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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XV. Chroniclers and Antiquaries

§ 4. John Stow

John Stow and John Speed were chroniclers of a like fashion and a like ambition. They were good citizens, as well as sound antiquaries, and, by a strange chance, they followed the same craft. “We are beholding to Mr. Speed and Stow,” writes Aubrey, echoing Sir Henry Spelman, “for stitching up for us our English history. It seems they were both tailors—quod N.B.” And if Speed found a pleasanter employ, a tailor Stow remained unto the end of his days. One in their pursuits, they were one, also, in disinterestedness. The love of England and of letters brought neither of them any profit. Stow “made no gain by his travail,” and died poor. With a sort of pathos, he pleads that men who “have brought hidden Histories from duskie darkness to the sight of the world” deserve thanks for their pains, and should not be misrepresented. “I write not this,” says he, “to complain of some men’s ingratitude towards me (although justly I might).” There is the pith of the matter enclosed within parentheses, and Stow, may be, was thinking of Grafton’s reckless animadversion on “the memories of superstitious foundacions, fables and lyes foolishly stowed together.” Speed lags not behind in reproach of the world, and felicitation of himself. He describes his work as “this large Edifice of Great Britain’s Theatre,” and likens himself to the silkworm, that ends her life in her long-wrought clue. “So I in this Theatre have built my owne grave,” he writes; “whose Architecture howsoever defective it may be said to be, yet the project is good, and the cost great, though my selfe have freely bestowed this paines to the Presse, without pressing a penny from any man’s purse.” Yet neither the one nor the other complained justly of neglect. Stow won all the honour, both in his lifetime and after, which belongs to the lettered citizen. He grew into a superstition of homely wit and genial humour. Henry, Holland, Philemon’s son, calls him “the merry old man,” and Fuller celebrates his virtues as Stow himself would have them celebrated. He admits that he reported toys and trifles, res in se minutas, that he was a smell-feast, who could not pass by Guildhall without giving his pen a taste of the good cheer, and he excuses this on the ground that “it is hard for a citizen to write history, but that the fire of his gun may be felt therein.” So much may be truly said in dispraise. For the rest, Fuller has nothing but applause. He declares that our most elegant historians have thrown away the basket and taken the fruit—even Sir Francis Bacon and Master Camden. And “let me add of John Stow,” he concludes, “that (however he kept tune) he kept time very well, no author being more accurate in the notation thereof.” And Speed, even if he pressed no penny from any man’s purse, did not ask the aid of any scholar in vain. Sir Robert Cotton opened his library and his collections to the chronicler’s eye. Master John Barkham gave such help as he alone could give, while Master William Smith, Rouge Dragon, was ever at hand to solve the problems of heraldry. Surely no citizen ever found better encouragement, especially in the telling of a thrice-told tale.

Stow was the more industrious of the two. In 1561, he published an edition of Chaucer’s works. Four years later came his Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, and then, in 1580, he dedicated to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, a far better book, The Chronicles of England from Brute until this present yeare of Christ 1580. His purpose it is to celebrate “the worthie exploits of our Kings and governors,” and of that purpose he takes a lofty view. He regards himself not only as a historian, but as an inculcator of sound morals. “It is as hard a matter,” he says in pride,

  • for the Recorder of Chronicles, in my fansie, to passe without some colours of wisedome, invitements to vertue, and loathing of naughtie factes, as it is for a welfavoured man to walk up and downe in the hot parching Sunne, and not to be therewith sunburned.
  • His knowledge is not often better than that of his predecessors. He believes in the same fairy-tales; he accepts without question the same rumours. But, in one respect, he differs from all his rivals: he possesses an interest in literature which they lack. Under the year 1341, he records the death of John Malvern, fellow of Oriel College, and author of the book entitled The Visions of Pierce Plowman, and, in due course, he laments Geoffrey Chaucer, “the most excellent poet of Englande, deceased the XXV of October, 1400.” His knowledge of literature did not give him a lettered style. His prose is the plainest and most straightforward of his time, and he deserves whatever praise may be given to the diligent and conscientious journeyman.