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Scholar Chronicles Medieval Chroniclers


Chris Given-Wilson holds forth on medieval chorniclers. Photo by Tom Stoelker

It has been said that the scribes who recorded history during the Middle Ages presented events in such a dry manner that they read like a shopping list.

Chris Given-Wilson, Ph.D., professor of history at Scotland‘s University of Saint Andrews, says the structure and utility of the chronicles reflected the writers’ belief that it wasn’t all about them; it was about the event.

Given-Wilson delivered the remarks on Oct. 18 as part of the Center for Medieval Studies’ Fall 2013 Lecture Series.

The chroniclers were historians who straightforwardly recorded events as they happened, and in chronological order, said Given-Wilson. The archetypical image of a chronicler, he said, was that of the monk/scribe hunched over a desk. Indeed, for much of the 12th century, the clergy wrote chronicles in Latin.

By the 13th and 14th centuries, laypeople took up the task and language shifted to the vernacular, which in England meant the Anglo-Norman language of the upper classes.  By the 15th century, Middle English moved to the fore, representing another shift in the recording, this time by secular clerks attached to great households and/or government offices.

Using the chronicles as a historical source requires readers to recognize that the writers often recorded events from a particular point of view, he said.

“The truth is something that bears a different meaning in the Middle Ages, particularly as it relates to universal truths,” he said.

For example, chroniclers recording battles often got the facts correct, such as important names, but when one compares various battle records, one finds a “troubling sameness.”

Winners are invariably well behaved; losers, on the other hand, pillage and rape on way to battlefield. Given-Wilson said that the contemporary reader should tease out the universal truths through parallel themes—in this case good discipline and valor lead to victory.

By the 13th century, an explosion of government bureaucracy led to more written material, such as proclamations and newsletters produced by the state. As written documents became more available, eyewitness accounts of events added credibility to the chronicles.

But eyewitnesses also meant that the chronicler needed to disseminate several viewpoints, and were more susceptible to propaganda—a situation that Given-Wilson compared to the contemporary newsgathering.

“It was very difficult for the scribes to verify information in the Middle Ages compared to nowadays,” he said. “Chroniclers very seriously took the task of trying to get their facts right.”

Overall, Given-Wilson said that the dry form, structure, and utility of the chronicles was a function of elucidating God’s tale—one free from human agency and one that played down human intentions.

“Allegory and analogy ruled,” he said.

Upcoming Medieval Lectures

Dale Kinney, Ph.D., professor of art history, Bryn Mawr College
“The Triconch Churches near Sohag,Upper Egypt”
O’Hare Special Collections Room

, William D. Walsh Family Library, Rose Hill Campus
Thursday, November 21, 12:45 p.m.

Monica Green, Ph.D., professor of history, Arizona State University
“The Differential Impact of the Medical Translations Coming out of
 Southern Italy, Spain, and the Crusader Kingdoms in the 11th and 12th Centuries
Faculty Lounge
, McGinley Center, Rose Hill Campus
Tuesday, December 3, 4:00 p.m.


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