Steamy Syrian Scandals: Matthew Paris on the Templars and Hospitallers
By Helen Nicholson
Medieval History, Vol.2:2 (1992)
Abstract: Matthew Paris is one of the best known and most controversial of medieval historians. A Benedictine monk, he was chronicler of St. Alban‘s Abbey from around 1236 until his death in 1259. The aim of this article is to examine Matthew’s value as an historian in one important area: events in the Holy Land from 1229 to 1259, of which he was a contemporary. Matthew is an important source for the history of the Holy Land during this period. His writings reveal him to have been very much in favour of Latin Christian control of the holy places in Palestine. But he was hotly critical of the failure of those whose duty it was to protect them: the crusaders and the military orders. The problems of interpretation that his works present are common to monastic chronicles. His reporting of events was distorted; partly because his informants were not always reliable, but mainly by his own prejudices. Because of his hatred of the pope, the king, foreigners, the friars and others, he sometimes misinterpreted his information. He has been accused of forging some of the documents he inserted into his chronicle. He passed off his own personal view as general opinion. At the same time, however, Matthew’s prejudice is interesting in itself. It offers us a window into the thoughts of one well-informed thirteenth-century English monk, and casts some light on the prejudices of his immediate audience. For this reason, Matthew Paris’ treatment of the Templars and Hospitallers is particularly revealing and significant for historians of the crusades and of the military orders.
With his racy, popular style and nose for scandal, Matthew Paris is one of the best known and most controversial of medieval historians. A Benedictine monk, he was chronicler of St. Alban‘s Abbey from around 1236 until his death in 1259. The aim of this article is to examine Matthew’s value as an historian in one important area: events in the Holy Land from 1229 to 1259, of which he was a contemporary and for which he is an important source for modern historians.
Matthew was a prolific writer. Along with a number of short histories, he composed four major historical works: the Chronica Maiora (Greater Chronicle), the Flores Historiarum (Highlights of History), the Historia Anglorum (History of the English) and the Abbreviatio Chronicorum Angliae (Abbreviation of the Chronicles of England). These contain a wealth of historical material, much that is unique, a veritable treasure trove for historians.
In common with many other monastic chroniclers, Matthew did not confine himself to simply noting important events. He collected information from a vast number of sources, and built it into lively, detailed histories spiced with plenty of his own opinions. He began by rewriting and continuing the chronicle written by Roger of Wendover, his predecessor at St. Alban’s, widening its scope and improving its style. The result was the Chronica Maiora, a vast work which described events throughout the known world, and included many valuable documents.