Gervase of Canterbury, Chronica

Active throughout the period from 1180 until his death in or soon after 1210, Gervase of Canterbury was the author of seven historical works, the most important and substantial of which is his Chronica. Though it includes an account of how Henry I’s plans for the succession fell apart, its narrative proper begins with his death (1 December 1135) and ends with that of Richard I (6 April 1199). As far as the mid 1180s, that narrative is centred on England but takes in the wider history of Latin Christendom; thereafter its central theme is the struggle to prevent the archbishops of Canterbury establishing a college of secular canons as a home for an expanded household. This conflict began when Archbishop Baldwin (1185–90) attempted to found a collegiate church at Hackington: it was to receive half the offerings from the cathedral implying, not just a loss of income, but that the canons were to supplant the monks of the cathedral priory as the custodians of Becket’s cult. The monks foiled this plan, but Baldwin then set about founding a college at Lambeth, a scheme which was continued by his successor, Hubert Walter (1193–1205).

firebeastGervase’s method shifts with this narrowing of focus. The first half is assembled from works such as Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum and John of Worcester’s Chronicula, though the material which derives from the latter may have been transmitted through the lost Gloucester Chronicle of the early 1180s which was also used by the continuator of the Winchcombe Chronicle. For Thomas Becket’s pontificate Gervase relies on his uitae. For the 1170s and early 1180s he used a variety of sources including Roger of Howden’s Gesta Henrici Secundi. But from around 1184 onwards he depends chiefly on the community’s knowledge and the documents in its archives. He resorts, moreover, to rhetorical devices such as invented speeches and uisiones. In one of these visions, to take an obvious example, Becket is shown driving Baldwin away with ‘the sword of St Peter’, a gesture which Gervase has the monks interpret as a sign that they should take their case to the apostolic see. Some of the speeches are quoted from letters and other records, but many seem to have been fabricated for rhetorical effect.

There can be little doubt that Chronica, begun in 1188, was a response to Baldwin’s assault upon the priory’s status. Gervase was a monk of the cathedral priory and for some years around 1193 its sacristan—he was responsible, that is, for looking after the many shrines housed in the cathedral. Yet he claims in his preface—a text much discussed for what it has to say about the writing of chronicles in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—to be writing in order to preserve his soul from the danger of otiositas, ‘sloth’ or ‘torpor’. He wishes to ‘compile’ rather than ‘to write up’ some deeds. He asks not to be reckoned among the chroniclers because he writes not for a biblioteca publica, ‘a public library’, but for ‘his brother Thomas’ and their ‘poor little family’, terms that the nineteenth-century editor of his works, Bishop Stubbs, read as references to his natural kinsmen rather than to the monks of his community. Gervase implies that he is committed to writing a history conceived along the most conservative of lines and for the most private of audiences, but the rhetorical content of the work’s final sections belies these statements. It is difficult to explain the presence of this material if Gervase did not mean to persuade some sort of wider audience.

firebeastThree shorter works also reveal Gervase’s rhetorical skills. The first, De combustione et reparatione Cantuariensis ecclesie, is a vivid account of the ruination and rebuilding of the Cathedral choir after it was destroyed by fire on 5 September 1174. His best known composition, it is much celebrated for its descriptive qualities. Two shorter works set out the positions in the two recent political struggles: that between Archbishop Richard, archbishop of Canterbury (1173–84), and Roger, abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey (1178–1212), and that between Archbishop Baldwin and the priory. They comprise dialogues in which speeches—labelled imaginationes and responsiones—are put in the mouths of the protagonists as if they were what was said when the arguments were presented in the papal curia. Stubbs dated these works to 1185 × 1186, but their position in the chronology of his œuvre remains obscure.

Having completed the Chronica, Gervase went on to compile a Gesta regum. For the years before 1199, it abridges a variety of sources, including William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Chronica; but from 1199 to 1210, where it was taken over by another writer, it is an original and important record. Gervase also compiled an Acta pontificum Cantuariensis ecclesie, providing short biographies of the archbishops from St Augustine to Hubert Walter in 1205. His remaining work is his Mappa mundi. Not a map but rather a topographical survey in tabular form, it lists, among other data, some 438 English religious houses according to the counties in which they were located.

Edition: William Stubbs (ed.), The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, Rolls Series 73, 2 vols. (London, 1879–80). MU5.

Sample Texts and Translations: for the prologues in the original Latin and in translation, please visit the moodle website.

Manuscripts: Gervase’s works survive in three manuscripts:

  1. London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian B.XIX. This is the most important of the three copies, because it has class marks identifying it as the property of Christ Church and because it was probably produced during Gervase’s own lifetime. Stubbs, Historical Works of Gervase, i, p. l, dated Vespasian B.XIX to the mid-thirteenth century on the basis of the list of archbishops of Canterbury which appears on folio 232v. As first entered this list extended from Augustine (d. 604) to Boniface (1245–70); it was later continued as far as Richard Bancroft (1604–10). Stubbs was mistaken, however, in his view that the scribe who entered the list was same as that who copied the rest of the manuscript. In fact, the two scribes who copied the principal contents (the second hand takes over on fol. 193r) were writing soon after 1200. The list on fol. 232v is the work of several other hands.
  2. Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.4.11, which Stubbs reckoned a ‘servile’ late thirteenth-century copy of Vespasian B.XIX.
  3. Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.1.29, a late thirteenth-century manuscript which omits the imaginationes and a selection of letters on the dispute with Archbishop Baldwin included in Vespasian B.XIX, but which may depend on a superior exemplar.

Online Images: The British Library’s Online Gallery provides access to a several other images from Cotton Vespasian B.XIX, including: (1) fol. 1r, which has the beginning of Gervase’s Tractatus de combustione et reparatione Cantuariensis ecclesie, his account of the burning of the cathedral choir in 1174; (2) fol. 30v, the opening page of the prologue to the Chronica; (3) fol. 33r, which contains the end of the preface to the Chronica and the beginning of his ‘background’ section on the reign of King Henry I (1100–35); (4) fol. 33v, which contains the end of the background section and the beginning of the text proper of the Chronica.

Folio 1r has, it should be noted, some significant details: in the lower margin, two post-Reformation book collectors, Lord William Howard (d. 1640) and Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), have inscribed their names, claiming ownership of the book. The drawing of the lion rampant in the margin is also be a mark of ownership, one associated with William Howard. The name Edmerus in the top margin, written in a sixteenth-century hand, indicates a mistaken assumption that the book comprised works by Eadmer of Canterbury (c.1064–1130). The book was previously owned by John Twyne (d. 1581).


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