Historians of the Early Middle Ages

Historians of the early Middle Ages

Throughout human history, one of the main functions of story-telling has been to create and strengthen shared identities that hold communities together. Jaakko Tahkokallio explores the historical works of leading medieval writers.

Communities from the largest kingdoms to the smallest dioceses had their own stories integrated into a larger narrative of Christian salvation. Works by leading historians like the Venerable Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth were disseminated widely throughout the medieval period, becoming international best sellers. 

The Venerable Bede

The Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) of the Venerable Bede (b. c. 673, d. 735) is considered by many to be one of the greatest works on the history of Britain ever produced. A monk at the monastery Wearmouth-Jarrow near Newcastle, Bede completed the Ecclesiastical History in 731. It describes the conversion of the English people to Christianity, beginning with Roman Britain and continuing to subsequent attempts to convert the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including Mercia, Sussex and Northumbria. About 160 manuscript copies survive today containing the complete work, including one copy probably made within a few decades of Bede’s death (now British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II).

Tiberius Bede

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.5v

A ninth-century copy of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Bede’s History was widely read in continental Europe as well as England. Scribes working in Reims produced a manuscript copy of the text (now British Library, Harley MS 4978), in the third quarter of the ninth century. By the 12th century, this manuscript had lost one of its original sections and a new one was supplied, perhaps in Chartres. This interest in reproducing the complete text illustrates the continuing popularity of Bede’s work, which was copied throughout the Middle Ages.

French copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Harley MS 4978, f. 8r

Original text page in ninth-century hand (British Library, Harley MS 4978, f. 8r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

French copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Harley MS 4978, f. 68r

Original text page in 12th-century hand (British Library, Harley MS 4978, f. 68r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Baudri of Bourgueil

Baudri of Bourgueil (b. c. 1046, d. 1130) produced one of the most sophisticated accounts of the First Crusade (1095–1099), the Historia Hierosolimitana (History of Jerusalem). The First Crusade was the first military campaign of the Levantine Crusades which lasted until the 13th century. The aim of the Crusades first instigated in 1095 by Pope Urban II (b. c. 1035, d. 1099) was to capture Jerusalem and other Christian holy sites in the Near East. An abbot of Bourgueil nears Angers, France, Baudri recorded the events of the First Crusade soon after they occurred c. 1105, including accounts from eyewitness testimonies. Over the following centuries, crusading literature was written by multiple authors and proved popular in all parts of Latin Europe. One manuscript of Baudri’s Historia may be contemporary to his lifetime (British Library, Harley MS 3707), dating from the second quarter of the 12th century.

Baudri of Bourgueil, History of Jerusalem

Harley MS 3707, f. 1r

Opening page of Baudri’s Historia Hierosolimitana (British Library, Harley MS 3707, f. 1r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

William of Malmesbury

Many of the most popular medieval historical works focused on secular communities – in particular, kingdoms and their rulers. Arguably the leading English historian of the 12th century was William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1095, d. c. 1143), a Benedictine monk at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, England. His Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of the English) focused on political history and its protagonists, the kings. It traces English history from Roman times to Anglo-Saxon rulers and the Norman Conquest of 1066, continuing until the reign of King Henry I of England (r. 1100–1135).The work found a substantial readership in both England and France. Its Continental appeal may perhaps be explained in part by the political unity of England and Normandy at that time. 

Illuminated copy of William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the Kings of the English

Latin 6047, f. 123r

A text page from an illuminated copy of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (BnF Latin 6047, f. 123r)

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William of Malmesbury drew from a great reserve of classical learning. Although history was not an independent academic discipline at schools and universities, the curriculum included many works of historical content by ancient Roman authors such as Sallust (b. 86 BC, d. c. 35 BC), a classical writer of historical prose read in medieval schools. Other set texts featured historical content, such as the poetic works of Lucan (b. 39, d. 65) and Vergil (b. 70 BC, d. 19 BC), as did popular Latin poems on the Trojan war and the story of Thebes.

English copy of William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the Kings of the English

Cotton MS Claudius C IX, f. 18r

Opening page of an early 13th-century copy of Gesta regum Anglorum (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius C IX, f. 18r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

The most popular of all 12th-century historical works was the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) of the Anglo-Norman cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth (b. c. 1100, d. 1154). Geoffrey was William of Malmesbury’s contemporary, and his work presents the history of Britain before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, including the first substantial treatment of legendary King Arthur’s life and reign. Both a historical and literary text, Geoffrey’s History became enormously popular and survives in over 220 medieval copies today, of which roughly one-fifth are now in the British Library collections. 

Geoffrey’s work contained a number of proverbs and moral exempla, and evidence shows that contemporary readers engaged with this material. The notes of a medieval reader can be found in one copy of the History produced c. 1200 (now British Library, Stowe MS 56). The reader highlighted several passages, by writing ‘N’ in the margin of the text, representing nota (note). An example of this can be seen in the margin of a speech by King Androgeus, a legendary figure who features in Geoffrey’s narrative:

Non est diligendus princeps qui in bello est mitis ut agnus, in pace ferus et leo.
(‘No one can love a prince who is gentle as a lamb in war, and in peace as fierce as a lion.’)  

Collection of medieval historical works

Stowe MS 56, f. 132v (detail)

‘N’ in the margin of the text, representing nota (note) (British Library, Stowe MS 56, f. 132v, detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The same reader annotated similar passages in Geoffrey’s text, and also in other historical texts that appear in the same manuscript, for example the following sentence, found in a history of the First Crusade by Fulcher of Chartres (b. 1059, d. after 1128):

Nichil enim est inter homines utilius disciplina.
(‘Nothing is more useful than discipline amongst humans.’)

Collection of medieval historical works

Stowe MS 56, f. 39r (detail)

‘N’ in the margin of the text, representing nota (note) (British Library, Stowe MS 56, f. 39r, detail)

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The historical writing of Geoffrey and others demonstrate the importance in medieval society of describing and preserving the stories and deeds of the past for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

  • Jaakko Tahkokallio
  • Jaakko Tahkokallio is curator of special collections in the National Library of Finland. He holds a PhD from the University of Helsinki and has previously worked as a researcher in Helsinki and in King’s College, London. His research interests include high- and late-medieval manuscript production in Western Europe and Scandinavia, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the use of classical texts in the Middle Ages.