Comments: Giles’ Six Old English Chronicles

I picked up this set of translations by J. A. Giles, some-time fellow of Oxford’s Corpus Christi college, in a used bookstore at some point. I’ve tagged this post “comments” rather than “review” because I my own lack of expertise and the nature of the compilation make the traditional review all but impossible. If I were either a fully-trained and practicing Latinist, or an authority on British history, I might be able to form more definite conclusions.

The six works included are translated from Latin originals, and mention in some form the invasions of Saxons et al., although beyond that I cannot conceive what particular theme was thought to unite them. I have no standing to dispute Giles’ claim that they are “all of essential importance to those who like to study history in the very words of contemporary writiers” – a noble goal – and yet the erratic arrangment of the resulting book leads me very much to doubt Gile’s primary claim was scholastic. I suspect, in fact, that he began the project as a dabbling in his spare time and eventually published out of vanity, or – less believably on the basis of likely sales – monetary need, or the request of some superior that he publish something, or that of students that his expertise be preserved.

My chief grounds for this suspicion are as follows:

  1. The apparent absence of any additional editing beyond Giles’ own. George Bell and Sons (the credited publisher) seem to have faithfully set the text they were sent, ignoring such howlers as the fact that the six chronicles are listed in a different order in the preface than the title page and the actual book.
  2. The openly amateur nature of the translation at times, most notably Ethelward’s Chronicle. The Latin, however corrupted, can hardly justify the choice to neither translate nor leave in the original text in several places. Similarly, the spurious account attributed to a “Richard of Cirencenster” has an absolutely muddled – and extensive – set of footnotes, some of which are evidently the original “translator”‘s and some of which must be Giles’ own, but I am unable to tell reliably which are which. Finally, Giles openly admits he had recourse to older translations, and in places as much as states he simply copied them, perhaps adjusting archaic language, when he thought they were already good enough.
  3. Giles himself seems undecided whether his work is driven by scholarship or interest. His preface takes pain to clarify his disbelief in Geoffrey of Monmouth and “Richard”. But the footnotes to Geoffrey are for the most part as painstaking in detail as for the works more “historical” to his own view, only occasionally protesting how vehemently he believes in its inaccuracy. He is inclined to believe Geoffrey at least thought his own sources were historical. Giles seems to encourage the reader to supposing that Geoffrey’s source may have been an expanded version of Nennius, whose work he is oddly content to take as fully historical, at least in intent, merely noting known inaccuracies despite the two telling remarkably similar stories. Geoffrey he seems to suspect of indulging a patron. Similarly, while he states in his preface that is “Richard” entirely spurious, he appears to actually suspect that that work is less fabrication than compilation, noting that much of it is copied or corrupted from Roman historians, chiefly Caesar – that in fact the only false representation may have been the pretense of the “discoverer” having knowledge of a specific original author. The “Iter”, or a record of travels (commonly kept, it appears, by Roman tax and military officials), Giles in fact excerpts entirely from “Richard”‘s narrative and treats as a completely legitimate copy of some other, otherwise unknown, source.

As regards the translation itself – at least where, as in parts of Ethelward and occasionally Geoffrey and Nennius, he does not just give up – he appears to have done a rather good job, at least in capturing author’s different tones, and also in presenting a unified voice for each, despite his own use of older translations. Ethelward’s is primarily genealogical, apparently sent in several installments to a relative married to some German king, and cramped by overly stylized familial affections. (The other works suggest it would be possible to figure out which king, and Giles thinks he’s worked out the right one, but I leave that aside for now.) Asser’s Life of Alfred is straightforward and inspiring, and if the reader does not quite believe all the legends I am not sure whether to blame Asser, Giles, wisdom, or a cynical age. Geoffrey is purely exciting, if incomprehensible in places, mainly due to the Merlinic prophecies. Gildas’s work is less history than sermon, and I recommend it – if not necessarily in this edition, which might be hard to find – to anyone as a corrective measure for today’s necessities. He was a man willing to blame his own “side” for their predicaments and chastise kings for their sins – a practice which seems to have eventually gotten him exiled to France.

Nennius is, as mentioned above, an earlier and more sober Geoffrey, though even he is hardly contemporary with the events he details: claiming to write in 858 AD. Giles states that various other authorities suggest alternate dates differing by up to a hundred years on either side – but on what grounds are unclear, as in date-keeping in their own time the chroniclers are rarely off (from our own estimates, or at least from Giles’ footnotes) by more than ten years, if that. “Richard” I suspect really is a spurious character, as he represents himself as a monk cribbing notes together in spare time and much reprimanded for such worldly pursuits by a superior – but I, like Giles, would like to think the actual collection of partial sources probably did exist somewhere, perhaps crammed on the back shelf of an abbey library, then abducted and subsequently forgotten for a hundred years by some Tudor lordling, finally being brought to light by some over-clever younger son. Giles does not illumine us as to who foisted “Richard” on the public, and I am not now in the mood to ruin my supposals by searching the internet.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery from these chronicles was the realization that Kipling’s would-be emperor Maximus, supporting character in the Roman portion of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, was an entirely real person – and if Kipling idealized him, perhaps not unbelieveably so, and his faults in Puck are his historical ones, if not all of them.

I would have gotten a better understanding from reading through with a map of Britain to hand: though it might not have resolved all difficulties, as the British geographers’ sense of place grows steadily more absymal as they get farther from Wales and Cornwall; the Saxons are as bad moving away from London; the number of towns no longer in existence or doubtfully identified or both is enormous; and Roman numerals, as Giles explains (for once quite clearly) are notoriously unreliable to read and copy and read again.

Altogether a fascinating volume to read, as the length of these comments may suggest, and the works – even Ethelward – are likely deserving of further attention and one can only thank Giles for introducing them, despite my intention to look for other editions next time.

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