Seminar VI: The Later Medieval Chronicle

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 than decline.

There are, to be sure, signs in the latter half of the twelfth century of a backing away from history as an intellectual discipline—of a certain reserve about the appropriateness of taking such a strong interest in the affairs of the secular world—at some monastic houses. But the explanation for this reserve 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. The Benedictines were being criticised in public, it seems, for taking too great an interest in the world, one potential measure of which was their alleged eagerness to read historical works.

Such reservations 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).

fire beastMoreover, 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 rule—and 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. 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 material already in circulation.

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 Anglicanum; 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 their moral significance of these stories—a shift away from their use as entertainment. One clear shift, however, 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), whose Polychronicon extends to fourteen volumes in the Rolls Series edition.

Topics for Discussion

  1. The apogee of the ‘chronographical’ tradition and its subsequent decline.
  2. The trend towards ‘exhaustive’ or ‘quasi-encyclopaedic’ coverage.
  3. Changes in the layout of chronicles.
  4. The marginalisation of Benedictine chronicling and the growing importance in historical writing of ‘the seculars’.
  5. The fashion for satirical and humorous treatments of the past.
  6. The ways in which historians might best exploit these texts.

Texts (and manuscripts) for Discussion

  1. Marianus Scotus / John of Worcester, Chronica chronicarum
  2. Gervase of Canterbury, Chronica
  3. William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum
  4. Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale
  5. Matthew Paris, Chronica maiora

Further Reading

Strongly Recommended Reading

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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Flint, 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. 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.
  • Gransden, 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, 1974–82). L43.
  • 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), pp. 99–110.
  • Spiegel, 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, 1993).
  • 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, 1966). MVH.I.
  • 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 and satire.
  • Vaughan, R., ‘The Chronicle of John of Wallingford’, English Historical Review, 73 (1958), 66–77. JSTOR. Journals L6.
  • Vaughan, 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.

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