Matthew Paris

The English Benedictine monk Matthew Paris (ca. 1200-1259) was the most important chronicler of the 13th century. He was also an accomplished manuscript illustrator, biographer, and cartographer.

Matthew Paris, sometimes referred to as Matthew of Paris, probably had no connection with France by birth or education. Although no information exists concerning his parentage or his early life, he became a monk at St. Albans, a monastery on a main road about 15 miles northwest of London, on Jan. 21, 1217. There he received his training as a scribe and artist and, under Roger Wendover, as the abbey's historiographer. In 1248-1249 Matthew was called upon by Norway's King Haakon IV and by Pope Innocent IV to adjust the financial and spiritual affairs of the Benedictine abbey of St. Benet Holm on the island of Niderholm in Norway. Except for this successful journey, Matthew, for the most part, remained at St. Albans until his death in 1259.

After Roger Wendover's death in 1235, Matthew incorporated Roger's Flores historiarum into his own chief work, the Chronica majora, revising Roger's text and extending it from 1235 to 1259. A prolific and indefatigable writer, Matthew wrote some 300,000 words in his section alone. In it he narrated events with his personal commentary that often demonstrates his strong prejudices against King Henry III, the Pope, friars, foreigners, civil servants, theologians, and almost any person or group who, in Matthew's eyes, was guilty of either abuse of power or interference with the home rule of his monastic movement. He wrote in Latin, the lingua franca of the Middle Ages, and his style is vivid and colorful.

As a respected intimate of such important figures as Henry III and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, among many others, Matthew's fame as a chronicler was so widespread that distinguished guests at St. Albans freely shared their adventures with him, supplying him with details for his chronicle.

Although Matthew is considered by modern scholars more a chronicler than a historian, he assiduously collected, albeit not always accurately, about 350 documents in an appendix to his Chronica, the Liber additamentorum. His abridgments of the Chronica majora—the Historia Anglorum, devoted primarily to English affairs, and the Abbreviatio chronicorum (or Historia minor), concentrating on the period 1067—1253—contain differing versions of the same events. In his Gesta abbatum, Matthew recorded the lives of the first 23 abbots of St. Albans and sketched a miniature portrait of each.

In addition to his Latin biographies of Edmund Rich and Stephen Langton, Matthew wrote in Anglo-Norman verse the lives of Saints Alban, Edward the Confessor, Thomas Becket, and Edmund Rich, each work amply illustrated.

As an artist, Matthew enjoyed high esteem. His manuscript illustrations, both drawings and paintings, demonstrate his skill and talent in illuminating his narrative. Further, his valuable contributions to cartography include the earliest known detail maps of England and Scotland, listing as many as 280 place names. His itineraries, or road maps, from London to Italy and several maps of Palestine admirably executed in color attest to his talents as an artist and cartographer. He also ranks high as a pioneer in the history of heraldry because he depicted quite accurately about 130 coats of arms of the period.

Although Matthew is not always reliable because of his frequent exaggerations, prejudices, and carelessness, he nevertheless left a readable account and, more important, one with a feeling of his time.


Further Reading on Matthew Paris

The best book on Matthew is Richard Vaughan, Matthew Paris (1958), a scholarly yet readable study with an excellent bibliography. Vivian Hunter Galbraith's monograph, Roger Wendover and Matthew Paris (1944), discusses the roles of both men as chroniclers of St. Albans. For background on Matthew and his time see Claude Jenkins, The Monastic Chronicler and the Early School of St. Albans (1922), and David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England (1948).