Gildas, is easily recognizable as such. It bears all the marks of a well reasoned, well organized historical account: extensive and critical use of sources, analysis, and synthesis. There is no doubt that Bede was a remarkable scholar. He was, by all accounts, dedicated to a life of study. Admitted to Holy Orders at the exceptionally early age of nineteen, of himself Bede says, "All my life I spent in that same monastery, giving my whole attention to the study of the Holy Scriptures, and in the intervals between the hours of singing in the church, I always took pleasure in learning, or teaching, or writing something."[23] So devoted was he to these activities that later in his life he declined to be elevated to the office of abbot, claiming that "[t]he office demands thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness brings with it distraction of the mind, which impedes the pursuit of learning."[24]

Bede's devotion to scholarship was rivalled only by his piety, which is equally apparent in the Ecclesiastical History. True to the form first developed by Eusebius, Bede's history emphasized the actions of missionaries, saints, and holy martyrs over those of kings and queens. When his mission as an historian came into conflict with his religious devotion, his dedication to his faith took precedence.[25] The Church is the central focus of the work, and Bede clearly assumes that it is the Church alone which is responsible for maintaining civil life. His Ecclesiastical History tells us much about developments within the Church in England, both great (the seventh century controversy over the keeping of Easter) and small (the introduction of sacred music into church services).[26] Taking his cue from Augustine's sanction, Bede also includes many visions and miracles in his history. In the pages of Bede's history he recounts, among others, St. Cuthbert's ability to call forth a spring from dry ground through the strength of his prayer and the miraculous healing power of John the Bishop.[27] The inclusion of miracles also affirms Augustine's doctrine of the two cities: by demonstrating the power of God over base nature (the city of man), the holy men validated belief in the spiritual city of God.

Overall, Bede's treatment of history, though at times he can hardly suppress his religious enthusiasm,[28] is generally very even-handed -- but not completely neutral. There are still shades of the old hostility between Saxon and Briton visible in Bede's writing. Although not nearly as vituperative as Gildas' attack on the character of the Saxons ("a race hateful to both God and man"), even the pious Anglo-Saxon Bede apparently could not resist taking a subtle swipe at the Britons. Speaking of Oswald, "the most Christian king of the Northumbrians" (Bede's home territory), he mentions one year of Oswald's otherwise stellar reign which was "held accursed for the brutal impiety of the [unnamed] King of the Britons."[29]

Unlike Gildas, Bede made extensive use of the many sources which were available to him, which he enumerated in his preface to the Ecclesiastical History. For England's pre-Christian history, he drew from the sizeable library at the Jarrow monastery. When he had exhausted the library at Jarrow, he sent for manuscripts from other English monasteries. More impressive, however, was that he also received manuscripts on loan from Rome through a London priest named Nothelm. For the time since "the English nation received the faith of Christ," Bede used church records from all over England, from which he obtained information about the East and West Saxons, the East Angles, the South Saxons, as well as the provinces of the Isle of Wight, Kent, and Lindsey.[30] Bede's history is not arranged in a strictly chronological manner, and perhaps this is due to the regional nature of his material and the political division of the island into separate kingdoms.

The church records which Bede used as source material almost certainly included a collection of monastic annals. This method of recording events was an invention of the monasteries of England in the sixth century. Originally, the purpose of the annals had been to record the dates of Easter, saints' days, and church festivals. It was the abbot's duty to prepare such a calendar each year. Somewhere near the end of the sixth century, however, the annals began to be used for notations of other kinds. Most of the additions (called "glosses") recorded events which had occurred during the year, although other odd things were also occasionally added to them: genealogies, astronomical phenomena, even corrections of previous glosses. The practice of keeping annals spread to the continent in the seventh century, carried by English missionaries. So valuable did these records prove to be, that Charlemagne later required all monasteries in the Carolingian empire to keep them.[31]

Near the time when Charlemagne was discovering the value of the annals form on the continent, the form itself was undergoing a transformation in England. In the late eighth century, some local monastic annals were combined into larger chronicles. The best surviving example of this sort of plural chronicle is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was apparently first compiled from local annals during the latter part of the ninth century.[32] Six manuscripts of the chronicle have survived, and one theory maintains that it was copied and distributed to various monasteries around the year 891. After that point, the manuscripts begin to vary as their keeping was turned over to the local monks. During the years of war from 911 to 924, the several versions of the chronicle share an emphasis on the wider political and ecclesiastical events of the day. Conversely, during the relative peace between 925 and 975, the chronicles take on a more local character in the absence of the captivating dramas of insular infighting. The biggest news items between 925 and 941 were the ordinations and deaths of bishops. During this period, many years have no entries at all. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, then, is almost like a monastic diary; when great events moved the island, its pages are filled. When life returned to normal, only the most obligatory entries were made.[33]

Another theory on the method of composition of the chronicles is based not on their content, but rather derives from the handwriting found in the manuscripts. According to J. A. Giles, each monastery had its own designated historian, and it was the historian's duty "to copy the history of preceding times from those who were already known to have written of them with success, and to continue the narrative, during his own times, to the best of his ability."[34] A study of the existing manuscripts reveals that lengthy sections, spanning periods of time much longer than one monkish historian might be expected to live, were written in what appears to be the same handwriting. The quality of the ink in which particular sections were penned is another clue as to the contemporaneousness of their composition with other adjacent entries. This seems to indicate that the monasteries "compared notes" from time to time, copying especially good accounts from the chronicles of other monasteries.[35]

Giles's theory of composition seems to explain the unusual overall uniformity of the chronicle. The manuscripts have differing end dates which range from 977 to 1154, with most of them terminating in the mid-eleventh century, but their accounts of critical events are virtually the same, save a few omissions and abridgements. That each monastic historian continued the chronicle "to the best of his ability" is a very telling statement. The varying levels of skill which other medieval writers possessed is evident in the unevenness of medieval historiography in general. For those of lesser ability with less education, Bede was undoubtedly an example to be emulated, but unfortunately, he was a tough act to follow. One consistent trait of the generally inconsistent history written during this period was the obligation of each writer, including Bede, to profess his inadequacy to the task. This may have been a sign of humility before God, or it could have been a device to lower the reader's expectations, or both. Gildas began his De Excidio with "[w]hatever in this my epistle I may write in my humble but well-meaning manner . . . let no one suppose that it springs from contempt of others, or that I foolishly esteem myself as better than they . . ."[36] Similarly, in his introduction to the Ecclesiastical History, Bede implores "all men who shall hear or read this history of our nation" to pray for him and his "manifold infirmities both of mind and body."[37]

The humility of Gildas and Bede was more a matter of form than of necessary apology. Such is not the case with Nennius, another British monk-historian of the late eighth or early-to-mid ninth century. Nennius was apparently a native of Wales.[38] His history is known as Historia Brittonum, and in his preface to the work, Nennius gives 858 as the date of its composition. Presumably he was the designated historian of his monastery, but the markedly different tone of his opening apology shows that he clearly felt inadequate to the task. Said Nennius:

    Be it known to your charity, that being dull in intellect and rude of speech, I have presumed to deliver these things in the Latin tongue, not trusting to my own learning, which is little or none at all.[39]

Historia Brittonum aspires to be exactly that: a history of the Britons. In his preface, Nennius complained that since the coming of the Saxons, too much had been forgotten of British history. Lest "the name of my own people, formerly famous and distinguished, should sink into oblivion, and like smoke be dissipated," and also at the command of his superiors, Nennius composed his history. He described his own method as "heap[ing] together" all of the sources at his disposal, gleaning what he could of the Britons from Roman annals, the works of Eusebius and Isidore of Seville, from Scottish and Saxon chronicles, and "from our ancient traditions."[40] Noticeably absent from this list is Bede, possibly because in his Ecclesiastical History, the Britons are only peripherally represented. Also conspicuously absent is the name of Gildas. This omission is less easy to understand, as Gildas was also a Welshman and British patriot against the Saxons. Either Nennius did not have access to a copy of the De Excidio manuscript, or he cited the work anonymously. The story of the Saxon invasion is included in Historia Brittonum, but it is unclear from whence it came. Even if Nennius' account were mostly borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it none the less includes a pro-British narrative which is strikingly similar to that of Gildas. The patriotic thread of the narrative may have derived from "our ancient traditions," but it is still odd that Gildas is not mentioned at all. Knowledge of Gildas may have been one of the gaps in Nennius's admittedly incomplete learning.

Just as Nennius had claimed, the final product may rightly be called a heap. He was indeed as inadequate to the task as he had feared, yet it is hard to fault him for " having attempted, like a chattering jay," to redact the dissipating history of his people. He freely admits that "I, to this day, have hardly been able to understand, even superficially . . . the sayings of other men; . . . like a barbarian, have I murdered and defiled the language of others."[41] He made no attempt at synthesis of his diverse material, nor at any sort of chronological arrangement. Historia Brittonum consists of a biblical chronology borrowed from Eusebius, a list of cities in Britain, and the obligatory geographical description of the island which had appeared in all British histories from the time of Caesar. Then, before launching into his disjointed history of the Britons, Nennius described their mythological origin as the descendants of Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas.

There is very little ecclesiastical history in Nennius' work. He gives an account of St. Germanus' mission in Britain, and a slightly briefer account of St. Patrick. Nennius ignores completely St. Augustine, upon whom Bede had fawned, and who dominated the first half of his Ecclesiastical History.[42] Nennius actually succeeded in raising more historical questions than he answered, as he is the first source of the legendary or semi-legendary figures of Merlin and Arthur. Traces of the Arthur character, based on Nennius' account, can be found in the epistle of Gildas, but Gildas does not name anyone called "Arthur." Nennius gives a list of twelve battles conducted under Arthur's command, the last and most definitive of which was the battle of Mount Badon, or of Badon's Hill, after which the Saxons were routed for a time. Gildas tells of only one significant battle against the Saxons, that of mons Badonicus, but he does not name the British general. Nennius' source of the Arthurian account is probably from the ancient traditions which he cites in his preface, which may have been preserved in the bardic or oral traditions of the Welsh.

Nennius' nobly conceived but ineptly executed history paved the way for a much more significant historian in the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who, incidentally, was also a Welsh cleric. To call Geoffrey an historian is, by modern standards, to push the limits of the term to their extremes, but he occupies a unique position in English medieval historiography. Between the Roman withdrawal from the island and the Norman conquest, there had been a general dearth of historical writing. In the twelfth century, however, the ranks of the historians suddenly swelled. Geoffrey was one of the first of this group, which also included Henry of Huntingdon, William of Malmesbury, and William of Newburgh. In 1136, Geoffrey completed a work titled History of the Kings of Britain. Although panned by his fellow historians, Geoffrey's history enjoyed a widespread popular success.[43]

Geoffrey drew material from Gildas, Nennius, and Bede for his History, and he admitted as much throughout the book. But he claimed to have an advantage which neither the earlier historians nor his contemporary rivals had: possession of "a certain very ancient book written in the British language." That very ancient book, Geoffrey assured his reader, was "attractively composed to form a consecutive and orderly narrative" which "set out all the deeds of these men, from Brutus, the first King of the Britons, down to Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo." The book was lent to him by his friend Walter, the Archbishop of Oxford, who was also considered to be learned in the field of history. It was at Walter's request, as Geoffrey wrote in the dedication of his History, that he endeavoured to translate the book from "the British language" (most historians understand this to mean Welsh) into Latin.[44]

Equipped with Archbishop Walter's book, Geoffrey had in his hands a complete and continuous history of the island -- or so he said. That very ancient book is the centre of a controversy that has clung to Geoffrey since his own time. There is no surviving manuscript of the book. Most historians confess that there is very little (if any) firm evidence to support the belief that a book like this ever existed, but many of them are loath to give up the quest. In 1951 a variant version of History was published which differs in many ways from the standard Latin vulgate text. This version lacked dedications, the acknowledgment of Archbishop Walter, and any references to a very ancient book, all of which appear in one form or another in the vulgate texts. Examination of the variant version led some scholars to theorize that this may have been Geoffrey's very ancient book. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this theory. First, the book lacks the antiquity one would expect it to have; indeed, it seems to be contemporary with Geoffrey himself. Second, it is not written in the "British language," it is written in Latin.[45] To understand the controversy over the very ancient book, however, one must examine Geoffrey's History first.

The History of the Kings of Britain is a detailed narrative which begins with the Trojan Diaspora which followed the fall of Troy. Geoffrey spent many pages on Brutus, the Trojan who was guided by the goddess Diana to lead Britain's first inhabitants to the island (that is, if you don't count the giants that were living there at the time). Brutus founded the city of Troia Nova (New Troy), later called Trinovantum, later called London, and it is after him that the island and its new resident population are named.[46] From these beginnings the Britons developed a sophisticated civilization, complete with roads, amphitheatres, and baths. Two wise lawgivers, Dunvallo Molmutius and Queen Marcia, separately codified bodies of just laws for the people.[47] There was a dramatic power struggle between two brothers, Belinus and Brennius, over the kingship of Britain to which Geoffrey paid special attention. Eventually the Romans arrive, and they are surprised to find a civilization very much like their own thriving on this island that was "situated on almost the utmost border of the earth."[48]

In this brief summary of the early history of Britain lies the essence of Geoffrey's historical method: he was a bold and unrepentant revisionist. He was very careful to retain the sequence of events as recorded in other sources, but the outcomes he freely changes to suit himself. Never mind that Caesar's description of the Britons did not include any mention of advanced civilizations with baths and amphitheatres. Never mind the accounts of Bede and Nennius which record the defeat of the Britons with little effort by the Romans. During Caesar's second campaign against the island, the Britons planted thick metal-tipped spikes "as thick as a man's thigh" into the bed of the Thames, with the intention of piercing the hulls of the Roman ships as they sailed upriver. Both Bede and Nennius report that the Romans easily saw through the trick and avoided the spikes altogether.[49] Geoffrey, however, claimed that the Roman ships ran upon the spikes and "[t]housands of soldiers were drowned as the river water flowed into the holed ships and sucked them down."[50]

With only a cursory examination of the sources, it is obvious that Geoffrey's version of history is quite at odds with other versions. The question, then, is why? Why does Geoffrey write what appear to be nothing more than wild fabrications? One answer might be that he really did have a very ancient book from which he gleaned the real story. He very adeptly inserted phrases into his narrative which almost convince the reader that he did indeed have a book which contained even more detail than he can include. More likely, though, is that he instead had an agenda, and the audacity to push the limits of revisionism to extreme lengths to achieve it. Geoffrey's agenda was to give a more flattering shape to the history of the Britons. By Geoffrey's time, the Britons had been successively conquered by the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, and finally the Normans. Britain's centuries-old role as doormat for any group of would-be invaders was undoubtedly humiliating. As a Welshman, Geoffrey's goal was to put the Britons back on an even social and cultural footing with the rest of the civilized western world. It is difficult to know to whom he was writing and what precisely he hoped to achieve, but one thing is certain: Geoffrey's History had far-reaching and long-lasting effects on British cultural mythology and western European literature.[51]

The way in which he achieved these effects is brilliant. He began by establishing the Britons as a dignified and ancient civilization descended from Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy. This legitimised the Britons by connecting them to the classical Mediterranean civilizations, among them Greece and Rome. Therefore, according to Geoffrey, as Caesar looked across the Channel from Gaul, he felt a certain kinship to the Britons based on their common ancestry.[52] The Trojan connection was not a myth simply created ex nihilo by Geoffrey; Nennius had mentioned it in minimal detail three hundred years earlier as one of three conflicting explanations of British origins. Geoffrey seized upon the idea, fleshed out the gaps in the story, and thereby created a very respectable past for his people. He attempted to show that in spite of the many times that Britain had been conquered, her dignified culture had survived with respectable continuity.

Most of Geoffrey's historical material is appropriated from recognizable sources and manipulated to produce a pro-British propaganda piece. The complexity of the finished product is impressive. After giving the Britons a Trojan origin, Geoffrey begins weaving together many threads, tying the previously sketchy past to the political present with great artistry. The next example of British accomplishment comes by way of Belinus and Brennius, the sons of Dunvallo Molmutius the Law-Giver. According to Geoffrey, the brothers invaded Gaul and sacked Rome in 390 B.C., "proving" that Britons had conquered Rome, the greatest civilization in the world, long before Rome conquered the Britons.[53] We know from many ancient sources which predate Geoffrey that Rome was indeed sacked in 390 B.C., and that the raid was led by a man named Brennus, but he and his invading horde were Gallic, not British.[54] In this episode several features of Geoffrey's editing method can be seen: he modified the historical Brennus, created the brother Belinus, borrowed the Gallic invasion, but omitted the parts where the Gauls seemed weak or foolish.[55] Like the tale of Trojan origin, the story of the sack of Rome was not pure fabrication; it is a creative rearrangement of the available facts, with details added as necessary. These examples show that Geoffrey was very careful and very skilled in making sure that all the various strands of his stories come neatly together at the end to glorify the Briton civilization.[56]

As an historian, Geoffrey had more in common with Walter Scott than with the Venerable Bede; his lasting contributions are more literary than historical. Geoffrey's most famous characters are the British King Arthur, his other-worldly advisor Merlin, and Arthur's legendary court, all of whom emerge in full vibrant colour from the mysterious silences of Gildas and Bede. Remember, until Nennius heaped together his Historia Brittonum in the ninth century, there had been no mention of anyone named Arthur in any of the manuscripts of early British history, or in any Roman annals, and Nennius' depictions had been sketchy, to say the least. In Geoffrey's hands they came to life and acquired a "history." It is because of Geoffrey that nearly everyone in the western world knows who King Arthur is. It was he who lit the romantic literary flame, with which European writers had a field day for several hundred years. The medieval romance writers Chrétien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory expanded the Arthurian story and infused it with contemporary cultural values, and created an epic tragedy which defined the behavioural code of chivalry. Another little-known contribution of Geoffrey's to western literature is the story of King Lear, which William Shakespeare adapted and made famous four hundred years later.[57] The attempts by his fellow twelfth century English historians to discredit him as on of their own apparently fell on deaf ears. It was not until the nineteenth century that Geoffrey's credentials as an historian were seriously questioned.

Two common threads run though the diverse British/English histories of Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. The first is that all were written by men of the Church, being the primary repository of literacy during the time in question. The second is that of ethnocentrism. Gildas beat his breast and wailed against the incursions of the Picts, Scots, and Saxons. Bede, the Anglo-Saxon, hardly saw fit to include any mention the Britons in his work. Nennius, in spite of his self-uncertainty, felt compelled to rescue the history of the Britons from the obscurity into which it was sinking. And Geoffrey, taking it several steps farther, concocted an ancient and glorious civilization for the Britons, one which was on a par with that of Rome itself. Beyond this common thread, the Anglo-British histories, although several also embody the sub-theme of the repression of various heresies, are all quite different in character. Gildas' only outside source seems to have been the Bible, which he quoted extensively. He was motivated to write by the rampant depravity which he perceived that Britain had descended into, and out of the fear of retribution by a vengeful God. The sole purpose of De Excidio was to issue a broad exhortation to repentance, a call for the Britons to save themselves and their homeland through a return to piety. Particularly noxious to Gildas was a resurgence of the anti-Trinitarian "Arian treason, fatal as a serpent, and vomiting its poison from beyond the sea."[58]

In sharp contrast to Gildas, Bede's history was calm, scholarly, and well-researched. Bede had the broadest access to source materials of any of the British or English historians whom have here been discussed, and he made good use of them. Bede's purpose was twofold: to exercise his scholarly calling, and to glorify the Church. The Ecclesiastical History shows, in a manner less strident than that of Gildas, the Augustinian notion of the hand of God working in history. He also took pains to declare the true doctrine of the Church and to denounce the hydra-headed Pelagian heresy which had "sadly corrupted the faith of the Britons." Here the doctrine of Augustine appears again as Bede affirms his conceptualisations of grace and original sin over the apostate theology of the Pelagians.[59]

Nennius, in turn, shows a marked contrast both to Bede and to Gildas. He claimed to have used sources which he named, but he did not always succeed in transferring the finer form and language of his sources to his own work. Beyond his personal indignation at state of British (as opposed to English) historiography and his painful sense of inadequacy, Nennius had no further overt agenda or distinctive literary tone. Indirectly, he upheld the dogma of the Church, as God and his saints are peppered throughout the narrative, as more of an assumed reality than as a direct delineation of doctrine. Only once does Nennius make a plain doctrinal declaration. While giving the genealogy of the first Saxon invaders, one of whom claimed descent from the son of a god, he took care to point out to the reader that it was not the same as "our Lord Jesus Christ (who before the beginning of the world, was with the Father and the Holy Spirit, co-eternal and of the same substance, and who, in compassion to human nature, disdained not to assume the form of a servant)."[60] Aside from this impulsive Trinitarian declaration, Nennius was more consumed with the vexing task of writing than with ecclesiastical fervour.

Finally, there is Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose work is clearly of a different sort than all which had gone before. Although Geoffrey himself was, shortly before his death, the bishop-elect of St. Asaph's, his History of the British Kings is remarkably secular in character. God is present, but only peripherally. This is partly due to the uneven emphasis which Geoffrey places on certain periods of British history. The greatest number of pages are devoted to the two eras of Britain's greatest glory: the high civilization of classical origin which was imported by Brutus the Trojan, and the reign of Arthur. The former occurs in pre-Christian times, and God is noticeably absent from this section. The reign of Arthur, whom later writers converted into a very Christian king, is much less so in Geoffrey's version. It is only after the passing of Arthur that God steps actively into history. Geoffrey's treatment of this matter depicts the Britons almost as latter-day Hebrews. His is a tale of God's chosen people who, in spite of His favour and blessing, repeatedly backslide until God finally loses patience with them and abandons them to the fate of their own making. After Arthur receives his mortal wound and is spirited away to Avalon and the British kingship begins its irrevocable slide into moral degeneration, God withholds his intervention and condemns the Britons to a period of dispersion and suffering, a period which would end at God's pleasure with the return of Arthur to reunite the scattered Britons.[61]

Just as there was little uniformity in the writing of history within the geographically confined space of England, neither was there much uniformity on the European continent before the twelfth century. There are certain parallels between the two: with few exceptions, most continental histories were written by men of the Church, and most exhibit the same ethnocentrism as the English histories. In the sixth century Gothic History of Jordanes, this ethnocentrism occasionally takes an extreme form, bordering on xenophobia. The Gothic History was written at the request of someone named Castalius, whom had asked that Jordanes condense the Gothic history of Cassiodorus Senator from its original twelve books into one, and to extend it to the present day. Jordanes agreed, but there was one small problem: Jordanes was in Constantinople at the time, and the twelve-book history of Cassiodorus was not. However, as he wrote to Castalius in his preface, because he had read it twice, he believed that he could adequately reproduce its essential content from memory, and add other "fitting matters from some Greek and Roman histories" with which he was also familiar.[62]

He opened his work with the traditional apology for his lack of skill, only in this case it does not quite ring true. "[R]eproach me not," wrote Jordanes, "but receive and read with gladness what you have asked me to write."[63] His thinly disguised pride at his accomplishment may relate to his later admission that "[I was] an unlearned man before my conversion."[64] His pride also extends to his membership within the Gothic tribe; his bias is unmistakable. A sizeable part of his history deals with European ethnography and the various "barbarian" tribes which had settled there. In most of his descriptions, Jordanes is somewhat restrained. Yet when he tells of "the Huns, [who] flamed forth against the Goths," he exercises no censorship over his derogatory language. The Huns were "a stunted, foul and puny tribe" descended, he tells us, from Scythian witches and "unclean spirits."[65] So horrible was their appearance that it caused their foes to flee in terror, for the Huns had "a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes."[66]

The main value of Jordanes' history to contemporary historians is its content, and not its style. The twelve book Gothic history of Cassiodorus Senator is lost in its original form, but is preserved somewhat in the writing of Jordanes. More importantly, Jordanes was the first to attempt to relate the history of the German migration, for which he had no written sources. By putting the oral traditions and sagas of the Goths in writing, he preserved an important piece of history, which now serves as one of the few sources of that distant and opaque time.[67] His style reflects his status as a latecomer to learning; his work is more reminiscent of Nennius than of Bede. Jordanes' narrative frequently rambles and digresses. He is uncritical and in places, quite credulous, especially with respect to events in Scythia. As mentioned, it is there where the Huns were spawned by native witches. Also, with apparent belief and sincerity he relates the origins and practices of a tribe of Scythian Amazons.[68]

One tale in particular embodies both his credulity and his bias, namely that of Maximin the wrestling giant. Maximin (called Maximus Magnus in later histories) was a "semi-barbarian," whose father was a Goth, and whose mother was of the Alani (presumably he inherited his semi-barbarous status through his maternal lineage). Maximin, in spite of his "most humble parentage," was recruited into the service of the Emperor's body guard after his performance at the Emperor Severus' military games. Severus was impressed "at his great size -- for his stature, it is said, was more than eight feet," and at the giant's proficiency at wrestling. Eventually he became Emperor (or usurper, as later historians would call him) by vote of his army when their commander was slain. Maximin's one unfortunate vice was that he persecuted Christians, but Jordanes seemed willing to forgive him this one flaw, preferring instead to proudly display Maximin as an example of how a low-born Goth became an emperor by virtue of superior physical prowess.[69]

The tale of Maximin points to one of the most striking features of Jordanes' history of the Goths as compared with other early medieval histories: God is consigned to a relatively unimportant role. He is not a central figure or motivating force behind historical events. The Gothic History resembles the Greek pagan histories more than the post-Augustinian histories of other writer who were schooled in the Church. God does not actively appear until nearly half way through Jordanes' narrative, and then it is only to justify the Goths' inadvertent burning of a small cabin which, unbeknownst to them, housed the wounded emperor Valens:. . . and thus he was cremated in royal splendour. Plainly it was a direct judgment of God that he should be burned with fire by the very men whom he had perfidiously led astray when they sought the true faith, turning them aside from the flame of love into the fire of hell.[70]

Jordanes did not give a date for his conversion to Christianity, but he did say that he was a man at the time it occurred. Perhaps his late conversion accounts for the minor role to which God is assigned in his history. Whatever the reason, Jordanes was foremost a Goth, and secondarily a Christian.

The History of the Franks, completed by Gregory of Tours between 591 and 594, is more true to the Augustinian form than is Jordanes' Gothic History. An Eusebian chronology of the world since Creation opens the history, and God is active on nearly every page. Accounts of holy miracles replace the tall sensational tales of Jordanes, and heresy once again rears its head. Indeed, Gregory devoted the first two pages of Book One of The History of the Franks to a lengthy declaration of faith, as "established by the three hundred and eighteen bishops of Nicaea."[71] Gregory displayed little tolerance of heretics, and he frequently quizzed the various envoys of the Frankish kings as to the nature of their faith. If he detected the taint of Arianism, Gregory argued with the heretic and attempted to convert him to the correct doctrine. He, by his own account, did not always succeed.[72]

This shows one of Gregory's traits as a writer: he seems quite honest. There are no undue exaggerations in History of the Franks concerning events with which Gregory was contemporary. He did not shy away from his failures to convert heretics, and he freely told of his fellow churchmen who had fallen into grave error.[73] Another of his stylistic traits is the galloping pace at which he wrote. Unlike Bede's calm pious history and unlike Jordanes' meandering tales, Gregory's narrative moves apace from one thing to the next rather briskly. The bulk of The History of the Franks is concerned with matters of the Church and of the Frankish kings and princes. Yet there are numerous small details embedded in the traditional "kings and Church" format which reveal some of the habits of the Merovingian culture. Gregory mentioned various diets, hair styles, the use of a pumice stone as an eraser, and the use of scissors. There are also multiple asides which describe the wearing of hair shirts, the presence of glass in church windows, and descriptions of various types of penance.

During his time there was also an appearance by one whom Gregory described as an Antichrist. There had been a plague in Gaul, as well as famine and pestilence. A "certain man of Bourges" had been encompassed by a swarm of flies during the pestilence, and afterward he wandered from place to place wearing skins and acting like a holy man. By "evil device[s] of the devil," this man was able to heal the sick and foresee the future. He professed that he was Christ, and he travelled with a woman named Mary. Leading his entourage were "naked men, who leapt and performed antics as they went." Eventually he gained a following of more than three thousand people, including a few priests of the Church. As he grew bolder in his role, he began to threaten those who would not worship him. His march was finally halted in the territory of Le Velay by bishop Aurelius of Anicium who had the false Christ cut into three pieces by swords.[74]

The History of the Franks, excluding the Creation chronology, extends from 397 to 591, or roughly the time during which the great migrations of the Germanic tribes were nearing their end. Curiously, Gregory's account makes no mention whatsoever of the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410. It is not because he excluded the Goths from his narrative; they and their various conflicts and kings are sprinkled throughout the early part of Gregory's history. Another hypothesis for Gregory's omission might be that due to the lack of cultural cohesion and poor communication, he did not know about it or recognize its importance. This seems extremely unlikely, however, for to be unaware of the event would have meant that Gregory had never read City of God. One clue might possibly lie in an account from Bede: in the "two years before the invasion of Rome by Alaric, king of the Goths, when the nations of the Alani, Suevi, Vandals, and many others with them, having defeated the Franks and passed the Rhine . . . (italics mine)."[75] Possibly Gregory omitted this important little event because it cast the Franks in a less than flattering light. However, this explanation does not ring true either, for to do so would be a violation of his apparent principle of honesty.

Whatever the reason for the omission, it does little to diminish Gregory's work. He seemed to have a sense that The History of the Franks had been a worthwhile labour. At the history's end, Gregory entreats those who would follow:

   These works may be written in an unpolished style, but I adjure all of you, bishops of the Lord, who after me in my lowliness shall govern the church of Tours . . . never to let these books be destroyed or rewritten, by choosing out some parts and omitting others, but to leave them all complete and intact in your time just as I myself have left them. . . . If aught therein please thee, I refuse thee not permission to translate it into verse; but leave my work complete.[76]

Fortunately, the future bishops of Tours heeded Gregory's wishes. The History of the Franks was one of the last wide-ranging historical narratives to be produced anywhere in the western European continent until several centuries hence.[77]

During the two hundred year period between the death of Gregory of Tours in 594 and the advent of the Carolingian renaissance, the familiar ecclesiastical and ethnic histories almost ceased to be written. In their stead, a new biographical form was developed. The biography itself was not new, as it had been a popular literary form in Roman times. But during the medieval period, under the influence of Augustine, biographies assumed a new shape and purpose. Most of these fall into the category of hagiography, or lives of the saints. The hagiographers, and they were numerous, recorded some material of historical worth, but their primary purpose was to enshrine the saint. Since one qualification for sainthood was the performance of miracles, the lives of the saints are duly packed with them. Extracting factual material from the lives of the saints requires much patience and a healthy dose of scepticism.

Sometime between 829 and 836, a man named Einhard wrote The Life of Charlemagne. This biography was an exception to almost all of the historical forms and traditions previously discussed. The Life of Charlemagne was not the life of a saint, nor did it follow the hagiographic pattern; it was nearer in form to the ancient Roman imperial biographies. Nor was it written by a cleric. Einhard had been one of the beneficiaries of Charlemagne's effort to produce a secular class of literate men upon which he could draw to assist him in the administration of his widening empire. As a child "of [a] comparatively noble" Frankish family, Einhard was sent to be educated at the monastic school at Fulda, of which his family was a benefactor. Later he was selected by Charlemagne to continue his education at state expense in the Palace School at Aachen.[78] In 794 he began his employment as secretary to the court of Charlemagne.

Einhard's stated goal was not to recount deeds of antiquity, yet he did give a brief account of the transition from the Merovingian to the Carolingian dynasty. In his brief opening chapter, one thin thread of continuity bridges the gap of the two intervening centuries which separated Einhard and Gregory of Tours. When the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, was deposed by Pope Stephen II, his long hair, the badge of his kingship (a custom described by Gregory) was shorn and he was shut up in a monastery.[79] But Einhard wasted little time on this sort of history; it was important to him only inasmuch as it paved the way for the eventual ascension of Charlemagne, that "most distinguished and deservedly most famous king."[80] Of Charlemagne's boyhood, Einhard says nothing. The reason, he claimed, was that he had no personal knowledge of the matter, and he "therefore decided to leave out what [was] not really known" in favour of the king's deeds and habits, of which he had more direct evidence.

This statement tells the reader much about Einhard's education. "What was really known" had not been a uniformly important criterion for determining whether or not a story merited inclusion within a history since the classical Roman period. In the early medieval period there were very few exceptions to this generalized acceptance of facts without evidence, one of whom was Bede. And indirectly, it was in fact Bede's disciplined scholarship which influenced Einhard's decision to omit the childhood narrative due to a lack of direct knowledge. At Aachen, Einhard had been taught by the famous scholar Alcuin, and Alcuin had in turn been taught by Egbert, who had been a student of Bede's.[81] Einhard, as the great-grand-student of Bede, had inherited the disciplined critical method of Anglo-Saxon England's greatest scholar.

Even so, Einhard did little to disguise his admiration for Charlemagne, although his prose style is restrained and even. He first recounted the numerous wars waged by Charlemagne as part of his empire-building campaign. Curiously, Einhard seemed quite neutral in his accounts of the skirmishes with the Danes, the Avars, the Bretons, the Bavarians, and the Slavs. Yet when he speaks of the conflict with the Saxons, he speaks with an uncharacteristic distaste. Of the Saxons, he said they were "ferocious by nature" and "much given to devil worship."[82]

Einhard then moves on to Charlemagne's personal life. He does not shy away from describing his neck as "short and rather thick" and his stomach as "a trifle too heavy." In this section of the biography it becomes clear that Einhard knew Charlemagne well. His is a portrait of a man who slept lightly, loved to swim, loved to eat, and loved to learn. However, he apparently had no talent for penmanship. Einhard tells that Charlemagne kept writing tablets under his pillows so he could practice forming letters before going to bed. "[A]lthough he tried very hard," said Einhard, "he had begun too late in life and he made little progress."[83] So devoted was Charlemagne to education that he even schooled his daughters.[84] At meals he enjoyed having Augustine's City of God read aloud to him while he ate.[85]

The combination of Einhard's education, literary skill, and his firsthand knowledge of his subject produced an extremely satisfying, if somewhat biased, biography which is a tribute to Charlemagne's belief in education. Charlemagne's appreciation for history had, as mentioned earlier, prompted him to require that monastic annals be kept throughout his empire. After his death, his empire quickly dissolved, but the efforts of Alcuin and the assembled literati at Aachen had a much longer lasting effect on European culture. After this point in history, the immense intellectual void which characterized the seventh and early eighth centuries gave way to the gradual resurgence of literacy.[86]

Tracing this thread back to the study of the historiography of the British Isles, there are rough parallels between it and the continental works produced during the period between the death of Charlemagne and the twelfth century. Monastic chronicles continued to be kept after Charlemagne's demise, thus perpetuating the recording of events, if not the actual writing of history. The classical works transcribed by the Aachen scholars were recopied and circulated, which, if nothing else, increased the availability of intellectual literature. Contact with Arabic scholars in occupied Iberia also contributed to the increasingly intellectual climate of the early High Middle Ages. By the beginning of the twelfth century, narrative histories had once more emerged from the disjointed and uneven chronicles of the monkish keepers of events.

In 1095 Pope Urban II sent out the call for what would later be called the First Crusade, an event which would have an impact on European culture which he could not possibly have foreseen. Though the first and following crusades were failures with respect to their intended purposes, the effects of the re-exposure to lost learning which was a by-product of the crusades were profound. Historiography had already reacquired a narrative form, as is evident in Fulcher of Chartres' chronicle of the First Crusade. Furthermore, Fulcher's narrative exhibits a fine, crisp dramatic style. Describing the circumstances which led to Urban II's decision to call for the crusade, Fulcher wrote in bold, rhythmic form:

    He saw that the faith of Christianity was being destroyed to excess by everybody, by the clergy as well as by the laity. He saw that peace was altogether discarded by the princes of the world, who were engaged in incessant warlike contention and quarrelling among themselves. He saw the wealth of the land being pillaged continuously. He saw many of the vanquished, wrongfully taken prisoner and very cruelly thrown into the foulest dungeons, either ransomed for a high price or, tortured by the triple torments of hunger, thirst, and cold, blotted out by a death hidden from the world. He saw holy places violated; monasteries and villa burned. He saw that no one was spared of any human suffering, and that things divine and human alike were held in derision.[87]

Fulcher's intriguing, metered style continues throughout his account of the First Crusade, and is somewhat reminiscent of a heroic, driving chanson de geste. The lowly historical chronicle had begun to acquire a literary quality.

It was upon this literary quality which Geoffrey of Monmouth and others seized. Historical accounts became lyrical and readable, and increasing filled with drama. Though falling short of modern standards, when the historiography of the twelfth century is compared to that of the sixth, it is truly a marvellous development. Although the eschatological Augustinian world view still prevailed, it was as if the literati of Christendom, realizing that seven or eight hundred years after the fall of Rome the millennium had still not arrived, had decided to spend its latter days more aesthetically than ascetically.

It is odd that during this "dark" period of history, it was insular England which was able to preserve and develop historiographic traditions, and to eventually retransmit them to continental Europe. It is not easy to explain this phenomenon. Like the continent, it too had its share of disruptive "barbarian" invasions. Furthermore, Britain lost its Roman culture earlier than the rest of Europe. Its most crucial historical phase, that of the Roman exodus and the Saxon incursion, was also its "darkest" with respect to historical writing. Yet Anglo-Britain managed to produce the finest historian of the early Middle Ages, Bede the Venerable. It also was the birthplace of a unique historiographic innovation, the monastic annals.

In the final analysis, it is astonishing how influential the Venerable Bede actually was. Humble Bede, who declined to be raised to the position of abbot of the Jarrow monastery lest it detract from his scholarly pursuits, was the wellspring from whence came the scholar Alcuin, who in turn directed the educational facet of the Carolingian renaissance. Furthermore, the Carolingian renaissance, as we have seen, was the first spark which ignited the slow burn which, although it did not set Europe aflame, did manage to provide enough light to permit the copying and production of manuscripts. This was sufficient to maintain the art of learning until other tinder boxes cast other wild sparks upon the dry straw of the European intellect.


  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, also the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with Illustrative Notes, a Map of Anglo-Saxon England, and a General Index, ed. J. A. Giles. 2nd ed. Translated J.A. Giles. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971.
  • Augustine. City of God. In Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, Vol. 2, ed. Whitney J. Oates. Translated by M. Dods, G. Wilson, and J. J. Smith. New York: Random House, 1948.
  • Bede, the Venerable. Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. In The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, also the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with Illustrative Notes, a Map of Anglo-Saxon England, and a General Index, ed. J. A. Giles. 2nd ed. Translated J.A. Giles. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971.
  • Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne. In Two Lives of Charlemagne, ed. Betty Radice. Translated and with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1969; reprint, 1976.
  • Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History. 2 Vols. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953; reprint, 1965.
  • Fulcher of Chartres. The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, Book 1. Translated by Martha E. McGinty. In The First Crusade, ed. Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated and with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1966; reprint, 1968.
  • Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae et Conquestu. Translated and edited by J. A. Giles, Six Old English Chronicles. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900.
  • Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated and with an introduction by O. M. Dalton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927; facsimile edition, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1969.
  • Jordanes. The Gothic History of Jordanes. Translated and with a commentary by Charles Christopher Mierow. 2d ed. Princeton University Press: 1915; reprint, Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1960.
  • Nennius. Historia Brittonum. Translated and edited by J. A. Giles, Six Old English Chronicles. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900.


  • Barker, John. The Superhistorians. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982.
  • Curley, Michael J. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Twayne's English Authors Series. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
  • Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England, c. 550 - c.1307. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974; reprint, 1982.
  • MacDougall, Hugh A. Racial Myth in English History: Trojans, Teutons, and Anglo-Saxons. Montreal: Harvest House, 1982.
  • Thompson, James Westfall, and Bernard J. Holm. A History of Historical Writing. Vol. 1. From the Earliest Times to the End of the Seventeenth Century. The Macmillan Company, 1942; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967.

Dark Rooms and Dry Straw - Historiography of the European Middle Ages, 400-1200 C.E. is Copyright ©1996, Sheila Brynjulfson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


[1] Jordanes, The Gothic History of Jordanes, translated and with a commentary by Charles Christopher Mierow, 2d ed. (Princeton University Press: 1915; reprint, Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1960), 92.
[2] Ibid., 93.
[3] Ibid., 94.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Augustine, City of God, in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 2, ed. Whitney J. Oates, translated by M. Dods, G. Wilson, and J. J. Smith (New York: Random House, 1948), 4-5.
[6] James Westfall Thompson and Bernard J. Holm, A History of Historical Writing, vol. 1, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Seventeenth Century ( The Macmillan Company, 1942; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967), 126.
[7] Ibid., 127-8.
[8] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953; reprint, 1965), book 1 passim.
[9] Thompson, History of Historical Writing, 129.
[10] Augustine, City of God, 10.
[11] Ibid., 36.
[12] It should be noted that using the year 410 as a marker for the end of the western empire is somewhat arbitrary, and more a product of historical hindsight than of contemporary awareness. Jordanes the Goth continued to refer to the Roman empire as existing well beyond 410, as did other writers.
[13] Augustine, City of God, 243.
[14] Ibid., 190, 197.
[15] John Barker, The Superhistorians (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982), 47.
[16] Augustine, City of God, 284.
[17] Ibid., 569. All of his examples given here are more or less credible, with the exception of his claim that mares in Cappadocia are impregnated by the wind.
[18] Ibid., 630-41. Other interesting questions which Augustine tackles: Will those who died as infants be resurrected as babies or adults? Will women, tainted by the sin of Eve, be instead resurrected as men? Will those with infirmities (including the overweight and the malnourished) be healed? Generally speaking, the answer to these questions is that all will be resurrected as adults and retain their original sex, and they will all be attractive, and of average weight.
[19] Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae et Conquestu, trans. and ed. by J. A. Giles, in Six Old English Chronicles, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1900), 2.3. I'm not sure what he meant by "towards the south," nor do I recall ever seeing any commentary on it.
[20] De Excidio is also called, in other places, Liber querulus de excidio Britanniae. See Thompson, History of Historical Writing, 154.
[21] Gildas, De Excidio, 1.1.
[22] Ibid., 2.26.
[23] Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, n The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, also the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with Illustrative Notes, a Map of Anglo-Saxon England, and a General Index, ed. and trans. J. A. Giles (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971), xi, 297.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., 123. By unanimous decree of the Church, the names of several apostate kings were "erased from the catalogue of Christian kings, and no date ascribed to their reign."
[26] Ibid. For controversy over the date of the Easter observance, see 104-6 and 153-60. On the introduction of sacred music, see 173.
[27] Ibid., 227-8, 237-41.
[28] At one point in the Ecclesiastical History, Bede, having just sung the praises of the virgin abbess Queen Etheldrida, just can't resist inserting a hymn of his own composition dedicated to the Holy Virgin. See 207-8.
[29] Ibid., 123.
[30] Ibid., 2-3.
[31] Thompson, History of Historical Writing, 158.
[32] Ibid., 160.
[33] Ibid., 160-1.
[34] J. A. Giles, preface to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, xxxvi.
[35] Ibid., xxxi-xxxiii.
[36] Gildas, De Excidio, 1.1.
[37] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 3-4.
[38] The true identity of Nennius, including questions of when his history was written, whether Nennius actually wrote it, or if his name was really Nennius, is still debated. For the purpose of this paper I shall sidestep this complex debate and treat him and his history at face value, according to the most commonly cited manuscript of his work.
[39] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, trans. and ed. by J. A. Giles, in Six Old English Chronicles (London: George Bell and Sons, 1900), 1.1.
[40] Ibid., 3.2.
[41] Ibid., 3.2, 1.1.
42] Similarly, Bede ignored Patrick completely.
[43] One hundred and eight-six manuscripts of the History of the Kings of Britain have survived, forty-eight of which are complete, and two of which, although fragmentary, date to Geoffrey's own century. See Lewis Thorpe, introduction to History of the Kings of Britain, 28.
[44] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1966; reprint, 1968), 51.
[45] Lewis Thorpe, introduction to History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 16.
[46] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, 73-4.
[47] Ibid., 94, 100. Geoffrey tells us that King Alfred later took this body of law and translated it into Saxon, calling it the "Mercian Law" after wise Queen Marcia the Briton.
[48]Gildas, De Excidio, 2.3. For Caesar's brief monologue on the common Trojan heritage of the Britons and the Romans, see Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, 105.
[49] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, 3.20, and Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 8.
[50] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, 112.
[51] Hugh A. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History: Trojans, Teutons, and Anglo-Saxons (Montreal: Harvest House, 1982), 7.
[52] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, 105.
[53] Ibid., 98-9.
[54] Michael J. Curley, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Twayne's English Authors Series (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 24.
[55] Ibid., 26. The name "Belinus" appears in Nennius' Historia Brittonum (3.19), but he is a Roman proconsul contemporary with Julius Caesar.
[56] Sections of the preceding five pages excerpted from Sheila Brynjulfson, "Geoffrey of Monmouth and The History of the Kings of England," unpublished paper, 1996.
[57] Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England, c. 550 - c.1307 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974; reprint, 1982), 203. Geoffrey's Lear was spelled "Leir," and his rule is alleged to be contemporary with the founding of Rome. See Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, 81-7.
[58] Gildas, De Excidio, 2.12.
[59] Augustine, City of God, 585; Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 26, 32.
[60] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, 3.50.
[61] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, 261, 280-4.
[62] Jordanes, The Gothic History, 51.
[63] Ibid.
[64] Ibid., 127.
[65] Ibid., 85.
[66] Ibid., 86-7.
[67] Thompson, History of Historical Writing, 147.
[68] Jordanes, The Gothic History, 64, 66.
[69] Ibid., 74-6.
[70] Ibid., 90.
[71] Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. and with an introduction by O. M. Dalton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927; facsimile edition, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1969), 5-6.
[72] Ibid., 214-7, 271-4.
[73] See the tale of Dagulf the abbot who, when caught in bed with a "strange woman," is hacked to death with an axe by the strange woman's husband. This was only one of Dagulf's several transgressions. Ibid., 344.
[74] Ibid., 461-3.
[75] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 18. However, I can find no direct reference to the conflict between the Franks and Goths in Jordanes' Gothic history either. There are a few disdainful offhand comments about "the barbarous Franks," but Jordanes preferred to give his almost undivided attention to the far more barbarous Huns.
[76] Ibid., 477.
[77] Thompson, History of Historical Writing, 151.
[78] Lewis Thorpe, introduction to Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, in Two Lives of Charlemagne, ed. Betty Radice, trans. by Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1969; reprint, 1976), 13.
[79] Einhard, The Life of Charlemagne, 55.
[80] Ibid., 51.
[81] Ibid., 189.
[82] Ibid., 61. Of this conflict, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says only: "780: This year the Old-Saxons and the Franks fought." See Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 340.
[83] Ibid., 79.
[84] Ibid., 74.
[85] Ibid., 78.
[86] Thompson, History of Historical Writing, 165.
[87] Fulcher of Chartres, The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, book 1, trans. by Martha E. McGinty, in The First Crusade, ed. Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), 26. The rhythm of this passage reminds me of Jefferson's list of grievances from the Declaration of Independence.

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