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19.06.25 Preest and Webster, The Annals of Dunstable Priory

19.06.25 Preest and Webster, The Annals of Dunstable Priory

This is a very welcome translation of an important thirteenth-century chronicle, which deals with both local and much wider events, even containing some accounts of international matters. It survives in a single manuscript, and was originally published in Latin, in one of the four volumes of Annales Monastici, edited by H. R. Luard in the Rolls Series. The Dunstable Annals had no single author, though until 1242 the work was probably supervised by the prior, Richard de Morins. The early part, up to 1200, was straightforwardly derived from Richard of Diss' Ymagines Historiarum; this edition rightly omits it. Subsequently, for some years it seems likely that entries were made as events occurred, while in other cases, particularly where there are longer passages, it appears that the book was written up later, on a year-by-year basis. While the Dunstable Annals in no way match the incomparable Matthew Paris, they are nonetheless a significant source.

The Annals will, no doubt, be consulted most often for the insights provided into the high politics and events of the thirteenth century. There is, for example, a valuable account of the siege of Bedford in 1224, far more detailed than is provided in any other chronicle. Although the Annals do not display the same level of xenophobia as is evident in the pages of Matthew Paris, they demonstrate hostility to the king's Poitevin half-brothers. Sympathy to the king's baronial opponents in the years of crisis beginning in 1258 is very evident; the Annals display a particular dislike of the future king Edward. He is shown as unreliable and even on occasion cowardly, while his victory at Evesham in 1265 is explained by the size of his force, rather than though any skilled generalship. Local affairs dominate the account of Edward I's reign, but there are passages of wider importance, such as that describing the king's Welsh campaign of 1282-3. Interestingly, when it came to the rebellion of 1294, the annalist shows some sympathy to the Welsh, praising their bravery.

The importance of the descriptions of events on a wider stage lies primarily in the way that they show what news reached an English priory, rather than in the information provided. The Albigensian crusades received some attention, though no overall account. The death of the elder Simon de Montfort featured, as did the siege of Avignon in 1226; the annalist hinted strongly that the French motive was greed, rather than piety. Of the crusades to the east, the fifth received brief mention, curiously noting the quantity and quality of the fish found at Tannis. The seventh crusade and the loss of Acre each received a paragraph. Clearly, crusading was not seen as a high priority by the writers of the Annals. The emperor Frederick II received a fair measure of attention; his death, however, was marked by no more than a very brief note. Important papal affairs such as the resignation of Celestine V, were duly included.

Much of the Annals concerned local matters. The thirteenth century was an intensely litigious age, and the workings of the law looms large in these pages. In 1276, for example, fifteen or more cases were brought against the priory, many of them resolved when the complainants were paid off. The most serious matter was a fracas involving some of the king's falconers, who had taken up lodgings in the priory. Refused entry late at night, "they stormed through the whole priory, knocking down all who stood in their way" (188). An initial inquiry by a jury of twelve found in the prior's favour, but the king would not accept this. He was forced to acquit the prior when a further jury, this time of thirty-six, again found him innocent. A few years later, in 1284, in a particularly lengthy case, Christiana Mustard accused various members of the prior's household, and even the prior himself, of involvement in her husband's murder. There were issues as to who had actually shot him; it was even alleged that she had no right to bring the case, as she was allegedly not his wife. There were frequent adjournments, as the accused men failed to appear in court. Even more pages were devoted to the case, which began in 1289, of forty-four of the prior's pigs, which were seized by Millicent Montalt on the grounds that they had been feeding in her pasture. The prior claimed that he had rights of commonage over the land; Millicent argued that this was not the case, as the land was part of royal ancient demesne. She produced an extract from Domesday Book to prove this. The issue went all the way to the king and council in parliament, and eventually Millicent lost, with damages set at forty shillings. The case raised important issues, but scarcely merited the time and money spent on it.

Success in the courts of law was probably seen as an easier way to advance the priory's position than improving the running of the estates, which involved the cost of new barns and other farm buildings among other expenses. Direct management seems not to have been favoured; in 1277 one of the priory's manors was leased out for a twenty-year term, and in 1281 an estate was let for the lifetime of the tenant. A deal struck in 1277 to sell the entire wool crop to a single merchant, John Duraunt, was probably ill-advised, for later, "We owed John so much money that the prior did not dare offend him" (208). One attempt at technological innovation failed; a new type of mill did not fulfil promises that it could be worked by just one horse, and had to be dismantled.

The annalists provided many anecdotes which help to illuminate society on a personal level. There was the fury of the earl of Cornwall when he had no fish for dinner, because the prior's men delayed the wagon bringing it. One candidate was refused admission as a canon, because he waved his arms too much. There were various tragedies. In 1281 the frost was extreme; an unfortunate woman floated down the Great Ouse on an ice floe, only to be drowned when it broke up. In the same decade a canon at Bushmead, near Luton, castrated himself, and died of his wounds, and a servant of John Duraunt's son committed suicide by drowning. A Dominican friar, Richard Clapwell, accused of heresies, tore out his own eyes and died in extreme pain in 1288. In contrast to some chronicles, wonders were few, though in 1290 it was claimed that a boy did not eat for two years, as a result of his seeing demons in his nightmares.

The translator is to be congratulated on the way he has succeeded in putting the Annals into fluent English, while following the original Latin closely. Inevitably, it is possible to raise minor quibbles. Taking one page from the 1283 entry (215), a virgate is not "twenty acres of land," and the wool crop from the Peak was five sacks and twenty stones, not "five sacks of wool weighing twenty stones" (there were twenty-eight stones to a sack). Nor does it seem likely that the expeditio on which a law-breaking canon was to go, was a "military expedition." Such points are, however, of no great significance. The editor provides a helpful introduction, which sets the Annals in context. The history of the priory at Dunstable, the authorship of the Annals, and the various sources used in compiling the book, are all examined. She also offers a necessarily brief account of the background of events both in Britain and more widely. The text itself is usefully annotated; a contrast to the original Rolls Series edition.

Interestingly, in the mid-nineteenth century a volume in the Rolls Series cost 8s. 6d., equivalent to about $45, a low price thanks to a generous government subsidy. Publication of medieval chronicles, however, is regrettably if understandably not a priority for today's politicians, and the publishers should be praised for producing this volume without financial assistance, at a price, allowing for inflation, roughly treble that of the nineteenth Rolls Series Latin edition.