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The Write of Kings

Nearly six hundred years after it was written on parchment, in a florid hand with illuminated letters, The Brut Chronicle, the earliest prose account of the creation and early history of England, is available for study and research in the Rauner Special Collections Library. “This is a critical source in supporting teaching and scholarship in many disciplines at Dartmouth,” says Dean of Libraries and Librarian of the College Jeffrey Horrell. Explaining how the acquisition of the famous Chronicle augments Dartmouth’s current manuscript holdings, Horrell says that The Brut Chronicle offers faculty and students an opportunity to work with a literary document, as opposed to a religious or legal one. “It is important for students to be able to see these traditional forms of writing and how they were transmitted before the advent of the printing press,” he says.

Write of Kings
Dean of Libraries and Librarian of the College Jeffrey Horrell (left) and Special Collections Librarian Jay Satterfield examine the Brut Chronicle, a new acquisition for Rauner Special Collections Library. This copy of the rare manuscript was previously in a private collection and has never been studied by scholars.

Exceedingly rare, there are only 181 known Brut Chronicles extant in the world and just a handful of those are in the United States, now including Dartmouth’s volume. “We have a strong manuscript collection,” says Special Collections Librarian Jay Satterfield, “but we needed an example of an English literary manuscript. The Brut Chronicle is a fascinating document for a broad range of disciplines, including medieval history, art history, literature, and many others.”

“This is a spectacular acquisition,” says Peter Travis, the Henry Winkley Professor in Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature. “It is an extremely important manuscript in its own right, and one that can be put to full use in our medieval and early modern courses.” Professor of English Jonathan Crewe will be incorporating the manuscript in his Inescapable Romance class, a course that covers Greek antiquity through the end of the 16th century. “These days,” he says, “courses in earlier literary periods almost always take account of the material conditions of production and circulation, of both manuscripts and books. This manuscript, in particular provides an outstanding opportunity for students to experience one of these early documents firsthand.”

The Chronicle recounts the story of Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, who was exiled from Italy after accidentally killing his father. He eventually made his way to the island of Albion, renamed it Britain, and became known as its first king. The manuscript contains references to King Arthur, Merlin, King Lear, and other legendary figures of English history. “It was one of the most popular secular literary pieces of medieval England,” says Horrell. “The text has served as inspiration for many authors including Shakespeare.”

Parchment
An annotated page from the Brut Chronicle. (Photos by Sarah Benelli)

Housed in a simple leather wallet binding, indicative of the volume’s importance at the time of its writing and for many years afterward, one of the manuscript’s mysteries is the extensive annotation in the margins of its pages. Penned by different hands at different times, in Middle English, its secrets have never been studied before. While the basic text was standardized, the annotations are all different, requiring unique study for each edition. Dartmouth’s Brut Chronicle, once decoded, will contribute entirely new knowledge to the world of historical scholarship.

The acquisition of The Brut Chronicle was made possible by the newly created William L. Bryant Foundation Library Fund, established by William J. Bryant, Class of 1925.

By LAUREL STAVIS


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Last Updated: 12/17/08