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

By Mary-Rose McLaren | Go to book overview

2

The Chroniclers as Historians

In general, as historians of the fifteenth century, we tend to be concerned with events, with social change or with significant individuals. We pay remarkably little attention to what is being witnessed, written about and read by the general populace. We pay almost no attention to the process which these people are experiencing when they see or hear something and then try to write down an account of it. We take it for granted that a limited number of texts have survived, and we tend to assume that they were commissioned, owned and read by the very wealthy. What we know of the London chronicles would seem to suggest that in fifteenth-century London this picture is not true.

We know that the London chronicles were primarily written and/or owned by lay people. Many of these people were either directly involved in crafts or trades, or were employed as clerks. Some people bought their London chronicles from workshops and then continued them. Some people wrote their own, and in doing so, usually drew heavily on earlier texts until such time as they were recording contemporary events. Perhaps they borrowed these sample texts from friends or libraries. The picture of fifteenth-century London which emerges is one of a developing literary culture where the written word was perceived as important not just for entertainment, or for business, but for recording, communicating, and establishing a common sense of identity. It would seem this new literary experience was encountered most vibrantly amongst what, for want of a better term, we might call the 'middle classes'.

Because of their unique position within the development of historical writing, the London chronicles can offer us an insight into fifteenth-century perception. For our reading of the chronicles to be meaningful, however, we need an understanding of the chroniclers' processes, and of what the chroniclers perceived themselves to be doing. We must gauge their initial information concerning an event, their understanding of this, their selection of material and their process of writing such events down. In undertaking this task there are three central questions: how do the chroniclers perceive people; how do they present events; and how do they express ideas?

As the first generation of lay people in England commonly to record their history, the London chroniclers reflect an attempt to communicate in writing what was previously communicated through visual imagery. What might have been spoken was being written, and the chroniclers' interest was to create the same layers of understanding in written form as may have been

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