Matthew Paris, Chronica maiora

A superb illustrator as well as a fine writer, Matthew Paris (d. 1259) produced two closely related chronicles, one a massive work known as the Chronica maiora, the other a breviate version of the former known as the Historia Anglorum. Focused though it is on English history and the interests and reputation of St Albans Abbey, Chronica maiora is another example of the trend towards exhaustiveness. It was built on the work of an earlier St Albans historian, Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), whose Flores historiarum extended from the time covered by Bede down to May 1234 (or perhaps June 1235). The Flores was only in its final sections, from the end of the reign of King John (1199–1216) down to 1234/5, fully Roger’s own work. For the rest, as its name implies, Roger had relied on extracts (flores, ‘flowers’) taken from the works of other historians: Bede, Henry of Huntingdon, Roger of Howden, Ralph de Diceto and various annal-writers. As well as continuing it down to the end of the 1250s, Paris added much more material to earlier sections of this compilation. In its final form, it is a monumental work extending to seven tomes in the Rolls Series edition.

Manuscripts: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MSS 16 + 26 and London, British Library, Royal MS 14.C.VII. These books comprise a three volume edition of Matthew’s historical works prepared under his own direction and partly written in his own hand: Corpus 26 (known as MS A) has the text of Chronica maiora from Creation down to the end of the year 1188; Corpus 16 (known as B) has the text from 1189 to 1253; and the third volume, Royal 14.C.VII (known as R), has the remainder of the work (1254–9) (fols. 157r–231r) together with various prefatory items (fols. 1v–8r) and the entire text of Matthew’s Historia Anglorum (fols. 8v–156v). The three books were used as the key witnesses for H. R. Luard’s Rolls Series edition.
     In Corpus 16 various leaves have been lost: three after folio 3v (1190–1192); one after 106v (1237), one after 117v (1238), one after 232v (1250). The missing parts (except that after 117v) have been supplied by Archbishop Matthew Parker’s secretaries. There are, likewise, similar repairs in Corpus 26, where the inserted leaves are now paged as folios 8r–10v, 16r–16v, 19r–19v, and 127r–128v.
    Among the many illustrated sections, the itinerary for a journey from London to the Holy Land on folios i–iv of Corpus 16 comprises a particularly striking effort to present information in a diagrammatic form, although the leaves are much damaged. The many marginal images, such as that for the wreck of the White Ship (Corpus 26, fol. 22v) or that showing Saladin and Guy of Lusignan fighting for possession of the crux sancta (Corpus 26, fol. 140r), are another significant element of the presentation. The practice of using symbols or simplified images in the margin as visual cues for the reader seems to have been invented (or introduced into England?) by the dean of St Paul’s, Radulfus de Diceto (d. 1199/1200), whose chronicles, the Abbreviationes chronicorum and the Ymagines historiarum, were widely copied in the first half of the thirteenth century.

Provenance: Written at St Albans Abbey and presented to the convent by Matthew Paris. The calendar on folio vi (rv) of Corpus 26 also contains many feasts which seldom celebrated beyond the abbey and its dependencies, such as that of the Invention of St Oswine (10 March), that of the Invention of St Amphibalus and his Companions (25 June) and that of the Natalis of St Oswine (20 August).

Facsimile: Corpus 16, parts I and part II and Corpus 26 are reproduced at the Parker Library on the Web; London, British Library, Royal MS 14.C.VII, is reproduced on the British Library Website.

Text: Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, ed. H. R. Luard, Rolls Series 57, 7 vols. (London, 1872–83). MU5.

Translation: Vaughan, R., (ed.), The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Monastic Life in the Thirteenth-Century (Gloucester, 1984). MVGR.K.


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