Shrewsbury School

Bastille Society Lecture: The Information Crisis of the 12th Century

Tuesday 23 January 2018

It was a pleasure to welcome Dr Emily Winkler, specialist in Medieval History, to Shrewsbury School on 19th January to share her expertise on the changes in historical writing in the 12th century.

Report by Glory Chan (MSH UVI)

The 12th century was a significant era in the flourish of historical writing. Many attributed this phenomenon as a reactive response to the Norman Conquest of 1066, arguing that it was the trauma and fear of losing the English past that motivated writers to revisit and document the past. However, through the writings of famous historians Eadmer of Canterbury, William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, Dr Winkler presents the view that writers were instead drawn by the promise of an expanding canvas of history, driven by the attraction of accumulating potential unlimited knowledge.

According to Dr Winkler, one of the elements contributing to the expanding historical universe was the historical knowledge of foreign countries brought in by Crusaders. This served to instigate William of Malmesbury’s desire to write history, as “certainly it would be lazy and shameful not to know even the names of the great men of our province, when on other fronts our knowledge extends as far as the expanses of India, and any land that lies beyond, facing the limitless ocean”.  Another element was the overwhelming number of accounts and debates over events of the past, influencing Eadmer of Cantebury’s decision to seek “in every way harmonize with the conventional history of events”.

Dr Winkler also presented a thought-provoking idea that writers of history might not necessarily document what was well-known and familiar, but rather events that might have been obscured. Citing Eadmer as an example, he “[did] not see why [he] should write anything about [well-known events] since those events are so clearly evident without a single word being written”.

Providing insight to 12th century historiography, Dr Winkler succeeded in presenting an interesting and informative lecture. Therefore, once again, we would like to extend our thanks to her.

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