titolo originale: Sitting on the Fence: matthew Paris’s “Mongol Letters” at the intersection of History and Literature, in “IV Ciclo di Studi Medievali”, Atti del Convegno, Firenze 4-5 Giugno 2018, Arcore (MB) 2018, pp. 273-279.
«Should anyone wish to hear about the foulness, life and customs of these Tartars, and indeed about the fury and superstition of the Assassins, the diligent researcher may learn [of these things] at Saint Albans».1 These words of justifiable confidence come from Matthew Paris, a cloistered Benedictine monk of St Albans Monastery, England. Matthew is renowned for his familiarity in all matters Mongol that is unmatched in any other contemporary work written in England, even Western Europe. How did he know about these events, and more importantly, why and how did he insert them in his very English chronicle?
Matthew Paris, probably born around 1200, was one of the most well-informed chroniclers of thirteenth-century England, the author of a large number of surviving works. His historical oeuvre was not limited to the narrative of the Chronica majora (even the Chronica majora is not limited to the Chronica majora). Several autograph manuscripts of it survive, the constituent parts of which are sometimes bound together with other works of Matthew, but separately from one another.2 London, BL, Cotton MSS, Nero D I contains a variety of works such as the Liber additamentorum (Additamenta) which is also a separate but integral part of the Chronica majora. The Chronica is an accumulated/accumulating work, a stage in a continuous tradition of historical narratives. Manuscripts A and B of the Chronica incorporate both parts of Roger of Wendover’s Flores historiarum (i.e. the “received” history from Creation to 1202; and Roger’s continuation from 1202 to 1235).3 As the chronicle drew closer to Matthew’s lifetime, he began to accumulate his own material, including news from the continent. He organised this part in the 1235-1259 entries of the Chronica proper and the Additamenta, a separate collection of original documents, letters, memoranda and charters, often cross referenced with the main text. This leads us to the historian’s craft as practiced by Matthew Paris in his self-authored portion. How did the irregular and unpredictable stream of incoming news find its way into the chronological narrative of the chronicle? The method of the physical construction of historical works, and certainly that of the Chronica, is best summarised in the preamble of the Worcester Annals: «It will be your business to see that there is always a sheet [scedula] attached to the book, on which may be noted in pencil deaths of illustrious men and anything in the state of the kingdom which is worth remembering, whenever the news comes to hand. But at the end of the year let a man appointed to the task – write out briefly and succinctly, in the body of the book, what he thinks truest and best to be passed down to the notice of posterity».4 The physicality of recording and incorporating material, transferring drafts to clean copies, is very interesting but is beyond the scope of the present study. The narrative construction of the texts born out of chronologically arranged scedulae, however, raises questions regarding the possible approaches to interpreting Matthew Paris’s historiography. How did he arrange his notes and documents in a chronological order? What type of information did he select to be included? Was there a guiding principle behind the selection and arrangement of these drafts in the greater narrative scheme of the chronicle? These questions all root from the underlying assumption that Matthew was indeed “sitting on the fence”: the historian’s craft collecting historical literature, original documents, and verbal accounts had to be negotiated with the historiographer’s literary endeavour to organize and rephrase these into a somewhat coherent text with an internal logic, maybe even a plot. Thus, the task of the scholar studying the Chronica is similarly twofold, a hybrid study of it as a record of history and transmitter of original documents and that of a literary piece with a narrative structure and detectable rhetorical strategies and devices. The idea and the anxieties surrounding it are not at all novel in medieval studies. Gabrielle Spiegel, for example, muses about the “epistemological cheat,” whereby interpreting historical accounts as literary products inherently carries the danger of discrediting their very ability to serve as sources for the reconstruction of the historical context they were produced in.5 However, as will be shown, some texts (sitting on the fence) lend themselves more easily to such double-edged inquiries than others. In the following, I will examine how Matthew Paris constructed a narrative using literary devices, while maintaining a documentaristic profile. The Mongol invasion forms a distinct subplot in the chronicle proper. Based on the annalistic entries, the chronology of the Mongol invasion in Matthew’s rendering can be reconstructed as a timeline of increasingly startling events: The Mongols emerging from the northern mountains ravaged Hungaria Major (1238) then turned against Russia and Poland and eventually Hungary (1241).6 The king of Hungary was either too inept or simply left to his own failing devices in defending his country.7 After receiving threatening letters from the khan and frightful news from the Dominicans and Franciscans he had sent out to explore, he tried to move into the more fortified areas of the country. The Eastern European pleas for help are recorded exclusively in the Additamenta under the year 1242. The Mongols eventually arrived at the Hungarian border with devastating speed and force, killing everyone they found. The king managed to flee to Illyria and pleaded for help from Emperor Frederick II and the pope. Finally, years later, Frederick embraced the wretched kingdom and brought peace in return for the Hungarian king’s homage to him.8 Examining Matthew Paris’s Mongol-related material, especially the “original” letters woven into the fabric of the Chronica, is particularly informative about the questions above. To frame my inquiry, I will borrow Paul Ricoeur’s concept of emplotment, the assembly of a series of historical events into a narrative with a plot. For Ricoeur, emplotment entails an intuitive gathering (prendre ensemble) of otherwise disparate heterogeneous elements. Ricoeur’s second principle is the “discordant concordance,” evoking the concordia discors of ancient philosophy, which lies in “the concept of plot as a teleological principle: the inexorable movement that drives the story toward an anticipated conclusion.”9 In addition to Ricoeur’s concept, this particularly medieval case necessitates another layer of methodological consideration prior to Matthew’s narrative machinations: the availability of sources and the order and time of their arrival to his scriptorium.
- «Ipsorum Tartarorum immunditias, vitam et mores si quis audire desiderat necnon et Assessinorum furorem et superstitionem apud Sanctum Albanum diligens indagator poterit reperire», in Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, ed. by H. Richards Luard, RS, 57, 7 vols., London 1872-1883, vol. 5, p. 655.
- Sigla as in Luard’s edition: A: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 26; B: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 16; C: London, BL, Cottonian MSS, Nero D V (the “fair” copy), R: London, BL, Royal MS 14, C VII contains the Historia Anglorum (c.1250-9) as well as the last volume of the Chronica majora and various other well-known items. Paris produced shorter historical works as well, including abridged versions of his monumental Chronica majora, such as the Flores historiarum. Matthew Paris, Flores historiarum, ed. by H. Richards Luard, RS, 95, 3 vols., London 1890.
- This Flores historiarum should not be confused with that of Matthew Paris. Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. by H.O. Coxe, 5 vols., English Historical Society, London 1841-42, and Roger of Wendover, Rogeri de Wendover Liber qui dicitur Flores historiarum ab anno Domini MCLIV annoque Henrici Anglorum regis secundi primo, ed. by H.G. Hewlett, RS, 84, 3 vols., London 1886-98. The authorship of this Flores historiarum is debated, see R. Vaughan, Matthew Paris, Cambridge 1958, pp. 22-25; and R. Kay, Wendover’s Last Annal, in «English Historical Review», vol. 84, 1969, pp. 779-85.
- Annales de Wigornia, in H. Richards Luard (ed.), Annales Monastici, RS, 36, 5 vols., London 1864-69, vol. 4, p. 355. Translation in C.R. Cheney, Notes on the Making of the Dunstable Annals, AD 33 to 1242, in T.A. Sandquist, M.R. Powicke (eds.), Essays of Medieval History Presented to Bertie Wilkinson, Toronto 1969, p. 92.
- G.M. Spiegel, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, Baltimore 1997, pp. xviii-xix.
- Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, vol. 3, p. 488; vol. 4, p. 9, 76-78, 106-07, 112-20, 386-89.
- Matthew Paris, ivi, vol. 6, p. 113.
- Although this scenario is much too enthusiastic about the emperor’s role in a happy ending, Frederick’s liberation of the Hungarian kingdom is not a mere figment of Matthew Paris’s imagination. G. Pauler, A magyar nemzet története az Árpádházi királyok alatt, II ed., 2 vols., Budapest 1899, II, p. 176. There is archival evidence that Béla IV requested Pope Innocent IV to waive his oath of fealty made to Frederick II, as the emperor had failed to live up to the conditions of overlordship and that the pope responded favourably in 1245. The pope favourable response is found in a bull dated 21 August 1245: Epistolae saeculi XIII e regestis pontificum Romanorum selectae, ed. by G.H. Pertz, MGH, Epp. saec, 13, 2 vols., Berlin 1887, vol. 1, pp. 98-99.
- For a brief summary of the philosophical roots of Ricoeur’s concept of emplotment, see W.C. Dowling, Ricoeur on Time and Narrative: An Introduction to Temps et récit, Notre Dame 2011, pp. 5-6.
In foto: Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum (London, British Library, MS Royal 14.C.VII, folio 6r)