Delving into Anglo-Saxon Charters

Historians of the Anglo-Saxon period can extract a huge amount of information from sources that look as though they’re not going to be of any value. Sometimes, however, historians can get a little carried away and can, unfortunately, gleam too much information from sources that might not be quite as genuine as first thought.

As I finally get my nose down and do the research for my dissertation my primary concern is looking at the Anglo Saxon Charters from 994-1016. These are few in number and they have been utilised to show anything and everything from the King’s favourite ealdormen, to the existence of a royal scriptorium churning out charters for the King, to defining the boundary of lands mentioned within them, and these endeavours are all to be applauded, but it is necessary to take a moment and think about the implications of the work being done.

The charters survive very often as later copies. Historians will do all they can to determine if the copy is based on an original – checking witness lists, cross checking to see if people mentioned were alive or dead at the time of the charters composition and trying to find independent information that verifies the authenticity of the charter, or not as the case may be. But ultimately any charter that has survived has done so because it had some intrinsic value to a monastery or a person interested in the contents of that charter for a reason other than historians are now using it for. As such the survival of any charters from this period can perhaps be more of an indication of events occurring in the thirteenth century, when monasteries and their lands were coming under attack and the truth of their claims was being very closely examined, than what was really happening in the time period when the charter purports to have been written. And, even then the Charter may only survive in one copy.

It feels to me sometimes as though historians build fantastical arguments that are coherent and make perfect sense, until the foundation for the claims are more closely examined. Should huge sweeping statements be made about the career of one man based on only 41 references to them in Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Perhaps not, but if we don’t use the information available, then those awful words, ‘The Dark Ages’ will make a reappearance and no one will be prepared to comment or speculate on anything. So with all that being said, being a historian of one time period (Anglo-Saxon, Tudor, War of the Roses etc) often actually involves being an expert on a different era as well, as well as knowing Latin, Anglo Saxon, Old English, Old Norse, Irish and all the other languages that have dominated the writing of history for the last 1500 years.

It’s an unenviable task, and I wouldn’t be able to do my research if I wasn’t standing on the shoulders of giants and evaluating their arguments and accepting, or disagreeing with what they say. One thing I’ve found to be helpful, is to examine the source closest in time to the period under investigation. As such for 994-1016, I can use the Anglo-Saxon Charter, provided I accept that the source is later and biased in favour of certain people and places. But I can use the overwhelming feeling at that time, say ten to twenty years after events (which is still a long time – think of how we now view the 1980’s or the 1990’s) and try to determine a ‘platform’ on which other information can be built or tested against it. Admittedly that means that I need to understand events taking place during the reign of Cnut (and beyond) in order to understand events being recorded in the reign of Aethelred II.

But I started this with a discussion about sources, and have wondered at a wonderful 21st century tangent for some time. I’ll try to drag myself back to 1000 years ago, but first I must say that there is also the bias of the current historian to take into account. We are a suspicious lot, not happy to accept anything at face value, and always looking for the crux of any information provided by our ancestors. It can only be assumed that they were just as devious and untrusting as we are, and so back to the sources. Can we use them? Should we trust them? To me it looks like there’s not actually much choice but to mine them for every available facet of information. And so I shall! With my devious little mind, and my belief that nothing may be as it seems!!