Revue Benedictine, Vol. 122:1 (2012)
Active between c. 1235 and c. 1259 Matthew Paris, a member of the English Benedictine community of St Albans, was an accomplished draughtsman, and an expert cartographer, as well as a prolific writer of history. His historiographical oeuvre, totalling about 7,000 pages in its modern printed editions, included a history of the world (Chronica Majora), another of England (Historia Anglorum), two revisions of these (Flores Historiarum and Abbreviatio Chronicarum), a history of the community at St Albans (Gesta Abbatum), and several saints’ lives in both Latin and Anglo-Norman. His Flores Historiarum in particular became the pointof departure for much of English chronicle writing for another century or so, while the Chronica Majora and Historia Anglorum exercised a profound influence on English historicalculture well into the sixteenth century and beyond. Though centring on English affairs, theseworks nonetheless sought to place England within a broader European context. The Chronica Majora, for instance, a vast history of the world from its creation to 1259 (composed c. 1240-1252 and 1254-9), dealt with matters as diverse as the Mongol invasions, the crusades, propertydisputes at St Albans, Emperor Frederick II, the bird life in the apple-garden of St Albans, or the current whereabouts of Noah’s Ark. It also contained numerous documents that often do nototherwise survive, and thus ranks as an essential source for the history not just of England, but of medieval Europe as a whole. In fact, without the efforts of the St Albans monk we would know much less about the emerging cult of Magna Carta, for instance, the Mongol invasions, or the Latin world of the eastern Mediterranean. In short, Matthew Paris and his writings constitute a chief source for our understanding of a pivotal period in the formation of Latin Christendom, and one that directly or indirectly continues to form modern approaches to the study of high and late medieval Europe.
Yet, our knowledge of the chronicler as individual is limited to only a few references in his writings. He does not appear in the records of the king’s administration, nor is he mentioned in the works of his contemporaries. Even Matthew’s ‘surname’ poses problems: though he was certainly interested in matters relating to Paris, and while he seems to have been part of a network of correspondents centred on Paris, there is no evidence that he had ever been to Paris. In fact, it appears that Matthew only ever left England once, when, in 1248-9, he visited Norway to assist in settling a dispute at the Benedictine abbey of Nidarholm near Trondheim. It is on this episode that the following will focus.