03.10.08, McLaren, The London Chronicles

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Mark Spencer

The Medieval Review baj9928.0310.008


McLaren, Mary-Rose. The London Chronicles of the Fifteenth Century: A Revolution in English Writing. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. xiv, 293. ISBN: 0-859-91646-4.

Reviewed by:
Mark Spencer
Southeastern Oklahoma State University

This study attempts to redress the general neglect of fifteenth-century historical writing by illuminating one of its more obscure corners, namely, the anonymous chronicles of London. McLaren is impressively thorough and exhaustive on all the technical aspects of the manuscripts themselves, and she offers an admirably bold interpretive analysis of what these rather terse and formulaic works can tell us about their authors and their world. It is difficult to fault her scholarship in any way on the former, but I do have some reservations about her conclusions in the latter.

The book is divided in two parts with six appendices. The first part includes an introduction reviewing the work of previous scholars, principally C.L. Kingsford, then a chapter each on the authorship and sources of the chronicles, an analysis of the chroniclers as historians, a detailed description of the manuscripts, and finally a conclusion recapitulating her major findings. The second part presents a new edition of the "Eshton Hall" manuscript, formerly number 42 of the Sir John Hopkinson collection, which is now designated MS Bradford 32D86/42 in the West Yorkshire Archives. Copious annotative notes are provided with the text. Finally, the appendices furnish additional material on the form and structure of the chronicles, technical information on the chronicle groups and a stem chart of their relationships, lists of comets and other significant worldly events recorded by the chroniclers, and further details on one particular text The Newe Cronycles of England and Fraunce.

The London Chronicles comprise some forty-four extant manuscripts, all save two written in English, dating from 1430 to 1566, with most belonging to the middle fifteenth century. Presumably many more originally existed but have failed to survive. They follow a unique format, apparently distinct and independent of other chronicle-writing traditions such as the Brut continuations. Their content mixes bare lists of persons and events with narrative stretches of varying length. The sources of some passages can be readily identified from other chronicles, but material drawn from pamphlets, ballads, popular literature, hearsay, rumor, and apparently direct personal observation is also evident. Notable events occurring near London and accounts of battles feature prominently (30-40%), while entries about the "weather, religious events, rebellion and treason, heresy, the French Wars, plague, dearth, supernatural occurrences (including comets and eclipses), executions and taxes" are provided as well (40). All the manuscripts remain anonymous, although they appear to have been written by lay persons drawn from London's mercantile class and its milieu, reflecting perhaps a growing civic self-consciousness among this important group. The changes in handwriting noticeable in many of the manuscripts, along with the frequent inception date of 1189, suggest that some may have been acquired with the earlier portions readymade according to an established formula, allowing the chroniclers to continue with entries of their own creation for events within their lifetimes. The chronicles and their identifiable sources also suggest a wider spread of general literacy than has often been assumed in the late Middle Ages among the ordinary laity.

The more daring aspects of McLaren's study involve her efforts to tease out the broader interpretive implications of these texts. She seeks to elucidate not only the "meaning, aims, interests, and priorities" of the individual chroniclers, but also "how fifteenth-century lay, urban people saw themselves and attempted to express an image of themselves in relation to their past and their present;" thereby allowing us to view fifteenth-century London "through fifteenth-century secular eyes" (10-11). According to McLaren, the self-representation of these chroniclers was revolutionary, because it constituted the first effort by English urban lay people to write their own history. Compiling such accounts used to be "someone else's job" (94). It proved a difficult process, though, because the authors not only had to devise a concept of how to write history, but also "to translate a primarily oral and visual experience of London life into a literary/historical account of the experience." Despite possible models in the flourishing chronicle tradition on the Continent, the "London chroniclers turned inside-out the old ways of thinking, and struggled with words toward new ways of identifying, explaining and expressing what they saw in the fifteenth-century world" (11). All this is a tall order when working with texts consisting mostly of dry lists and short, spare, bare-bones narrative accounts. Despite the reiteration of her best intentions in this regard, it is not clear that McLaren is ultimately able to deliver. We learn that the authors possessed a strongly hierarchical view of the social order, that pageants and processions were filled with symbolic imagery designed to maintain this order, that the fortunes of the mighty and rare natural events such as comets were often imbued with deep symbolic meaning, that Londoners readily accepted the characterization of Joan of Arc as a witch, etc. There is just not enough material to work with here for this kind of analysis to reveal much that we did not already know. It is also highly debatable whether the more singular and curious aspects of the chronicles are due to the authors' struggle to emerge from a condition of less than full literacy, or merely stylistic convention. Since the authors are all anonymous, there is no way to determine how familiar they were with other forms of current literary expression, such as letters, diaries, pamphlets, sermons, romances, or even the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. The French and Burgundian lands on the Continent were awash in long narrative chronicles composed by a variety of individuals both lay and clerical. Given the intense English engagement there throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, it seems doubtful that London merchants would be entirely unfamiliar with these. I would hazard a guess that Continental inspiration had a lot to do with the rather sudden appearance of the London chronicles in the 1430s. If the change in manuscript hands really does indicate that the early portions of some chronicles were produced readymade for continuation by their purchasers, this only strengthens the purely conventional aspect of their style and content. The abrupt decline of the genre after 1500 or so is likewise easily explainable by the changes in historiographical fashion (not always an improvement) introduced by the humanists. Given the laconic and recalcitrant nature of the texts she has to deal with, McLaren puts in a brave effort, even if her thesis of a writing "revolution" is not very convincing. That said, the book can still be highly recommended for its scholarly thoroughness regarding all the more work-a-day aspects of the chronicles. It is clearly an essential tool for anyone studying late medieval historical writing in England, as well as anyone who wishes to employ these texts as documentary evidence for other sorts of scholarly investigation. The original doctoral dissertation behind this study appeared in 1990, and several other features give the work the distinct feel of a long labor of love, making it indeed a "tome," as the author herself describes it in her opening acknowledgements.

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Mark Spencer

Southeastern Oklahoma State University