A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’ve just noticed that there is a pleasing chronological progression through the week, with Kate starting back in the mists of time with King Arthur, Moira continuing with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – and now I shall finish the week with a look at later medieval chronicles, and one in particular, the Chronicon Anonymi Cantuariensis (Chronicle of Anonymous of Canterbury 1346-1365), that gives a near-contemporary account of a passage in the 100 Years War. Although, when it was written, no-one had any idea that it was going to be a war or wars of 100 years, which is one reason why it is so refreshing to read today. It is an odd item to review, I know, and, I had better warn you, an eye-wateringly expensive title to buy – so inter-library loan is the better option. However, I have a particular interest in it because I had the privilege and pleasure of assisting in its rediscovery, in a very small way. Other than what I have learnt through that process, I know nothing about medieval historical writing, and so I am approaching this purely from the standpoint of an inexpert but fascinated reader. VL’s Medieval Week seemed like a good opportunity to write about it.
This is a bit of a dual review, because I found background information to help me come to grips with medieval chronicles and their writers in the lively, authoritative and wholly accessible Chronicles. The Writing of History in Medieval England by Professor Chris Given-Wilson (2004). From this work I found out who was writing history in the middle ages, why, and how. I learnt how medieval chronicles relate to one another, with previous sources copied or drawn on then added to from contemporary knowledge. I learnt how the chroniclers dealt with truth and reliability, what agenda they had, how they crafted (‘wove’) their text from firsthand knowledge, reports and rumours and contemporary resources such as letters and documents, and how the record was analysed and interpreted in terms of belief in signs and portents (actually, these come into play less often than I would have guessed). Chroniclers setting out to write the whole record of the history of England were reliant on what had already been recorded, unable to test the reliability and veracity of previous works. Having read Kate’s piece earlier this week, I found it fascinating to discover that Geoffrey of Monmouth was a unique source, that he claimed to have drawn much of his pre-Roman era history from an ancient Welsh source, conveniently lost, and was challenged on the veracity of King Arthur as early as the mid-14th century. Given-Wilson quotes from one Ranulf Higden, who compiled his Polychronicon partly from Geoffrey of Monmouth, but from many other sources too, and who was prepared to point out doubts and discrepancies:
“Geoffrey says that he is surprised that Gildas and Bede do not mention Arthur in their works, but I find it much more surprising that Geoffrey praises him so much when other, older writers, true and famous historians, do not mention him at all.” (p5)
And as for Geoffrey’s tales of Merlin, Higden says I would also have included in this history other things which are included in this book of Britain [...] had I believed them to be true. (p4) But then, he goes on to include many of the equally mythical British kings that Geoffrey may or may not have conjured from his imagination and it is hard to distinguish why he is more sceptical about Arthur than about them.
It is interesting to learn from Chronicles how medieval writers of history structured the narrative, and how they devised patterns and schemes around the passage of time; also, how chroniclers processed and critiqued the sources from which they had to derive their accounts of the distant past. By the time I am considering, the Norman Conquest, then as now, was a huge landmark, dividing the historical record into pre- and post-; but the Roman conquest provided another milestone, and the accounts of kings and heroes from before that were inevitably open to doubt. But the picture is hugely richer and more complicated than I can ever do justice to here, so all I can do is leave you with a strong recommendation to read the book.
The Chronicon Anonymi Cantuariensis was written by someone about whom enough is known or surmised, apart from his name, for him to merit an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (under A for Anonymous, in case you were wondering). From the exemplary introduction to this edition I discovered that his chronicle relies for its earlier account on a commonly used source, the Brut chronicles. From the age of Edward I, he draws on the more recent chronicle of Murimuth. From the era of the Battle of Crécy, the author appears to be writing his own continuation. Chronicles were copied and recopied, and this one exists in four versions, two full (though one has a lacuna of seven years) and two abbreviated. I happen to help take care of a Library that has in its collection one of the full versions, the complete one, which, although spotted as complete and therefore arguably the original in the 1920s, had not been studied since. It was very exciting to support the preparation of a new edition and translation by Charity Scott-Stokes and Chris Given-Wilson of the unique material it contained, which was published in the Oxford Medieval Texts series in 2008. When the new edition came to hand, I expected it to be way beyond my capacity to understand it. However, I was wrong – the whole thing is a terrific read, from preface through introduction, then text and translation, to notes. I read the extensive introduction like a detective mystery, covering as it does the rediscovery of the original and fullest manuscript, the chronicle’s authorship, and the research that went into analysing the evidence of the four extant manuscripts and their variants. Then the translated portion of the chronicle itself: I am no Latinist, and have to dig deep to deal with Anglo-norman French, but the English translation is lively and accessible.
The Chronicle, described in the very interesting and readable introduction as being the work of a chronicler who was not ambitious, is highly selective of the key events, and the evidence points to the first-hand observations of someone in a good position to get the news and note the comings and goings between Dover and London – many and various as they were, only a few are mentioned in any detail. The period covered takes us from a time just before the Battle of Crécy in 1346 to the birth of a son to the Black Prince in 1365. After the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, the King of France was captured and a number of very important hostages with him. In 1357 they were brought to London, their arrival greeted with much pomp and ceremony. The King of France was imprisoned in the Savoy, and his sons and other nobles dispersed to other comfortable prisons, pending the raising of a massive ransom. This chronicle’s major original contribution is its insight into the arrival and captivity of the French hostages, up to the pivotal Treaty of Brétigny, from which it quotes extensively, and which started a brief period of peace that lasted until the death of the King of France which happened while he was in London for a second time, paying a very late instalment of his ransom. His sons did not feel bound by the promises made by their father, and the wars began again.
To give some flavour of the distinctive vigour and entertainment value of this chronicle, here are some extracts from the account of the entry of King John and the Black Prince to London. They had landed in Plymouth in May 1357 and made progress through towns and cities until they arrived in London on 24th May:
The Londoners. On Wednesday, namely the twenty-fourth day of the same month of May, Henry Picard, mayor of the city of London, with citizens, aldermen and others from the commonalty of the said city, went forth outside the said city in order to meet the said prince of Wales and John, king of France, and the others captured with them; that is to say, a multitude of people on horseback came from each craft guild of the said city of London, variously decked out in costumes newly made for the occasion, in great numbers. And the people of each London guild in turn preceded the said king of France and the other captives through the whole city of London, making good cheer; and as the procession passed through London wine was offered in abundance to all who wanted to drink, on account of the amazing spectacle. And in the middle of London’s Cheapside, near to the goldsmiths’ quarter and at their instigation, two beautiful young girls were set up on a kind of platform cunningly rigged up with some ropes leading from the goldsmiths’ quarter to that of the saddlers, and these girls sprinkled gold and silver leaf on the heads of the riders below, while the king of France and the prince of Wales and the others who were riding there looked on; on account of which, many people applauded this amazing scene.
It wasn’t all free booze and largesse, though – what a difference a day makes:
On the next day, Thursday, following that Wednesday, namely on the feast of St Adhelm the bishop, the Londoners, believing that the said prince of Wales had prepared a banquet for them in the Great Hall at Westminster, sat there at tables from the first hour of the said day until after the ninth hour without food or drink, gazing at the walls and the windows, and then went home hungry and frustrated in their purpose. A few of them who penetrated to the Lesser Hall at Westminster were not permitted by the courtiers to leave under any circumstances without a thorough investigation of who and what sort of men these intruders were.
That last sentence could have been written today.
The great interest of this chronicler lay in war, deeds of warlike heroism, politics and affairs of state. Other occurrences are noted, but rather in passing. The period covers, not one, but two terrible plagues: the Black Death of 1348-9 is well-known. Possibly less so is the plague of 1360-1, which in some ways may have been more terrible because it was noted that it took the young and strong, particularly men and boys, and left families without support. He has some pithy remarks to make on both of these terrible epidemics, but it is a revelation to me that he spends so little time on them – one paragraph on each, followed by details of notable people struck down. In common with other chroniclers he overestimates the impact on the population, stating that the plague killed 50 percent in 1348-9 and a third in 1360-1 – both estimates almost double the actual loss. In the case of the 1361 epidemic he notes that women survived it better than men, and, of the numerous widows several [...] took it into their own heads to marry themselves off, not to people who were known but to foreigners, and especially to warlike men from Normandy.
This chronicler was seriously anti-joust, and in more than one place notes bad omens attending the jousts called to celebrate the marriage of the Black Prince with the much-married Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent – a terrible storm before one, and a fire that nearly destroyed the whole of Clerkenwell before another. Plagues come and go, and the odd portent, but the really, really fascinating tales for this chronicler are those of kings, princes and nobles their achievements, marriages and downfalls, of battles and tales of heroism, and of the politics of the age.
The originality and scope of the unique material in this chronicle may be limited – nevertheless, I found it so very exciting to find out about this contemporary voice from the distant past, and to play a small part in facilitating the scholarship that brought it to light and to life.
Chronicon Anonymi Cantuariensis. The Chronicle of Anonymous of Canterbury 1346-1365. Edited by Chris Given-Wilson and Charity Scott-Stokes (Oxford Medieval Texts)
Oxford: OUP The Clarendon Press, 2008. 234 pages
Chris Given-Wilson: Chronicles. The Writing of History in Medieval England.
London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007. Pbk 320pp
ISBN 13: 9781852855833