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TCD MS 502, witness to an early stage in the composition of the Worcester Chronica chronicarum

The Worcester Chronica chronicarum (‘Chronicle of chronicles’) is a very important and ambitious text of the first half of the twelfth century. It purports to be a history from the origins of mankind down to the year 1140, where the principal manuscript copy—Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 157, known by the siglum ‘C’—now ends. TCD MS 502, cited by its siglum ‘H’ and now available digitally online for the first time, is one of 5 further copies of the Chronica chronicarum that descend either directly or indirectly from C (the copy preserved in the Almonry Museum in Evesham, known as ‘E’, is only a single leaf in its current form). H is thought to have been copied in the mid-twelfth century by a single scribe who may have been working at Coventry and whose last entry is for the year 1131. Annals for the period 1132-8 were added later and there are also entries written in hands that have been dated to the early thirteenth century and beyond. H formed the basis of an edition of the Chronica chronicarum composed in 1592 by the antiquary William Howard (whose mark of ownership can be found inscribed on fol. 1r in H, and also at the front of TCD MS 503, which contains a copy of John of Worcester’s Chronicula). The hand of Archbishop James Ussher has been identified as adding marginal notes in H, including against the record of the death of Florence of Worcester under the annal for 1118 on fol. 253v. As noted below, these 5 further copies descending from C are of vital importance for reconstructing the stages in which the Chronica chronicarum was composed.

A note in the margins by Archbishop Ussher on fol. 253v of TCD MS 502

From the late eleventh century to the middle of the twelfth century, the Worcester church was a major centre of historical writing and the Chronica chronicarum was one of several texts produced as a result of the impetus for research provided by Bishop Wulfstan II (d. 1095). It was composed with the help of a variety of sources, most notably the universal chronicleof Marianus Scotus, an Irish monk who spent time at various religious houses on the continent and died in the early 1080s at Mainz. Marianus, who thought that the date of the incarnation of Jesus had taken place twenty-two years before that given by Dionysius Exiguus, sought in his chronicle to re-date events from the incarnation down to his own time by twenty-two years. This new dating system by Marianus was admired by Robert, bishop of Hereford (1079-95), who was a friend of Bishop Wulfstan II and who was presumably responsible for its introduction to Worcester, where it was enthusiastically taken up and formed the core model for the way that the Chronica chronicarum is structured and set out. Until the entry for the year 450, the Chronica chronicarum relies wholly on the work of Marianus and from this point the Worcester author(s) begin(s) to insert details from a much wider range of sources, many of which concentrate on English events and which include the famous works of Bede, Asser, different versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Lives of saints, William of Malmesbury and Eadmer of Canterbury. 

The question of the authorship of the Chronica chronicarum is one of the greatest cruces of English medieval history. Its annal for 1118 credits the monk Florence with an authorial role, while noting also his death in that year. It is clear that Florence cannot have been the sole author because the chronicle in its current form continues to the year 1140 and under the year 1138 the monk John is also given authorial credit. John’s hand has been identified as making corrections and additions throughout C. Scholars have previously attributed the text variously to Florence and/or to John, but it is perhaps safer, given the number of scribes who can be seen at work in C (currently identified as at least 6 in number), and given the large period of time over which the text was produced, to refer to the work by its Latin title, the Chronica chronicarum and to recognise that these two named monks, and perhaps more, had roles in its production.

In its current form, C has numerous twelfth-century textual emendations, annotations and marginal additions which collectively show that the Worcester monks were actively updating it. Where C in its current form ends with its annal for 1140, H itself ends earlier, in 1131, and has different entries for the years 1128-31. The entry for 1128 in C coincides with a large amount of erased text which indicates that the version of the text now preserved in H (and in another manuscript copy, London, Lambeth Palace 42, known as ‘L’) must represent how C originally ended before it was updated. This discovery shows why H is so important in any reconstruction of the textual history of the Chronica chronicarum, for it contains an early version/snapshot of that text, before it had been updated as part of a stage of revision and augmentation.

fol. 12r of TCD MS 502, showing the Mercian royal genealogy

C itself begins with a very interesting set of episcopal lists, royal genealogies and summary accounts of the history of the different English kingdoms. H has some of these initial texts. H’s folio 12r, for example (shown below), attempts to recreate the rather beautiful Mercian royal genealogy as it is ultimately depicted in C. Such a visual representation of the Mercian royal line vividly shows how the twelfth-century Worcester monks attempted to create order from the wide variety of sources for English history that they were working from. A recent scholar has likened them to a ‘historian’s tool-kit’. The preliminary texts in C (and H) are being edited for volume one of the ‘Oxford Medieval Texts’ edition of the Worcester Chronica chronicarum. It represents a significant advance in scholarship that images of H can now be accessed directly by scholars around the world.

D. A. Woodman,

Robinson College, Cambridge

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