The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries

§ 19. Matthew Paris

The thirteenth century is, emphatically, the golden age of the monastic historians. At their head stands Matthew Paris, the greatest of all our medieval chroniclers; but his work only represents the crowning literary achievement of an enthusiasm and an industry that inspired every considerable monastery in the land. The annals, most of them nameless, of Burton, of Winchester, of Waverly, of Dunstable, of Osney, of Worcester—all testify to the assiduity of monkish scribes in compiling, revising, and adding to the stores of historical material accumulated in their respective houses. Invaluable, however, as these chronicles are to the student of political and social history, they possess little interest as literature.

But, at the powerful monastery of St. Albans, there arose a school of historians as brilliant as that which had, in the north, closed with Roger of Hoveden. This school produced in Matthew Paris a writer who, both in his conception of the historian’s art and in the force and picturesqueness of his style, surpasses all the chroniclers of the twelfth century. The historians of St. Albans possessed exceptional advantages. The wealth of the abbey, its accommodation and equipment as an ideal home of learning, its position on Watling Street and its proximity to the capital, marked it out as the chief centre of monastic culture in the thirteenth century; and its inmates kept up a constant intercourse with the great men of the day as they passed through it on their way to and from London and the provinces. Nowhere else, perhaps, in the kingdom could a historian of contemporary events pursue his task at that time under more favourable conditions. Moreover, in no other abbey does the writing of history appear to have been so carefully organised as at St. Albans. Abbot Simon, who died in 1183, established in the monastery a regular office of historiographer. The first occupant of this office whose complete work has come down to us was Roger of Wendover; but his chronicle is based upon materials of which an ample wealth already existed in the abbey. The actual nucleus of the early part of Roger’s Flowers of History is supposed to have been the compilation of John de Cella, who was abbot of St. Albans from 1195 to 1214. John’s work extended down to the year 1188, and was revised and continued by Roger down to 1235, the year before his death. Roger claims in his preface to have selected “from the books of catholic writers worthy of credit, just as flowers of various colours are gathered from various fields.” Hence he called his work Flores Historiarum—a title appropriated in the fourteenth century to a long compilation by various hands. Begun at St. Albans and completed at Westminster, it was based upon the Chronicle of Matthew Paris and continued to the year 1326. The work was long ascribed to one Matthew of Westminster, but it is now known that no actual chronicler of that name ever existed. Roger of Wendover’s work is, however, now valued not so much for what he culled from previous writers as for its full and lively narrative of contemporary events, from 1216 to 1235. Although in accuracy and range and in sublety and shrewdness of insight he falls far short of his great successor as historiographer of St. Albans, Roger largely anticipates him in the fearless candour of his personal and moral judgments. Matthew Paris became historiographer of St. Albans upon the death of Roger of Wendover in 1236, and proceeded in his famous Chronica Majora to revise and continue the work of his predecessor. Matthew Paris’s own narrative is an extraordinarily comprehensive and masterly survey of both English and continental history during almost an entire quarter of a century. We know little of the details of the historian’s own life. He became a monk of St. Albans in 1217, and tradition ascribes to him not only a high repute for scholarship, but the possession of varied gifts as an artist. The most notable incident in his career was his employment by the pope, in 1248, on a mission of reform to the Benedictine monks of Holm, in Norway, which kept him away from England for some eighteen months. He lived, throughout, in close intimacy with the court, and, notwithstanding his plain-spokenness, enjoyed a share of royal favour. He died in 1259. Courtier and scholar, monk and man of the world, Matthew Paris was, both by training and position, exceptionally well qualified to undertake a history of his own time. Moreover, he had the instinct, the temper and the judgment of the born historian. He took immense pains in the collection and the verification of his facts, and appears to have been in constant communication with a host of correspondents both at home and abroad. Indeed, his work reads like a stately journal of contemporary European events, where everything is marshalled in due order and proportion by a master editorial hand. Great events and small follow each other in quick, though orderly, succession, just as in some modern review of the world’s work. Simon de Montfort’s preparations for his crusade; a dispute between the scholars and citzens of Oxford; the death of Llywelyn, prince of Wales; the pope’s dealings with foreign clerks in England; a great storm; the decapitation of certain robbers; war in Flanders; the burning of heretics by the Milanese; the irruption of the Tartars—such is a brief selection of topics culled at random from a few consecutive pages of Matthew’s Chronicle. But he is much more than a mere recorder of events. He is a fearless critic and censor of public men and their doings. A thoroughly patriotic Englishman, he is severe upon all misgovernment, openly rebuking the king, denouncing the greed and rapacity of the nobles, protesting indignantly against the extortionate exactions of the pope. He is not, indeed, altogether free from the professional bias of his class; and in nothing is this more apparent than in his obviously prejudiced references to the mendicant orders. But his criticisms as a whole are animated by a transparently honest fervour of moral indignation and by a patriotic jealousy for the honour of England. The pope’s emissaries are “harpies and bloodsuckers, plunderers, who do not merely shear, but skin, the sheep.” For his complacent acquiescence in the deeds of the papal legates the king is denounced as having become to the clergy “as it were the stalk of a reed—on which those who lean in confidence are wounded by the fragments.” The king’s own extortionate demands for money from the clergy are no less boldly condemned, while his foolishness and extravagance are constantly censured. These outspoken animadversions did not, however, blind Henry to Matthew’s skill as a writer, and the chronicler relates how, during the celebration of the feast of Edward the Confessor, in 1247, the sovereign himself bade him take a seat near the throne and write a full account of the proceedings so that the facts might stand accurately recorded for ever. Matthew was, indeed, a ready and a picturesque writer. Though frequently prolix and rhetorical, he is never tedious or irrelevant. His narrative, as a rule, is wonderfully direct, clear and nervous, while his instinct for order and literary effect is such as to give to his Chronicle, as a whole, a únity and a sustained interest which belong to the work of no other English medieval historian.

Matthew Paris quite overshadows every other chronicler of the time of Henry III. But much of the history of Henry’s reign would remain obscure were Paris’s Chronicle not supplemented by the monumental work of Henry of Bracton, or Bratton, on the laws of England. Bracton scarcely belongs to the chroniclers; but his writings throw sufficient light upon the social conditions of his time to entitle him to stand side by side with Matthew Paris as a contributor to the English history of the thirteenth century. Following in the footsteps of Ranulf de Glanville (or Hubert Walter), Henry II’s great justiciar, Henry of Bracton compiled, some time between 1250 and 1258, an elaborate treatise on the laws and customs of England. Bracton was one of the many ecclesiastics who held high judicial office under Henry III. He was, in turn, a justice in eyre, a judge of the king’s court, a Devonshire rector and archdeacon of Barnstaple. In addition to his legal treatise he left behind him a note-book, containing some two thousand cases taken from the plea rolls of his time, with comments which “to all appearance came from Bracton’s hand or from Bracton’s head.” Indebted though he was for the form and method of this great book to such foreign works as those of the celebrated Italian lawyer Azo of Bologna, Bracton’s work, is, in substance, thoroughtly English, and is a laborious exposition, illustrated by some hundreds of decisions, of the approved practice of the king’s court in England. Bracton died in 1268, leaving his work unfinished, although he appears to have been adding to and annotating it to the very last; but, even as it stands, his treatise is not only the most authoritative English law-book of his time, but, in design and matter, “the crown and flower of English medieval jurisprudence.” It “both marks and makes a critical moment in the history of law, and, therefore, in the essential history of the English people.”