We are a capable bunch of historians at Manchester, so confident in our historical knowledge. What a terrible thought it is, then that one day, in the distant future, our accuracy and arguments might be arrogantly mocked by twenty sixth century history students. Sitting on their virtual swivel chairs, stroking their virtual beards (yes, the ladies too), and smoking their virtual cigars, they will loudly guffaw at our attempts to analyse the popular historical debates of our time, with so little evidence. Before they do, however, I will do the same to our respected predecessors, medieval historians, except without the virtual elements (I am stroking my beard though).
So, were medieval historians any good at history, or were they writing largely fictional accounts of historical events that may, vaguely, have happened? A bit of both, really. Medieval history tended not to be a taught craft, such as logic, theology or law, and was studied by a small number of educated men. History on such a small scale evades the filters which Academia provides, leading to large variations in quality. Budding historians during the medieval period may have turned to Chronicles for information on their chosen historical period. Chronicles, however, did not necessarily provide adequate representation of key events. Inside a Chronicle, one paragraph was allocated to each year. Within this paragraph, each event of the year was permitted one sentence. Therefore, in local news, a new product in the local market may have been documented as much as the outbreak of war.
However, history as a rare and vanilla hobby for ecclesiastics became a thing of the past in England after the Norman Conquest, when interest in history ruptured. The new Norman elites thirsted to know the history of the country in which they were residing. Perhaps more importantly, though, British people wanted to rediscover their identity and looked to history for national heroes from the past. These heroes often took the form of England’s early kings, including the legendary King Arthur.
A medieval historian who did not invent, but contributed greatly to the legend of King Arthur is Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae was widely read and considered by its contemporaries to be of fact. However, today it is recognised as largely a work of fiction. Monmouth and his peers, Chrétien de Troyes and Wace, used elaborative techniques to document history. When writing of battles, they included lengthy descriptions of scenes which they could not possibly have witnessed, and wrote invented, impassioned speeches of war heroes for their eager, interested audiences. Wace and Chrétien de Troyes were also the authors of a number of royal biographies, utilised in politics as propaganda. De Troyes introduced the character of Lancelot to Arthurian tales. These writers were working as historians, yet their contributions were written to entertain, amuse and move their readership.
Even medieval historians with the best, most fact- committed intentions at heart struggled to obtain the information needed for a well-rounded historical account. Shen Yue’s History of the Liu Song Dynasty was accepted as a historical account, but today historians accuse it of ethnic bias and of being unclear. Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, arguably the most respected European medieval source today, was limited by its time. Ecclesiastics, such as Bede, had limited travel options, sources, and audience. History was written in Latin, and literacy was confined to elites. Given these proportional conditions, judging medieval historians on the standards of historians today is aimless. In Historia Regum Britanniae, Monmouth wrote of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, which happened 1082 years before Monmouth’s publication in 1136AD. In this way, Monmouth and his questionable peers of history are, indeed, guilty of embellishing historical truth, but we needn’t be cross with history’s Philippa Gregory-type beginnings, because it got us to where we are today, with a bit of entertainment on the way.