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

By Mary-Rose McLaren | Go to book overview

3

The Manuscripts of the London Chronicles

The fifteenth century was a time of extensive vernacular chronicle writing, with the Brut chronicle and more particularly for our purposes, the extensive general interest in London chronicle writing. The extant texts we have are merely the tip of the iceberg. This is clear from the number of texts, their errors, and the relationships they imply. Furthermore, chronicle writing in the fifteenth century was no longer an exclusively monastic or Latin exercise. Almost the contrary would appear to be true. The London chronicles were written by ordinary residents of London, most of them probably merchants; they were kept in libraries and in private homes; they were written in English and they were full of local and secular concerns. In order to build a picture of this context, the manuscripts of the London chronicles and their inter-relationships must be discussed.

We have forty-four extant manuscripts, many of which are related in one way or another to each other. We may presume that hundreds, perhaps thousands, were written. We may speculate that some of these lost manuscripts would have provided obvious links between the texts we have. Others would have been quite independent. Entire groupings of texts may have been destroyed. 1

The following discussion places the extant London chronicle texts into groups. It is an attempt to show the breadth of London chronicle writing and to prompt the reader to consider the enormous industry of literacy underpinning fifteenth-century London. This is an essential part of the study, exploring the construction of the chronicle texts and their relationships to one another. The degree to which the London chronicle texts are similar and the enormous range of differences between them, tells us a great deal about the London chronicle 'genre' and how it was understood and used by those writing the chronicles.

The essential criterion used in determining the manuscript groups as they are outlined in this chapter has been similarity of wording. The manuscripts of the London chronicles display many slight variations which commonly occur in the transmission of texts. 2 There are changes or corrections, substitutions and inversions of words and phrases, misread or badly

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1
The two stemma in Appendix 1 are an attempt to provide a visual representation of the extant chronicles relationships to one another. They are not an attempt to postulate lost texts. Such an exercise would constitute a study in itself and would be unlikely to bring us to a better understanding of the extant texts.
2
Typical errors of textual transmission are discussed with reference to fifteenth-century vernacular romance by Nicholas Jacobs, 'The Processes of Scribal Substitution and Redaction. A Study of the Cambridge Fragment of Sir Degarre', MA, 53 (1984), pp. 26―48.

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