Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
23.03.10 Stafford, After Alfred

23.03.10 Stafford, After Alfred

Pauline Stafford’s book After Alfred is the first major study of the widespread project of vernacular chronicling in the early and high medieval English kingdoms. Stafford’s book is motivated by an interest neither in reconciling chronicles down to their original form, nor in deciding whether they were more a royal and central production, or more variable and local. It is motivated by an interest in studying the manuscripts as they are, and so arriving at chronicling as it was: a dynamic and political activity of many voices. It aims to place annalistic writing where it belongs as a form of political thought and historical writing in the pre-modern world.

The first chapters lay out the history of studying and editing the vernacular chronicles, showing where a clear foundation has been laid, and also where gaps and misunderstandings will be corrected and re-thought in the book. Stafford’s account of King Alfred’s first chronicle and its continuations shows where, why, and how the chronicling bug first caught on in the English kingdoms. The following chapters show how that controlled contagion of thought and writing remained historical, relevant, and political in the centuries to come. The chapters conclude with a discussion of historiography and politics, a decision that gives the book consistency, reveals the relevance of the chronicles to the debates of the time, and argues for their importance as historical narratives. Chroniclers and scribes, as Stafford notes, may well have included women and men, and these identities need to be acknowledged.

One central section of the book is worth dwelling on, as a representative example of the book’s consistent historical skill. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 take the reader through a series of lost chronicles, drawing the outlines around them through their witnesses. Lost chronicles emerge throughout the book. This section deserves special comment, because it shows why tracing the outlines of lost things is so compelling a historical endeavour. It shows how rewarding it can be to seek lost things, for any historian wondering if the surviving evidence is really all that’s left of the past. And it shows why this seeking must be attempted if we are to understand what was at stake in writing history in the past.

As Chapter 5 argues, the tenth century was a rich period of chronicle writing. This is something visible primarily in lost chronicles. A rich variety of evidence comes into play: thematic unity; local connections to Winchester; the significance of dating chronicles to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain; the question of whether views of the Danes were contemporary or retrospective; the idea of Britain; poetry; charters; kings; and geography. In rigorous interpretation that encompasses this variety of evidence, Stafford builds up a picture of politics and writing in tenth-century England. Mercia’s role emerges clearly here: writing is not just about “Wessex.” As the evidence for the lost chronicles shows again and again, it is not as though Wessex, in asserting overlordship over Mercia in 918, had also engulfed Mercian politics and identity. The English kingdom in the south comprised what were once two different kingdoms: and, as Stafford demonstrates, Mercia and Wessex still had “separate identities” whilst engaged in a “common endeavour” (105). Stafford’s book encourages the reader to think about “national” histories, but not in terms of consistent, unified, or streamlined messages. Instead, national histories are worth thinking about as accounts that reflected and indeed “embraced” (105) different histories under the unifying idea of King Alfred’s dynasty and the rulership of his successors.

In Chapter 6, we discover the importance of the “Northern Recension,” and why it is much more than just a recension. The authors of the text, who followed the style of Alfred’s original chronicle, also made significant and coherent changes in focus, content, and theme. The chapter also tackles what Stafford calls “the problem of the North” (134). How “northern” was the “Northern Recension”? Stafford makes the case for an ambiguous northernness--but shows why this does not mean the text’s focus, interests, or political aspects were dislocated or vague. The northern world itself at this time, she shows, was ambiguously northern. At the root of the chronicle’s focus were real relationships between northern and southern regal and ecclesiastical worlds. As the tenth century progressed, kings in the south took an increasingly firm hold on the appointment of archbishops in Northumbria. We can see this through the careers of “pluralist” archbishops, especially in the latter part of the tenth century: Oscytel, likely the first southern archbishop of York, kept his securely Thames Valley Dorchester bishopric at the same time; his successor Oswald kept his bishopric of Worcester.

At the same time, striking instances of “us” in the chronicle speak to a clearly felt northern identity. “The city” is how locals even today refer to their urban centre (in this case, York); those in the past who wrote of “the Southumbrians” and “us” take on a Northumbrian identity, defined at least by implication by the river Humber as a border. Stafford explores the different kinds of “we” in play in each case--we as Christians, we as the English, we as those with a king--as well as the important historical question: which represent the ideas of the Northern Recension’s writers, and which the ideas of its later copyists? These all overlapped in a Northumbrian orientation. Overall, using the case of the Northern Recension and its reception, the chapter shows why it would be “crude,” as well as misleading, to think of historiography as propaganda, consolation, or reinforcement of ideologies.

Chapter 7 introduces the lost Worcester Chronicle. Here, Stafford shows why the story of what it would have been like is essential to consider if we are to understand what the writers who used it were doing, the nature of the tenth-century chronicling impulse, and Mercia’s continued importance as a centre of historical writing. Different versions of the 988 annal, for example, with contrasting stories of victory and defeat in combat engagements with the Danes, offer insight into the different chronicles used in Worcester. On the basis of chronicles’ attitudes towards foreign affairs, royal consecrations and their location, and parallels with Chronicle D, Stafford makes a convincing case for the existence of a single lost chronicle, with Oswald (bishop of Worcester, archbishop of York) as the link between writing in the two places.

Equally as compelling as Stafford’s accounts of lost worlds of writing are her survival stories. In Chapter 8, we encounter vernacular chronicles c.1000, surviving from a period of Scandinavian incursions. These chronicles offer a reminder of how “bishop/court” and “secular/clerical” are identities that must be considered, but are not sharp dividing lines. A bishop’s book could make political statements in a court context. We meet a scribe who copied and compiled together annals, narratives, kings’ laws, the Burghal Hidage, a poem about fasting at Lent, and medical recipes. If anyone still thinks that annals are short, sweet, and sober, Stafford’s attention to creation, compilation, and the manuscript context reveals the deep richness of thought and significance behind these diverse works of history.

In Chapter 9 Stafford re-thinks one of the most famous and discussed set of surviving annals: those covering the reign of King Æthelred and the early years of Cnut. As Stafford shows, though, popular discussion can slip easily into oversimplification; and there is good reason to see them as more than a set. Here again archbishops and regional interests are as important to the story as ineffective kings, battles, and a unifying cause of national defence. Chapters 10 and 11 take us beyond survival, to stories of revival. Manuscript C, made in the mid-eleventh century, provides a useful insight into chronicling before the Norman Conquest. Stafford’s book shows how this manuscript combined old sources of wisdom, ideas of Rome and time, and the politics of the present. Its continuations, as well as new developments in chronicling, reveal new dramas emerging over rulership, including powerful earls, abductions, and other crises. Rewriting served a political end, and Stafford shows how it could happen as much to engage in dialogue as to overwrite or erase.

Chapters 12, 13, and 14 bring us across the Norman Conquest of 1066 and beyond. Chronicle D gives the closest to a live view of the conquest as it unfolded--or at least, of how responses to it developed across the era. D is of particular interest for its insight into England’s ongoing relationship with Scotland, for its account of northern events, and for the high number of named women who feature in it. Chronicle D earns a thorough biography from Stafford, and its life story for these years is one that existed and unfolded over a period of great change. In Canterbury after the Conquest, a bilingual chronicle (Chronicle F) was kept. This manuscript, as Stafford argues, remains understudied. She provides the analysis to support future study of F, exploring how the author of F responded to A and other existing texts, as well as the significance of additions, the Latin language, and new prefatory material. At the same time, Stafford argues that vernacular chronicling came into its own after the Conquest, as an especially “unified and connected project” (269). The book’s final body chapter investigates the twelfth-century Peterborough Chronicle (E), its predecessor, and the fragment of H, considering themes from retrospective views, to local perspectives, to the clearer monastic voice than in pre-1066 chronicles, to the question of an “ending” of vernacular chronicling.

In one of Stafford’s memorable and arresting lines, she calls the “mere annals,” or vernacular chronicles, “Cinderella sources,” and the book’s goal is “to invite them to the historiographical ball” (2-3). The book succeeds even further, for it shows that annals, texts, sources, and originals do not need to be found at all for historians to find their happy endings--or their new questions to tackle. Different versions, lost stories, and mysteries are part of the historical evidence we have. They must be confronted. Through her work on lost chronicles, Stafford showed that absence itself is part of the story. What if the glass slipper had never been found? And what if that “lost slipper” story lay behind the well-known tale? If Stafford were to investigate, her case report would be worth the read.