Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Robert Fabyan (d. 1513)
[Fabyan seems to have belonged to a family of some consideration in the city of London, and was probably born in London rather before the middle of the fifteenth century. His history gives us sufficient evidence of his high respect for, and intimate acquaintance with, the municipal institutions of his native city; and in the latest decade of the century he served as alderman and sheriff, and discharged various functions as a representative citizen. He was a member of the Drapers Company; and lived in the parish of St. Michaels, Cornhill, in London, and at his mansion of Halsteds at Theydon Gernon, Essex. He died in 1511.]
FABYANS history was called by himself The Concordance of Histories, and it is important as showing the first attempt, earnest although uncritical, to weigh authorities against one another. In style and matter, with all its roughness, it is quite as far advanced beyond Trevisas translation of Higdens Polychronicon as the century which separates them would lead us to expect. He was evidently acquainted both with Latin and French, and had studied carefully a vast number of authorities in both languages. His narrative, bald though it is both in style and matter, is not without some grace of quaintness; and this is increased by his habit of introducing a few lines of Latin poetry, to point a moral or to recall an epitaph, and adding a metrical translation of his own. His interest in such literary devices is further proved by his carefully prescribing in his will the inscription, in Latin and English verse, which is to be placed upon his tomb. He is entirely without any sense of historical proportion, and gives us the most trifling events in as full detail as the most important, introducing more than once a complete list of the dishes at a royal feast. His respect for preceding authorities, however fabulous their tales, was tempered only by the fact that they did not all agree; and his reverence, as a substantial city burgess, for the rulers of the land was tempered only by his devout attachment to the Church which these rulers sometimes offended, and by the maxims of morality which he conceived it to be the chief duty of the historian to inculcate, and which these rulers often infringed. How he reconciled his allegiance and his conscience may be seen by his quoting the words of Giraldus Cambrensis, concerning Henry II.: Dreadful it is to allege against him that may put a man out of land, and to describe him with many words that may exile a man with one word: wherefore it were a notable deed to tell the sooth of a princes deeds, and offend the prince in no mean; but yet when the prince is dead and gone, then will men talk without fear that beforetime they spared for fear.
The prose style of Fabyan shows very little advance towards grace of composition, and retains for the most part abundant traces of the style of the Chronicle, upon which he based his narrative. This is naturally most apparent in the earlier part of his work, which starts from the fables about Brute and his conquest of Britain. The first six parts of the History cover the period down to the Norman Conquest; and the reader feels at the end inclined to agree with the spirit of the authors envoi:
Now shaketh my hand, my pen waxeth dull,
For wearied and tired: seeing this work so long,
The authors so raw, and so far culled,
Dim and dark, and strange to understand,
And far out of tune, to make true song.
The stories and the years to make accordant,
That it to the reader might show true and pleasant.
But after the Conquest, in the seventh part, which forms two-thirds of the whole, the narrative becomes more interesting, even though the style continues bald and uncouth, and the cadence of the sentence is entirely wanting; and when we come down to the later centuries the story is occasionally even graphic and forcible, and sometimes becomes ornate in description. In Fabyan, indeed, we see how style advanced, as history became something more than a series of fables more or less slavishly compiled from preceding chroniclers. It is easy to see that he has Froissarts work before him; although Fabyan had not the artistic sense which enabled Berners, a few years later, to make such splendid use of the French model.
Fabyan seems to have carried on the work into the reign of Henry VIII., although his death occurred only about two years after Henrys accession. It was first printed, by Pynson, in 1516: but some expressions employed by Fabyan, with regard to the wealth of the Church, seem to have provoked the wrath of Wolsey, and by his orders part of that edition was destroyed. A second edition appeared in 1533; and a third, carrying down the narrative to the thirty-second year of Henry VIII., in 1542. The ecclesiastical changes which had occurred in the interval led to considerable modifications in the text, particularly in regard to the treatment of the struggles between the Church and the Crown, and the respect shown to the papal authority.