Misuse of medieval evidence

Denis Judd’s The Lion and the Tiger

I have a much larger post than this brewing, but for the moment just let me vent a little spleen. In recent months I’ve been making determined efforts to get through my new books pile, if only so that it makes sense to actually use the Blackwells/Early Medieval Europe prize I won in 2005 on books I will then get round to reading while they’re still fresh… And this has led me to something I got as a conference gift in, er, let’s just say a number of years ago, which is Denis Judd’s The Lion and the Tiger: the Rise and Fall of the British Raj (Oxford 2004). Now in many ways this book has not lived up to my hopes, as by the time I now read it I’ve learnt the relevant history in about three times the depth from Wikipedia whilst putting the Lester Watson Medal Collection on the web.

But, you may say, Wikipedia is transient and unreliable and badly-sourced, whereas this professorial work must be properly referenced and unimpeachably accurate, no? Well, er. He only references primary material, but quite a lot of that is culled from secondary works. Pressure from the publishers (OUP…) perhaps. But one cite in particular had me checking up, and it hasn’t reassured me of Professor Judd’s accuracy. It goes like this:

The first mention of an Englishman setting foot in India is over 1,000 years earlier [than Independence in 1947], and can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the earliest records of the history of the English. According to this source, King Alfred the Great sent a certain Sighelm on a pilgrimage to India in AD 883. Sighelm apparently brought back ‘many strange and precious unions [pearls] and costly spices’.

And he cites Thorpe’s 1861 translation, as used by a 1920 Clarendon Press history of the earliest British contacts with India. Well, as you can imagine I was wondering why I’d never noticed that, as I’m not exactly a stranger to the ASC. But it seems that Thorpe’s translation is not the only one that gives this reading, Giles’s influential one being another. So I fished my copy of Swanton off the shelf, and dug it out.1

Now note first of all that this annal does not come from the ‘A’ manuscript, the so-called Parker Chronicle, which is the closest to a genuine Alfredian-period text that we have, which is odd. It is however in all of B, C, D, E and F (if you don’t know the Chronicle well you may find Tony Jebson’s Introduction useful) so it would seem to hark back from that period when there was only one Chronicle, which was at least close to Alfred’s court. So what gives? I’ll tell you what gives. Here’s Swanton’s translation:

“… and the same year Sigehelm and Athelstan took to Rome – and also to St Thomas and St Bartholomew in India – the alms which King Alfred had vowed to send there when they besieged the raiding-army at London…”

Odd, but apparently incontrovertible, and who knew that there were Christian shrines in India in the ninth century? Alfred, apparently, and one wonders how. It does seem that there were Christian settlers there, in Kerala, after 345, if not earlier, and their claimed Apostle was indeed Thomas, even if this is probably because a person of that name led the 345 immigration, so it just about adds up. But wait. The word that D, E and F all use is Indea. But these are the later manuscripts. The word that B & C use is Iudea, which I think you’ll agree makes a bit more sense as somewhere to promise alms if you’re in desperate straits before a Viking army. Oh dear, oh dear. One medieval transcription error, ‘n’ for ‘u’, and now it’s Gospel to backdate the British Empire by eight hundred years…

So basically one could wish that Judd had checked rather than accept that a 150-year-old translation was still current, and I wonder whether Wikipedia isn’t the better answer after all; I know I learnt more from it. Oh well. This is why they need us, isn’t it?

1. M. J. Swanton (ed./transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).

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