The London Chronicles of the Fifteenth Century: A Revolution in English Writing

By Mary-Rose McLaren | Go to book overview
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Conclusion

The London chronicles are a unique body of texts for several reasons. They share a common form but are diverse in their contents; they are the first historical accounts to be written in the vernacular by lay people; they represent a break with previous histories in their essentially linear rather than cyclic structure, and in their use of documentation; and they are both public and private in nature. Most importantly, the London chronicles are unique because of the glimpse they give us into a fifteenth-century secular world view.

The London chronicles are defined by their use of the mayoral list to set their chronology. Unlike previous chronicles their prime dating mechanism is neither the year of the Lord, nor regnal years. The very nature of their form therefore, marks them apart as both secular and civic. Despite their uniformity of structure, however, the assessment of the relationship between the manuscripts indicates that the extant texts are quite diverse and represent more than one original chronicle. We have extant forms of at least four different strands of London chronicles as well as thirteen miscellaneous chronicles, while at least twenty-five different but substantial sources of material can be distinguished. Moreover, the London chronicles can be divided into three clear groups: those chronicles presenting detailed accounts, particularly of contemporary events (this group includes B 42); those chronicles which provide scanty entries, if any, throughout; and those which are Brut continuations.

The existence of several source chronicles and the apparent branching of these into numerous versions in the early fifteenth century, suggests that an earlier form of recording was commonly adopted in the fifteenth century as an appropriate structure for the records of the city. The relatively early date to which the structure of the London chronicles can be traced and the flexibility of the common form suggest that an early structure has been preserved while the original significance of that structure has been lost. The previous form was possibly legal, developing out of the quo warranto enquires after 1290.

By the fifteenth century this structure has become a tool for assertinga new focus civic rather than regal its purpose not only the claiming of rights and privileges, but also the recording of a new perception of urban and lineal history. Underlying each chronicler's selection of material is a subtlety concerned with ownership of the past and the control of the present. By recording events under particular mayors' names the chroniclers implicitly suggest two underlying concerns: one, their secular view of London, and perhaps of the events themselves; and two, their desire,

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