What would we write in a modern day Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

Nerdy thought time. I spend a lot of my time (too much really) consulting my slightly dusty copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and if I’m not at home and I need to know something, I google it and find one of the older editions that’s out of copyright and freely available on the internet.

I love it and hate it in equal measure. Sometimes I’m tricked into thinking that the long entries contain a wealth of information, only then, when I start to dissect it do I realise that it’s very lacking in some information. It’s focus to me (in the tenth and eleventh century at the moment) is mainly with deaths, religious appointments and sometimes, the whereabouts of the King, but not actually ever enough to work out anyone’s itinerary. Yet I love it as well because it can be so terse with information. We do live in an age of information overload, but it’s no new thing. When I studied the Tudors I found the amount of information difficult to digest, and I’ve often thought that’s why I enjoy earlier history so much more. There is less to take in, so I stand more chance of remembering it all, and there’s also a huge scope for interpreting the information differently.

So, with that in mind, I wondered what, if anything, I’d chose to write about today’s society, if I were asked to construct some sort of Chronicle on events in the UK, and it’s not an easy one to answer.

First things first, the population of Anglo-Saxon England was tiny compared to today – I think it’s estimated at about 2 million for England. That means there’s a lot less people to write about for a start in the past than there are today. Another important consideration is that so few people wrote in Anglo-Saxon England, unlike today, and those that did often tended to do so with the weight of God on their side. Somehow it seems to have made the things they wrote down seem more empowered than if Joe Bloggs had been writing a blog.

I have this impression that somewhere in Anglo-Saxon England, a little raft of men sat around a smokey fire at the end of each year and decided what they thought was important (of course this wasn’t the case – the ASC was a retrospective construction that may have contained kernels of knowledge from earlier sources now lost to us, and which, it has been argued, was added to at certain points – maybe twenty years by one scribe, maybe only a few by another). For the men who wrote it, their world was concerned with who was King, who was their Abbot or Bishop, and for about a hundred and fifty years, what the blinking Vikings were up to!

What would we, today, think of as our priorities? Who would get to chose, to decide, who would get a veto if they didn’t like what was put in? Would we care anymore about who was King or Queen, who was born, who died, who travelled where? Would it even be a written record or a selection of images? Where would it be stored? Who would have access to it?

Organisations keep records on people now, on themselves. Newspapers and TV news outlets have a huge amount of information stored away on huge servers, so do big companies, so does everyone really. What would be important? What would people a thousand years from now need to know?

If the world is truly on the brink of a monumental climatic change, then really, a thousand years from now society could be completely different from today’s, that means that historians of the future would need to know everything, down to the price of a pink of milk. But is that what we, as a society, want to be remembered for? Would the wars we’ve fought in the last few centuries be allowed to define us, just as the Viking wars have had such a huge impact on the way Anglo-Saxon England is portrayed now? Either way, what future generations think about UK society in the twenty-first century, it certainly won’t be what we want to be remembered for, no matter how much information is manipulated by government and groups with self-interests. So what would I write down? I don’t know. i might just stick to Kings and Queens, Archbishop and Bishops, Abbots, laws and wars, those who are outlawed, famines, plagues and bad harvests. If the future is as strangely different to today as the Anglo Saxon period is to most people, then really, that might be the only things future generations care about because they’re not going to have our worries and concerns. Society will have moved on (hopefully for the better).

On this day in 991 (or possibly yesterday!) – The Battle of Maldon

I thought I’d share my own reenactment of it from Wulfstan: An Anglo Saxon Thegn.

Prologue – Wulfstan at the Battle of Maldon – 991

From his place atop the minor rise, he watched the battle play itself out before him. More than anything he wanted to run back into the foray, his sword raised and ready, his shield in place. The impulse was instinctive.

He’d trained for this. It was his place to be, not out here, away from the heat of the battle feeling useless and unskilled.

Beneath his legs, his horse shuffled from side to side. The animal, Heard, was keen to be away from the smell of the sea and the tang of shed blood. If only he could turn away, but he knew he couldn’t. He needed to watch what was about to happen so that at the least he could tell his Lord’s son all about his final moments. He hoped he had a good death, a warrior’s death, not pissing himself with fear when the moment came.

They’d never spoken about the final moments. They’d never been the need to before. They’d always known that they were going to emerge as the victors.

Not this time though.

He gazed out to the vast expanse of sea, scanning the vast Viking fleet that had come to their lands, unbidden and without warning. Years it had been since the last concerted attack by the raiders. They’d come in dribs and drabs, a stray Norseman and his warriors just testing their luck and more often than not going away empty handed or with little apart from their lives, or not at all. But not in their masses. Not ninety-three ships full of bristled warriors, and rumour had it, would be kings.

He sighed deeply at the most composed attack his land had faced from across the sea throughout his adult life. He should have known that it was all too good to be true. That the small attacks would eventually coalesce into something more menacing. He fervently wished they hadn’t.

These men from the north seemed less honourable than the English warriors; either that or they just saw an opportunity and exploited it. He wondered if he’d ever decipher why Ealdorman Brythnoth had decided to let the attackers cross the marshy land instead of hemming them in with the rising tide. He could accept that it was the English thing to do, to give the men a fighting chance, but it had allowed them to win the battle, or would allow them to win the battle, and he couldn’t help thinking that it had been a foolish mistake. A life-ending mistake.

An honourable mistake but a mistake all the same.

The gentle smash of shields on wood touched his ears becoming muted as it travelled the great distance between him and the battle. He noted that tears were falling freely down his face. He raised his hand and wiped them angrily away. It wasn’t that he felt he shouldn’t cry, more that if he did cry he’d not be able to see the battle before him.

Around him the press of the other retreating men had faded away. Now only he, and a priest from Ealdorman Brythnoth’s household stayed and watched, a silent vigil for dead men who yet lived.

The priest was praying quietly and Wulfstan appreciated the soft words and the exhortations to their God that he was making. It made a strange contrast, the words of the priest, the almost silent but deadly battle before him, and the view of the gently bobbing fleet of raider ships. A beautiful tableaux and one he would have given anything not to see and not to witness.

The sails on the raiding ships were half cast down, but on the ones that still stood he could discern patterns in the weaves and wondered if they depicted who owned the vessels. If they did, he detected three separate designs, or colour schemes. Did that mean that there were three individual war leaders facing his Lord?

He thought he might quite like his own ship but then he reconsidered, perhaps not. The sea was calm today and still they swayed haphazardly in the water, just watching them was making him feel a little ill at ease. He had no stomach for ships. He never had.

The rising voice of the priest recalled him to his gruesome task.

He squinted into the sunlight and saw what the priest saw. The defenders were slowly thinning, the attackers coming ever closer to the back of the shield wall, and when they broke through there would be no one else to stop them. Their victory would be complete. There was no one other than him and an old priest to offer any further resistance.

His Lord still stood, but barely. Somehow out of all the men, he could pinpoint where he stood without any effort. The familiar slicing action as he fought, the familiar stance as he placed his weight behind the shield.

His mouth dry, his breath rasping he watched in horror as a mighty warrior, blond and bulky, cleaved his way to where Aelfwine stood. The other warriors seemed to fall away to either side of them as he focused on them.

A crash of shields, he imagined the noise although it did not reach him, and the figures were fiercely engaged in battle. He couldn’t see the individual sword strokes, the rise of the war-axe; instead he saw only the impact that the weapons had on the two men. First Aelfwine staggered and then the mighty warrior, and then once more it was Aelfwine’s turn and then the other warrior’s, but even from such a distance he could tell that Aelfwine was the weaker of the men, his years going against him. He was an old man, although not as old as others he knew, still, at their age their movements were slower, and it was clear to see who’d be the victor.

And now he did turn away, slowly and with sorrow, for after all, he didn’t want to watch his Lord fall in battle. It was enough to know that he would.

His horse, keen to finally be away from the carnage, stepped lively when it was turned to face inland. It was Aelfwine’s own horse and he knew it would guide him home whether he wanted to face his son, Leofwine or not.

His son, a lad no more. His son, a Lord from now on and sure to be recognized by the King for his father’s ultimate sacrifice.

An orphan at the hand of the raiders.

Read on in Wulfstan: An Anglo Saxon Thegn

OR start at the beginning of the Earls of Mercia seriesWulfstan cover with ship with Ealdorman