Oxford, Merton College, MS 315

Written in Caroline miniscule script, this book is thought to have been copied in the ninth century at the monastery of Reichenau in southern Germany—Reichenau is situated on an island in Lake Constance. The principal contents of Merton 315 comprise the Chronicle of Eusebius as translated into Latin and continued by Jerome. This text occupies almost all of the book (fols. 1r–4v and fols. 9v–149v), but it also incorporates two short tracts by Jerome, Interpretatio de Nominibus Gentium, ‘The Translation of the Names of Peoples’ (fols. 4v–6v) and De mensuratio prouinciarum, ‘On the Extent of the Provinces’, (fols. 6v–8r), and various summary tables of rulers and prophets (fols. 149v–155r). Some verses in Middle High German have been added by a fourteenth-century (?) hand on folios 9r and 156r–v, implying that the book was in Germany until the end of the Middle Ages. The codex was at Merton College by 1556, but it is unclear how they acquired it. It had been brought to England from Padua by John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, between 1459 and 1461, and it may have arrived at the college in the late fifteenth century. It may have been taken to Padua by Pietro Donato, bishop of Padua (d. 1447).

Begun in about 311, the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea is a fundamental text for the development of historical writing in the Middle Ages. As first compiled it consisted of two parts: in the first (‘the chronography’) he treated the history of each ancient people or empire separately, listing their rulers or magistrates, the years of their reigns, and the events which took place in those years; in the second (‘the chronological canons’), he tried to reconcile the various chronologies and historical narratives current in the ancient world, by laying out their histories in a tabular format which would allow the reader to look across the columns and to compare what was going on in the different kingdoms at the same time. It was second part which was revolutionary, and it was this section which was translated and made available to the Latin West by Jerome. Eusebius’ Chronicle no longer survives in the original Greek. An Armenian translation exists in two versions, though the end of book one and start and end of book two are lost in both.

firebeastThe tabular layout was achieved by making use of a new type of manuscript, the codex. Consisting of sheets folded and stitched together in the manner of a modern book, this type of book largely supplanted the scroll between the second and fourth centuries. Eusebius took each ‘opening’ in his codex and divided it up into vertical columns. The events of the period were listed in two broad columns, one at the centre of each of the opposing pages. To their left and right were columns of numbers giving the years according to the regnal chronologies current in the period in question. Into the column to the extreme left Eusebius put an index of years divided into ten year intervals, the next he headed as [Kings] of the Persians (or of whichever empire was dominant at the time), and that to the extreme right he headed [Kings] of the Egyptians for as long as they lasted. When a new power came along he added an extra column for them, and when they failed their column vanished with them. The ascent of a new king was placed in the column of his kingdom, but, given a horizontal line of its own, as though it had happened between years. Thereafter the series of numbers in this kingdom’s column would be restarted, running 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.

Merton 315 illustrates this layout. Consider, for example, fols. 49v and 50r, which cover the years 1196–1182 BC in Eusebius’s reckoning. It is to these years that Eusebius assigns the Trojan War. In this opening three rulers come to the throne: the judges of the Jews Esebon and Labdon, and the pharaoh of the Egyptians Thuoris. Some attempt has been made to distinguish the columns by using different coloured inks—red, green and black. Notice also that the entries on folio 49v are very much concerned with issues of chronology: ‘In the book of Judges [11:26], Jephthah says from the era of Moses to himself is reckoned to be 300 years’; ‘After Hesebon in the book of the Hebrews, Aelon is considered to have ruled as Judge over the people for ten years, which the seventy translators do not have.’

Further into the text, once the Romans have overrun the other major empires of the Mediterranean world, the need for multiple columns is reduced, and the work proceeds on single pages rather than by two-page openings. Note also that Eusebius starts his tables, not with the date of Creation, but with the earliest date in the Biblical narrative which he could correlate securely with the chronologies of the other peoples—namely, the birth of Abraham. He places this event in the 43rd year of the reign of Ninus, king of the Assyrians—2016 years before the birth of Christ. Writing in 379 or 380, Jerome, for his part, extended Eusebius’s coverage from AD 327 to 378—or as he puts it in his preface, from the twentieth year of Constantine to the second of the Emperor Valentinian. But note also that Jerome claims to have modified and added much to the annals between the Fall of Troy and 327/the twentieth year of Constantine.

fire beastTheories as to the purpose of this chronicle vary. One common view is that Eusebius produced the work as a preparatory step towards the writing of his Ecclesiastical History, because he needed to reconcile the chronological data from various Greek sources—Porphyry, Castor, Erastothenes, and so on—with that found in Scripture. The problem with this view is that the chronological scope of the two works is so very different. Another view is that the aim was to show how the national histories of the Mediterranean world fitted into the overarching scheme of Salvation History—how, that is, they fitted into God’s grand plan for the redemption of humanity. The problem with this theory is that Eusebius starts, not with creation, but with the birth of Abraham—at a point when the world was already, according to his reckoning, 3,184 years old. Another approach focuses on Eusebius’s revision of the received Christian chronology of Sextus Julius Africanus. Whereas Sextus had placed Christ’s death in the 5,500th year of world, Eusebius’s chronology implied that Christ was born in its 5,199th year. This can be seen as an attempt to deflate millennial expectations, because the former dating when combined with the belief that the world would last six millennia—an idea that Sextus had helped to promote—implied that the Second Coming would take place in AD 500. Eusebius’s revised chronology, on the other hand, rejuvenated the world, implying that the sixth age would continue until 799/800. The problem with this theory is that Eusebius does not use annus-mundi chronology as his fundamental system of reference, nor does he make mention in his chronicle of the dangers of millennarianism. There were chroniclers who were much involved with countering this danger, such as Bede and Isidore of Seville, but they are wholly explicit about their concerns, and they use annus-mundi chronology to organise their annals.

Another view is that the purpose was to help new converts to the faith to assimilate the historical traditions of the Middle East and the Jews—traditions which would have been alien to those who had been educated according to the established norms of Greco-Roman education. ‘Visually and succintly’, as McKitterick puts it, ‘it sets out and locates in time the relationship between the various elements of an educated Christian’s universe.’ Of the various theories this one is the most in keeping with the words of Eusebius’s preface, which stresses the simple utility of his tabular arrangement for translating dates from one chronological system to another. We have, he explains, placed the series of years in opposition to each other ‘so as to provide a simple method for discovering in which era, Greek or barbarian, the prophets, kings, and priests of the Hebrews existed, likewise when falsely-believed gods of various nations existed, when demi-gods, when any city was founded, concerning illustrious men, when philosophers, poets, princes, and writers of various works appeared, and any other ancient event, if it was thought deserving of recording.’

Facsimile: Oxford, Merton College, MS 315.

Text: J. K. Fotheringham (ed.), Eusebii Pamphili Chronici Canones: Latine vertit, adauxit, ad sua tempora produxit S. Eusebius Hieronymus (London, 1923). 7PN.DK.E8: Ask Enquiries. This volume reproduces the layout of one of the earliest of the surviving manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct. T.II.26, fols. 1–144. Copied in a fifth/sixth-century uncial script, this manuscript is said to date from around AD 500.

Text and Translation: The Chronicle of Jerome. Produced by Roger Pearse and others, this is an excellent online edition and translation, not least because it replicates the layout of the earliest manuscripts.

Translation: M. D. Donalson, A Translation of Jerome’s Chronicon with Historical Commentary (Lewiston and London, 1996) [PN.D]. This volume, by an expert on the domestic cat in the Roman World, translates Jerome’s continuation (covering AD 327–79).


  • Bischoff, B., Katalog der festlšndischen Handschriften des neunten Jahrhunderts (mit Ausnahme der wisigotischen), pt. 2, Laon–Paderborn, ed. B. Ebersperger (Weisbaden, 2004), p. 384 (no. 3875).
  • Croke, B., ‘The Originality of Eusebius’ Chronicle’, The American Journal of Philology, 103 (1982), 195–200. JSTOR.
  • de la Mare, A., and S. Gillam, Duke Humfrey’s Library and the Divinity School 1488–1988: An Exhibition at the Bodleian Library, June-August 1988, with a foreword by D. Vaisey (Oxford, 1988), pp. 77–78 (no. 61).
  • de la Mare, A., ‘Marginalia and Glosses in the Manuscripts of Bartolomeo Sanvito of Padua’, in V. Fera et al. (eds), Talking to the Text: Marginalia from Papyri to Print, 2 vols. (Messina, 2002), pp. 459–556, at pp. 488–9.
  • Fotheringham, J. K., The Bodleian Manuscript of Jerome’s Version of the Chronicle of Eusebius Reproduced in Collotype (Oxford, 1905), pp. 6–7, 21 (MS T).
  • McKitterick, R., Perceptions of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, The Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies 2004 (Notre Dame, IN, 2006), pp. 14–19 (with a plate of fols. 42v–43r). MC.B.
  • Thomson, R. M., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts of Merton College, Oxford (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 243–4 (with plate 1, a colour reproduction of fol. 125v, and plate 46, black-and-white reproductions of fols. 95r and 122v). +VSRegd.B.

< Seminar IV