This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.
Scribe: John of Worcester
Lived: c.1075 – 1140
Location: Worcester Priory
Notable works: Chronicon ex chronicis
John of Worcester was a contemporary of William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, and Henry of Huntingdon (among others) and, while it may be fair to say that his name is lesser known of this esteemed company, his Chronicon is an important and unique source of English history. John’s chronicle provides much in both content and approach to differentiate it from other contemporary histories, while at the same time being invaluable for the evidence it provides of inter-connected networks of scholarship in post-Conquest England. Naturally, the Chronicon finds its greatest direct historical value in its record of post-Conquest history, as this was the cultural milieu in which John operated. However, John was an excellent scholar and the work he did in compiling a history of Anglo-Saxon England from varied sources, grafting it to material relating to broader Western European history, is masterful. (Almost all the work I do with John’s Chronicon relates to pre-Conquest history). Yet for many, John’s name is more likely to evoke the spectre of an ongoing scholarly debate than it is a hard-working scribe and historian, a scholar thought of highly by Orderic, and a correspondent of William, with whom he exchanged sources. You see, until quite recently, the Chronicon was believed to be primarily the work of Florence of Worcester, based on this entry for the year 1118:
Dom Florence of Worcester, a monk of that monastery, died on the 7th July. His acute observation, and laborious and diligent studies have rendered this chronicle of chronicles [chronica ex chronicis] above all others.
I use this particular translation from 1854 by Thomas Forester as it says something of the historical consensus over recent centuries that Florence was the author of this work. Forester starts the 1118 entry on a new page, titled ‘A Continuation of the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester,’ and opens the specific passage on Florence’s death with the heading ‘Death of the Author of the Chronicle.’ He’s editorialising a little here. The quoted passage is the only evidence to support the attribution of the Chronicon to Florence, with the presumption being that Florence compiled a history of the world from creation to 1117, with John taking over to chronicle the year 1118-1140. However, this hasn’t stood up to scrutiny for four key reasons. I’ll address these one-by-one, and as we go we’ll also look at some of the structural elements of the Chronicon. We’ll also take a look at what we know of John’s life, but he remains a somewhat illusive historical figure and, as a result, much of his biography concerns the text he devoted so much of his life writing.
Let’s turn first to a quote from Orderic Vitalis, as it is really the only contemporary biographical reference we have for John, who lacks William of Malmesbury’s proclivity for introspection and self-reference in his writings.
John, an Englishman by birth who entered the monastery of Worcester as a boy and won great repute for his learning and piety, continued the chronicle of Marianus Scotus and carefully recorded the events of William’s reign and of his sons William Rufus and Henry up to the present … John, at the command of the venerable Wulfstan bishop and monk, added to these chronicles events of about a hundred years, by inserting a brief and valuable summary of many deeds of the Romans and Franks, Germans and other peoples whom he knew…
This passage gives a small insight into a perhaps unremarkable clerical life. Entering an abbey at a young age was not unusual, and it is likely that John was a younger son of a family of some means. In this his start was quite similar to William of Malmesbury’s and, like William, John may have already had the foundations of an education before entering the monastery as he clearly showed some promise early on. So, it was to John that the task of constructing the Chronicon was given by Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester (and the last living pre-Conquest bishop).
Which brings us to the first piece of evidence pointing to John’s authorship of the Chronicon. Wulfstan died in 1095 and, if Orderic is correct in asserting that John received his commission from the bishop, that was given to him at a minimum of 23 years before Florence’s death. This clearly implies that John did not only take over the role of chronicler from 1118. But there is a little loop-hole here. Orderic may have visited Worcester as late as 1124. In a way this is helpful: Orderic visited Worcester within John’s lifetime and he describes an historian who was composing a chronicle that sounds remarkably like our Chronicon (as we shall see). This means Orderic learned of John’s scholarly pursuits first hand in Worcester as they were being undertaken, from John himself I would like to think. However, it is notable that Orderic’s knowledge stems from a period as much as six years after Florence’s death. This creates a time-line that allows that John may simply have been composing the material that has traditionally been attributed to him. Orderic’s record that John wrote the full text at the behest of the long-dead bishop may simply be ignorance of the fact the undertaking has passed from Florence to John, an authorial simplification of events, or just plain confusion. Nonetheless, this is but one element in a web of evidence that points to John as our scribe.
So we turn to our second piece of evidence: John’s sources. Orderic notes that John was continuing the work of Marianus Scotus, and there is little doubt that this history of the world from creation to 1076 formed the structural basis of the Chronicon. Marianus was an Irish monk who will probably get his own article down the track. His history was well-known throughout the Middle Ages, and William of Malmesbury records that a copy of it was brought to England by the Bishop of Hereford. This copy was likely that from which John was working, and it is probable that Wulfstan requested a copy be made for Worcester as part of the same commission in which he ordered that it be developed and adapted to include the lives of the Norman kings of England. This makes a great deal of sense as, from the sixth century, a reasonable amount of material relating to the history of England is grafted to Marianus’ work, drawn from English sources.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle features, of course, though it is of note that he may have been working from a non-extant version as there are some features unique to John and William of Malmesbury’s histories. Either both had access to a copy of the same source, or they shared the text – we do know that William twice visited Worcester, and exchanged materials with John. John also used Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica as a source, and relied heavily on Asser’s Life of Alfred for events of the late ninth century. Further, he drew upon numerous saints’ lives and borrowed material from Eadmer of Canterbury’s Historia Novorum. The last is the important source for us establishing John’s credentials as author.
Eadmer’s Historia Novorum deals with the history of England from the Conquest to 1122, with a focus on ecclesiastical matters. John’s Chronicon had rather broader ambitions and did not limit itself to the history of the English church. Yet ecclesiastical history and politics were ubiquitous to the fabric of society, and John necessarily integrated these within the narrative of the Chronicon where appropriate and, for this, the Historia Novorum was a critical source. Interestingly, entries incorporating passages from the Historia begin appearing in the the Chronicon from 1102, yet Eadmer did not complete the Historia until 1122 – 4 years after Florence’s death. This indicates that entries from 1102 on were all authored after 1122, and moreover demonstrates that Florence could not have be writing the Chronicon up to his death.
Our third bit of evidence that John was the author of the Chronicon is a little more subjective, but generally accepted by historians. In essence, the continuation of the Chronicon between the death of Florence and that of John in 1140 shows no change in either style of writing nor historical approach. It seems a small matter and there is an argument that were John Florence’s understudy it would be logical for him to follow his master’s methodologies. However, to follow them so precisely and not bring any innovation or individualism to the processes of inquiry and writing, especially given the variation of expression available in Latin composition, would be unusual.
And fourthly and lastly, our chief manuscript, Oxford Corpus Christi College MS 157, has John all over it. In the entry for 1138 John seems to accept responsibility for the whole project, stating ‘if John has in any way committed an error, let the reader correct it.’ And John took his own advice! If we presume, as most scholars have, that this manuscript was a copy prepared for John from the material he had previously written and compiled over the years to 1128, it is of little surprise that John went through it with an editor’s eye. John’s own hand, if we understand the above passage as self-identification, filled in the annals in this manuscript from 1128 to 1140, and then went back through the expansive history and made corrections and annotations throughout.
And so the pendulum has swung toward John in recent years and Florence has faded into the background. You will find Florence’s defenders, and you will also find historians who hedge their bets with a Florence/John. The truth is, both men remains somewhat illusive, as do their roles in the compilation of the Chronicon. There is little doubt that Florence was involved as John gave him quite the eulogy, yet it is also clear that Florence could not have made any entries after the year 1102 and, stylistically, it appears that the entire document was authored by a single scribe. I think it is probably fair to assert that John had oversight of the entire project, and Florence was an integral member of the Worcester scriptorium and an able scholar in his own right who assisted John in his undertaking.
Which is where we will leave John (and Florence), unfortunately we lack a cracking quote to end on as William of Malmesbury provided us! John is one of our scribes for whom we are a little light-on for biographical information, so next time I will be back with someone with some serious back-story to make up for it: Snorri Sturluson.
- Feature image: Yale Beinecke MS 229 f. 272v – an illustration from a 13th collection of Arthurian Romances. Two notes, first that the quality of digitisation provided to Yale manuscripts is exemplary and certainly worth highlighting. Second, and apropos of nothing, is that in the marginalia above our feature image in the manuscript we get this fabulous little scene…
- Martin Brett, ‘John of Worcester and his Contemporaries’, in The Writing of History in the Middle Ages. Edited by R. H. C. Davis and J. M. Wallace-Hadrill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 101–126.
- R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: Volume II: The Annals from 450 to 1066, trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
- Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. and trans. Marjorie Chibnall, 6 vols., vol. 2, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968–1980.
- Thomas Forester, trans. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester with the two continuations. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854.
- M. Thomson, William of Malmesbury, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2003.
If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts: