Seminar VI: Later Medieval Chronicles and Histories
The later Middle Ages are often seen as a period when the writing of history
went into decline after the creative heights that had been reached in the
eleventh and twelfth centuries, not just in England but also on
the Continent, in regions such as France and Germany. It was a period when,
so the conventional view suggests, the desire to amass great mountains
of data and the yearning for funny stories about the past—a tendency given
flight by the Historia regum Brittaniae of
Geoffrey of Monmouth—conquered
the faculties of historical judgement and good taste. Though they put the
tipping point somewhat later than most commentators, Geoffrey
Martin’s and Rod Thomson’s description of the scene is typical:
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries mark one of the greatest epochs in the
long tradition of historical writing in Britain, both qualitatively and
quantitatively. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this tradition
waned and historical writing simply lost significance as a literary genre.
One reason for this was doubtless the fact that it was no longer the preserve
of authors who had received a thorough education in the liberal arts and
who thus understood the classical historiographical and literary norms.
Compilation, notes and jottings gained a currency that they had not enjoyed
earlier. Largely bygone were any overriding historical vision, the notion
of historical writing as a branch of fine literature, or a critical approach
to the sources of information (p. 397).
In other words the art of historical writing declined as education was made
more widely available than it had been hitherto, an explanation which seems
a little too reminiscent of how some observers view recent trends
in higher education. A more accurate assessment
of the period between c.
1150 and c. 1450 would stress continuity and diversification rather
There are, to be sure, signs that some monastic houses backed away from history
as an intellectual discipline in
the latter half of the twelfth century—that they developed a certain reserve about the appropriateness
of taking such a strong interest in the affairs of the secular world. The explanation would seem to
lie in the drive for a clearer focus on the priorities of the religious
life that was coming from the new orders. They were criticising the Benedictines for, among other vices, taking too
great an interest in the world, a measure of which was their alleged
eagerness to read historical works.
These complaints nowhere seem, however, to have had a lasting effect on the amount
of new history being ventured, except perhaps among the Carthusians and
the other eremitic orders. They certainly did
not prevent Cistercian houses producing a significant
number of chronicles, especially in the thirteenth century. It
is also true that from the end of the twelfth century secular clerics and
canons regular made an increasingly strong contribution, important examples
being the clerics Roger of Howden (d. 1201/2) and Ralph de Diceto (d. 1199/1200),
both of whom had been royal officials, and the Augustinian canon, William
of Newburgh (d. c. 1200).
But and this is crucial, the production of rhetorical history had never been central to
the education and intellectual interests of monks—historians
like Bede or William of Malmesbury were always exceptions to the
the rate at which the Benedictines turned out active historians is
surprisingly consistent relative to their numbers. In the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries St Albans Abbey would produce three of the most remarkable
historians of the period, Roger of Wendover, Matthew Paris and Thomas of
Walsingham; Bury St Edmunds would produce an even more remarkable observer
of events in Jocelyn of Brakelond; and Chester would provide a home for
an even more fullsome historian than Matthew Paris in the form of Ranulph
Higden, whose Polychronicon extends
to fourteen volumes in the Rolls Series edition. There is, then, little
truth to the idea that
Benedictine chronicling ebbed away; rather, their contribution remained
as strong as it had previously been, even though it declined relative to the total output as members of the other religious orders and especially the seculars added their own voices to the mix.
Compilation was always, furthermore, the dominant mode of historical
writing throughout the Middle Ages, in the earlier as well as
the later period; and if the proportion of such works being produced
seems higher for the later Middle Ages than the earlier it is partly
because many more of the earlier medieval examples have passed into oblivion.
The universal history compiled from diverse sources was a type of text
which could easily be ‘improved’ by
the addition of more material, and the vast majority of medieval
chronicles are in fact built upon previous confections. Howden’s Chronica,
for example, covers the history of England from the age of Bede to 1201,
but it is a compilation derived from earlier histories as far as 1169.
It is based down to 1148 on the Historia post Bedam, a compilation
probably put together at Durham, and from 1148 to 1169 its
main source is a text which also lies behind the Melrose
Chronicle. Such works were often superseded by the more comprehensive efforts
of their successors, making them relatively ephemeral and prone to being
discarded by later generations.
It is also a moot point whether the level of critical judgement shown
by later medieval historians was worse than that of their earlier medieval
counterparts. It is true that later medieval chronicles tell some remarkably
fanciful stories, such as the tales of the green children of Woolpit found
in William of Newburgh or that of the merman of Orford found in the Coggeshall Chronicon
but earlier historians such as William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester
had been just as fond of tales about the unusual and fantastic. If there was a shift in this area, it was perhaps towards a greater emphasis on the moral significance of these stories—a shift away from their use as entertainment. Another clear shift, moreover, was the turn away from the older interest in chronology and mapping time
towards a concern—related
to new developments in the disciplines of theology and biblical criticism—to
collect and organise historical knowledge in a systematic, quasi-encyclopaedic,
fashion. This trend would manifest itself in the production
of vast histories such as those compiled by Helinand of Froidmont (d.
c. 1229), Vincent of Beauvais (d. 1264) and Ranulf Higden (d. 1364).
Topics for Discussion
- The apogee of the ‘chronographical’ tradition and its
- The trend towards ‘exhaustive’ or ‘quasi-encyclopaedic’ coverage.
- Changes in the layout of chronicles.
- The marginalisation of Benedictine chronicling and the growing importance
in historical writing of ‘the seculars’.
- The fashion for satirical and humorous treatments of the past.
- The ways in which historians might best exploit these texts.
Texts (and manuscripts) for Discussion
- Marianus Scotus / John of Worcester, Chronica chronicarum
- Gervase of Canterbury, Chronica
- William of Newburgh, Historia rerum
- Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale
- Matthew Paris, Chronica maiora
Sample texts should be downloaded from the Moodle website.
Strongly Recommended Reading
A., ‘The Chronicles of Medieval England and Scotland’, Journal
of Medieval History, 16 (1990), 129–50, and ibid., 17 (1991), 217–43 [Available from Science Direct]; rpt. in eadem, Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England (London, 1992), pp. 199-238. MVB.I.
This is an instructive article, not least because of its many plates
illustrating the ways in which various chronicles are laid out in their
- Martin, G., and R. M. Thomson, ‘History and History Books’, in
N. Morgan and R. Thomson (eds), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain,
vol. 2, 1100–1400 (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 397–415. A
useful introduction, available online from Cambridge Core and in hard copy at ZC3ea.C.
Some Other Examples
- Anderson, A. O., and M. O. Anderson (eds), The Chronicle of Melrose from
the Cottonian Manuscript, Faustina B.IX in the British Museum: A Complete and
Full-Size Facsimile in Collotype (London, 1936). MXBC.K. Oversize.
- Broun, Dauvit, and Julian Harrison (eds), The Chronicle of Melrose Abbey:
A Stratigraphic Edition (Woodbridge, 2008-). Vol. 1 = Introduction
and Facsimile Edition. The other volumes have still to appear.
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Historia regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. N. Wright and J. Crick, 5 vols. (Cambridge, 1985-91). YBW.G3. The library lacks vol. 3, the Summary Catalogue of the Manuscripts by Julia Crick.
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trs. L. Thorpe (Harmondsworth, 1966). YBW.G3.
- Hector, L. C., and B. F. Harvey (ed. and trs.), The Westminster
Chronicle, 1381–1394, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1982). MVI.
- Jocelin of Brakelond, Cronica de rebus gestis Samsonis, abbatis monasterii Sancti Edmundi, ed. and trs. H. E. Butler, Nelson’s Medieval Texts (London, 1949). MWGL.K.
- Marvin, J., The Oldest Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle: An Edition and Translation, Medieval Chronicles 4 (Woodbridge, 2006).
- McLaren, M. R., The London Chronicles of the Fifteenth Century: A Revolution
in English Writing. With an annotated edition of Bradford, West Yorkshire Archives,
MS 32D86/42 (Cambridge, 2002).
- Taylor, J., W. R. Childs and L. Watkiss (ed. and trs.), The St Albans Chronicle:
The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, vol. 1, 1376–1394,
Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 2003). MVI.
- Wace, Roman de Brut: A History of the British, ed. and trs. J. Weiss, Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies (Exeter, 1999). XTJ.W1.
Other Useful Reading
- Bainton, H., ‘Literate Sociability and Historical Writing in Later Twelfth-Century England’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 34 (2011), 23–39. Available from Dawsonera Ebooks
- Bandel, B., ‘The
English Chroniclers’ Attitude Toward Women’, Journal of the
History of Ideas, 16 (1955), 113–8. JSTOR.
- Campbell, J., ‘Some Twelfth-Century Views of the Anglo-Saxon Past’, Peritia,
3 (1984), 135–50, rpt. in idem, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London
and Ronceverte, 1986), pp. 209–28. MVC. Another commentary on decline.
- Campopiano, M., and H. Bainton (eds), Universal Chronicles in the High Middle Ages. Writing History in the Middle Ages 4 (York, 2017).
- Cleaver, L., ‘From Codex to Roll: Illustrating History in the Anglo-Norman World in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 36 (2014), 69–89. ‘About two mid-13th-century English rolls, as opposed to codices, that are thick with history and genealogy, from the Old Testament to the present.’ JSTOR.
- Corner, D., ‘Coggeshall, Ralph of (fl. 1207–1226)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
- Corner, D., ‘The Earliest Surviving Manuscripts of Roger of Howden’s Chronica’, English
Historical Review, 98 (1983), 297–310. Journals L6; JSTOR.
- Damian-Grint, P., The New Historians of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (Woodbridge, 1999).
- Dunphy, G. R., et al. (eds), Encyclopaedia of the Medieval Chronicle, 2 vols. (Leiden, 2010).
- Emerson, C., Olivier de La Marche and the Rhetoric of Fifteenth-Century Historiography (Woodbridge, 2004).
V. I. J., ‘The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: Parody and its Purpose’, Speculum, 54 (1979), 447–68. JSTOR. Journals L6.
- Freeman, E., Narratives of the New Order: Cistercian Historical Writing in
England, 1150–1220, Medieval Church Studies 2 (Turnhout, 2002). MVG.K.
- Gillingham, J., ‘The Context and Purposes of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s
History of the Kings of Britain’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 13
(1990), 99–118; rpt in his, The English in the Twelfth Century: Imperialism,
National Identity, and Political Values (Woodbridge, 2000), pp. 18–39. Available at EBSCO and in the library at MVE.
- Gillingham, J., ‘Writing the Biography of Roger of Howden, King’s Clerk and Chronicler’, in D. Bates, J. Crick and S. Hamilton (eds), Writing Medieval Biography, 750–1250: Essays in Honour of Professor Frank Barlow (Woodbridge, 2006), pp. 207–20. MBR.
- Given-Wilson, C., Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London, 2004). MVB.I.
- Gransden, A., ‘Prologues in the Historiography of Twelfth-Century
England’, in D. Williams (ed.), England in the Twelfth Century (Woodbridge, 1990), pp. 55–81; rpt. in eadem, Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England (London, 1992), pp. 125–51. MVB.I.
A., ‘Propaganda in English Medieval Historiography’, Journal
of Medieval History, 1 (1975), 363–82 [Journals L6; ScienceDirect];
rpt. in eadem, Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England (London, 1992). MVB.I.
- Gransden, A., Historical Writing in England, 2 vols. (London,
- Griffiths, R. A., ‘Royal and Secular Biography’, in J. T. Rosenthal (ed.), Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources to Discover Medieval Europe, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London, 2012), pp. 9–23. MB.
- Guenée, B., ‘Histoires, annales, chroniques: Essai sur les
genres historiques au moyen âge’, Annales, 28 (1973),
997–1016. Journals L6.
- Guenée, B., Histoire et culture historique dans l’occident
médiéval (Paris, 1980).
- Hanning, R. W., The Vision of History in Early Britain: From Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York, 1966).
- Hayward, P. A. (ed.), The Winchcombe and Coventry Chronicles: Hitherto Unnoticed Witnesses to the Work of John of Worcester, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 373, 2 vols. (Tempe, AZ, 2010), esp. chp. 1, on annalistic chronicles. MVB.
- Leckie, R. W., The Passage of Dominion: Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Periodization of Insular History in the Twelfth Century (Toronto, 1981). YBW.G3.
- Mason, J. F. A., ‘Diceto, Ralph de (d. 1199/1200)’, Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
- Mattheson, L. M., ‘Vernacular Chronicles and Narrative Sources of History in Medieval England’, in J. T. Rosenthal (ed.), Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources to Discover Medieval Europe, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London, 2012), pp. 24–42. MB.
- Nothaft, C. P. E., Dating the Passion: The Life of Jesus and the Emergence of Scientific Chronology (200–1600) (Leiden, 2012).
- Partner, N., ‘Richard of Devizes: The Monk Who Forgot to be Medieval’, in J. Glenn (ed.), The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources (Toronto, 2011), pp. 231–44. MB.
- Rosenberg, D., and A. Grafton, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (New York, 2010). Full of brilliant illustrations. Weak on the Middle Ages itself, but useful for thinking about the afterlife of the annalistic chronicle—about its early and late modern descendants.
- Spiegel, G. M., ‘Genealogy:
Form and Function in Medieval Historical Narrative’, History and
Theory, 22 (1983), 43–53 [JSTOR; Journals L6]; rpt. in her, The Past as Text:
The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Baltimore, MD, 1998),
G. M., ‘Political Utility in Medieval Historiography: A
Sketch’, History and Theory, 22 (1983), 43–53 [JSTOR; Journals L6]; rpt. in her, The Past as Text: The Theory
and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Baltimore, MD, 1998), pp. 83–98.
- Spiegel, G. M., Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography
in Thirteenth-Century France, New Historicism Series (Berkeley and Los Angeles,
- Spiegel, G. M., The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval
Historiography (Baltimore, MD, 1998). Collected essays.
- Tatlock, J. S. P., The Legendary History of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and its Early Vernacular Versions (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1950). YBW.G3.
- Taylor, J., English Historical Literature in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford, 1987). MVH.I.
- Taylor, J., ‘Higden, Ranulf (d. 1364)’,
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
- Taylor, J., Medieval Historical Writing in Yorkshire (York, 1961). Pamphlet 7MWS.
- Taylor, J., The Universal Chronicle of Ranulf Higden (Oxford,
- Taylor, J., The Use of Medieval Chronicles, Helps for Students of History 70 (London, 1965). Pamphlet 7L69.
- Thomas, H. M., ‘The Gesta Herewardi, the English and their Conquerors’, Anglo-Norman
Studies, 21 (1998), 213–32. An excellent example of history as comedy
R., ‘The Chronicle of John of Wallingford’, English
Historical Review, 73 (1958), 66–77. JSTOR. Journals L6.
R., ‘The Past in the Middle Ages’, Journal of
Medieval History 12 (1986), 1–14: ‘It is simply not true to
say that history was at the service of theology in the medieval world’ for
although ‘historians sometimes
notes what the theologians told them fortunately they failed to follow their
example or apply their ideas in practice’ (pp. 4–5). Journals L6. Available
online through ScienceDirect.
- Ward, J. O., ‘“Chronicle” and “History”: The Medieval
Origins of Postmodern Historiographical Practice’, Parergon, 14
(1997), 101–28. Mad and brilliant at the same time!
- Ward, J. O., ‘“Decline” and “New Management” in Medieval
Historiography during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (And Beyond)’, Parergon,
19 (2002), 19–73.
- Ward, J. O., ‘From Chronicle and History to Satire, Travelogue
and Sermo: The Decline of the Monastic Chronicle in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century
Europe’, in E. Kooper (ed.), The Medieval Chronicle II: Proceedings of the
Second International Conference on the Medieval Chronicle Drieberger/Utrecht,
16–21 July 1999, Costerus n.s. 144 (Amsterdam, 2002), pp. 268–80.