Lorraine Attreed

title.none: Given-Wilson, ed., The Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377-1421 (Attreed)

identifier.other: baj9928.9806.004 98.06.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lorraine Attreed, Holy Cross College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Given-Wilson, ed.,. The Chronicle of Adam of Usk, 1377-1421. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xciii, 290. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-20483-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.06.04

Given-Wilson, ed.,. The Chronicle of Adam of Usk, 1377-1421. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xciii, 290. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-20483-3.

Reviewed by:

Lorraine Attreed
Holy Cross College

Chris Given-Wilson offers a superb and useful translation of a late medieval text complementary to his edition Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1400 (1993). Moreover, Adam Usk's writing stands on its own by providing illuminating insights into royal and noble patronage, the legal profession, Church politics, early Lancastrian rule, and international relations of the period. For historians who have utilized such concepts as ordering principles of medieval society, it is salutary to view the period from the perspective of a well-educated and well-connected individual who nevertheless spent more of his adult life on the margins than at the center.

Given-Wilson opens his valuable introduction with biographical material that solves some long-standing puzzles about Adam's life and career. The chronicler was born and buried in Usk (Gwent) to a family with unspecified noble connections. Adam initially sought patronage from the earls of March of the Mortimer family who held the local lordship. Earl Edward (d.1381) sent him to Oxford around 1370 to study civil and canon law, and by the 1380's Adam was busily collecting and exchanging benefices. By 1393, he had achieved his doctorate, and worked as an advocate in the Court of Arches for three successive archbishops of Canterbury both before and after a spell in Rome. His work for the crown as a civil lawyer informed his account of Richard II's deposition and led to his appointment on the committee that replaced the king with Henry of Lancaster.

Henry IV's early years on the throne saw Usk at the height of his influence, offering counsel to king, nobles, and the most prominent ecclesiastics. But hard times soon followed: a dispute over a Welsh prebend and general suspicion of Welshmen consequent upon Owen Glendower's revolt of 1400 persuaded Adam that a spell at the papal curia in Rome would bring higher rewards, such as a bishopric. His machinations at the curia in addition to Glendower's continued threats alienated him from the king. Destitute and despairing, Adam threw in his lot with the Welsh at the French court, earning excommunication and Henry IV's condemnation. Given-Wilson examines the years 1406- 08 in some detail, concluding that Adam offered to spy on and betray Glendower and his own countrymen in order to return to Henry's favor. He earned his pardon and through the generosity of patron Thomas Arundel regained some but not all of his positions and influence. Dreams of an episcopacy were replaced by thoughts of retirement as a corrodian of a monastery. Usk died in the late winter of 1430, a man of wealth and local attachment as evidenced by the provisions of his will, included in this edition. His grave in the Lady chapel of the parish church at Usk contains a remarkable epitaph, probably penned by Usk himself, noting his erudition and citing him by the papal- granted title "judge of the world."

Usk's chronicle is a thematic and physical continuation of his own copy of a manuscript of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon. Nineteenth-century detective work identified some "carelessly folded up" pages found among the manuscripts of the duke of Rutland at Belvoir castle as the final quire of the librum uocatum Policronica surviving in the British Library. Given-Wilson begins his edition with folio 155r of the B.L. manuscript, commencing with the death of Edward III and the accession of the boy king Richard, an event Usk treated with considerable foreboding. Eleven different hands contributed to the twenty-seven total folia, the Belvoir manuscript beginning in this edition on page 200 in the middle of a description of Maundy Thursday ceremonies at the papal court.

While filled with praise for the quality of his predecessor's work, Given-Wilson presents new evidence when disagreeing with previous translator Sir Edward Maunde Thompson about the period of the work's composition and copying. He disputes Thompson's belief that the chronicle was written between 1414 and 1421, employing paleographic analysis to assert that it was begun in 1401 and continued in fits and starts until nearly the end of Henry V's reign. The important period 1399-1401 possesses a chronological and circumstantial precision that persuades the editor it was based on Usk's journal. In contrast to the details of his personal involvement early in Henry IV's reign, Usk did not take his Polychronicon with him to Rome in 1402, and twelve years were to pass before further entries were made in it. The final section, written between 1415 and 1421, describes the great military victories of Henry V's early reign, but also reflects Usk's growing disinterest in national events. Given-Wilson speculates that Hand Five may be Usk's, for it expresses concern over the English succession and Richard II's fall from power, topics Usk was proud to say he wrote about and did not merely compile. Paleographic evidence also supports the new editor's belief that the copying into the Polychronicon took place in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, while Usk was still alive, not 1440-50 as Thompson preferred.

Recent influences of anthropology and the study of mentalite also provide Given-Wilson with greater tools of interpretation than Thompson possessed. This is especially evident in the former's analysis of Usk's "cast of mind, . . . his perception of the relationship between the corporeal and the incorporeal world -- that of miracles, portents and fortune" (p. lxiv). No longer dismissed with many of his contemporaries and the medieval age in its entirety as credulous and childlike, Usk is viewed as holding conventional and sincere beliefs in God, the saints, and those occasions on which the laws of nature were temporarily suspended. Portents and prophecies also held special meaning for Usk, demonstrating the will of God, communicating approval of a situation, or substituting for direct comment that might be too dangerous or difficult to make. Usk also shared with his readers his dreams and visions, containing warnings or information that became clear only with the passage of time. He did not claim for himself extraordinary powers, but recorded those times when he was most in tune with the higher truths of God's universe. Likewise, fortune existed as a force complementary to God's power and influenced by personal choice and decision. It constituted a factor Usk preferred to see "more as a tool for divine correction than for divine reward" (p. lxxv).

Combining these factors posed special problems to Usk as historian. His own corpus of historical information and interpretive patterns derived from the Higden manuscript, the bible, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannie, with very little influence of classical authors. Notions of cyclical patterns had to be reconciled with the concept of the Christian continuum, always to support history's didactic nature. Usk found a partial solution to this dilemma by portraying the past as well as the present in terms of personalities, the 'great men' school of history. (Men in the narrow sense of the term; Usk had very little interest in women even as historical characters.) Our own age, hungering for psychological insights and the personal feelings of great and distant figures, will find Usk's approach distinctly sympathetic, but may read more into it than Usk conveyed. His motives for writing may have changed over time, and probably on no occasion did he contemplate wide public circulation. Discretion burdened him while a loyal Lancastrian servant; when suffering excommunication and outlawry, Usk was too far from the center of events to compose a complete chronicle useful for anything except making sense of his own past and impressing his kinsmen with his proximity to greatness.

Usk's participation in the deposition of Richard and accession of Henry provides an invaluable guide to the constitutional significance of those actions, as well as their personal and emotional dimensions. Usk carefully prepared the scene for the deposition by his accounts of the parliaments and royal outrages of the previous decade; here, Given-Wilson's footnotes are invaluable for tracking Usk's inaccuracies and for identifying comparative material in other chronicles and public documents. Richard's inevitable punishment comes to pass as a result of his long history of crimes, not least of which to Usk's mind was the king's persistence in raising the lowly to great positions and "the numerous simpletons . . . to bishoprics," (p. 63) a carping comment characteristic of one who sought as unsuccessfully as Usk for episcopal appointment. But Usk was no Lancastrian lackey: he contradicts many elements claimed in the "Record and Process." Moreover, his continuing respect for the Mortimer line was one factor preventing him from blindly accepting the wilder Lancastrian claims, such as the conveniently rearranged birth order of Henry III's sons (Usk's objection to the latter provides the occasion for a page of historical citation provided at least in part to advertise his erudition).

Usk's chronicle holds value for historians as an account of his own times based largely upon the personal experience of a conservative, middle-aged legist suspicious of rebellion, heresy, papal schism, taxation, and all non-English with the exception of his own Welsh and the Greeks (understandable given Usk's belief that Greek nobility was descended from native Britons). Given-Wilson's scholarly edition of this work offers a translation truer to the original than Thompson's work. Given-Wilson also provides modern readers with an excellent context for Usk's limited but no less fascinating insights.