History in England and France

History in England and France: Ralph of Diceto and his sources

Using the works of Ralph de Diceto, Laura Cleaver examines how the study of history in the Middle Ages engaged with contemporary attitudes and politics.

After the conquest of England by William duke of Normandy in 1066, history became a popular subject for writers on both sides of the Channel. Some of these texts were intended for local audiences, but others, including William of Jumièges’ (fl. 1026–1070) account of the deeds of the dukes of Normandy (Gesta Normannorum Ducum) circulated widely.  For example, a copy of William of Jumièges’ work was at Durham cathedral in the 12th century (British Library, Harley MS 491).

William of Jumièges, Deeds of the Norman Dukes

Harley MS 491, f. 3r

Opening page of William of Jumièges’ Deeds of the Norman Dukes (Gesta Normannorum Ducum) (British Library, Harley MS 491, f. 3r).

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Similarly, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s imaginative account of the early kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae), written in the 1130s, was available in Normandy as well as England very shortly after its completion. A copy of this work, probably produced in Normandy, includes an image of the legendary King Arthur in the margins (BnF, Latin 8501A).

Thus by the end of the 12th century a wide range of sources were potentially available to those interested in the history of the lands ruled by the kings of England. Moreover, the varied size and appearance of the surviving manuscripts, as well as their textual content, can shed light on attitudes to the past held by those responsible for the volumes’ creation.

Illustrated copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

Latin 8501A, f. 108v

Portrait of Arthur as a venerable monarch at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of the kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) (BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v)

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Amongst those fascinated by the past was Ralph of Diceto, dean of St Paul’s cathedral in London (d. c. 1200). Ralph is best known for a chronicle in two parts. The first part, up to 1147 was an abbreviation of existing chronicles (Abbreviationes chronicorum), whilst the second part was entitled ‘Images of History’ (Imagines historiarum), a description inspired by the work of the sixth-century author Cassiodorus.

In addition to the chronicle, Ralph produced a collection of short texts on history known as the Opuscula, or ‘Little works’. The chronicle survives in two early copies: British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E III and London, Lambeth Palace MS 8.  A copy of the Opuscula is now in the British Library (Add MS 40007). All three manuscripts were probably produced in the final decade of the 12th century.

Ralph of Diceto’s sources

Ralph included lists of notable historians in both his chronicle and Opuscula. Among those named was Robert of Torigni (d. 1186), whose chronicle, written at Bec and Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, provided a major source for the first part of Ralph’s own chronicle, the Abbreviationes chronicorum.

Not included in Ralph’s list were two other writers whose works were abbreviated in the Opuscula: William of Jumièges and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Both William’s history, the Gesta Normannorum Ducum and Geoffrey’s text, the Historia regum Britanniae, were drastically condensed in Ralph’s work, though the form of the original text was alluded to through references to the ‘books’ into which the earlier works had been divided, helping an interested reader to locate Ralph’s sources.

The material in the Opuscula offered brief accounts of topics relevant to the history of the Angevin royal dynasty, church history, and historical writing. In addition to the versions of the Gesta Normannorum Ducum and Historia regum Britanniae, it included lists of popes and bishops, brief treatments of the counts of Anjou and Flanders, the rulers of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the kings of England to Richard I (d. 1199).

It also presented accounts of the life, martyrdom and canonisation of Thomas Becket (d. 1170), and of church synods, as well as the list of earlier writers and excerpts from their works. The volume ended with the popular prophecies attributed to Merlin, compiled by Geoffrey of Monmouth and usually understood as oblique references to 12th-century rulers, demonstrating the potential for writing about the past to shape understanding of the present.

Design and decoration

Ralph’s use of a range of sources probably inspired the varied layout of different parts of the Opuscula manuscript. Although most of the text is set out in two columns, the design is altered to set out complex information. For example, the rulers of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are arranged in seven columns, with dates added in red in the margin.

Ralph de Diceto, Opuscula

Add MS 40007, f. 20v

The rulers of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are arranged in seven columns in Ralph de Diceto’s Opuscula (Little works) (British Library, Add MS 40007, f. 20v)

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Similarly, in his chronicle Ralph noted that material that had not originally been available to him had been included in the margins as the work developed. In addition to using the margins for extra text, Ralph developed a system of signs and added other images to draw the reader’s attention to particular passages and themes.

At the start of the chronicle, 12 signs are set out in a table. These include the abbreviations PS for persecutions of the church, SC for schisms, and CO for councils. A crown marks the anointing of kings and a cross identifies references to the privileges of the church of Canterbury. A crozier represents archbishops of Canterbury, and the dukes of Normandy and counts of Anjou are identified by a sword and spear respectively.  Two semicircles facing away from each other mark controversy between king and priests. Combinations of the crown, sword and spear identify kings of England who were also dukes of Normandy and counts of Anjou, whilst the final sign, two hands grasping a crown, marks dissention between King Henry II of England and his sons.

Collection of medieval chronicles

Cotton MS Claudius E III, f. 3v

A table introduces a system of marginal signs in the first column of Ralph de Diceto’s chronicle (Abbreviationes chronicorum) (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E III, f. 3v)

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The selection of subjects for visual emphasis again demonstrates that Ralph’s interest in history was linked to contemporary politics. The cross and the symbol for controversy between king and priests are also used in the Opuscula in the life of Thomas Becket, though the symbols table is not included.

Patronage

Both copies of Ralph’s works (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E III and Add MS 40007) are large manuscripts (measuring approximately 40 by 30 cm) and would have been expensive to produce. It is unclear who financed the production of the chronicle, though the book seems to have been in Winchester. The Opuscula volume begins with a letter addressed to William Longchamp, bishop of Ely and chancellor of England (d. 1197), an extremely powerful and influential potential patron.

Ralph de Diceto, Opuscula

Add MS 40007, f. 5r

Prefatory letter addressed to William Longchamp (top line) in Ralph de Diceto’s Opuscula (Little works) (British Library, Add MS 40007, f. 5r)

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Another version of Ralph’s histories produced around this time (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 76) was addressed to Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1205), suggesting that Ralph, like William of Jumièges and Geoffrey of Monmouth before him, was deliberately seeking out elite patronage.

The different choices made in the content and appearance of these volumes were probably intended to appeal to particular audiences and may help to explain the balance of interest in secular and church history in the Opuscula. However, unlike some of his sources, Ralph’s work seems never to have been particularly popular or widely circulated, although it was read by the St Alban’s monk Matthew Paris (d. 1259), one of the most famous historians of the 13th century.

Learn more:

L. Cleaver, Illuminated History Books in the Anglo-Norman World, 1066-1272 (Oxford, 2018).

M. Staunton, The Historians of Angevin England (Oxford, 2017).

A. Gransden, Historical Writing in England c. 550 to c. 1307 (London, 1974).

  • Laura Cleaver
  • Laura Cleaver is Ussher Lecturer in Medieval Art at Trinity College Dublin. Her research concentrates on illuminated manuscripts of the 12th and 13th centuries. Her published works include Education in Twelfth-Century Art and Architecture, and Illuminated History Books in the Anglo-Norman World 1066-1272. She is currently working on the trade in medieval manuscripts in the early twentieth century.