Chapter 16 of John Burrow's History of Histories focuses on the historical writings of medieval England, particularly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Geoffrey of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, Matthew Paris, and the chronicles of St. Albans and Bury St. Edmunds.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in Old English, presents a year-by-year account of events, looking all the way back to the arrival of the Saxons in 494. The Chronicle was probably begun in about 800 and was composed of previous entries compiled from oral and written sources. Most entries are brief and typically local to England, although some contain references to broader events that affected the country. The Chronicle also includes genealogies and some poems but very few long narratives.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain, on the other hand, is nearly completely narrative, but actually very little history. Geoffrey (died circa 1155) is best known for his stories of King Arthur (who does not appear in any account from the time in which he was supposed to have lived). Geoffrey claims to have translated his history from a very old Welsh book at Oxford, but actually, he probably made up much of his narrative in his own imagination or at least combined old tales and legends in new and entertaining ways.
The book begins with the founding of Britain by Brutus (the Trojan Aeneas's great-grandson), covers the exploits of Arthur and Merlin in great detail (but questionable accuracy), and includes plenty of other interesting stories of ancient Britain. Was Geoffrey deliberately trying to deceive readers with his “history”? Or was he simply letting his imagination run away with him? No one will ever know for sure.
Before delving into William of Malmesbury's work, Burrow inserts a brief tribute to the Bayeux Tapestry, which pictorially recounts the Norman Conquest. He then turns his attention to Malmesbury (died circa 1143), who writes both the “secular and ecclesiastical history” of Britain in Gesta Regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (228). Unlike Geoffrey, William does his best to recount the truth even though he realizes that his sources for events long past may not be overly accurate. He tries “to inform himself of the inside of events” by talking to or reading the accounts of credible witnesses (230). William is an elegant writer who attempts to prepare a balanced, discreet history that tells what really happened as much as possible.
As Burrow remarks, Matthew Paris (died 1259), on the other hand, is anything but discreet. Rather, he is “populist, scathing, cynical, violently partisan, prejudiced and funny” (232). While Paris focuses more on chronicling events than writing narrative in Greater Chronicle, his book “is vivid, entertaining, and held together by a highly personal view of the world” (232).
Paris first compiles an account of events from the time of Creation using Roger of Wendover's work. Then he adds two more decades of his own, covering the events of both England and wider Europe. Paris does not hesitate to include his own vigorous opinions of these occurrences, and he also recounts contemporary public opinion. He does not spare the dignity of even the more distinguished characters but rather reveals them in all their human weakness and folly.
Burrow ends the chapter with an account of two abbey chronicles: those of St. Albans and Bury St. Edmunds. Matthew Paris writes the former in his usual sardonic and sarcastic fashion, and he paints a detailed portrait of the workings of a medieval monastery. The Bury St. Edmunds chronicle contains an account of St. Edmund and a history of the abbey from its founding into the latter part of the thirteenth century. The Bury historical writings also include the chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelonde, who writes of the events of the late twelfth and early thirteen centuries. Jocelin recounts the workings, disputes, and foibles of monastic life in vivid and often humorous detail, capturing the personalities of the participants in full color and bringing the medieval world to life.