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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday March 05 2015

Here is another bit from a book which I found particularly interesting, having just purchased and started to read the book in question.

In the Preface of A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, Marc Morris writes that the first question everyone asks is: Was that Edward the Confessor?  No.  He came much earlier, before the Norman Conquest.  Question number two was more interesting, because it has a more interesting answer.  It concerns evidence:

The second question that has usually been put to me concerns the nature of the evidence for writing the biography of a medieval king, and specifically its quantity.  In general, people tend to presume that there can’t be very much, and imagine that I must spend my days poking around in castle muniment rooms, looking for previously undiscovered scraps of parchment.  Sadly, they are mistaken.  The answer I always give to the question of how much evidence is: more than one person could look at in a lifetime.  From the early twelfth century, the kings of England began to keep written accounts of their annual expenditure, and by the end of the century they were keeping a written record of almost every aspect of royal government.  Each time a royal document was issued, be it a grand charter or a routine writ, a copy was dutifully entered on to a large parchment roll.  Meanwhile, in the provinces, the king’s justices kept similar rolls to record the proceedings of the cases that came before his courts.  Miraculously, the great majority of these documents have survived, and are now preserved in the National Archives at Kew near London.  Some of them, when unrolled, extend to twenty or thirty feet.  And their number is legion: for the thirteenth century alone, it runs to tens of thousands.  Mercifully for the medieval historian, the most important have been transcribed and published, but even this printed matter would be enough to line the walls of an average-sized front room with books.  Moreover, the quantity is increased by the inclusion of non-royal material.  Others besides the king were keeping records during Edward I’s day.  Noblemen also drew up financial accounts, issued charters and wrote letters; monks did the same, only in their case the chances of such material surviving was much improved by their membership of an institution.  Monks, in addition, continued to do as they had always done, and kept chronicles, and these too provide plenty to keep the historian busy.  To take just the most obvious example from the thirteenth century, the monk of St Albans called Matthew Paris composed a chronicle, the original parts of which cover the quarter century from 1234 to 1259.  In its modern edition it runs to seven volumes.

I say all this merely to demonstrate how much there is to know about our medieval ancestors, and not to pretend that I have in some way managed to scale this mountain all by myself.  For the most part I have not even had to approach the mountain at all, for this book is grounded on the scholarly work of others.  Nevertheless, even the secondary material for a study of Edward I presents a daunting prospect.  At a conservative estimate, well over a thousand books and articles have been published in the last hundred years that deal with one aspect or another of the king’s reign.  For scholarly works on the thirteenth century as a whole, that figure would have to be multiplied many times over.