Early medieval primary source types

If you want to learn about any historical period you have to dig into the primary sources. It can be daunting at first, but getting a handle of what you’re dealing with helps. To start with, I count ten about different kinds of primary sources for the early middle ages:

Annals are the most straightforward source available. A strict chronological list, with a bare bones outline of
the major events of the year. I have noted some exceptions to that. The Royal Frankish Annals and its revisions are the best known example, but there are others. Many of them are simply excerpts and summaries of the RFA, but they do offer local tidbits.

Chronicles are also a chronological record, but they tend to meander a little more, and retrospectively cover stories in whole. Some years may not get mentioned at all, and often the stories don’t mention on what date an event occurs. Examples include the Chronicles of Fredegar, the Chronicle of 754, and the Liber Historiae Francorum.

Lives (vita) are stories of individuals. They are usually about saints, and a saint’s life is also called a hagiography.
Vita usually include an introduction, in which the (traditionally) anonymous author recounts how someone in authority, usually an abbot, requests that a life be written about some local saint. The person’s life (men and women are about equally represented) is outlined, such as their place of birth, parentage, and childhood. They experience some calling to God, and perform a series of miracles throughout their life. Frankly, hagiographical vita can be kind of boring, unless the author includes, whether wittingly or not, something of the outside world. There are at least a dozen early medieval lives available in translation. Occasionally secular individuals have a vita, such as the two lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Nottker the Stammerer.

Letters are just that, letters written from one person to one or more other people. Like vita, letters are usually
ecclesiastical in nature, since priests and monks were generally the only people who knew how to read and write. Letters have several research uses. They can reveal snippets of political history, and illustrate what issues concerned the elite from year to year. They also reveal thoughts and attitudes of the writers, which is something notoriously difficult to get a handle on. There are several collections available, including those of Boniface and Alcuin. There is also the Codex Carolinus, which is a collection of letters between the Pippinids and the popes.

Laws are collections of the statutory laws of the various peoples or tribes of Europe during this time. Since all of the
“barbarian” tribes that came into contact and eventual conflict with the Romans had no written laws of their own, they adopted the Roman custom of written laws. Each collection is simple in layout, merely a series of numbered laws and law titles, with a brief explanation. There are at least four different collections available, the Salic, Allamannic, Lombard, and Burgundian. There is also Charlemagne’s collection of capitularies, which are supplemental laws that address particularly situations or regions.

There is some poetry from the early middle ages, but there’s not much in translation. In addition to a dozen examples in Dutton, there’s a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Charters are records of legal transactions, usually of land and goods, usually from an individual to a church or
monastery.1.The most famous charter of all is the Magna Carta, the great charter, which granted rights from the king to the people. While there must have been many more transactions than that, only a religious institution had the bureaucratic machinery and need to keep copies over generations. While there are only a few translations in print, The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe is an amazing website that has translated hundreds of charters and made them available for analysis.

Readers in the 8th century had the bible to read, and some Roman works, but there weren’t many new books or stories created during this time. Bede wrote the Ecclesiastical History and some other works on natural history, and there is the Voyage of Brendan, but not much else. The events of Roland, Beowulf, Arthur, and other Viking adventures occur during this time or earlier, but wouldn’t be written down for several more centuries.

There are always documents that don’t find into any regular pattern. P.E. Dutton’s collection contains a list of prohibited pagan practices, an account of the re-anointing of Pepin in 754, some epitaphs, and estate inventory lists (necessary when granting possessions, and for determining what was due to the lord). Elsewhere out there on the interwebs there’s a collection of word problems to sharpen young minds that Alcuin put together.

Archaeological evidence is sparse. There are coins, some architecture (but not much), some artwork in ivory and gold, and outlines of settlements in isolated areas. Cemeteries represent one of the richest sources of material culture, as archaeological remains are known these days. The problem is that most secular architecture was of wood, and time and population growth have obliterated almost everything. Another issue is that in France and Germany, unlike Britain, individuals are not permitted to roam the countryside with a metal detector without a license, which lowers the likelihood of random discoveries.

The early medieval age were not as “dark” as popular imagination might make it, but there are definitely big gaps in what we know. Knowledge of whole chunks of the political history are dependent on only one or two sources. We don’t even know when Charlemagne was born, and he was the son of a king. On the other hand, part of the appeal of this time period is that it is possible for someone (like me, for example) to get a good handle on all of the primary source material in translation without too much trouble.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The most famous charter of all is the Magna Carta, the great charter, which granted rights from the king to the people.

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