Matthew Paris

views updated May 18 2018

Matthew Paris

Circa 1200–1259
English monk and historian


Obscure Origins . Matthew Paris was a monk of the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of St. Albans in England in the first half of the thirteenth century. The exact date of his birth is not known, nor are the details of his early life, but his activities become somewhat easier to follow once he became a monk on 21 January 1217 and subsequently expressed himself in many writings.

Monk of the Monastery . It is quite common to associate monks of the Middle Ages with remote monasteries, because generally only monastic monks had the privilege of engaging in a relatively pure religious life, especially important to contemporary notions of spirituality, such as isolation and economic independence of the community. A religious site was founded at St. Albans in Hertfordshire, England, around 793 and developed with construction of the renowned abbey church in 1077, leading to greater wealth and importance for the shrine of the first martyr for Christianity in Roman-held Britain, the pagan Alban. The abbey church generated so much attention to the story and remains of Alban that the invading Danish kings, wishing both to protect and control the relics, took them back to Denmark. For much of the Middle Ages, St. Albans was nonetheless a market town, a Roman outpost transformed into a medieval center of exchange. The secular residents of St. Albans were, however, to feel the sometimes overpowering presence of the abbey. The town seemed to hold a particular attraction during the early thirteenth century, in return for which the townspeople paid a heavy price in disruptions: in 1213 a council was held at the Abbey at which both barons and churchmen discussed their grievances in what was to become the first step toward the Magna Carta of 1215; in 1217, after the Magna Carta was ignored by King John and the barons invited the French to help them depose him, the dauphin of France, Louis, initially occupied the town for a while, then later that same year returned to despoil it after it had been sacked by the king’s mercenary leader, Faulkes de Bréauté. As monk at the Abbey, and as a traveler to London and other English cities as well as to Norway, Paris had a front-row seat to observe the town, as well as the kingdom, in some disarray throughout an important period of English history.

Accounts . Paris’s writings, which could only be carried out in the duly privileged environment of monastery or court, start with his original accounts beginning in 1235 in his great work, the Chronica Majora (Great Chronicle). The first task of the chronicler, as medieval writers of history were called, was to observe and record events, either from direct experience or from local sources. Paris conceived of his project as a large-scale enterprise: a single chronicle might encompass several thousand years in one continuous account. Generally, a medieval chronicler did not re-create originally every part of an account from biblical Creation to his present day, but rather re-edited an earlier author that he chose to use up to a certain date, as Paris had Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History. Once, however, Paris reached the date of 1235, the content of his Chronica Majora is his own and is presented accordingly as a first-hand account and/or critical commentary. Some of Paris’s works are written in his own hand in either a weighty “book” handwriting, or a cursive “court” or “charter” script. Although there seems no evidence to corroborate an inference from his name that Paris was directly connected with the city of Paris either by birth or education, it is thought by some that before he entered the Abbey of St. Albans, Matthew may have studied in Paris and acquired there a curiously secular character to his handwriting. The lack of a consistent, finished, and technical quality to Matthew’s penmanship suggests, however, that he was not actually trained as a scribe. Perhaps writing en route, Paris may have devised a rapid script as an expedient solution carefully contrived to meet the urgent need to write prodigiously, but with elegant authority. Once back at the abbey, his hand could become more deliberate on the piece of vellum and further embellished with telling little drawings in the margins or his various maps and plans which were unsurpassed in European medieval geography, before the rise of portolani, or nautical charts. His works, Chronica Majora, Historia Minor (Smaller History), Historia Anglorum (The History of the Angles), and History of St. Albans (perhaps as well a Life of Stephen Langton also attributed to him), made for fascinating reading for many of his contemporaries within and outside England who sought to supplement their libraries with current history. Such chronicles were often within collections of otherwise strictly religious works.

Observations . Paris traveled about freely, to London and the English royal court. During the reign of Louis IX of France, he went to Norway with letters of the king of France inviting the Norwegian king, Haakon IV, to join his crusade. As he traveled, Paris seems to have visited locals, observed, then reflected and commented upon what he saw, readying his thoughts to be contemplated by others. If possible, he encapsulated his observations and feelings together to persuade the reader, who could in turn, of course, reject his opinions (and observations). Without doubt, Paris was, as he has been described by historians of our day, “a man of strong views” whose “sympathies and prejudices color every line he wrote.” Foreigners, the king, churchmen, and mendicant friars are all repeatedly criticized throughout his works, while the honor of St. Albans and associated English people is always preserved. Much of the evidence in Paris’s own writings supports the assertion that he was on intimate terms with the French king Louis IX; the English king Henry III and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall; and perhaps with many members of both French and English royal families.

Stereotypes . However much exposure Paris’s ideas might have had when forming the most recent component of his various histories, his readers still faced the age-old difficulty of all readers when it comes to another’s account. In the thirteenth century many religious writers were playing out their side of a rivalry between monks and friars, between the older religious orders, like the Benedictines, and the newly established ones, like the Franciscans and Dominicans. Paris, like some other contemporary authors, accepted at face value the many different epithets applied to the other side: “hypocrites,” “false preachers,” or “vagabonds.” When, however, he turns to the subject of the economic lifestyle of the friars, it does appear that Paris has his own accounts to settle. He questions, as om-ers, the ability of a community of Dominicans at Dunstable to be able to pay for the building of a comfortable house, while professing voluntary poverty. The number of indulgences, the need for accounting, the possibilities for spiritual wrangles made theirs a business as highly specialized as the sale of sheep on the wool market. Yet, it was so highly lucrative, with revenues regularly augmented by other forms of mendicancy, that they could not help but become wealthy men.

Personal Affairs . Paris wrote his series of chronicles from a specific perspective, which historians of today have described as “a gathering behind walls.” On the other side he encountered Dominicans and Franciscans, whose contemplative “cell is the whole earth” and whose “cloister is the ocean.” While he had waited as much as thirty-five years to join the abbey at St. Albans and had since tasted much of life outside the cloister, he still could not refrain from exhorting other brethren to keep well to themselves so they might not “usurp to themselves the functions of the clergy or the scholar.” Paris remained at home in St. Albans until his death in 1259, sustaining what might be called the historical school or institute of the monastery of St. Albans, then the chief center of English narrative history or chronicle. With a slightly different evolution for his abbey, it might have become the nucleus of a great university, and like few among the regular orders, he might have found himself a colleague of the friars he so criticized.


Patrick J. Geary, ed., Authors of the Middle Ages: Historical and Religious Writers of the Latin West (Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995).

Richard Vaughan, Matthew Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958).

Matthew Paris

views updated May 21 2018

Matthew Paris

The English Benedictine monk Matthew Paris (ca. 1200-1259) was the most important chronicler of the 13th century. He was also an accomplished manuscript illustrator, biographer, and cartographer.

Matthew Paris, sometimes referred to as Matthew of Paris, probably had no connection with France by birth or education. Although no information exists concerning his parentage or his early life, he became a monk at St. Albans, a monastery on a main road about 15 miles northwest of London, on Jan. 21, 1217. There he received his training as a scribe and artist and, under Roger Wendover, as the abbey's historiographer. In 1248-1249 Matthew was called upon by Norway's King Haakon IV and by Pope Innocent IV to adjust the financial and spiritual affairs of the Benedictine abbey of St. Benet Holm on the island of Niderholm in Norway. Except for this successful journey, Matthew, for the most part, remained at St. Albans until his death in 1259.

After Roger Wendover's death in 1235, Matthew incorporated Roger's Flores historiarum into his own chief work, the Chronica majora, revising Roger's text and extending it from 1235 to 1259. A prolific and indefatigable writer, Matthew wrote some 300,000 words in his section alone. In it he narrated events with his personal commentary that often demonstrates his strong prejudices against King Henry III, the Pope, friars, foreigners, civil servants, theologians, and almost any person or group who, in Matthew's eyes, was guilty of either abuse of power or interference with the home rule of his monastic movement. He wrote in Latin, the lingua franca of the Middle Ages, and his style is vivid and colorful.

As a respected intimate of such important figures as Henry III and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, among many others, Matthew's fame as a chronicler was so widespread that distinguished guests at St. Albans freely shared their adventures with him, supplying him with details for his chronicle.

Although Matthew is considered by modern scholars more a chronicler than a historian, he assiduously collected, albeit not always accurately, about 350 documents in an appendix to his Chronica, the Liber additamentorum. His abridgments of the Chronica majora—the Historia Anglorum, devoted primarily to English affairs, and the Abbreviatio chronicorum (or Historia minor), concentrating on the period 1067—1253—contain differing versions of the same events. In his Gesta abbatum, Matthew recorded the lives of the first 23 abbots of St. Albans and sketched a miniature portrait of each.

In addition to his Latin biographies of Edmund Rich and Stephen Langton, Matthew wrote in Anglo-Norman verse the lives of Saints Alban, Edward the Confessor, Thomas Becket, and Edmund Rich, each work amply illustrated.

As an artist, Matthew enjoyed high esteem. His manuscript illustrations, both drawings and paintings, demonstrate his skill and talent in illuminating his narrative. Further, his valuable contributions to cartography include the earliest known detail maps of England and Scotland, listing as many as 280 place names. His itineraries, or road maps, from London to Italy and several maps of Palestine admirably executed in color attest to his talents as an artist and cartographer. He also ranks high as a pioneer in the history of heraldry because he depicted quite accurately about 130 coats of arms of the period.

Although Matthew is not always reliable because of his frequent exaggerations, prejudices, and carelessness, he nevertheless left a readable account and, more important, one with a feeling of his time.

Further Reading

The best book on Matthew is Richard Vaughan, Matthew Paris (1958), a scholarly yet readable study with an excellent bibliography. Vivian Hunter Galbraith's monograph, Roger Wendover and Matthew Paris (1944), discusses the roles of both men as chroniclers of St. Albans. For background on Matthew and his time see Claude Jenkins, The Monastic Chronicler and the Early School of St. Albans (1922), and David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England (1948). □

Matthew Paris

views updated May 23 2018


Monk, artist, and most important of the English chroniclers of the 13th century; b. c. 1199; d. 1259. He received the Benedictine habit in 1217, and was trained as a scribe and illuminator in his abbey of st. alban's. His first works were illustrated lives of saints (alban, Edward, and later, Thomas and Edmund of Canterbury). He started to write history, in about 1236, by helping Roger of Wendover whom he later replaced. In 1246, he was sent to reform the Norwegian abbey of St. Benet Holm, when the abbot disappeared with the community seal. Matthew arranged for loans from Cahorsin money-lenders and introduced the customs of St. Alban's there, but returned soon afterwards a disappointed man. Thenceforth, he worked tirelessly at writing and rewriting his extensive histories: Chronica majora, Historia Anglorum, Flores historiarum, and Abbreviatio chronicorum. These survive in part or in whole in Matthew's own hand and are enlivened with marginal drawings of coats of arms or of the events he describes. His exceptionally full and well-informed narrative, based often on conversations with royalty and magnates who stayed at the abbey, is at times prejudiced and partial. His illustrated life of St. Alban represents the highest development of the saint's legend, and his drawings of an elephant, and of himself prostrate before the Madonna and Child, are justly famous. One of his lesser literary works, the chronicle of his own abbey, describing several of its monks, and the works of art in the church, is both revealing and successful. He lacked the discipline and patience necessary for a true scholar and historian, but he excelled at retelling contemporary gossip and events.

Bibliography: Works. Chronica majora, ed. h. r. luard, 7v. (Rolls Series 57); Historia Anglorum, ed. f. madden, 3 v. (Rolls Series 44). t. walsingham, Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani, ed. h. t. riley, 3 v. (Rolls Series 28) v.1. Literature. Illustrations to the Life of St. Alban in Trinity College Dublin ms. E. i. 40, reproduced by w. r. l. lowe and e. f. jacob (Oxford 1924). v. h. galbraith, Roger Wendover and Matthew Paris (Glasgow 1944). r. vaughan, Matthew Paris (Cambridge, Eng. 1958).

[h. farmer]

Matthew Paris

views updated May 18 2018

Matthew Paris (c.1200–59) is one of the greatest of all historians, partly because of his astonishing output, partly because of the remarkable comprehensiveness of his work, partly because of his historical method, and partly because of his extensive range of interests. He entered the monastery of St Albans in 1217 and spent most of his life there writing history. He wrote a series of saints' lives. He composed the Gesta abbatum, recording the history of his monastic house. His greatest work, the monumental Chronica majora, for which he is renowned, was the most comprehensive history yet written in England, and concerned not just with English affairs but with those of the entire known world from the Creation to Paris's own day. He also wrote the Historia Anglorum, a chronicle from 1066 to 1253, and two shorter histories, the Abbreviatio chronicorum and the Flores historiarum. Paris was also a significant artist, as shown by the compelling illustrations to his various texts, and an important cartographer.

S. D. Lloyd

About this article

Matthew Paris

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic