Blog post

From Easter to Emperor

Monastic annals and the evolution of medieval historiography

An early copy of the Annals of Petau, showing the short entries in Latin for each year (beginning with ‘Anno’ with a stylised initial 'A' in red)
by
Mark Vermeer (Public Library Bruges)

The concept of a monastery as a repository of ancient and rare information is a popular one in western culture. Perhaps most famously depicted in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, monastic locations have featured in popular series such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones. Despite this, historiography – that is the writing of history – is probably one of the last types of texts that come to mind when one tries to imagine what was being written and read in medieval monasteries. Nonetheless, it was at monasteries that historiography was cultivated and intensively used. Most of our knowledge about the early Middle Ages comes from texts written in those communities. The relationship between monastic life, the calculation of time, and the writing of history is the subject of this blog.

Monastic life was governed and structured by liturgy and the canonical hours. Every day, eight fixed moments of prayer were observed, known as 'hour',and over the course of a week, the totality of the 150 Psalms was sung during services. Important events such as Christmas, Lent, Easter, and All Souls, were celebrated with significant liturgical services or additional rituals. But some of these events have no fixed date on the calendar; the date of Easter, for instance, depends on the phases of the moon and the beginning of spring. Rather than calculating these dates anew, year after year, astronomical and mathematical knowledge was combined in the creation of Easter Tables: lists of years with the respective dates of Easter.

A calculation table in medieval manuscript

These lists were kept by churches, monasteries and other religious institutions to know when to celebrate the important feasts. Over time, they were supplemented with incidental remarks on notable events of that year. These could be anything, but mostly discussed coronations, deaths, natural phenomena, and events within the author’s own monastery. The entries became longer and more detailed, as well as more narrative in style and tone. By the ninth century this framework had been fully developed and the genre was found throughout continental Europe, known as annals or annales (‘year books’).

Below: An early copy of the Annals of Petau, showing the short entries for each year (beginning with ‘Anno’)

An early copy of the Annals of Petau, showing the short entries in Latin for each year (beginning with ‘Anno’ with a stylised initial 'A' in red)

The scope and the reading of these annals was not restricted to monastic circles. Despite the monastic ideal of solitude and distance from secular affairs, monasteries were very much part of the political and intellectual fabric of the Carolingian era. As intermediaries between humans and God, monks and nuns were constantly asked to pray: for a deceased loved one, for the wellbeing of a realm, for victory in battle. In return they were granted wealth and ownership of large estates. Bishops and abbots frequented the imperial courts and held important positions through which they could influence politics. Monks led the palace schools and taught the sons of nobles reading, writing and literature. Vice versa, emperors presided over church councils and actively engaged in theological debates.

Below: Artist’s impression (ca. 1942) of daily life in the imperial palace in Aachen, ca. 800. Three clerics, recognizable by their white pallium, can be spotted, advising the king and teaching the youth.

Artist’s impression of daily life at Charlemagne’s Court. The room is full of people immersed in conversation with each other. King is sitting in the middle looking at some documents and listening to an adviser. Three clerics, recognizable by their white pallium, can be spotted, advising the king and teaching the youth.

Much of what know about France and Germany in the eighth and ninth centuries – a time when both territories formed part of the Carolingian Empire – comes from annals. The most famous of these are the Royal Frankish Annals, the Annals of Fulda, the Annals of Saint-Bertin, the Annals of Saint-Vaast and the Annals of Lorsch. Despite some differences in scope and detail, due to their geographical location (e.g. Saint-Bertin is located in northern France, while Fulda is in central Germany), these annals present a coherent narrative.

Below: A fragment from the Annals of Fulda, containing entries for the years 871, 872 and 876.

The usefulness of historiography was well understood by the Carolingian rulers. They turned it into a political tool to cleverly legitimise their ascent to power. The dynasty of the Carolingians had only recently acquired power after Charlemagne’s ascent to the throne. Before that, they were the ‘Mayors of the Palace’ (a sort of prime minister) to the previous Frankish dynasty, the Merovingians. In 751, Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short staged a coup and deposed the last Merovingian king, taking the throne for himself.

The Royal Frankish Annals portrayed the Merovingians as ineffective, weak rulers and claimed that as Mayors of the Palace, the Carolingians effectively exerted real power, with the last Merovingian kings being little more than puppets. The legitimacy of the new dynasty was further enhanced by emphasising two elements: the Pope’s approval of the transferral of power, and Pippin’s official election by the Franks, as was ancient custom.

Drawing of a man - a fictionalised 17th-century depiction of Childeric III, the last Merovingian king

Above: A fictionalised 17th-century depiction of Childeric III, the last Merovingian king. The text at the top right shows the might of the Carolingian Mayors: it relates how Childeric was placed on the throne by Charles Martel and nine years later was forced into a monastery by Pippin the Short.

Thus, medieval historiography had its origin in monastic circles. While this may appear surprising at first sight, it is a logical consequence of the need to calculate the dates of Easter, the desire to keep track of the history of one’s own community, and the increasingly secular role that monasteries played in the early Middle Ages. Somewhere along the way, historiography diverged from its original liturgical function and became an important genre of its own.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.

Art of Reading in Middle Ages manuscripts monasteries