Meet the greatest and most outlandish chronicler of the Middle Ages
PUBLISHED: 11:12 23 October 2020 | UPDATED: 11:22 23 October 2020
Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Enter St Albans Cathedral in the 13th century and you would have found one of the most important figures of the age, the outspoken Matthew Paris
Christmas with the King doesn’t immediately sound like the social engagement you would expect for a Benedictine monk, but wind the clock back to the early 13th century and for one particularly colourful religious figure, a royal invitation was nothing out of the norm.
Matthew Paris took his vows at St Albans Abbey on 21 January 1217, and while nothing is known of his early life, it is thought he was born around 1200 and may have studied in Paris. By the time of his death in 1259, Brother Matthew had created a unique body of work that still resonates around the world, celebrated at the abbey (now cathedral) in 2017 by an exhibition to mark the 800th anniversary of his arrival in this hallowed Herts space.
On admission to the monastery, young Matthew was assigned to train under chronicler Roger of Wendover, who kept written records of local events and people. Most monastery chroniclers remain anonymous, their writings of no particular significance outside their local community, but Matthew’s legacy would be different.
‘Other monastic orders such as Cistercians were located in quiet countryside and did not welcome guests,’ explains Gail Thomas, a volunteer guide at St Albans Cathedral with a special interest in Paris and his work. ‘But Benedictines were open to the outside world and had guest houses where they were instructed to treat every guest as though they were Christ.’
The Benedictine community in St Albans stood at the heart of a busy market town and place of pilgrimage to Britain’s first Christian martyr, Alban, so many people passed through, some of them highly influential, and people from all walks of life moved through the surrounding streets. In 1201, Roger of Wendover began to record this buzzing local scene in a work entitled Flores historiarum (Flowers of History). When Roger died in 1235, Matthew – immediately promoted to Brother Chronicler – incorporated his tutor’s record into his own Chronica Majora and, for the next 24 years, brought his own inimitable style to what would become a work of national importance.
‘Matthew’s voice and personality really shine through,’ Gail says. ‘He wrote copiously about the people who passed through the abbey guest house and as his reputation spread, so more people came, hoping to be written up by this great chronicler. But they were often putting their own reputations on the line. Paris was extremely outspoken and could be quite horrible about people. He describes one member of the clergy as having a belly like a bladder in frosty weather!’
Paris wrote copious accounts of life in the medieval market town, but the scope of his chronicles went far beyond local boundaries, even though he travelled little himself. Apart from a year-long mission to a Norwegian abbey and visits to the royal court in Westminster, he rarely left St Albans. But the town was the first major stopping point for travellers heading north and Brother Matthew recorded travellers’ tales from far and wide. And his his talents didn’t stop at writing.
An expert artist, he illustrated all his work with painstaking drawing and paintings, adding little maps and shields in the margins. ‘These often indicate a particular event,’ explains Gail, who became fascinated by Paris when studying for a masters in medieval studies. ‘A famous one appears in [his record of] 1000AD where Matthew gives an account of the death of William Rufus. Readers will find his shield hanging upside down in the margin, signifying death, and underneath, a bow and arrow reminding us that he was shot in the New Forest.’
Paris had many talents and was also very well connected, being on very friendly terms with Henry III and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Not that the friendship gave them immunity from Matthew’s strong opinions. But they clearly influenced his work.
‘Paris produced some incredible maps, including longitudinal maps that would take you on a virtual pilgrimage from St Albans Abbey to the Holy Land with castles and abbeys drawn along the way,’ says Gail. ‘You started at the bottom of one page, “walked” up to the top of the page, turned over, and so on. We think Paris must have learned the route from Richard of Cornwall who had taken part in a crusade.’
Matthew’s itinerary maps from London to Palestine are viewable online at britishlibrary.co.uk, as well as his groundbreaking maps of Britain that include some 250 names of towns, hills and rivers. Drawn some 300 years before triangulation made accurate surveying possible, they are thought to have been based on information from travellers, as well as on Roman maps. However he did it, Paris was the first person to portray the physical appearance of Great Britain rather than represent the relationship between places in simple diagrams. Before him, maps were orientated with east at the top, but he found that Britain fits better on the page with north at the top, so he could well have started that enduring convention.
Also viewable online at the British Library is his Book of Additions, the first to depict heraldic shields of the British nobility. He also produced an illustrated history of the Benedictines of St Albans Abbey, Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani (The Deeds of the Abbots of the Monastery of St Albans), and several biographies including Saint Alban, Saint Thomas Becket, and Edward the Confessor.
‘Written in medieval French, his Vie de seint Auban is closely guarded by Trinity College, Dublin, so I felt enormously privileged to take a look at it,’ says Gail with obvious delight. ‘It’s spine-tingling to think that Paris wrote and illustrated it within our own abbey scriptorium.’
Eight centuries on, Brother Matthew’s output provides a unique take on life between 1235 and 1259. Not just local or even national events, but international too. He may have led a monastic life but he met the movers and shakers of the age, regularly mixed with royalty, and was never afraid to voice his opinions and prejudices on everything from foreigners to friars, the monarchy to the monasteries. How, for instance, were the Dominicans at Dunstable able to pay for the building of a comfortable house, while claiming voluntary poverty? The author’s contempt was abundantly clear.
Paris was prone to exaggeration and not always entirely reliable, a cross between a historian and a columnist. But his extensive writing and evocative illustrations captured the atmosphere of the age in a way that no other writer had done before. And today, visitors to St Albans Abbey can take specialist tours with expert guides to walk in his medieval footsteps.
‘Head down the south transept toward the shrine of St Alban, for instance, and if you look up, you’ll see a change in the vaulting,’ reveals Gail. ‘There used to be a treasury up there and the roof leaked, so the monks put a bucket underneath. One day the roof caught fire in a thunderstorm and Paris was quick to record that the monks already had a bucket of water to hand! A snapshot of monastic life by a man who clearly had a sense of humour.’
So next time you visit Hertfordshire’s glorious cathedral, take time to read about Paris on the touch screen near the entrance; pick up a postcard of his artwork in the abbey bookshop; and do join a guided tour. And as you walk between the ancient walls, maybe wonder too what new material Brother Matthew gleaned for his chronicle over royal Christmas lunch in Winchester. No doubt King Henry and friends were on their very best behaviour!
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