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

By Mary-Rose McLaren | Go to book overview

Introduction

Something extraordinary happened in London in the early fifteenth century. It had nothing to do with kings and battles, but its effect on the growth and development of London was nonetheless profound. This was when the first attempt was made by ordinary lay people ― merchants, scriveners, craftsmen ― to write their own history. They did so by writing what are known as the 'London chronicles'. In order for this to happen a number of changes in perception amongst the citizenry must have taken place. The earliest of these extant chronicles, dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century, represents that first generation of historical writing to be undertaken in English since the Anglo-Saxon chronicle some three hundred years earlier. Moreover, the London chroniclers did not generally copy their text from an earlier manuscript, but adjusted and manipulated the skeletal chronicle form and their sources. Most extant chronicles contain unique passages and many are only distantly related to other chronicles. In the London chronicles therefore, we discover, for the first time, the lay Londoners' self-conscious attempts to record events and their meanings.

Despite their importance as a secular and largely vernacular voice, much about the London chronicles remains a mystery. We do not know how the chronicle writing trend started, why, or exactly even when. Nor do we know how widely spread the writing of London chronicles was in its initial stages. There are forty-four manuscripts extant today, dating from between 1430 and 1566. The relationships between these manuscripts, however, suggest that in the mid fifteenth century there were almost certainly hundreds of London chronicles in circulation. Proportionately few of these survive. The nature of these manuscripts, as the product of the citizenry of London, means that many of them were probably kept in private homes. They could have been destroyed by fires, flood, vermin, or careless inheritors. At some time there must also have been a considerable trade in these chronicles. It appears that in the early to mid sixteenth century when they passed to a second or third generation of owners (probably being inherited) they were no longer valued as they had been. Many of the extant texts subsequently survive because they were acquired by John Stow, the sixteenth-century antiquary, or somehow made their way into the Cottonian library. Even here, however, they were not safe. Vitellius F. IX has been partially burnt and we do not know how many, if any, were completely destroyed in the Cottonian fire. Given how many manuscripts survive in the Cotton collection, it would be surprising if none had perished in the flames. Regardless of their poor survival rate, it is evident that as a body of texts, the London chronicles appeared and disappeared with remarkable suddenness.

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