By James Wade
Medium Ævum, Vol.77:1 (2008)
Abstract: This article examines the inclusion of the supernatural and mythological in Thomas Walsingham’s Chroncia Maiora. The work is greatly valued by historians of the late middle ages for its insightful political history of England. The author feels this other aspects offer insight into cultural history and medieval literature.
Introduction: The chronicle originating from the Abbey of St Albans in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, generally attributed to Thomas Walsingham, has long been considered the last of traditional monastic historiography developed out of the St Albans school of history. As Antonia Gransden argues, it was Walsingham who, for the last rime, restored St Albans to its former significance as the ‘most important centre of historiography in England’. Modern scholars have treated the most substantial fruit of this work, a chronicle now referred to as Walsingham’s Chronica maiora, as a principal source of English political history from the death of Edward III to the birth of Henry VI, and recent criticism has reaffirmed the importance of the Chronica not only as a source of political commentary, but also as a witness to the socio-cultural climate in this period of upheaval and revolt. The complex manuscript tradition, which shows considerable signs of politically conscious revision, especially during the 1390s, attests to the extent to which Walsingham’s project was concerned with affairs of the state, and the decision by Walsingham’s most recent editors to include only his contemporary history (1376-1420) in their edition of a chronicle which stretches back to 1272 illustrates how recent scholarship has been focused primarily on these political concerns in Walsingham’s material.
The Chronica maiora, however, should not be viewed merely as a significant resource for the political historian. Like twelfth- and thirteenth-century chroniclers before him, Walsingham incorporated accounts of prodigies into his history. He includes stories of portentous raining blood, troops of mysterious marching black knights, and cruciform shapes in the sky–to name but a few –and such inclusions should be seen as immensely valuable to the cultural historian and, indeed, the student of literature. This penchant for the supernatural may initially seem somewhat unusual for such a politically minded historian as Walsingham, but accounts of portents and prodigies were not uncommon in the medieval chronicle tradition, and in nearly all cases these marvels ultimately serve as vehicles for social or political commentary. Furthermore, Walsingham’s literary interests were wide-ranging, and his approach to history writing may well have been affected by his other intellectual pursuits. Interested in ancient history, Walsingham wrote a version of the fourth-century history of the Trojan War by Dictys Cretensis, a commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses together with an account of the origins of the ancient gods, and a history of Alexander the Great. Walsingham was also evidently influenced by the extremely popular Mandeville’s Travels, a work written in or soon after 1356, whose author claims to have been bom and educated at St Albans. Walsingham was, it seems, intrigued by the wonders of foreign lands described in the Travels and he occasionally made room for accounts of the exotic East in his own historical writings. This taste for prodigies and marvels, moreover, may also help to explain why Walsingham so frequently incorporated marvellous accounts into his history of his own native England. Perhaps the most striking of such prodigies is the story of a young boy who encounters a mysterious little red man.