By Meghan Woolley
Matthew Paris’s Chronica maiora is famous for its illustrations: maps of Great Britain, the murder of an archbishop, and an elephant gifted to England’s King Henry III. But as I sat in the archive, reading Matthew’s own copy of the Chronica, something else caught my eye: small charters drawn in the margins, reproduced in meticulous detail down to their colorful seals.
It’s common for English chronicles to include marginal decorations such as crowns, mitres, and heraldic devices. These decorations help to draw the reader’s attention to major events and create connections across the historical narrative. Ralph de Diceto, an earlier chronicler influential to Matthew Paris, noted that he developed a system of these marginal decorations in order to aid the reader’s memory.
Charters, however, are an unusual object to illustrate. Matthew Paris’s choice to add in these documentary decorations does more than simply draw the reader’s eye to key texts; it shows the importance of texts themselves as physical objects within the intellectual culture of thirteenth-century England.
Matthew Paris and his illustrations
Matthew Paris is one of England’s most famous historians and artists. Born c. 1200, he became a monk at St Albans Abbey, an institution famous for its chronicles: narratives of historical and contemporary events. As part of their historical record, chroniclers frequently copied out documents such as letters, charters, and new legal statutes. Their work therefore weaves a compendium of contemporary documents together with historical narrative, creating a multi-layered text. While we know most chronicles by the name of a single writer, many were produced collaboratively, with different members of the monastic community adding to the narrative over time. Chronicles were therefore living documents, built on year over year, with additions and corrections often added into the margins.
When Matthew became the official historian of St Albans in the 1230s, he did not start a new chronicle but added on to the work of his predecessor, Roger of Wendover. Often, Matthew went back to Roger’s passages to add material or create illustrations in the margins. Matthew is unusual in that he wrote and decorated his own manuscripts. His illustrations, ranging from simple heraldic devices to full-fledged battle scenes, are striking for their beauty and detail. MS 16, located at the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, is an autograph copy, which means that it contains the original text and decorations done in Matthew’s own hand.
Among these illustrations, the charters are an unobtrusive group. A charter is a formal document recording the granting of rights or land. A charter could record small transactions, such as a gift of land from a lord to a local abbey, or more widely impactful policies, such as Magna Carta’s protections of barons’ rights. These charters were written on parchment and often closed with the wax seal of the granter. Important royal decrees were copied and distributed to every county.
Matthew Paris’s illustrations capture some of the most important charters and letters of the thirteenth century, clustered around the years 1213 to 1253. They include Magna Carta, the forest charter of 1217, a papal bull, and letters from King John and Bishop Robert Grosseteste. In short, these are some of the most important documents that were circulated in England during the reigns of Kings John and Henry III.
Matthew’s charter illustrations are simple but careful. The illustration of Magna Carta, for example, features a large green royal seal hung from a leather chord. The body of the charter contains an approximation of writing, starting with a visible “J di” for “J[ohannes] d[e]i,” the beginning of the phrase “John, by the grace of God, king of England.” The reader gets the impression of the charter in miniature. The papal bull is drawn with a smaller blue seal to represent the pope’s lead bulla. Through these details, Matthew makes a careful effort to reproduce the physicality of each individual charter.
Why include charter illustrations?
Some of Matthew’s charter decorations serve a practical purpose: they indicate documents that a reader could find in a supplemental text, the Liber Additamentorum. In this “Book of Additions,” Matthew gathered texts that complemented his chronicle, including maps, Lives of the abbots of St Albans, and copies of a number of documents. Some of the Chronica decorations have twin illustrations next to copies of the corresponding documents in the Liber: a drawing of Magna Carta and, accompanying one of the papal bulls, a matching anchor symbol. These decorations function similarly to modern hyperlinks, taking the reader to a separate volume where they can find more information. They indicate that Matthew was working simultaneously on two different texts and that he expected readers might do the same.
The linked charters tell us something about reading practices at St Albans. Using these decorations, readers could flip between the two different volumes. They had the option to read charters in full, but without interrupting the Chronica’s historical narrative. This connection encourages us to view thirteenth-century texts as existing within a flexible material network. A chronicle was not a self-contained book, but a working text with porous connections to other documents that could be most useful when read together.
The level of detail in Matthew’s charter decorations shows us something else: the growing cultural importance of documents as material objects. The illustrated charters capture details from the real-life versions, including the seals that materially differentiated them from simple text copied into a chronicle.
In her book The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora, Suzanne Lewis posits that Matthew Paris was likely drawing from in-person observation of the actual charters. His illustration of Magna Carta, for instance, closely replicates the version circulated after King Henry III’s reissue of the charter in 1225. For Lewis, this is important evidence for the wide circulation of royal documents in the thirteenth century. If Matthew Paris was able to view a version of Magna Carta in 1225, his illustration takes a circulating text, briefly in his ambit, and makes it a permanent part of the St Albans record, not just for what it says, but for its physical presence.
Matthew’s marginal drawings evince more than just his access to texts; they show his attention to texts as physical objects. A charter was meant to physically capture the agreement it recorded: the signatures of witnesses embodied their act of witnessing, and the seal affirmed the document’s authenticity. Matthew’s recreation of these documents in two dimensions is an effort to reconstruct these aspects of each charter – the elements that aren’t conveyed by the text alone.
Brigitte Bedos-Rezak has argued that a seal served as a substitute for the presence of its owner, a purpose that became increasingly important as documents circulated beyond the ambit of authority figures’ physical attendance. Charters such as a papal bull or the forest charter were distributed with their seals in an effort to replicate the circulation of the king or pope himself. The seal endowed the document’s content with the physical authority of its owner.
In recreating these seals through illustration, Matthew Paris replicated an echo of that same presence. Like miniature portraits of Dorian Gray, they preserved a sliver of the royal or papal person, frozen in time in the attic of St Albans. Matthew Paris’s charter illustrations, then, do more than simply decorate the margin. They demonstrate the seriousness with which thirteenth-century monastic readers took documents as material objects. And they insert a shard of authoritative presence into the chronicle. The illustrations signify not only the material power of charters, but how important the role of documents was in one monk’s conception of history.
Meghan Woolley is a writer and medieval historian specializing in emotions, culture, and law in Anglo-Norman England. She is currently a post-doctoral research associate in the Writing Lab at Purdue University. You can find out more about her work at meghanwoolley.com or find her on Twitter at @MeghanHWoolley.
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