Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries > England and Normandy
   Characteristics of the Chroniclers  

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

IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries.

§ 1. England and Normandy.


Of all the literary monuments of the remarkable revival of learning which followed the coming of the Normans and which reached its zenith under Henry II, the greatest alike, in bulk and in permanent interest and value, is the voluminous mass of Latin chronicles compiled during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. So ample is the wealth of this chronicle literature, and so full and trustworthy is its presentment of contemporary affairs, that few periods in our history stand out in such clear and minute relief as that of the Norman and Angevin kings. Priceless as these documents are to the modern historian, they are far from being as a whole, the colourless records which concern the student of political and constitutional movements alone. Many of them may have but little charm or distinction of style, and may appear to be nothing better than laboriously faithful registers of current events. They all, however, after their quality and kind, bear the marks of a common inspiration, and the meanest chronicler of the time felt that, in compiling the annals of his own country, he was working in the tradition of the great historians of antiquity. Some few of the chronicles are real literature, and show that their writers were well aware that history has its muse.   1
  While a scholarly delight and an honest pride in their art were common to all the English chroniclers of the Norman and Angevin period, not a few of them found an additional incentive in royal and aristocratic patronage. Much of the activity of the twelfth century historians was palpably due to the favour shown to men of letters by the two Henrys, and the personal encouragement of princely nobles like earl Robert of Gloucester, and courtly ecclesiastics like Alexander, bishop of Lincoln. Some of the monastic writers enjoyed no such direct patronage; but they were none the less responsive to the demands of the time. They not only felt the impulse of the new learning—they were conscious of living in a great age, and of witnessing the gradual establishment in England of a new and powerful kingdom. Nothing is more significant than the way in which the Anglo-Norman chroniclers, whether native Englishmen or Normans, domiciled in England, reflect the united patriotic sentiment which it was the design of Norman statesmanship to foster. Though composed in a foreign tongue, these chronicles are histories of England, and are written from a national English standpoint. It was under Henry I, whose marriage with Matilda seemed to symbolise the permanent union of the two peoples, that a new sense of national self-consciousness began to grow out of the Norman settlement. A shrewd observer of the next generation, Walter Map, tells us that it was Henry who effectually “united both peoples in a steadfast concord.” 1 It was Henry’s reign also that witnessed the transfer of the central seat of Norman power from Normandy to England, William of Malmesbury, himself half-Norman, half-English, in his account of the battle of Tinchebray, reminds his readers that it was fought “on the same day on which about forty years before, William had first landed at Hastings”—a fact which the chronicler characteristically takes to prove “the wise dispensation of God that Normandy should be subjected to England on the same day that the Norman power had formerly arrived to conquer that kingdom.” 2  In other words, England now became the predominant partner in the Anglo-Norman kingdom, and the twelfth century chroniclers are fully alive to the meaning of the change. As the dreams of a great Anglo-Norman empire began to take shape in the minds of the new rulers of England, and came to be temporarily realised under Henry II, the English historiographers rose to the height of their opportunities with patriotic ardour. No other country produced, during the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, anything to be compared with the English chronicles in variety of interest, wealth of information and amplitude of range. So wide is their outlook, and so authoritative is their record of events, that, as Stubbs observes, “it is from the English chroniclers of this period that much of the German history of the time has to be written.” 3  The new England had become conscious of her power, and of her growing importance in the international economy of Europe.   2
  In literature the most signal expression of that consciousness is the work of our Latin chroniclers. Thus, however unattractive much of this chronicle literature may be to the ordinary reader, there belongs to all of it the human interest of having been written under the pressure of great events and the stimulus of a glowing national feeling.   3
  Even apart from the patriotic incentives, there were other influences at work during the twelfth century which made for the study and the writing of history. The Norman settlement in England synchronised with a movement which shook all western Christendom to its foundations. The crusades not only profoundly stirred the feelings of Europe—they served indirectly to quicken the imagination and stimulate the curiosity of the western races as nothing had done for centuries. Intercourse with the east, and the mingling together of different tribes in the crusading armies, brought about a “renascence of wonder” as far-reaching in some of its effects as the great renascence itself. The twelfth century is, above all, the age of the birth of modern romance. The institutions of chivalry, the mystic symbolism of the church, the international currency of popular fabliaux, the importation of oriental stories of magic and wizardry—all contributed to the fashioning of the fantastic creations of the medieval romances. And of the romantic cycles none came to have so speedy and triumphant a vogue as that which was named, originally in France, “the matter of Britain.” This “matter of Britain” had its beginning as a formative influence in European literature, in the work of an Anglo-Norman writer, who, while professing to draw his information from a suspiciously cryptic source and frequently giving obvious rein to his own imagination, assumes none the less the gravity and the deliberate manner of an authentic chronicler. Geoffrey of Monmouth, ambitious of supplying what previous writers had failed to tell about the kings of Britain before the coming of the English, wrote a chronicle which had all the charm and novelty of a romance of adventure. King Arthur, as a romantic hero, is Geoffrey’s creation. Hence, the most readable Latin chronicle of the twelfth century is one that has the least real claim to that title. But the History of the Kings of Britain is no more to be ruled out of a place in the chronicle literature of England than it is to be ousted from its assured pre-eminence as the fountain-head of Arthurian romance. For Geoffrey’s legends not only wrought their spell upon innumerable poets and imaginative writers, but continued for generations to disturb the waters of history, and to mystify a long line of honest and laborious chroniclers.   4
  Geoffrey’s History, whatever opinion may be held as to its author’s methods and motives, well illustrates in its general style and manner the ambitious designs of the greater Anglo-Norman chroniclers. Those of them who aspire to write history, as distinguished from mere contemporary annals, are studious both of literary ornament and of the symmetry and proportion of their narrative. Compiling and borrowing, as Geoffrey professes to do, from previous chroniclers, they all endeavour to impart some new life and colour to their materials. They take the great Bede as their native master in the art of historical writing. But, for their literary models, they look beyond him, and seek, like William of Malmesbury, to “season their crude materials with Roman art.” 4  Even minor chroniclers, like Richard of Devizes, who confine themselves to the events of their own time, are fond of adorning their pages with classical allusions or quotations. Henry of Huntingdon is even more adventurous, and enlivens his narrative with frequent metrical effusions of his own. Most of them endeavour, according to their ability, to be readable, arming themselves, as Roger of Wendover does, against both “the listless hearer and the fastidious reader” by “presenting something which each may relish,” and so providing for the joint “profit and entertainment of all.” 5    5

Note 1De Nugis Curialium, Dist. v, Cap. v. [ back ]
Note 2Gesta Regum Anglorum Bk. v. [ back ]
Note 3Lectures on Medieval and Modern History, p. 125. [ back ]
Note 4. Preface to Gesta Regum Anglorum. [ back ]
Note 5. Preface to Flowers of History. [ back ]

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   Characteristics of the Chroniclers  
 
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