MMXVI. In the eighth and final year of Obama, the kings of Thailand and Cuba died. An assembly met in Paris to protect Creation, and the Pope declared a Jubilee year. Many entertainers were lost, including the Prince. In the Americas, infants were born with small heads, the drought continued, fires burned, and buffalo herds gathered to support the Dakota. Earthquakes in Italy. The world was warmer than ever before in human memory, and there was civil war in Syria. Fleeing the rise of a new Islamic State, people flooded into Europe, and Britain fled Europe. There was a total eclipse of the sun, a supermoon was seen, and octopodes walked on land. Baby bears were triumphant in sports and born at the Columbus zoo. A tyrant was chosen to lead America, and Pokemon were sighted throughout the world.
This is my imagining of an entry for 2016 in a medieval chronicle or annal. The medieval annal was a deceptively simple form of history-keeping and writing. The annals or chronicles come in many guises, though they are based around a single core organizing principle. Annals were organized chronologically, listing the noteworthy and memorable events of each year, generally reporting interesting, striking, or disastrous events. These included events from nearby areas or from other historical sources.
Chronicles offer a way for us to see how and where stories circulated, and how different communities chose to remember and emphasize events noted by others.
Some annals are very brief, often including little more than religious and secular regnal years and noting important deaths. These chronicles often skip several years if not decades at a time, and appear to have been sporadically developed and assembled. The annals of Aachen were compiled sometime in the twelfth-century. The work begins with the year 1 and the birth of Christ. The entries are very short and crisp, and are almost exclusievely about imperial deaths and successions. The entries for the years 1-771 fit on a single page of the MGH edition. Even if you can’t read Latin, you can see here the typical short-entry chronicle form. There is only one mention of the natural world, a notice of the arrival of what we now know as Halley’s comet.
In contrast, a similarly terse chronicle from Admont includes more than a dozen natural and celestial events alongside the regnal and episcopal events. For example, in 867, there was a comet and an earthquake, and in 897 there was a famine that was so great that “people began to eat one another in turns”. This chronicle, compiled sometime in the twelfth-century, opens with a quick calculation of the number of years from the creation of Adam through the birth of Christ, and then covers biblical and classical events, ending in the year 1143. The chronicle has a regional flavor, including information on Salzburg and Bavaria, the deaths of kings of Bohemia, and the burning of the church of St. Afra during the attack of the Huns.
Chronicles often built on and borrowed from each other. Even the very short Annales Petaviani, which covered the years 697-799, borrowed from the Annales Mosellani, the Annals of St. Amand, and the Annales of Lorsch. The well-known Anglo-Saxon chronicle is actually a collection of a group of smaller chronicles, compiled over three centuries (up to 1154). The slow layering of authorship and composition makes chronicles tricky to work with. There is rarely a single authorial voice, and most authors remain unknown. Some exceptions are works written as fuller histories but arranged chronologically, such as Regino of Prum’s Chronicon, a world chronicle of events up to 906.
All of these challenges open up new possibilities for interpretation. The annals are composite history—in a sense, they are medieval crowdsourcing, and can be seen as collective efforts by scholars to compile a sense of the defining events of history. We can trace events that make it (via independent authorship or borrowing) into multiple chronicles, and also notice ones that gain only regional traction. For example, the felling of the Irminsul by Charlemagne during his Saxon wars is mentioned in at least ten chronicles, with entries ranging from the clipped, “King Charles was at war in Saxony and destroyed their oak, which was called Irminsul" to fully narrated descriptions of the event.
The selectivity can also work to raise the prominence of local or regional events, a phenomenon particularly noticeable with river floods and other disasters. The Annales Altahenses, for example, after pointing out a solar eclipse in 990, which would have appeared in many different chronicles, notes that in 991 “Fire burned its way up the Rhine, consuming the villas along the banks.”
The fact that they are largely written and edited well after the events they describe further emphasizes that these are not comprehensive histories, but records of events of significance. Even the shortest annals reflect local events and details, choosing to record and retell events that were seen as important for leaders in the region to remember. They integrate events in the natural, political, and religious worlds, and remind readers of the web of connection and causality. Condensing a whole year into a handful of sentences is, as I can now attest, tricky.
The process is laden with decisions. Which disasters to include? Which stories to tell? Whose death was the most important? What was good and inspiring? Which of these events will remind my readers of the overall tone of the year? What may at first glance seem like an uninspiring collection of random events turns out to be distilled historical judgement and evaluation.
So. In short: 2016. (nsfw!)