Post-classical history

Matthew Paris

An English chronicler and monk at the abbey of St. Albans.

Very little is known of Matthew Paris’s early years. He was probably born in England around 1200. In 1217 he joined the Benedictine monastery of St. Albans. Besides a few meetings with King Henry III and one journey to Norway, Matthew remained in this religious house for most of his life. His most important work, the Chronica Majora, is a continuation of the Flores historiarum of Roger of Wendover, whom Matthew assisted at the abbey scriptorium until 1234, when he took over. Matthew’s other works include the Gesta Abba- tum (a history of the monastery), the Vie de Saint Alban (a biography of its patron), and a life of St. Edmund Rich. Matthew also translated a biography of Edward the Confessor from Latin to the vernacular.

Matthew was well aware of the value of his work and complained about the fate of historians: “for, if they speak the truth, they provoke man, and if they record falsehoods they offend God” [Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, 5:469-470]. His historiographical consciousness encouraged Matthew to exploit St. Albans’s central position and to look for any testimony he could record from the most important men of his age, such as King Henry III and his brother Richard of Cornwall, and the master of the Order of the Temple in Scotland. In addition to English personages, overseas travelers occasionally turned up at the abbey and enriched Matthew’s narrative with firsthand information. All of them provided food for Matthew’s unlimited curiosity and allowed him to write the most comprehensive history of his time.

The crusades attracted much of Matthew’s attention, and a considerable portion of the Chronica Majora is devoted to the main developments in the Holy Land. Still, Matthew was not always able to guarantee chronological accuracy, and in some cases he recorded events as occurring some years before or after they actually happened. Though Matthew’s chronology improved when he dealt with events closer to his own time, his conceptualization of the historical process failed to gain in sophistication. Thus, he does not give the slightest hint of the influence of Gerard of Ridefort on the events that brought about the Christian defeat at the Horns of Hattin. Instead he records an evil omen and describes the disastrous consequences of the battle from a moral-Christ- ian perspective, thus neglecting basic questions of strategy and politics.

Modern historians have criticized Matthew’s lack of coherence, his malevolence toward Henry III and Pope Innocent IV, and his lack of originality. Prior to 1236, indeed, Matthew abridged or copied in part from other monastic annals and chronicles, thus posing both conceptual and methodological problems. With regard to the military orders, Matthew’s main concern focused on military and political issues, especially the knights’ performance on the battlefield and their policy toward the Christian princes who led the crusades. On the whole Matthew failed to gain a balanced perspective, and the Chronica Majora reflects a biased, negative attitude toward all military orders, first and foremost the Templars, whom he often accused of supporting narrow interests of their own to the detriment of the Christian enterprise in the Holy Land. Still, in its coverage of the period from 1236 until 1259, the Chronica Majora is independent of all known literary authorities and provides valuable testimony to the contradictory attitudes prevailing in Christendom toward the crusades and the kingdom of Jerusalem during these critical years.

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