Medieval Portuguese Royal Chronicles: Topics in a Discourse of Identity and Power
By Bernardo Vasconcelos e Sousa
e-Journal of Portuguese History, Vol.5:2 (2007)
Abstract: It is only in the 15th century that the Portuguese royal chronicles assume their own unequivocal form. The following text analyses them as a discourse of the identity and power of the Crown. Three topics are selected by their importance and salience. These topics are the territory object of observation, the central subject of the narrative and the question of the authors of the historiographical accounts, or rather the position in which the chroniclers place themselves and the perspective they adopt for their description of events
Introduction: The medieval royal chronicle genre constitutes an accurate type of historiography in narrative form, promoted by the Crown and in which the central protagonist is the monarchy (usually the king himself, its supreme exponent). The discourse therefore centers on the deeds of the monarch and on the history of the royal institution that the king and his respective dynasty embody. Generally speaking, the focus is that of a political history both in terms of the chronicle’s predominant themes (the king’s actions, war, peace, justice and so on) and in terms of its objectives. It emphasizes the “goodness” of the monarch and serves as an apology for the actions of the sovereign and the Crown. As such, the royal chronicle is also an instrument of power, affirming the authority of the monarchy and contributing to the legitimization of that same authority.
In Portugal, the royal chronicles as such first started and gained importance from the early 15th century onwards, being closely linked to the new Avis dynasty, which began with João I (1385-1433). It is true, however, that there are some previous historiographic examples that can be said to foreshadow the emergence of the genre. The most famous example that can be cited as an antecedent is the Crónica Geral de Espanha de 1344, not so much because it was penned by a royal bastard, Pedro Afonso, Count of Barcelos and son of King Dinis (1297-1325), but because of the way it clearly demarcates the Portuguese kingdom from its neighbor, Castile, and the enhanced value it attaches to the Portuguese monarchy, which is treated autonomously within the context of the Iberian Peninsula. Nevertheless, the conceptions of a feudal nobility are often superimposed here on what we may call the monarchic ideology.
It is, therefore, only in the 15th century (following the so-called Crónica de Portugal de 1419) that the Portuguese royal chronicles assume their own unequivocal form. In our analysis of them as a discourse of the identity and power of the Crown, only three topics have been selected which, by their importance and salience, enhance this characteristic. These topics are theterritory, which is an object of observation, the central subject of the narrative and, finally, the question of the authors of the historiographic accounts, or rather the position in which the chroniclers place themselves and the perspective they adopt for their descriptions of events.