Matthew Paris, a Benedictine Monk writing in 1240 A.D., painted this very fanciful (and inaccurate) picture of Mongol warriors at a cannibal feast as part of his Chronica Majora

Tabloid Journalism in the 13th Century: Matthew Paris's Chronicle

Tutor: Pete Biller

Module type: Period Topic

Module code: HIS00013C

Close to London and visited by VIPs, the 13th century abbey of St Albans was both a major news centre and a cultural powerhouse in the 13th century. Its monks exploited this, writing chronicles about recent things - as it were The Times Book of Major Events of 2017, published in 2018. The most opinionated and colourful ‘journalist’ among them was Matthew Paris, who also an artist and map-maker, and as interested in drawing as reporting the latest news from a war.

Matthew started his ‘Greater Chronicles’ in 1235 and stopped in 1259 when, we guess, he died. He wrote up news year by year, beginning each one with a description of the king’s Christmas and ending with a summary of the year, including its weather. Between Christmas and the summary Matthew sandwiched wars and great affairs (imperial, papal, royal, English, Gascon, Italian, crusade, the Mongols), government (grumbles about taxes), the Jews, Mahomet, obituaries of famous people, and he relished telling tabloid stories, for example describing a whale swimming up the Thames while it was chased by royal archers.

During the term, we shall go through this wonderful text, via a very literal translation made in the mid-nineteenth century. We shall devote the first half of each seminar to analysis of the two or three years we have read for that week, and the second half to discussion of a theme chosen for that week, e.g. Matthew’s views of the Mongols.

Seminar topics may include:

  • 1235-1238. Matthew’s construction of his world
  • 1239-1240. Muslims, heretics, Jews
  • 1241-1243. Monks and nuns; bishops; popes
  • 1244-1245. Mongols
  • 1246-1249. Economy; physical and natural world
  • 1250-1252. Kings and the Emperor
  • 1253-1255. Matthew as writer and artist; women and men
  • 1256-1259. Matthew finishes

 
Occasionally other medieval texts will be put alongside Matthew, for example Matthew's account of the Mongols will be juxtaposed to the Franciscan William of Rubruk's account of his travels to them as well as modern historiography on medieval western construction of the eastern 'other'.

 

To find out more

You might like to look at the following:

  • Carpenter, David. The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284. London: Allen Lane, 2004. 
  • Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005.

 

For more detailed information, please visit the module catalogue.