Marianus Scotus / John of Worcester, Chronica chronicarum

The English version of the Chronica chronicarum, or ‘Chronicle of Chronicles’, which was produced at Worcester Cathedral Priory during the first half of the twelfth century is an immense text whose complexity has so far defied all attempts to fully report its contents and significance.

It used to be attributed to ‘Florence of Worcester’, but another monk of this community, John, is now reckoned to be its chief author. To explain, both men are identified as contributors in the text itself: Florence is thanked for his contribution in an obituary which appears under the year 1118, whilst ‘John’ invites his readers to correct him if he is wrong under the year 1138 (Corrigat ista legens offendit siqua Iohannes). It used to be inferred on the basis of these entries that Florence was the author of the work as far as 1117, whilst John was merely a continuator who brought its annals down to at least 1140, where the text ends imperfectly in the holograph manuscript (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157). It has been shown, however, that there is no evidence for a break in continuity at the year 1117/18. Indeed, the annals for 1095 to 1122 could not have been written until after October 1122, since they make extensive use of Eadmer’s Historia novorum, a work which ends with the death in that month of Ralph d’Escures, archbishop of Canterbury (1114–22).

Moreover, the palaeographical evidence shows that the work was not written from beginning to end, in a contiguous fashion. Owing to the survival of a holograph, produced in or soon after 1131, together with five other medieval manuscripts which derive from the former at differing stages in the final period of its development it is possible to explore the working methods of its authors. That is, it is possible to distinguish various ‘layers’ of annotation, to put them in chronological order and to reconstruct the evolution of the text during the 1130s, when John was active. So, while Florence may well have helped to collect some of the data and to prepare initial drafts, the whole was much amplified after his death, and it was still being revised in the 1130s and the early 1140s. The extent, however, of Florence’s contribution cannot be recovered, because it is highly likely that the methods in evidence for the final phases were also in operation in the 1110s, when he was active and in the absence of earlier 'derivatives' it is all but impossible to stratify the earlier layers. It is impossible, that is, to differentiate the material for which Florence himself may have been responsible from that which was added by others, not least in the gap between 1118 and 1130—in the gap when material was being extracted from, among other sources, Eadmer’s Historia novorum. Also Orderic Vitalis, who saw the work during a visit to Worcester, treats John as its sole author. It makes much better sense, then, to abandon the question of how much belongs to Florence and to regard John as the director of the entire enterprise.

firebeastIt is a point for debate, however, whether John should be seen as having conceived a new work, for Chronica chronicarum is a ‘re-tooled’ version of Marianus Scotus’s tract of the same name. Robert de Losinga, bishop of Hereford (1079-95), had had a copy of Marianus’s work brought from Lotharingia to England—a copy which may well survive as London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero C.V. Whether John used only this copy remains a moot point, but his Chronica chronicarum certainly re-works that of Marianus. Books one and two, which attempt to define the age of the world and the chronology of Christ’s life, are left almost unaltered. The major changes lie in book three which comprises an annalistic account of world history since the Incarnation. This was much expanded through the interpolation of material drawn largely from English sources. Some of the new material concerns the Franks, Danes and Normans, but most of it is concerned with the history of the English. John and his helpers also expanded the appendices, re-arranging the annals in the Easter tables and inserting new material into their margins, adding sets of episcopal lists for the various English dioceses and genealogies for all the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Among the final additions was a new conclusion (covering 1128 until at least 1140/41), a set of papal annals and a brief history of Worcester Cathedral Priory.

For a sound understanding of John’s project it is also important to consider two breviate chronicles which are closely related to his version of the Chronica chronicarum. The better known of these is the Chronicula or ‘little chronicle’. This is how the work is described in the passage in which the author says that it is a more succinct version of the materials found in a larger chronica chronicarum, and that he has taken care to include ‘only the more useful matter in this little book’. This work is less obviously indebted to Marianus. As first completed—it was later continued at Gloucester Abbey—its narrative proper begins with the Incarnation and ends with an entry covering 1106 to March 1123. Its entries lump together irregular numbers of years, and its relationship to the various phases of John’s Chronica chronicarum suggests that it was produced in the late 1130s. Most of its material derives from the former text, but fresh items (?) were taken from Frankish sources, including the Chronicle of Hugh of Fleury. A prefatory account of Britain was borrowed either from the F-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or from a closely related text now lost. Verses pepper the work. It is copied into the only manuscript (today, Trinity College Dublin, MS 503) by the hand which is thought to be that of John himself—a hand that makes annotations to the holograph of his Chronica chronicarum. It is clearly one of John’s own compositions.

firebeastThe other breviate version of Chronica chronicarum is a world history which is known in so far as it was the main source of the Coventry and Winchcombe Chronicles as far as 1122. This breviate chronicle was produced at Worcester during John’s lifetime using much the same material as appears in Chronica chronicarum and Chronicula. It does not abbreviate John’s work in the same way as Chronicula: it adheres to a year-by-year annalistic format and it offers a different ‘selection’ from the materials found in Chronica chronicarum. Most of its items echo in an abbreviated form material found in book three of that work, but some are closer to items found among the appendices. There are a few items for which there is no counterpart in John’s known works, but almost every item derives from a work to which he is known to have had access. It may be seen, then, as another version of Chronica chronicarum in a breviate format. Some entries, mostly notably those referring to the kings of the Franks, appear to be first attempts to reconstruct narratives sequences that would later be substantially revised and superceded in the Chronicula and in the more advanced versions of Chronica chronicarum. It seems likely that this text is another product of John’s workshop, and one produced while Chronica chronicarum was still in progress.

What survives of John’s work, then, are three chronicles, similar in content and derived from much the same mass of material, but each has a different format. None is provided with an original preface which defines its purpose, but one explanation may be that they represent a combined attempt to sell the chronological theories of Marianus Scotus to an English audience. Marianus was a proponent of, among other theories, the idea that the Incarnation had taken place twenty-years earlier than had been reckoned by Dionysius Exiguus, the author of the Anno-Domini chronology which remains in common use. John’s generic choices may be seen as an attempt to bring these theories to three different types of reader: if Chronica chronicarum was an imposing reference-work for the intellectual heavy-weight, Chronicula may be seen as a work for those in search of edifying entertainment, whilst the common source of the Coventry and Winchcombe Chronicles may be seen as an introduction to world history which the monastic teacher might put before his novices. In any case, John’s version of the Chronica chronicarum of Marianus Scotus represents a highpoint in the history of chronological historiography—for England at any rate.


Edition and Translation: R. R. Darlington, P. McGurk and J. Bray (ed. and trs.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester, Oxford Medieval Texts, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1995-). Volume 1, the introduction and edition of the Chronicula, has yet to appear. Volume 2 should be consulted for an account of the manuscripts.

Autograph Manuscript: Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157 (C). This is the autograph manuscript of John's version of the Chronica chronicarum. It begins with a ‘prologue’ of auxiliary texts (fol. 1r–page 77), comprising a history of the see of Worcester (fol. 1r to page 3), a set of consular tables (pp. 5–29), a list of popes (pp. 29–34), a set of tables listing the bishops of England’s sees with notes on individual bishops and on the foundation and subdivision of the various dioceses (pp. 39–45), and a series of tables setting out in brief the history of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the so-called heptarchy and the genealogies of their rulers (pp. 47–54), a full set of twenty-eight paschal tables with three series of annals (pp. 56–69), and a few other short computistical texts (pp. 55 and 70–77b).
    The principal text occupies pages 77c to 396. Its preface and first two books, comprising over two-fifths of the whole (pp. 77c–203), are derived without any major modification from Marianus’s Chronica. The third book’s annals for the first five centuries of the Christian era are also reproduced without substantial changes, but with the annal for 450 (page 242) material begins to be introduced from other sources, gradually transforming the standpoint of the text such that the narrative is dominated by English events from around the late-sixth century onwards until its conclusion—were one to read it from start to finish.
    In its existing state, C is mostly the work of three scribes: the first is chiefly responsible for the tables and for most of the main chronicle down to mid-1101 (pp. 5–363); the second is chiefly responsible for the annals from mid-1102 to 1128 (pp. 364–79); the third scribe, thought to be John himself, is chiefly responsible for a continuation that begins with the annal for 1128 and which ends imperfectly in the middle of an episode in August 1140 (pp. 379–96). This much applies to the core of the text: there are marginal additions and interpolations throughout; most are the work of the second and third scribes.

Items for Discussion: please direct your attention to the annals for A.D. 804–12 and A.D. 878(end)–883. These annals appear on pages 281 and 296 in Corpus 157, and on pages 232–5 and 312–5 in volume two of the OMT edition. Note that the OMT edition presents the chronological apparatus in a somewhat misleading way, giving priority to Dionysian apparatus when it is relatively obscure in the manuscript itself. In Corpus 157 the Marianan numbers are given in red, followed by the imperial year, on the left-hand side of the text area; the Dionysian numbers are given in black and ‘buried’ in the right-hand side of the text area.

Commentary

  • Brett, M., ‘A Note on the Historia Novorum of Eadmer’, Scriptorium, 33 (1979), 56–58.
  • Brett, M., ‘John of Worcester and his Contemporaries’, in R. H. C. Davis and J. M. Wallace Hadrill (eds.), The Writing of History in the Middle Ages; Essays presented to Richard William Southern (Oxford, 1981), pp. 101–26. L43. A brilliant account of the relationships between different historians active in early twelfth-century England.
  • Darlington, R. R., and P. McGurk, ‘The Chronicon ex Chronicis of “Florence” of Worcester and its Use of Sources for English History before 1066’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 5 (1982), 185–96.
  • 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. chps. 2–3. MVB.
  • McGurk, P., ‘Worcester, John of (fl. 1095–1140)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
  • Nothaft, C. P. E., Dating the Passion: The Life of Jesus and the Emergence of Scientific Chronology (200–1600) (Leiden, 2012).
  • Verbist, P., ‘Reconstructing the Past: The Chronicle of Marianus Scottus’, Peritia, 16 (2002), 284–334.
  • Verbist, P., Duelling with the Past: Medieval Authors and the Problem of the Christian Era (c.990–1135), Studies in the Early Middle Ages 21 (Turnhout, 2009). MBO. Important for the wider intellectual context.

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