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Chaucer and English Maritime Culture

There is something of the sea inherent in English identity. After all, the ocean makes up over 90% of England’s borders, it has long dictated external political and military policy, and defined mercantile activity.  Throughout the middle ages, the sea enabled England’s engagement in everything from international politics to the exchange of ideas, from commercial fishing and the wool trade that made her rich. Englishmen crossed the oceans as merchants, mercenaries, fishermen, warriors, and diplomats to foreign ports and courts, while in turn continental traders and dignitaries were frequent visitors to busy southern cities such as London and Canterbury. So it should be of little surprise that the sea would have a presence in the conversations of, say, thirty pilgrims making their way London to Canterbury. Likewise, it is unsurprising that Geoffrey Chaucer, that adept observer of fourteenth-century English culture, should provide some commentary on the role of the sea in English life within The Canterbury Tales.

If you are familiar with The Tales, I anticipate you will immediately think of one of the pilgrims: the Shipman. If you are not familiar with Chaucer’s opus, it is perhaps best characterised as a collection of stories, loosely held together by a framing narrative in which a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury engage in a story-telling competition. The Shipman is one of these pilgrims, not a character of one of the tales. For our purposes here, the tale he tells is of less interest than the storyteller, and what his character can tell us of a fourteenth-century English man of the sea. The Shipman gives little away in the opening passages of The Tales to give us insight into his status, but later he is referred to as a ‘ship’s master’ and ‘mariner.’ While the term ‘shipman’ itself is a little generic, the ship’s master resides in the upper echelons of the seaboard community. Though unlikely to have owned his own ship or been a direct investor, we can expect our Shipman, as a ship’s master, held direct financial control over the trading ventures while at sea and in foreign ports (unless one of the owners travelled with the expedition).

chaucer - shipman
‘The Shipman’ – from Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9 f. 72r.

A ship’s master held broad authority to make independent decisions regarding the venture, providing the necessary flexibility to cope with the unforeseen that so often occurs during seafaring. Thus, a good master was well in demand. But our Shipman may have been more of the middling sort. He rides a cart-horse, he wears plain simple clothes, he carries a dagger. That both his cloak and weapon are almost certainly imported speaks to the mariner’s peripatetic life, but nothing in his kit demonstrates any great wealth (though he has sufficient funds to undertake his pilgrimage). Let’s leave him there for a moment though.  The Shipman is not alone in The Talesin providing insight into English maritime culture and practices. We will also be taking a look at Man of Law’s Tale, a narrative that provides some insight on how the English perceived themselves in relation to both the ocean, and their place in the wider world.

The Man of Law’s Tale focuses on the person of one Constance – daughter of the Roman emperor. Historically (if we dare try to locate the narrative within a historical timeline), the events are set in the late sixth century, based on the presence of King Ælla of Deira in the narrative. At the start of the story, reports of Constance’s beauty have made their way to the ears of a Saracen sultan via Syrian merchants. The sultan and the emperor negotiate a marriage which requires the sultan’s conversion to Christianity; the sultan’s mother is not a fan, and (to cut a long story short) Constance is set adrift at sea washing up on the shores of Northumbria. Constance performs a few miracles, converts Ælla, marries him, and bears a son; Ælla’s mother is not a fan, and (to cut a long story short) Constance is set adrift at sea washing up on the shores of Spain. Constance performs a few miracles, is found by a senator returning from Syria, returns to Italy in his household, reunites with Ælla (who comes on pilgrimage to Rome), returns to Northumbria, their son becomes king. Huzzah!

The tale has a number of notable features and tropes, but the geographical breadth of Constance’s travels is particularly remarkable. Now, we should not suppose that Chaucer sat with a map of the Mediterranean before him as he wrote the Man of Law’s Tale. The geography and topography of the tale are deliberately obscure, and Chaucer’s intent is to ascribe the very randomness of Constance’s drifting at sea to the demonstration God’s guiding hand. Yet, setting aside the implausibility of Constance surviving these journeys alone and ill-equipped, such travels by sea were fundamentally plausible. Moreover, Chaucer shows a familiarity with sea-charts and mappae mari or at least the tradition that informed them, referencing both the Sea of Greece and the Strait of Morocco in Constance’s journey to Northumbria, and Gibraltar and Ceuta in her return journey.

higden mappa mundi
Mappa Mundi attributed to Ranulf Higden c. 1350, BL Royal MS C.IX f. v1-r.2

Sea-charts may need a little explaining, as our perception of medieval maps is often limited to the famous but stylised mappae mundi – many of which were contemporary with Chaucer’s time. The mappae mundi were attempts to depict the entire world, as perceived by the medieval understanding of geography, and in so doing sought to represent the scale of the known lands, but not their representation in space. In contrast, sea charts were more localised and intended to depict coastlines in such a manner to help mariners navigate between ports. It is this tradition Chaucer accesses, and he is clearly aware that such navigation is largely coastal – fourteenth-century English mariners were not bravely pointing their bows to the open ocean. We see this demonstrated in the Shipman’s boast that he: ‘knew all the havens, as they were, from Gotland to the cape of Finisterre, and every creek in Britain and in Spain.’ It is apparent that the Shipman was used to navigating the European coasts, believing he knew every safe place and port for his ship throughout Britain and from Denmark to Spain.

14th c. portolan chart (mediterranean)
Portolan chart made by a pilot of Genoa c. 1320, Library of Congress G5672.M4P5 13– .P6

So where did Chaucer gain such insights into maritime practices? Firstly, Chaucer travelled. Certainly as a soldier to France in his youth, likely as an ambassador to Italy, and possibly as a pilgrim to Spain. As such, Chaucer had personal experience of the mariner’s trade. But more than this, Chaucer’s life outside his works demonstrates that ubiquity of the sea to England. Chaucer was transported across the Chanel as a soldier pursuing the crown’s martial endeavours, then he was sent through the Strait of Gibraltar as a diplomat to pursue the crown’s political aims, then he embarked on a voyage to Spain as a private citizen for the benefit of his soul. Secondly, Chaucer’s position as comptroller of the customs port in London required regular interaction with seafarers. Chaucer’s Shipman is precisely so interesting to modern readers because he is so well observed, built upon the poet’s own experience with the maritime traders. Thirdly, Chaucer seems to have had access to both sea charts and travel literature – a result of both his roles as comptroller and patronised author. The Mediterranean and the pilgrimage routes from London to places like Rome are well attested in both sea charts and travel literature, being some of the most regularly traverse sea-routes. There is little reason to doubt Chaucer drew on this tradition in including the geographical references we noted in the accounts Constance’s journeys.

We shouldn’t understand Chaucer’s experiences with the sea as unique (though the extent of his travels may well have been so). Many other young Englishmen travelled to the continent as soldiers in the fourteenth-century. The English crown had many diplomats of various standings to send to continental European courts and cities. While those with the means often engaged in pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago de Compostela or other such destinations. And this does not take into account the more everyday interactions with the sea represented by trading and fishing. The sea connected England to Europe on many levels. For this reason, the sea is undeniably present in the culture of fourteenth-century England as represented in The Tales, and we are fortunate to have in Chaucer an observer with some familiarity with maritime culture and practices. Yet, as a closing note to this rather brief sketch of the sea in The Tales, I want to highlight how prosaic the depictions of the sea and travels upon it are, both in the Shipman’s prologue and the Man of Law’s Tale. The sea is almost something of an unremarkable background character, merely a conveyance facilitating the actions of a character or events at a destination. It speaks to the sheer ubiquity of the sea to fourteenth-century English culture, to the people of an island at the edge of European civilisation.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Treaty of Amiens, National Archives E 30/1113.
  2. Alfred Hiatt, ‘“From Hulle to Cartage”: Maps, England, and the Sea,’ in The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages, edited by Sebastian I. Sobecki, pp. 133-58.
  3. Craig Lambert and Andrew Ayton, ‘The Mariner in Fourteenth-Century England,’ Fourteenth Century England 7 (2012), pp. 153-76.
  4. William Sayers, ‘Chaucer’s Shipman and the Law Marine,’ The Chaucer Review 37 (no. 2, 2002), pp. 145-58.
  5. Scott D. Westrem, ‘Geography and Travel,’ in A Companion to Chaucer, edited by Peter Brown, pp. 195-217.

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Owain and the Giant Herdsman – Identifying Celtic Mythology in the Mabinogion

The tale Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain, Knight of the Lion) is simultaneously one of the most famous of the Arthurian romances, and one of the more bizarre. In essence the hero marries the ‘Lady of the Fountain,’ a somewhat awkward situation given that he was also the man who killed her previous husband. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Yvain falls prey to the ‘knight errant’ trope, and subsequently loses his wife when he favours the life of an adventuring warrior. He mopes, he finds a lion, he undertakes heroic tasks with lion in tow, he regains the hand of said Lady of the Fountain. This tale as it comes to us in written form is 12th c., composed by Chrétien of Troy. However, this French version of the romance is not the only extant version with, for example, Norse, Swedish, and German versions of the tale. Interestingly though, in these divergent traditions can be identified – those based on Chrétien’s Yvain, and those adapted from the tale Owain found in the Welsh collection known as the Mabinogion. It is this version of the tale I want to focus on today, examining what, if anything, is preserved of Celtic mythology within the Welsh romances (using Owain as a case-study).

The tales of the Mabinogion, though Welsh, are not implicitly so. When comparing our focus text Owain as found in the Mabinogion with Chrétien’s Yvain, questions arise as to the source of the written Welsh version. While we can say with some certainty that, as an oral saga, the story is Welsh in origin, the written version has some notably French attributes and style in comparison with the rest of the tales of the Mabinogion. While the relationship between Owain and Yvain can be difficult to assess because of their inconsistencies, it can be said without doubt that they both draw on native Celtic materials, and thematically, Owain does not differ greatly from other tales in the Mabinogion. However, along with Peredur and Gereint, the other two romances of the Mabinogion, Owein appears more genteel than the earlier tales, overlaid with continental notions of chivalry. At which point it is worth looking at some parallel passages, and I have specifically selected the introduction of ‘the black man’ (or Giant Herdsman), as it allows us some interesting speculation around the transmission and sources of ideas within Celtic mythology.

…on that mound you will see a great black man, no smaller than two men of this world. He has one foot, and one eye in the middle of his forehead, and he carries and iron spear that would be a burden for any two men. Though ugly, he is not an unpleasant man. He is the keeper of the forest, and you will see a thousand wild animals grazing around him.

(Owain, The Mabinogion)

…a churl, who looks like a Moor, tall and hideous beyond measure (so passing ugly a creature no mouth could describe) I saw him sitting on a stump, a great club in his hand … His hair was in tufts … He was clad in a garment so strange, for he had neither linen nor wool, but fastened to his neck two hides newly flayed from two bulls … He was seventeen feet in height. He declared that he was master of the beasts.

(Chrétien of Troy, Yvain)

It is Kynon (the knight who introduces ‘the Black Knight’ into Arthurian lore) who furnishes this description. And it is probably worth acknowledging that Kynon’s description of the Giant Herdsman in relating this tale to Owain and Kei identifies a figure closely resembling that of Odin in Norse mythology. I’ll return to that point, but it does raise further speculation as to the story’s inspirations. Likewise, that all our written sources for the Mabinogion date to after the Christianisation of the Britons should make us pause to question what can be found in these texts that actually pertain to pre-textual Celtic traditions and mythology.

The extant Norse and Swedish accounts of Owain appear to be versions of the Welsh tale adapted to their cultures. In his 1968 edition of Owain, RL Thomson compares the French Yvain with the Welsh tale as well as the Norse tale, which is known to draw upon Chrétien’s work (though not necessarily directly). Thomson arrived at the conclusion that while Owain is in fact a copy of Yvain (though the idea of it being a ‘copy’ is no longer held to be true so much as it being a Welsh reworking of Yvain), the Norse account drew upon the Welsh tale. The suggestion then is that the original version crossed the France as an oral narrative, changing and adapting over time until it arrived at Chrétien, who rewrote it further. From this point the story progressed to other regions such as Germany, as well as returning to the British Isles, from where it was in turn re-transmitted to regions such as Scandinavia. It is a complicated transmission history, however the important thing to note here is that, as a result of this progression, the Welsh tale as we know it has come to us via a French medium.

However, the evolution of the Owain narrative should not be attributed solely to the transition from oral to written source across cultures. The nature of the tale, and specifically the folkloric elements within it, were undoubtedly altered by the Christianisation of the Celtic world through the first millennium undoubtedly changed. While the Giant Herdsman appears to be a figure drawn straight from mythology with no clear Christian analogue, just prior to describing him, Kynon makes mention of ‘Christmas or Easter at Mass’ – evidence of the overall Christian milieu of this Celtic tale. Yet, regardless if these issues, certain important motifs appear to have remained consistent over time, and one such is the image of the Giant Herdsman.

So what of pre-Christian belief can possibly reside in a 14th c. Welsh Christian version of a French romance? Well there is some suggestion that the Giant Herdsman is a very important figure in Celtic mythology with his effigy appearing numerous times throughout the Celtic world, and that he may in fact be a protean god. Moreover, it is not difficult to find analogous figures in other mythological worlds. Perhaps most interesting is the correlation between the one-legged, one-eyed, spear-wielding giant with tales and descriptions we have of both the Scandinavian god Odin, and his Tuatha De Danann equivalent, Lug.

Although there may be some corresponding background between Nordic and Celtic religious cults, which would explain the relation between Lug and Odin as similar non-classical figures as heads of their pantheons, most scholars agree that this Giant Herdsman has no relation to Odin. It is not unusual to find similar gods across pantheons as cultures inter-mingled, adopting and adapting elements of other belief-systems. Most interesting to us here is the parallel with Lug in the description that he ‘sang this chant below, as he went around the men of Erin, on one foot and with one eye.’ While Lug was perfect in every physical feature, this contrasting rather markedly from the ugly Herdsman, in the description of his strange behaviour, he is portrayed as acting in a manner very much like the Herdsman. The parallel of the weapon is also notable; the Giant Herdsman has an iron spear, a weapon he shares with Lug, whose magical spear never misses its target. Within Celtic mythology the spear is not an everyday weapon (at least an iron spear is not), it is a weapon of nobility. Which raises further questions as to the nature of this Giant Herdsman.

The motifs of the one eye and one leg have been given some scholarly consideration and are believed to have meaning other than a simple grotesque description of the Herdsman. Let’s start with the single eye. Lug, in the battle of Mag Tuireadh takes out the one of Balor (the Fomorian champion).  This is often thought to represent the replacement of one form of solar worship with that of the radiant Lug, who as previously mentioned, is described in one aspect as having a in a single eye form. We can take this thought one step further if we bring in the Arthurian tale of Kilhwch in which one of Arthur’s companions, Sol, had the peculiar ability to stand on one foot all day long. The fact that the author used the name Sol, meaning sun, rather than the more common name of Sul, seems to indicate again a sun motif. Furthermore, another of the Great Herdsmen of Celtic mythology is found in the tale The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. Fer Caille is described as a great black man bearing an iron spear. He is of surpassing size and ugliness, with but one eye and one leg and he, like the giant in Owain, is master of the animals in his domain. This Giant Herdsman, who so closely parallels that found in Owain, makes his stand in Da Derga’s Hostel in front of the fire. The motifs associated with these Giant Herdsmen seem to demonstrate an affiliation with fire and the sun throughout the corpus of Celtic literature, and there is an argument to be made that the Herdsman of Owain was a widespread Celtic conception of the anthropomorphised sun.

Such a theory of the Giant Herdsman makes redundant the idea that these tales lost all connection to the ancient Celtic peoples. Though the text progressed from Celtic oral tradition to Frankish literature and ultimately back to Wales where it was further adapted, certain core realities of the text remained the same. Not the least of these is the image of the Giant Herdsman, this significant figure in Celtic mythology and core character in the story of Owain did not lose its fundamental significance, despite its journey toward literature. It is also important to mention that a one-eyed, one-legged, and often one-handed monster survives in modern Irish and Gaelic folklore under the name of Fachan. Thus, the concept of the Giant Herdsman found in Celtic mythology and in Owain continues through to modern folklore. Whether or not the theory that it is a representation of a sun god is correct, the image of the Giant Herdsman has definite meaning behind it and is an important motif as we seek to explore and understand Celtic mythology.

Owain’s Giant Herdsman may or may not be the anthropomorphised sun, he may or may not be an aspect of the god Lug – these are theories very much still open to debate. Yet the fact remains that the one-legged, one-eyed image repeats itself so often through Celtic mythology that it points to an underlying conceptual importance. Despite any criticism of the validity of Owain and the other romances of The Mabinogion as artefacts of pre-Christian Celtic beliefs (due to the trans-cultural and trans-religious nature of their transmission), it seems certain they preserve cultural motifs that represent ideas held to be important by the ancient Celts.

Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Manuscript image of Owain and the lion greeting his lady, unknown manuscript.
  2. John Carey, A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth, 1999.
  1. J. Gruffydd, Folklore and Myth in the Mabinogion, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1958.
  2. Gwyn Jones and Arthur Jones (trans.), The Mabinogion, JM Dent and Sons, London 1949.
  3. Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Constable & co., London 1926.
  4. L. Thomson, Owein, Institiúid Árd-Léinn Bhaile Átha Cliath, Dublin, 1968.

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The Battle of Bannockburn: English Arrogance and the Failure of Edward II

Edward I is considered by many to be the mightiest warrior and most formidable leader of the Plantagenet kings; which, considering the competition, is an impressive feat. So, the question has to be asked: with such a formidable background, how on earth was his son so utterly dreadful at both kingship, and warfare? Did he simply not care? Was he distracted? Did he lack the support of his lords and nobles? Is his opposition not given enough credit? Or was he simply weak and incompetent? Now, rather than attempting to directly answer all of these questions, this article endeavours to provide an overview of the situation in Scotland, and of the Battle of Bannockburn, and in doing so, will leave the decision up to you. Continue reading The Battle of Bannockburn: English Arrogance and the Failure of Edward II

A Scribe’s Life (3) – Snorri Sturluson

This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: Snorri Sturluson
Lived c. 1179 – 1241
Location: Reykholt, Iceland
Notable works:
Prose Edda – literary work, mythological narrative, and poetics guide
Heimskringla (History of the Norwegian Kings) – political chronicle
Egils saga (?) – Icelandic family saga/warrior-poet narrative

Of all the historians and scribes this series will be covering, there are few who will have such a prominent life outside of their written works than the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. He is almost certainly the only historian we will be covering with the political agency to directly disobey a king and be assassinated for his temerity. Unfortunately, Snorri’s own fascinating story and contentious political life is generally subordinated in the popular consciousness to his most famous work, the Prose Edda, a text simultaneously praised as our primary source for much of what we know of Old Norse mythology, and condemned refracting that mythology through the lens of Christianity. But to construe Snorri’s legacy as being the Prose Edda, and construe the Prose Edda as being a flawed recollection of pre-Christian belief, is more than a little reductionist and not really fair on either.

Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (3) – Snorri Sturluson

Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

There is nothing like a good outlaw story, they tend to contain some very enjoyable motifs – a trickster hero, feats of derring-do, vengeance, comeuppance and, usually, some interesting female characters. A bit of recent Twitter chatter (here and here) have brought to mind a couple of strong women in two Icelandic outlaw sagas – Auð Vesteinsdottir of Gísla saga Súrssonar and Thorbjorg ‘the Stout’ in Grettis saga. So today I thought we would take a look at these two women, and their roles in the male-dominated Icelandic society in which law, feud, and honour created and pursued outlaws. Strong female characters can be found all throughout Old Norse literature – it is one of the things that makes the sagas so pleasurable to read, and speaks to a culture in which women were able to exercise some personal agency. Auð and Thorbjorg are excellent examples of this agency and we will focus on them as such – the broader topic of women in Old Norse society would be a book-length study (which happily Jenny Jochens has provided). Continue reading Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

A Scribe’s Life (2): John of Worcester

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.

-Matt Firth


  1. 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…There are monkeys
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. and trans. Marjorie Chibnall, 6 vols., vol. 2, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968–1980.
  5. Thomas Forester, trans. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester with the two continuations. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854.
  6. M. Thomson, William of Malmesbury, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2003.

 If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

A Scribe’s Life (1): William of Malmesbury

A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

See our bibliographies on Biographical Studies and Chronicle Editions