Soundbite news

A page from a 13th-century chronicle showing the annals for the years 978-991 AD, College of Arms, Arundel 10

Each age decides what’s newsworthy and especially when news happens. For our 0-lag age, news happens around the clock. We find out about it as it happens, and by virtue of our ability to record and broadcast the world around us almost in real time, we can be generators of news. Before radio and television news, news was what happened yesterday. As we move back in time, the gap gets bigger. For ancient and medieval societies, news often overlapped with history – both belonging to the past, both reliant on historiography for their recovery.

The most popular historiographical genre in the Western Middle Ages was the annal. A tool for presenting the past in a succint yet meaningful way, the annal was also an important device for conveying news from one community to another. A short line of text in a chronicle to say that, on this day, this happened, was literate Europe’s way of passing newsworthy information from one community of text – a religious institution, a princely court, to another.

The great thing about annals is that they were brief. There was no room for interpretation, not much space for commentary. The event was given in a raw, undigested form. An English chronicle notes that, in 855:

Magnus paganorum exercitus Anglia vastata in insula que Sepeya dicitur hiemavit.

A Great Viking army raided England and passed the winter on the island of Sheppey.

The chronicler was shooting in RAW, no filters, no gloss. Do with the soundbite as you will, the information is there.

The medieval annal was so unprocessed that it scandalised many modern critics, who doubted that the text of such historical records can even be considered narrative. Lacking emplotment, the medieval annal was, we might say, telegraphic in form and content. It was information at its purest, even when its source was doubtful.

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