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Book of the Month

September 2001

The Chronicles of England 

St. Albans: c.1483

Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.2.17

An early printed version of the Prose Brut chronicle features as the September book of the month. Often cited as being the most popular secular work of the fifteenth century, this work served as the standard account of English history in both the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. 

3v: Fructus Temporum 

The chronicle is a comprehensive history of England from its first discovery and settlement through to the year 1461. The reigns of some 100 rulers of Britain are described in a chronological order. Chivalric in tone and displaying a fondness for vivid battle scenes, many mythical elements, such as the founding of Britain by Brutus (from which the title comes) and the King Arthur legend, are incorporated. It was intended to be read with pleasure, and its literary and dramatic qualities include a frequent use of direct speech, giving immediacy and a dramatic quality to a number of scenes. 

The text's popularity has been gauged from the large number of copies which have survived, with over 240 manuscript copies alone still being extant.  The fact that the work was also printed in thirteen editions before 1528 would seem to be further evidence of a demand for it. Of the manuscript copies, versions exist in the three major literary languages of medieval England: Latin, Anglo-Norman French and English. However, nearly three quarters of these are in English and it is argued that the proliferation of vernacular copies further demonstrates the Brut’s popularity with the laity.

The Brut was first printed by William Caxton in 1480 under the title The Chronicles of England. The St Albans edition is an extended version of the text, based upon Caxton’s first edition but interpolated throughout with a history of the Popes and ecclesiastical matters. The text is prefaced by a prologue on the use of history, while the main section begins with a ‘Fructus Temporum’ from the creation to Homer.

One of eight books produced in St Albans between 1479 and 1486, little is known about its printer except that Wynkyn de Worde referred to him as ‘sometyme scole master of Saynt Albans.’ There was a large Benedictine Abbey in St Albans at the time, and it is possible (especially in considering the religious matter incorporated into this text) that the Abbot had an interest in the press. The previous output of the press concentrated on religious and academic works in Latin. This switch to a popular vernacular work suggests that the press was trying to emulate Caxton's success in Westminster in producing a proven money-maker. This emulation extended to using a typeface similar to Caxton's, suggesting that there may even have been a connection between the two. Not long after, however, the St Albans venture ceased publishing altogether.  

iir: beginning of table of contents

6v: woodcut of the Tower of Babel 

As well as incorporating extra material, this book is different from Caxton's edition in several ways. Some of its titles, decorative capitals heading sections and paragraph marks are printed in red, for instance, while in Caxton's book these features were still being added by hand. It has a further innovation in the inclusion of some woodcut diagrams and illustrations in the opening section.  Two simple woodcuts of a tower and a castle are used to represent the Tower of Babel and London. The second is repeated to stand for Rome on folio 30v..

19v: woodcut of London 

This was also the first book printed in England to contain a printer’s mark; it consists of a double cross and orb with the arms of St Albans and it strikingly resembles the devices of the Italian printers. This device is unfortunately not found in our copy, since the original last page is now missing and supplied in manuscript facsimile.

204v and 205r: opening

This book is undated, but its production is generally attributed to about 1485. However, this date is now questioned since the prologue assigns the compilation of the text to 1483; furthermore, Sextus IV (who died on August 12 1484) is referred to as being the current pope in the text* (see update for more on the dating of the work).

204v: annotation

205r: annotation

19v: annotation

Our copy  is very heavily annotated throughout. The main hands at work are fairly late seventeenth/eighteenth-century readers, although there are also odd remarks from at least two earlier users of the book.  These annotations mainly paraphrase sections of text: they are sometimes quite lengthy and occasionally demonstrate an element of reader opinion or reaction to the work. Shown here are three typical examples of the reader interest found throughout - in the stories of battles, in the appearances of portents such as comets, and in antiquarian concerns such as etymology. The first is found in the section describing the battle of Halidon Hill of 1333: it is noted that 35712 Scots were slain and a later reader adds 'butt 14 English'. However unreliable and biased an account, it is interesting to consider that this text was still being used in a practical way for reading history some two hundred years after its production. 

109v: censorship and annotation

This copy is also noteworthy for an element of censorship in its consistent obliteration of the word ‘pope’ by means of heavy ink crossing out. On one occasion, some nine and a half lines referring to the female pope Joan are crossed out, only to be largely reinstated in the margin by a later hand. This is presumably the work of a politically sensitive reader following Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church. 

*Dating of text (update 2008): The Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century now in the British Library, Part XI, England (Hes & De Graaf, 2007) now suggests a date of c.1486 for the work, based on the the state of the type and use of initials being very similar to those in the Book of Hawking (St Albans: not before 1486) which suggests "a date not before but close to 1486" (p. 303).

The first printed edition of The Chronicles of England, published by William Caxton in 1480: Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.2.31; an edition produced by Wynkyn de Worde in 1528: Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.2.22.

Fifteenth-century manuscript versions of the Brut: MS Hunter 61 (T..2.19) (text up to 1419); MS Hunter 74 (T.3.12) (text up to 1419 with an incomplete continuation copied from Caxton up to 1461); MS Hunter 83 (T.3.21) (original text ending in 1419 augmented by a list of monarchs, a prologue, Fructus Temporum and table of contents copied from the St Albans edition, a continuation to 1461 based on the Polychronicon, and a copy of Warkworth's chronicle taking the text to 1474); MS Hunter 228 (U.3.1) (text ending in 1419 with a continuation to 1461 copied from Caxton's 1482 edition); MS Hunter 230 (U.3.3) (text ending in 1419); Hunter 443 (V.5.13) (text ending in 1419).


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Julie Coleman September 2001