Fulford battlefied under threat

July 2015 dig

The Fulford Tapestry

Misinformed criticism

Summary of published report

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Misinformed criticism of the Norse Literary Sources.

English Heritage followed the criticisms promoted by the developers and the Local Planning Authority in questioning the accuracy of one of the key sources, the Heimskringla. They failed to address the significant body of scholarship which was among the evidence available to them.

This chorus of criticism, implying that the time which elapsed before a historian writes his book, is no more relevant than marginalising the work of Simon Schama or Michael Wood as interpreters of medieval history because they are writing 1000 years later. Scholarship recognises that it is the sources which are employed which is the key to the accuracy of whatever history is produced.

Beginning in 2002, the Skaldic Poetry Project began to translate the Skaldic sources that are known to have provided sources for Heimskringla. The work of translating these Skaldic verses is on-going but the number I have read, suggest that the complier of Heimskringla copied the sources faithfully. Historians writing in 13th century Norway could also consult Agrip, a summary of the sagas of the Norwegian kings, which was composed before 1200 in Norway and makes reference to a Latin history from Niardos, King Harald’s foundation for his sainted half-brother. This provides another ‘paper trail’ to about a century after the battle of Fulford.

Snorri Sturluson is the presumed author of Heimskringla and was just one of a number of scholars who took advantage of the gathering of the written versions of Skaldic verses.[1] They were all perhaps aware that the pagan cultural references employed by the Skalds, would make the old verses incomprehensible in a Christian culture. Skalds were ‘praise-poets’ who competed for the right to immortalise the deeds of their patron. They fought, and sometimes died, beside their employer but if they survived, the events they recorded could be equated to those of a modern embedded reporter. So the skalds knew of the events that they reported.

Snorri opens his chronicle with the following observation on his own methodology. “In this book I let be written old narratives about rulers …which I have heard from well-informed men, also certain histories of previous generations as they were taught to me.”

Snorri also encapsulates the dilemma of every historian when he recognizes the need to exercise his judgment.  “And although we do not know the truth of these, we know that old, learned men judged such to be true.”  But, referring to the many tales surrounding King Harald, Snorri notes “these came not as history and these were not included, because we will not put unsubstantiated stories into this book.”

Snorri was the ‘Lawspeaker’, or Chief Justice, who recognised the need to keep a record of judgements in writing because precedent was the basis of Icelandic Law. So we have a good evidential trail; the Skalds were recording events of which they had personal experience and these were later employed by Norse historians to compose their history. Modern scholarship allows us to confirm the accuracy of the transcriptions.

We have very good reason to believe that we have available several independent records about the battle and the differences, as well as similarities, were analysed in Finding Fulford. The Orkney Sagas for example, contain a description of events at the ford, rather than from the flank where King Harald fought, and the two perspectives dovetail extremely well to form the picture that made sense in the 1066 landscape of Germany Beck (which the writer calls the Upper Ouse). In no way does the identification of the battlesite rely on this single source but it does provide one of the strong strands of evidence to support for the identification of the site.

But to address the criticisms of Heimskringla as a work of history, I included an annex within Finding Fulford reporting the views of modern scholars on its accuracy. But I can find no reference that they addressed this evidence alongside the clichéd view that Norse Sagas were made-up stories. Nor has English Heritage adopted a balanced approach which recognises that there are other English as well as Norse sources which were critically compared in Finding Fulford.

I have been very critical of the failure by those making the judgements and comments within English Heritage to visit either the site or inspect the physical evidence.  For example, alongside the implied criticism of this source there is also criticism of the way that I matched these written descriptions with the landscape of 1066.  Such criticism might be valid if English Heritage had looked at the published landscape evidence and then reported their own conclusions about the way it matched the literature.[2]

I would welcome a debate but cannot accept that it is valid to make a judgement without addressing the substantial body of evidence that was presented to them.

While there remains legitimate scope for debate about the interpretation of almost any written record, a critic who ignores so much of the evidence that was presented must expect their judgments to be challenged.

  

Chas Jones August 2013


 

[1]Snorri anticipated the work of Samuel Johnson as a complier and worked for 15 years as a ‘harmless drudge’.

[2] I am flattered by the numbers of people who attend my walks armed with a copy of Finding Fulford, and they often question me most closely on this aspect of the findings.

 

Related sites Facebook  Twitter (@ helpsavefulford)        Visiting Fulford        Map York

There is a site devoted to saving the battlesite: The site has the story of the process that has allowed the site to be designated an access road to a Green Belt, floodplain housing estate.

And another website for the Fulford Tapestry that tells the story of the September 1066: This tells the story embroidered into the panels.

The author of the content is Chas Jones - fulfordthing@gmail.com  last updated June 2015

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