John of Worcester’s ‘Chronicula’, TCD MS 503

TCD MS 503 is principally comprised of John of Worcester’s ‘Chronicula’, a text which describes itself as having been derived from the more celebrated and much more elaborate Worcester Chronica chronicarum, a twelfth-century chronicle, the authorship of which has been attributed variously to Florence and/or John, both Worcester monks. As the diminutive form of its Latin title suggests, the Chronicula itself is of diminutive size, perhaps designed to be easily portable. Its text has never been printed before and those interested in its contents have previously been obliged either to order a microfilm copy or to visit the archives attached to the magnificent Long Room of Trinity College, Dublin (not a hardship!). The manuscript has now been digitised and made available online   Sixteenth-century annotations in the manuscript, as shown in the image below, record that in 1573 the manuscript was sold to the antiquary William Lambard and then, in 1594, Lambard gave the manuscript to another English antiquary, William Howard. Both men were connected to a circle of antiquaries who had various interests in the literature of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods, including such figures as William Camden, Laurence Nowell, Henry Spelman and Robert Cotton. William Howard had, in 1592, published an edition of the Worcester Chronica chronicarum,which presumably indicates why he was also interested in TCD MS 503.

TCD MS 503 1r showing sixteenth-century marks of ownership

Although we do not know the exact date of the Chronicula’s composition, the late 1130s has recently been suggested. For the most part the work is derivative of the main Chronica chronicarum, a text which, itself depending on a range of sources, gives in annalistic form a history of the world to the year 1140. In deriving its information from the Chronica chronicarum, the Chronicula heavily summarises and abbreviates events and omits much detail. The Chronica chronicarum is set out in annalistic form, whereas the Chronicula is arranged according to the reigns of the Roman emperors and the year in which they came to power (reckoned according to a system developed by Marianus Scotus in his Chronicon who sought to re-date the Dionysian system by 22 years, a chronicle which itself provides an important model for the Chronica chronicarum). Information that can be found in separate annals in the Chronica chronicarum can therefore seem lumped together in the Chronicula.

It is probably the derivative and abbreviated nature of the Chronicula that means it has so far attracted relatively little attention. But there are important reasons why it deserves further notice. The first is that it seems to have been written, for the most part, in the hand of John of Worcester himself. Given John’s authorial role in the writing of at least parts of the Chronica chronicarum, we are therefore being given access to an associated work, a text that is less formal than, but nevertheless complementary to, the main chronicle. A second is that the Chronicula is not entirely derivative in form and actually contains unique information. Its main text opens with a geographical description of Britain, not found in the Chronica chronicarum and which is closely connected to a similar passage in the F manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It also invokes the work of Hugh of Fleury to a greater extent than the Chronica chronicarum, and, perhaps most strikingly of all, contains a range of poems that cannot be found elsewhere. Three poems in particular stand out: those that celebrate the deaths of Edward the Confessor in 1066, of Harold, son of Godwine, also in 1066, and of Bishop Wulfstan II in 1095, the very man who was credited in Worcester texts with initiating various historical projects. The poems are not accomplished in literary terms. But they are striking for their wistful attention to the Anglo-Saxon past and for a degree of anti-Norman sentiment. If they were composed by John himself, some 70 years after the Norman Conquest, they provide important evidence for the sort of nostalgia for the past and the sort of anti-Norman hostility that could continue to be voiced by at least one Worcester inhabitant. We are left to wonder why they were not included in the main Chronica chronicarum.    

TCD MS 503 95r showing the poem about Edward the Confessor

For whatever reason, John ceased writing his Chronicula once he reached the annal for 1123, on line 23 of fol. 113v. A new hand (one of four in total that have been identified as working on TCD MS 503) continues the story, copying annals down to 1141. Because the annals from 1123 to 1141 have material with a clear Gloucester focus, it is possible that the Chronicula had travelled to Gloucester where it was then updated. John’s motivations for writing the Chronicula remain elusive. At one point in the manuscript he says that anyone wanting to find out more details about a certain historical episode ‘will find them written in chronological order and more fully in the chronicle of chronicles [i.e. the Chronica chronicarum]’, suggesting that he anticipated that the Chronicula would reach at least some kind of audience. Was this an audience within Worcester itself? Or, given the later connection with Gloucester, was it designed to be sent there? We will probably never know John’s precise motivations, but the Chronicula is important as an extra example of this twelfth-century historian’s working methods. Scholars are at present re-doubling their efforts in connection with Worcester historiography. An edited volume on the cartularies and chronicles (and other texts) produced at Worcester in this period is forthcoming in May 2022, entitled Constructing History Across the Norman Conquest: Worcester, c.1050-c.1150. And the Chronicula itself is actively being edited for the Oxford Medieval Texts series. In the meantime it is an enormous boon for scholars around the world to have access to these high-quality images of TCD MS 503 so that they can engage directly with John’s work for themselves.

D. A. Woodman

Robinson College, Cambridge

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