contributor.author: Linda Mitchell

title.none: Preest, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham (Linda Mitchell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.019 07.10.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linda Mitchell, Alfred University, fmitchell@alfred.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Walsingham, Thomas. Preest, David, trans. The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2005. Pp. vii, 471. $150.00 1-84383-144-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.19

Walsingham, Thomas. Preest, David, trans. The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2005. Pp. vii, 471. $150.00 1-84383-144-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Alfred University
fmitchell@alfred.edu

Thomas Walsingham, one of the most important historians of the St Albans group that included Matthew Paris, is also one of the most idiosyncratic chroniclers of his time. Opinionated, stylistically florid, and fond of gossip, Thomas was apparently well connected enough to gain the vast body of information, rumor, and speculation that fueled his historical writing. According to the excellent introduction by James Clark, Walsingham was also a prolific author, not only of histories but also of biographies of the abbots of St. Albans and, more unusually, of extended studies of classical literature. This fascination with the literary past seems to have informed his stylistic choices and analytical perspectives and this is played out most obviously in the Chronica Maiora.

The most commonly used version of Walsingham's most famous work is that published in the Rolls Series as the Historia Anglicana. The series editors, Henry Thomas Riley and Edward Maunde Thompson, published both versions of Walsingham's text, the earlier version that is far more hostile to John of Gaunt and his Lancastrian associates (published in the Rolls Series as the Chronicon Angliae) and the later and more extensive version that tempers some of the hostility to Lancaster and also continues the chronicle to the end of Henry V's reign in 1422. More recently, the Oxford Medieval Texts series has undertaken to publish a critical edition of the entire Chronica Maiora in multiple volumes, although at the present time only the first volume has been completed (John Taylor, Wendy R. Childs, Leslie Watkiss, eds., The St. Albans Chronicle, volume 1, 2003). It might seem a strange choice for Boydell to undertake the publication of a new translation of Walsingham's chronicle at the same time as the prestigious OUP series, but there are good reasons to consider this edition more desirable for most university and college libraries and private collections than the one which Oxford will ultimately produce: price, readability, and accessibility for undergraduate students. Indeed, this edition of the complete Chronica Maiora costs less than half what volume one of the OUP edition costs and the extensive footnotes provide more than enough context and analytical support for the typical user of the chronicle.

What makes this edition of Walsingham most useful, however, is David Preest's translation itself. It is a rollicking, passionate, fluent work that captures nicely the studied informality of Walsingham's prose. No words minced here, especially when Walsingham carries on about his pet peeves: the unorthodoxy of John Wyclif, the mayhem caused by the Peasants' Revolt, the career of John of Gaunt. One of my favorite moments in the text involved the assertion by Wyclif that the communion wafer was in essence still bread even after the priest blessed it and the actions of "a Wiltshire knight" who took Wyclif's teachings literally. The knight, one Laurence of St. Martin, appeared at the Easter vigil and asked for the priest to give him communion, but once he had received the Host, he "immediately stood up and hurried home, carrying the body of our Lord." The events that follow are depicted with a kind of theatrical relish that any reader could enjoy:When he saw the knight behaving in this untypically crazy fashion, the priest ran after him, shouting and adjuring him not to maltreat the sacrament in this way, but to give it back to him or to behave like a Christian and respectfully consume it. But neither his prayers nor his shouts did any good at all. The knight locked his doors against him, found some oysters and divided up the host, gulping down part of it with the oysters, part with some onions and part with wine. He stoutly asserted that any bread in his own house was as valuable as that which he was glad to have eaten in such a manner. His servants were horror-stricken by this dreadful, unheard of act, and told the whole story to people outside. (118) Never mind that the communion wafer must have been the size of a curry-shop pappadum in order to accommodate both oysters and onions. The image of the priest running after Laurence and the scene in the front of his house gives the reader an entirely different view of the Middle Ages than most chronicles do: more Monty Python than Maurice Powicke, to be sure, and even more self-consciously entertaining than Matthew Paris. This is captured beautifully by Preest, who seems to delight in the ribaldry, the phallic metaphors (especially in Walsingham's descriptions of the peasants during the Peasants' Revolt), and the general exuberance of Walsingham's prose.

This is not to say that the Chronica Maiora can easily be read from cover to cover like a novel, no matter how delightful the translation. Walsingham was no Okhamist and he certainly did not believe in the adage that the most elegant statement is the one that contains the fewest words. Nevertheless, he was unparalleled in the immense detail of his descriptions, especially of the goings-on in the royal court and the conflicts occurring in the schism-ridden Church of the late fourteenth century. He is also delightfully opinionated and makes no apologies for his abhorrence of Wyclif, revolting peasants, and John of Gaunt. Indeed, it is often easier for the modern reader to enjoy Walsingham's diatribes than to endure his encomiums, for he is equally effusive about his enthusiasms: archbishop of Canterbury Simon of Sudbury and King Henry V among them. The degree to which Walsingham fawns over his favorites could make one wince; Preest captures this quality with just as much enthusiasm as he does Walsingham's diatribes. This makes the edition a useful teaching tool because it is much easier to make students aware of the ways in which historical writing has changed over the centuries when the translation reflects the style of the original author rather than forcing it to conform to the sobriety of modern standards of historicity. This translation makes it glaringly obvious that Walsingham did not share our modern conception of historical accuracy and the neutrality of the author.

The apparatus, compiled and written by James G. Clark, is efficiently presented. The lengthy introduction provides essential information about Walsingham and his life and work without attempting to recapitulate the entire text. The notes are usually brief, but very helpful, especially in the places where Clark identifies differences between the early "scandalous" version of the chronicle (in which Walsingham is even more critical of John of Gaunt and the Lancastrians) and the extended and somewhat more moderate version. The bibliography provides essential supplemental texts and is clearly designed to assist students looking for further material about the period about which Walsingham wrote. The index is a little disappointing: it is typical of indices compiled by using a computer program in that personal names dominate the entries, but concepts are not included. If, for example, the reader wants to find out about heresy in late medieval England, she must know the names of specific heretics-Wyclif, Oldcastle, and so on-or specific church councils, such as the Council of Constance, because the terms "heresy" and "heretic" do not appear in the index. Other lacunae include the words "king" and "queen," which I do find surprising since Walsingham mentions many queens and most readers would be hard-pressed to name all of them without assistance. Nevertheless, an imperfect index does not negate the high quality of the volume.

In short, this is a terrific translation of a very entertaining chronicle. College and university libraries and researchers tired of slogging through the Rolls Series Latin versions without an effective and accurate English version at hand should seriously consider adding this one to their collections.