The Chronica Majora has long been considered a contemporary attempt to present a universal history of the world. The Chronica is the seminal work of Matthew Paris, a member of the English Benedictine community of St Albans and long-celebrated historian. The work begins with Creation and contains annals up until the year of Paris' death, 1259.
Written in Latin, the illustrated autograph copy of the Chronica survives in three volumes. The first two parts, covering Creation up to 1188 as well as the years 1189 to 1253 (MS 26 and MS 16), are archived at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The remainder of the Chronica, from 1254 until Paris's death in 1259, is in the British Library, bound as Royal MS 14 C VII folios 157-218, following Paris's Historia Anglorum (an abridgement of the Chronica covering the period from 1070 to 1253).
The Chronica is also renowned for its author's unprecedented use of archival and documentary material. These sources, amounting to over 200 items, included charters dating back to the eighth century, the rights of St Albans, a dossier relating to the canonisation of St Edmund of Canterbury and even a documented list of precious gems and artefacts in possession of St Albans. This exhaustive list of material required its own appendix which later became a separate volume, the Liber Additamentorum.
The Chronica is one of the most important surviving documents for the history of Latin Europe. Despite its focus on England, Paris' work extends to regions as far as Norway, Hungary, and Sicily as well as the crusader states. It continues to be mined for its coverage of the Mongol invasions, its detailed report of the conflict between Fredrick II and successive popes, as well as its commentary on the outbreak of the Barons’ War of 1258-67. In addition to Paris’ literary abilities, he proved himself to be an accomplished draughtsman. The surviving manuscripts are considered to be the foremost examples of English Gothic Manuscript, and they include some of the earliest surviving maps of Britain and the Holy Land.
By the end of the twelfth century, contemporary historians attempted to distance and distinguish themselves from the monastic chronicler. Gervase of Canterbury, an individual who influenced Paris’ writing, wrote the following in 1188:
‘The historian proceeds diffusely and elegantly, whereas the chronicler proceeds simply, gradually and briefly. The Chronicler computes the years Anno Domini and months kalends, and briefly describes the actions of kings and princes which occurred at those times; he also commemorates events, portents and wonders’.
Although Paris was unique in both his illustratory and research efforts, his writing reflects thirteenth-century attempts at synthesis and consolidation in historiography. The Chronica mirrors the century’s developments in traditional annalistic genres, namely the monastic chronicle, which tended to merge with a broader scope of universal history. This explains why Paris structured his seminal work in a seemingly journalistic way. He chose to order the Chronica in chronological sequence, in keeping with what was vogue, but it soon became a multilayered pastiche since Paris continued the monastic practice of both revising and amending entries retrospectively.
Suzanne Lewis claims that Roger Wendover, Paris’ predecessor, had a resounding influence on Paris’ works. Paris’ Chronica was largely a continuation of Wendover’s annals up to 1235 with the odd addition of phrases and anecdotes in an attempt to heighten drama. Where Paris departed from contemporary modes of literature can be seen in his prodigious use of source material and evidence. Although the insertion of documents was common in the writing of Christian history, the Chronica surpassed this and was a contemporary ‘record breaker’. In addition, the number of changes made to the Chronica suggests that Paris adapted much of the material, molding it to match his own understanding of the role of the author and the purpose of writing.
Paris’ long-held status as a historian has been contested within the academic community, past and present. Whilst many argue that Paris never intended to be a ‘humble compiler of dated events’, as Lewis states, his work has come to be viewed as a cumbersome annalistic production regardless.
Lewis summarised her stance on the Chronica by writing that ‘the downfall of a great king must compete for attention with the birth of a two-headed calf’. Paris placed great importance on the coverage of portents and marvels. This can be seen in both his preface and within the closing pages of the Chronica. The latter consisted of a list of marvels which Paris claimed to have occurred over a fifty year period.
Such reporting was undoubtedly rooted in the Latin models, such as Cicero, who influenced both Paris and his contemporaries. Classical writings often assumed the role of moral censor; their purpose was to provide examples of good and evil for their readers spiritual edification. This literary tradition was echoed within the Chronica and was used with great dexterity by Paris. He posed rhetorical questions concerning the deeds and actions of people and why such things warranted being written down. In the eyes of Paris, a conservative Benedictine monk, signs and portents indicated famine and other miseries that would befall humanity in recompense for their sins. In essence Paris believed that history, and the sinful actions that forged it, would prompt sinners to hasten quickly to seek God’s forgiveness.
To Paris, history was a matter of moral instruction and a means to provide guidance to the earthly and celestial well-being of God’s people. Paris saw the reporting of history as a platform through which the mistakes of men could be presented as a lesson to be learnt from. From its treatment of the Jews to its coverage of the Mongol invasion, Paris writes from a position of self-interest. He tended to distort history and his source material in order to preserve the integrity of his abbey and kingdom. What has been agreed upon is that the Chronica, at the very least, provides insight into what history meant to contemporaries and how they used it to reconcile their place within their world. It provides an encyclopedic history of the affairs of his community and an unprecedented number of insightful sources and documents which would never otherwise have survived.
- Richard Vaughan: Matthew Paris, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, New ser. 6 (Cambridge, 1958)
- Richard Vaughan (ed. and tr): The Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Monastic Life in the Thirteenth Century (Gloucester, 1984).
- Richard Vaughan: The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1993. ISBN 978-0-7509-0523-7
- Suzanne Lewis: The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora. University of California Press, 1987 (California Studies in the History of Art) (online excerpt, about the elephant)
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- Lewis, Suzanne (1987). The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora. University of California. p. 9.
- Parker Library on the web: MS 26, MS 16I, MS 16II 362 x 244/248 mm. ff 141 + 281
- CM, vol. 6, 1–62
- CM, vol. 6, 383–92
- Bjorn Weiler, ‘Matthew Paris on the Writing of History’, Journal of Medieval History 35:3 (2006) p. 255.
- Gervase of Canterbury, in Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora (California, 1987), p.11.
- Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris, p.10.
- Ibid, p. 12.
- Ibid, p.13.
- Ibid, p.12.
- Ibid, p.11.
- Weiler, ‘Matthew Paris’, p. 259.
- Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris, p.11.
- Weiler, ‘Matthew Paris’, p. 259.
- Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris, p.14.
- Weiler, ‘Matthew Paris’, p. 269.
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