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 than decline.

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).

fire beastBut 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 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, 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 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 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

  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

Sample texts should be downloaded from the Moodle website.

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

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