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CONFERENCES: Arnold Fitz Thedmar: an Early London chronicler

London (c. 1650)
London (c. 1650)
London (c. 1650)

CONFERENCES: Arnold Fitz Thedmar: an Early London chronicler

Another fascinating paper given at the Institute for Historical Research in central London. For those of you interested in chronicles, urban history and London, this paper was definitely for you. Ian Stone discussed his dissertation about thirteenth century London through the eyes of wealthy Alderman, Arnold Fitz Thedmar.

Who was Arnold Fitz Thedmar?

Arnold Fitz Thedmar was a London chronicler and the first lay man in the British Isles to compile such a book. Sadly, he is often overlooked by scholars but Stone’s thesis will attempt to shine light on his important work as a London chronicler.

Arnold had put down his family history in a 750 word source that was written in his own hand. His story goes a little something like this: His grandparents came to London from Germany in 1175 AD. They bore two children, Thomas and Juliana. Thomas died on Crusade in approximately 1203/04 AD and Juliana married Thedmar of Bremen. Juliana and Thedmar went on to have Arnold on August 9, 1201. Arnold Fitz Thedmar became the Alderman of the Germans in 1251 until his death in 1274. He was an important Londoner and he was extremely wealthy.

Like many medieval compilers, Arnold never claimed that he wrote his book Stone argues that there there is compelling evidence he did write it. His date of birth is mentioned in the chronicle, who would know such exact dates except the author? His chronicle draws to close in July 1274 near the time of his death. His death was noted in London records in February 1275 so it appears that he stopped writing around two months before his death.

What Does the Chronicle Tell Us About Arnold?

It gives the reader plenty of insight into his personality, for one. We can tell that Arnold was a rather haughty man and not a friend to London’s commoners. He despised, ‘the little people who have power over the city’. He was intelligent; and he spoke four languages: English, French, German and Latin. He could read and write in French, and he spoke fluent German due to his family’s origins and his position as a German Alderman, but curiously, he chose Latin as the writing of the chronicle. This struck Stone as odd for a layman. He surmised that this deliberate choice of language may be Arnold trying to show off; to demonstrate his cultured background and education. The decision to use Latin also indicated his chosen audience was learned, not common. He was fabulously rich and his wealth often outstripped that of knights. To be considered a knight you only needed to have £20 per year to your name. Arnold was able to pay £400 per year on his property and owned a massive house. He was writing at a time when writing was slowly moving out of the sole preserve of monks in monasteries yet he wanted to be sure that his chronicle would be read by those who moved in the upper circles of society with him.

Old books

Arnold Fitz Thedmar was clearly aware of the importance of London in the world sphere. There was a lot of political and social turmoil during the thirteenth century in London. He was also acutely aware of his own importance as an Alderman. Even though he was born in London, Arnold would have been considered a “foreigner” due to his German descent. He wrote a unique lay source and started his chronicle around the time his political career launched. As it grew, the chronicle grew, as did his interest in international events. The chronicle is unique in that it was free of the supernatural and fantastical. Things that were particular to Arnold’s observations of London included things like the July 1263 Statute Against Aliens.

However, Arnold curiously omitted four key historical events:

July 1263: The pelting of Queen Eleanor from London Bridge
Dec 1263: Simon de Monfort’s army trapped at Southwark
May 1264: Royalist arson attack at Cheapside
Oct 1264: Excommunication of the Londoners

Leaving things out is normal in chronicles but these four events are striking because they occurred in a particular fifteen month period and they all have to do with the city of London. Stone felt that Arnold surely must’ve been interested in these events, so why leave them out? The omissions were not simple disinterest on his part or that he didn’t know about them. Even allowing for the disruption of trade, an incident like the excommunication of London would’ve been known to Arnold. He was actively writing and updating from 1264 onwards and he was in the city. He was a royalist, and no friend to commoners so why wouldn’t he record them? These were all events that the baronial regime in London may have wanted to have silenced. Arnold may have been intimidated to keep silent. What does this mean? This would imply he was not in full editorial control of his chronicle. Was the fear of the threatening political atmosphere what pressed Arnold to avoid commenting on these important events? Did he omit these deliberately? Did he omit them because he thought his audience wouldn’t like them? it is difficult to say definitively whether Arnold felt threatened or selectively chose to omit these four incidents. In the end, the best thing we can say about Arnold as a chronicler was that he wrote to make sense of the world around him; he wrote for people like him, and for people who were keenly aware of London’s importance.

~Sandra Alvarez

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