From the Destruction of Troy: Medieval Chronicles

Chronicles poster

Based on oral tradition, documented historical events, biblical stories, and Greek and Roman myth, medieval chronicles became an important source for claims to power and fueled literary imagination. Harkening back to Virgil’s Aeneid, which set up Aeneas as the father of all Romans, they told of the mythical exploits of Aeneas’s progeny who fanned out over Europe after the fall of Troy. Rulers used chronicles to trace their ancestry to Aeneas and assert their kingdoms as the “New Rome,” and later writers like Spenser, Malory and Shakespeare retold the stories for new audiences.

The exhibition was curated by Jay Satterfield and was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries from May 10 to June 30, 2010.

You may download a small, 8x10 version of the poster: Chronicles (2.1 MB) You may also download a handlist of the items in this exhibition: Destruction of Troy.

Materials Included in the Exhibition

Case 1. World Chronicles

As forerunners to chronicles, local and regional annals tended to list yearly events in terse prose. Chronicles took on a broader scope and amplified events with episodic story telling. Though sections start and end abruptly, chronicles constructed grander narratives that established cultural and political cohesion. By tracing everything back to biblical creation or the fall of Troy, they posited a universal root culture for European and Mediterranean peoples. In these chronicles from France (Froissart), Germany (Rolevinck) and England (Higden), history begins with Genesis but each moves on to emphasize the region of its origin.

  1. La chronique anonyme universelle jusque’ à la mort de Charles VII. Manuscript scroll on parchment, Paris, 1461. Mss 461940 
    1. This fragment of the Chronique anonyme universelle scroll produced in 1461 has an international scope, but it was clearly written for a French audience. It displays successions of the Popes, Kings of France, Holy Roman Emperors, Kings of England, and a chronology of the crusades). Like many chronicles, it uses a genealogical structure to tell history through individuals’ exploits.
    2. The full scroll would have been eighteen meters long and could be unfurled at ceremonial occasions. The structure of the chronicle makes one wonder how it was read. The four timelines are not in sync on the “page,” so each narrative stream must be read separately. But, to an audience used to episodic reading, this may not have been as jarring as it is to a modern audience expecting clear narrative structure.
    3. This particular fragment features miniatures of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, Godfrey de Bouillon as King of Jerusalem, and St. Louis onboard a ship.
  2. Ranulf Higden. Polycronycon. Southwerke: Printed by P. Treveris for J. Reynes, 1527. Val H H534xp 
  3. Leaf from Ranulf Higden. Polycronycon. London: William Caxton, 1482. Presses C317hig or Incunabula 66
  4. Werner Rolevinck. Fasciculus Temporum. Venetiis: Erhardus Ratdolt Augustensis, 1485. Incunabula 107
  5. Jean Froissart. Here Begynneth the First Volume of Sir Iohan Froyssart: of the Cronycles of Englande/Fraunce/Spayne /Portyngale/Scotlande/Bretayne/Flaunders and other Places Adioynyge. Translated out of the Frenche into our Maternall Tonge. London: R. Pynson, 1523-25. Rare Book D113 .F765 1523

Case 2. The Brut Chronicle

Great Britain produced a wealth of chronicles devoted to its own history. The Brut Chronicle was the most popular secular text in late medieval England. Originally written in the 13th century in Anglo-Norman, this Middle English manuscript from the 1450s carries the original chronicle up to 1419. It begins with tales surrounding Aeneas’s grandson, Brutus, who, cast out from Troy, conquered Albion and established the British royal succession. Like other chronicles, the Brut blends myth and historical evidence without distinguishing between the two: this manuscript includes the King Arthur legend alongside well-documented historical events.

This manuscript was recently digitized by the Dartmouth College Library and is available online for anyone to consult.

  1. Brut Chronicle. Manuscript on parchment, England, ca. 1450. Ms Codex 003183

Case 3. Early Modern Chronicles

In the Early modern era, chronicles based on medieval examples flourished. These served as the source material for all manner of literary works. Shakespeare drew heavily from Holinshed’s Chronicles just as Spenser’s Faerie Queene looked back to medieval chronicles for inspiration. In literature, the episodic, disjointed narratives are fleshed out and new national myths created.

  1. Cronycle of Englonde. London: Iulyan Notary, 1515. Also known as the St. Albans Chronicle. Rare Book DA130 .C47 1515
  2. John Stow. The Annales, or Generall Chronicle of England.  London: Impensis T. Adams, 1615. Hickmott q134
  3. Raphael Holinshed. The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. London: Imprinted for I. Harrison, 1577. Hickmott 108. Another copy is available online.