Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139, is an intriguing example of how historical materials were endlessly recycled in order to build new history-themed compilations. Its contents, leaving aside early modern additions, may be listed as follows:

Description Fols.
Historia omnimoda, ‘The History in Every Form’, extending from the Creation of the World to the Kingdom of David, to which is appended the names of the Bishops of Rome from St Peter to Calixtus II (1119–24) (fol. 16rv), giving the lengths of their reigns in years, months and days. 1r–16v
Extracts from Regino of Prüm, Chronicon. 17r–35v
Richard of Hexham, History of the Church at Hexham, The Deeds of King Stephen, and The Battle of the Standard. 36r–46r
Chronicle from Adam to the Emperor Henry V. Much of this is simply a list of rulers with the lengths of their reigns. 46r–48v
Symeon of Durham, Letter to Hugh, Dean of York, about the Archbishops of York. 48v–49v
The Siege of Durham and the Probity of Earl Uhtred and of the Earls who Succeeded Him. 50r–51v
Symeon of Durham (attributed), History of the Kings. Note, however, that fol. 59v is a rogue leaf containing the prologue to the Chronicle of Roger of Howden. 52r–129r
John of Hexham’s continuation of the History of the Kings. The continuity of this text is interrupted by items 9 to 12. 129v–132v
Extract from John of Worcester’s Chronica chronicarum, s.a. 1132(end)–1133, about the wonders which foretold the passing of King Henry I. 132r–v
Serlo’s poem, addressed to Ralph, abbot of Louth Park, about the Battle of the Standard. 132v–133r
William of Glasgow, Poem about the Death of Sumorled, lord of the Isles and of Argyle, at the battle of Renfrew in 1164. 133r–v
Aelred of Rievaulx, The Battle of the Standard. 134r–138r
John of Hexham’s continuation of the History of the Kings. 138r–147r
Aelred of Rievaulx, The Miracle of the Nun of Watton. 147r–149v
Stephen of Whitby, History of the Foundation of the Abbey of St Mary, York. 150r–152v
How Fountains Abbey Assumed its Foundation. 152v
Thurstan, archbishop of York, Letter about the Departure of the Monks of Fountains from the Monastery of St Mary in York. 153r–158r
Excerpt from William of Malmesbury, Deeds of the Kings of the English, ii.167–70, about Gerbert of Reims and his manner of life. 158r–160r
Excerpt from William of Malmesbury, Deeds of the Kings, ii.111, concerning Charles the Fat’s vision about the future of the empire. 160r–161r
Excerpt from William of Malmesbury, Deeds of the Kings, iii.268, about Archbishop Maurilius of Rouen’s vision of the last judgement. 161r
Excerpt from William of Malmesbury, Deeds of the Kings, ii.205, about an engagement ring which was claimed by a bronze statue. 161r–v
A story about the wife of Ernulf. An excerpt, translated into Latin, from Geoffrey Gaimar, History of the English, about how the wife of ‘Ernulf’ was taken by Ælle, king of the Deirans. 162r–164v
Why the Church of York Ought Not to Have Jurisdiction Over the Scots. 165r–v
The Vision of a Certain Cleric about the Glory of King Malcolm. The passage also appears in the fourteenth-century Chronicle compiled by John Fordun. 165v
Nennius, Eulogium, the ‘Eulogy’ or preface to his chronicle. Fol. 166r is blank apart from a brief quotation from Aelred’s, Battle of the Standard, which was added by a fourteenth-century hand. 166v
Nennius, Historia Brittonum, ‘The History of the Britons’. 167r–176v
Caradog of Llancarfan, Life of St Gildas. 176v–179r

This collection has many interesting features, not the least of which is the way in which it begins with two universal histories, the Historia omnimoda and the Chronicon of Regino of Prüm. The former is a compilation drawn from diverse sources—from the Bible, Augustine, Ambrose, Origen, Epiphanius, Arnobius, Hrabanus Maurus, and so on—which combines biblical and ecclesiastical history with classical mythology. Jerome, significantly, described his translation and continuation of the Chronicle of Eusebius as a chronicon omnimodae historiae, and the opening item in Corpus 139 is a work of a similar kind, constructed as a way of correlating diverse forms of history. It also survives in Oxford, Magdalen College, MS lat. 8. The other chronicle in this opening section is a history of the world from the birth of Jesus Christ to 906 (in its original form). Its author, Regino of Prüm was active in the Rhineland until his death at Trier in 915. The presence of these items may represent an attempt to place the English/British contents which follow in a larger framework of Salvation History, but the Historia omnimoda’s inclusion may not have been envisaged when the book was first conceived.

firebeastThe exact process by which Corpus 139 was put together is obscure. Almost every major item is written by late twelfth-century hands. The layout and decoration are also broadly similar. The text is laid out in double columns of roughly the same size; they are ruled with 35, 36 or 37 lines. There are, however, variations in script and decoration which suggest that several ‘sections’ may once have existed as separate manuscripts. This much applies to the gatherings containing the Historia omnimoda (I–II), to the gathering containing the Cistercian material and the extracts from William of Malmesbury (XIX), and to the gatherings containing the Historia Brittonum and the Life of St Gildas (XXI–XXII). These sections certainly differ in their general aspect from the rest of the book. The incomplete gathering between folios 161 and 166 (XX) might also have been a separate unit. That leaves gatherings III–XVIII. These units are marked out by stronger continuities in design and content, and by a certain consistency in the style and palaeography of the rubrics which introduce and conclude the various texts. The items in quires III–XVIII were copied by several scribes, but their rubrics are the work of a single hand.

The most substantial item in these gatherings, if they may be taken to comprise the manuscript as first conceived, is the so-called Historia regum attributed to Symeon of Durham (no. 7). The name Historia Regum has gained wide currency since the nineteenth century, but it receives only limited support from the manuscript itself, being an abbreviation of a rubric which does not seem to have been copied from the exemplar used by the scribes (see below). This name nowhere occurs in the text proper. It misleads, more to the point, in as much as it suggests that the work is a coherent whole when it is itself a conglomerate of miscellaneous materials. It has some eight components, distinguished from each other by radical shifts of style, focus and derivation:

  1. An account of the martyrdom of two seventh-century Kentish princes headed Passio sanctorum Ethelberti atque Ethelredi regie stirpis puerorum.
  2. A brief account of the kings of Northumbria from the mid-fifth century down to 737.
  3. A more substantial narrative of Northumbrian ecclesiastical history in the late seventh and eighth centuries mainly derived from the works of Bede, especially the Historia abbatum.
  4. An annalistic chronicle with a strong Northumbrian emphasis covering 732 to 802.
  5. A chronicle with a West-Saxon focus covering 849 to 887, based mainly on Asser’s Life of King Alfred.
  6. A relatively insubstantial series of annals for 888 to 957, but compiled after 1042.
  7. Extracts drawn from William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum, ii.154–5, 221–7, comprising portents relating to the fate of England at the hands of the Vikings and Normans which were conveyed to King Edgar and Edward the Confessor.
  8. An annalistic chronicle covering 848 to 1129.

The final section is mostly derived from John of Worcester’s Chronica chronicarum, but it shows increasing originality from around 1070 onwards, and its treatment of northern events strongly suggests that it has been adapted by a writer based at Durham. But this author makes hardly any interventions in this compilation’s earlier sections. Indeed, it has been strongly argued that apart from two lengthy passages concerned with the Hexham saints, Acca (s.a. 740) and Alchmund (s.a. 781) which were intruded when this section of Corpus 139 was copied, §§ 1–5 were first collected and revised by an earlier author, Byrthferth of Ramsey. This much is strongly suggested by the Latinity of these sections, since they have all the stylistic peculiarities of this late tenth-century writer; but if so, it is well to note that Byrthferth was himself gathering together and re-writing earlier materials orginating from Kent, Wessex and Northumbria.

All of this might lead one to doubt whether the contents of folios 52 to 129 are indeed a single coherent work—to infer that the eight sections represent, say, four different works on the same level, as it were, as the other units in this book; but they are clearly marked out as a text of some kind by the rubrics which appear on folios 51v and 129v:

51vb Incipit historia sancte et suauis memorie Symeonis monachi et precentoris ecclesie sancti Cuthberti Dunelmi de regibus Anglorum et dacorum et creberimis bellis, rapinis, et incendiis eorum, post obitum uenerabilis Bede presbyteri fere usque ad obitum regis primi Henrici filii Willelmi nothi qui Angliam adquisiuit, id est .cccc(tor).xxix. annorum et .iiii(or). mensium. Here begins the history of Symeon, of holy and pleasing memory, monk and precentor of the Church of St Cuthbert of Durham, about the kings of the English and the Danes and their frequent wars, ravages and burnings, from the death of the venerable priest, Bede, almost up to the death of King Henry I, the son of William the Bastard, who conquered England—that is, of 429 years and four months.
129va Explicit historia suauis et sancte memorie Symeonis monachi et precentoris ecclesie sancti Cuthberti Dunelmi, annorum .cccc(tor).xxix. et mensium quatuor. Here ends the history of Symeon, of holy and pleasing memory, monk and precentor of the Church of St Cuthbert of Durham, of 429 years and four months.

No small part of the debate about this manuscript centers on these somewhat confusing rubrics. It is in them alone that the work is attributed to the Symeon, a significant Durham-based historian who flourished between c.1090 and c.1128. He was responsible for a major work of rhetorical history concerned with that church, the Libellus de exordio atque procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, ecclesie (‘A little book on the origin and rise of this the church of Durham’), which was written at some point between 1104 and 1109. But Symeon can only be the author of our ‘history’ in a limited sense, not just because it is manifestly a loose compilation of works by diverse authors, and there are contradictions in their Durham-related contents which make it improbable that the same author was responsible for both the Libellus de Exordio and these elements in the text. It appears that the Durham elements in our text are the work of some other monk of the cathedral priory. It remains possible that Symeon was involved in the gathering together of the compilation as a whole, but it seems unlikely that he contributed any of the content. It has been suggested, therefore, that this history might represent an attempt by Symeon to gather together material for a more ambitious historical work, but there is no hard evidence to show that a further work was contemplated.

firebeastThe rubrics also provide evidence for the theory that the book was part of a larger campaign of book production which produced another late twelfth-century historical miscellany, that found in Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.I.27, pp. 1–40 and 73–252 + Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 66, pp. 1–114. This book, now dismembered, includes a copy of Symeon’s Libellus de Exordio, and the way in which Symeon is described in the rubrics to this copy of that work closely resembles the words found in Corpus 139: i.e. Incipit historia sancte et suauis memorie Simeonis monachi sancti Cuthberti Dunelmi... (Cambridge Ff.I.27, p. 131). These parallels seem to imply that these manuscripts were produced in the same scriptorium at much the same time. The other book has, furthermore, an ex libris inscription in a late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century hand which shows that it was the property of the Cistercian monastery at Sawley in the West Riding of Yorkshire at that time: Liber Sancte Marie de Salleia (Corpus 66, p. 2). A similar inscription, now erased but still visible under ultra-violet light, also occurs in Corpus 139. It seems clear that both books were at Sawley by around 1200, but it need not follow that their core components were devised and produced there. Sawley was a monastery of middling status and wealth, and one which had no special reason to hold Symeon in high regard. Another possibility is that the core elements of Corpus 139 (gatherings III–XVIII) were manufactured at Durham and then passed off to Sawley after it had become clear that they were far from perfect.

The rubric on on folio 51v may also provide a clue in its chronological contradictions as to the date when this larger campaign of book production was carried out: it recognises, first of all, that ‘Symeon’s Historia’ ends in 1129 (‘almost up to the death of Henry I’), but if, as Hunter-Blair suggests, one adds 429 years and four months to the date of Bede’s death (May 735), the stated starting point, we get September 1164. This does not seem to make sense, but 1164 may have been a significant closing point for the makers of the book, for another item, perhaps the latest item in the book as first conceived, refers to an event which took place in that year, the death of Somerled. It follows that the rubricator may have regarded Symeon’s Historia as covering a certain portion of the period covered by the book as a whole—part of the period, that is, from creation to late 1164. That would imply that the makers of Corpus 139 in its original form were attempting to organise the book as a coherent compilation and that they were active soon after 1164. However, the digits .cccc(tor).xxix. might, as Derek Baker suggests, simply represent a misreading for .mc.xxix., the terminal date of the Historia Regum. Stronger evidence for the dating of this section is provided by the lists of abbots of York and Whitby which appear under the year 1074 in the final section of the Historia Regum. These lists were updated by the scribes and they refer to Clement and Richard as the present incumbents at York and Whitby respectively. The former reigned between 1161 and 1184, the latter between 1148 and 1175, giving a date of 1161 × 1175. Since the cleric mentioned in item 23 interrogates the spirit of Malcolm IV, this item must have been written after his death in 9 December 1165, making it the latest securely datable item in the manuscript and lending, perhaps, further evidence for the dating of this flurry of historical activity; but there is, unfortunately, some uncertainty as to whether this quire (no. XX) was part of Corpus 139 as first compiled.

Of the other components, gathering XIX would seem to have come from a Cistercian house, perhaps Fountains Abbey itself. The provenance of the other sections remains obscure, but since the quires were numbered by a contemporary hand, the whole must have been assembled before the end of the twelfth century, probably at Sawley.

The later history of Corpus 139 is quite obscure. It seems to have reached London by the beginning of the sixteenth century. Once there it passed through the hands of several owners—including a certain William Peryn (d. 1558), who held a prebend at Westminster Abbey late in the reign of King Edward IV, after its secularisation—before coming into the possession of Nicholas Wootton, the first dean of Canterbury (d. 1566). Wootton gave the book to Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504–75), who bequeathed it to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Facsimile: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139.

Editions and Translations: The so-called Historia Regum is printed in T. Arnold (ed.), Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, Rolls Series 75, 2 vols. (London, 1882–5), ii, 3–283. MU5. Arnold also prints a number of the minor items in Corpus 139, such as the account of the Siege of Durham. For translations of the Historia regum and its continuations, see J. Stevenson, The Church Historians of England, vol. 3, pt. 2 (London, 1855). There is an excellent edition of Regino’s Chronicon by F. Kurze: Reginonis abbatis Prumiensis chronicon cum continuatione Treverensi, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi 50 (Hannover, 1890).


  • Baker, D., ‘Scissors and Paste: Corpus Christi, Cambridge, MS 139 Again’, in D. Baker (ed.), The Materials Sources and Methods of Ecclesiastical History, Studies in Church History 11 (Oxford, 1975), pp. 83–123. PO.A. Offers an excellent reconstruction of the manuscript, but note that the foliation employed here is the author’s own. It differs from that used in the online facsimile. Baker’s is almost alone, furthermore, in arguing that the book was assembled at Fountains Abbey, perhaps for the use of its daughter house at Sawley.
  • Bell, D. N., An Index of Authors and Works in Cistercian Libraries in Great Britain, Cistercian Studies 130 (Kalamazoo, MI, 1992), pp. 18, 138–9, 180–1, and so on.
  • Clancy, T. O., ‘Scotland, the “Nennian” recension of the Historia Brittonum, and the Lebor Bretnach’, in S. Taylor (ed.), Kings, Clerics and Chronicles in Scotland, 500–1297: Essays in Honour of Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson on the Occasion of her Ninetieth Birthday (Dublin, 2000), pp. 87–107. MXBA.
  • Dumville, D. N., ‘Celtic-Latin Texts in Northern England, c.1150–c.1250’, Celtica, 12 (1977), 19–49.
  • Dumville, D. N., ‘The Sixteenth-Century History of Two Cambridge Manuscripts from Sawley’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 7 (1977–80), 427–44; rpt. in D. N. Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages (Aldershot, 1990), no. 8.
  • Forsyth, K., ‘Evidence of a Lost Pictish Source in the Historia regum Anglorum of Symeon of Durham’, in S. Taylor (ed.), Kings, Clerics and Chronicles in Scotland, 500 1297: Essays in Honour of Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson on the Occasion of her Ninetieth Birthday (Dublin, 2000), pp. 19–34. MXBA.
  • Hart, C. R., ‘Byrhtferth’s Northumbrian Chronicle’, English Historical Review, 98 (1982), 558–82. JSTOR.
  • Hunter Blair, P., ‘Some Observations on the Historia Regum Attributed to Symeon of Durham’, in N. K. Chadwick (ed.), Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border (2nd edn, Cambridge, 1964), pp. 63–118. MVC7. A fundamental contribution to the discussion. Note esp. the plate opposite p. 117, which reproduces the rubrics relating to Symeon from Corpus 139, fol. 51v, and Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.I.27, pp. 123 and 131.
  • Hunter Blair, P., ‘Symeon’s History of the Kings’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th ser. 16 (1939), 87–100. Journals LA6.
  • Lapidge, M., ‘Byrhtferth of Ramsey and the Early Sections of the Historia Regum Attributed to Symeon of Durham’, Anglo-Saxon England, 10 (1982), 97–122 [MVB]; rpt in idem, Anglo-Latin Literature, 900–1066 (London and Rio Grande, Ohio, 1993), pp. 317–42. YBL.
  • MacLean, S., ‘Recycling the Franks in Twelfth-Century England’, Speculum, 87 (2012), 649–81. Journals L6.
  • Meehan, B., ‘Durham Twelfth-Century Manuscripts in Cistercian Houses’, in D. W. Rollason, M. Harvey and M. Prestwich (eds), Anglo-Norman Durham, 1093-1193 (Woodbridge, 1994), pp. 439–49. Argues that Corpus 139 was copied at Durham and updated at Sawley. MWTD.Q.
  • Meehan, B., ‘Notes on the Preliminary Texts and Continuations to Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de Exordio’, in D. W. Rollason (ed.), Symeon of Durham, Historian of Durham and the North, Studies in North-Eastern History 1 (Stamford, 1998), pp. 128–37. MWTD.Q. Note esp. the conclusion, pp. 136–7, where Meehan suggests that Corpus 139 and its sister MSS were produced at Durham in haste and then passed off to minor local monasteries [such as Sawley] in preference for the better copies that they had produced. He suggests, moreover, that various items in Corpus 139 might provide ‘a glance back to the period of his [Symeon of Durham’s] activity as precentor, historian and scribe..., though it may be valid to question the trust which subsequent commentators have placed in these volumes’ attributions of authorship when in certain other respects they are clearly not reliable’.
  • Meehan, B., ‘Symeon of Durham (fl. c.1090–c.1128)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
  • Morris, C. J., Marriage and Murder in Eleventh-Century Northumbria: A Study of De obsessione Dunelmi, Borthwick Papers 82 (York, 1992). Pamphlet MWTN.Q.
  • Norton, C., ‘History, Wisdom and Illumination’, in D. W. Rollason (ed.), Symeon of Durham, Historian of Durham and the North, Studies in North-Eastern History 1 (Stamford, 1998), pp. 61–105. Discusses Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.I.27, pp. 1–40 and 73–252 + Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 66, pp. 1–114. MWTD.Q.
  • Offler, H. S., ‘Hexham and the Historia Regum’, Transactions of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, 30 (1970), 51–62.
  • Offler, H. S., Medieval Historians of Durham, Inaugural Lecture (Durham University, 1958).
  • Piper, A. J., ‘The Historical Interests of the Monks of Durham’, in D. W. Rollason (ed.), Symeon of Durham, Historian of Durham and the North, Studies in North-Eastern History 1 (Stamford, 1998), pp. 301–32. MWTD.Q.
  • Symeon of Durham, Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, EcclesieTract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham, ed. and trs. D. W. Rollason, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 2000). MWTD.Q.
  • Tyler, E. M., ‘Writing Universal History in Eleventh-Century England: Cotton Tiberius B.I, German Imperial History-writing and Vernacular Lay Literacy’, in M. Campopiano and H. Bainton (eds), Universal Chronicles in the High Middle Ages. Writing History in the Middle Ages 4 (York, 2017), pp. 65–93. MBR. Worth considering for the purposes of comparison.

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