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Matthew Paris

Benedictine monk and chronicler, b. about 1200; d. 1259

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Paris, MATTHEW, Benedictine monk and chronicler, b. about 1200; d. 1259. There seems no reason to infer from the name by which he was commonly known that this famous English historian was directly connected with Paris either by birth or education. He became a monk at St. Albans on January 21, 1217, and St. Albans remained his home until his death. We know, however, that on occasion he moved about freely, visiting London and the Court, and one memorable episode of his life took him as visitor with full powers to the Abbey of St. Benet Holm in Norway where he remained nearly a year. Simple monk as he was, Matthew seems always to have been treated as a personage of consideration. In his journey to Norway he was the bearer of letters from St. Louis of France to Haakon IV, inviting the Norwegian king to join the crusade. Haakon subsequently became his personal friend and we have much evidence in Matthew’s own writings of the intimate terms upon which he stood with the English king, Henry III, and with his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall. From them and from the members of their household the chronicler must have derived that wide, if not always quite accurate, acquaintance with the details of foreign contemporary history in which Matthew Paris stands unrivalled among medieval historians. His gifts were not merely those of the student and man of letters. He was famed as an artist and an expert in writing and he probably executed with his own hand many of the telling little drawings which illustrate the margins of his manuscripts. As an historian Matthew holds the first place among English chroniclers. For his ease of style, range of interest and information, vivid though prolix elaboration of detail, he is much more readable than any of those monastic scholars who wrote either before or after him. His great work, the “Chronica Majora”, extends from the creation until 1259, the year of his death. Down to 1235 this is simply an expansion and embellishment of the chronicle of his fellow-monk, Roger of Wendover, but “he reedited Wendover’s work with a patriotic and anti-curialist bias quite alien to the spirit of the earlier writer” (Tout, 451). From 1235 to 1259 Paris is a first-hand authority and by far the most copious source of information we possess. The “Chronica Majora” has been admirably edited, with prefaces and supplements, in seven volumes by Dr. Luard. A compendium of this work from 1067 to 1253 was also prepared by Paris. It is known as the “Historia Minor” and it bears evidence of a certain mitigation of previous judgments which in his later years he deemed over severe. This work has been edited by Sir F. Madden. Other minor works connected especially with St. Albans, and a short “Life of Stephen Langton” (printed by Liebermann in 1870) are also attributed to Paris. With regard to his trustworthiness as a source of history there seems to be a tendency amongst most English writers, notably for example J. R. Green or Dr. Luard, to glorify him as a sort of national asset and to regard his shortcomings with partisan eyes. There can be no question that Matthew’s allegations against the friars and his denunciations of the avarice and tyranical interference of the Roman Court should be received with extreme caution. Lingard perhaps goes too far when, in speaking of his “censorious disposition”, he declares, “It may appear invidious to speak harshly of this famous historian, but this I may say, that when I could confront his pages with authentic records or contemporary writers, I have in most instances found the discrepancy between them so great as to give his narrative the appearance of a romance rather than a history” (Lingard, “History”, II, 479). But we may rest content with the verdict of a more recent writer, open to no suspicion of religious bias. “Matthew”, says Professor Tout, “was a man of strong views, and his sympathies and his prejudices color every line he wrote. His standpoint is that of a patriotic Englishman, indignant at the alien invasions, at the misgovernment of the King, the greed of the curialists and the Poitevins, and with a professional bias against the mendicant friars” (Polit. Hist. of Eng., III, 452).


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