Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A study of Cleopatra D IX: MS I, ff. 5-79. ‘Liber Alani de Ashbourne’.

A book of historical lists, annals and stories from Lichfield Cathedral’s library, written or commenced by Alan of Ashbourne, vicar of Lichfield.


Vellum, small folio (Ward 198), 75 ff. Written on the recto of the first folio is “Liber Alani de Asshhburne Vicarii Lichf”. According to Brereton’s description of one item in it, that section at least has three columns with 50 lines (with an initial in red). Brereton describes the whole as being “in the same hand throughout, except for a few later additions on columns and pages left blank for the purpose” (vi). The accuracy of this assessment is questionable, as her examination of the remainder of the manuscript is cursory, to the extent that she includes the next two manuscripts in the number of folios she allots to this [*]. However, the error suggests that the hand, and perhaps the layout, of the manuscript are at least superficially uniform throughout.


Historical lists and annals, local and universal, all in Latin save one Anglo-Norman romance. Although Des Grantz Geanz, a foundation poem recounting the mythic pre-history of Britain, survives in several manuscripts, this is the only witness to the longer redaction. It has been published by Brereton in a facing-page edition with the shorter redaction. There has been no edition of the remainder of the manuscript.

- 5v-24v: Annals from the beginning of the world to 1291 (or possibly 1292). Latin, 20 ff..

- 25r-37v: A list of the popes from St Peter to John XXII (Jacques Duèze, papacy 1316-1334), until 1317 according to Planta’s catalogue. Presumably this is an a quo date calculated on the ascension date of the last pontiff listed. Latin, 13 ff.

- 38r-69r: Annals of the deeds of the English, from the death of Hengist to 1377. In at least two different hands. Neither Ward nor Brereton mentions at which year the hands change, or how much space the first leaves for subsequent additions. Latin, 32 ff.

- 70r-71r: Des Grantz Geanz, long redaction (281 octosyllabic couplets). Anglo-Norman, 2 ff. At the foot of the first page is a jotting, presumably intended for a decorative header to the poem:.

Incipit tractatus de terra Anglie a quibus inhabitabatur in principio ante aduentum bruti . que terra primo vocabatur Albion . et postea a bruto britannia. Deinde Anglia nuncupata est. (qtd. in Ward 198).

The first four lines are:.

Ci put hom saver comen.

et quant et de quele gen.

Les grants geans primes vindren.

et Engleterre primes tindrent.


- 72r-74r: A list of the Archbishops of Canterbury, from Augustine to the investiture of John of Stratford (1333). Latin, 3 ff.

- 74r-79: A history of the bishopric of Coventry and Lichfield to 1347, with additions in a later hand to 1388. Latin, 5ff.

The selection and arrangement of the contents suggests a careful overall design. There is a balance between dry lists and narrative chronicles, and the field of vision narrows steadily from the universal to the national to the local. Given this level of organisational integrity, the apparently incongruous presence of an Anglo-Norman mythic romance in the midst of Latin prose histories provides a picturesque example of the flexibility of mediaeval understandings of genre..

Date, Origin and Authorship.

The library of Lichfield Cathedral (Ker, Medieval Libraries 115), c. 1323-1334 with later additions, Alan of Ashbourne and others..

Brereton dates the manuscript “with certainty” (vi) between the deaths of Simon of Mepham (1333) and Alan of Ashbourne (1334), on the grounds that the book records the death of one and is written by the other. This precision, however, rests on the assumptions that the book was written (or compiled) within the space of one year, and that it is primarily or exclusively the work of Alan of Ashbourne’s own hand. The first assumption is undermined by the book’s length, as well as Brereton’s own observation that the manuscript “consists of historical miscellanea and is written in the same hand throughout, except for a few later additions on columns and pages left blank for the purpose” (vi). This suggests that it was intended to function as a continuing record. If so, the vicar could have initiated it as a project any number of years before, rather than writing cover to cover within the space of a year. Greenslade asserts, based on internal evidence, that he began it in 1323, the year after his appointment at Lichfield (8).

The communal function implied by the long-term nature of the layout also complicates Brereton’s second assumption: although the majority of the work of compilation does seem to fall before his death, the book may have been initiated or directed by the vicar, without being written by his hand..

The addition of later entries up to 1388 and the inclusion (in transcription) of at least two works composed earlier (Des Grantz Geanz and the annals of the world) further complicate notions of any hypothetical authorship or definite date of composition. In particular, it is suggestive that the early annals end in the year 1291 or 1292. In 1291, a fire broke out in the Lichfield complex severe enough to burn at least the monastery to the ground (Knowles & Hadcock 192). Might the author have died in this fire, or stopped writing in the upheaval of rebuilding and recovery? The coincidence of dates suggests that while Alan of Ashbourne was compiling his own history of the bishopric, he collected or directed the collection of several other historical documents already belonging to Lichfield Cathedral – possibly including a (fire-damaged?) manuscript of a short chronicle written within fading living memory. The unfinished incipit the first page of Des Grantz Geanz strengthens the impression of a haphazard work in a constant state of composition, never polished and final.

His work appears to have been adopted on his death by his immediate community, enough to be referred to and intermittently updated for the next half century. By 1390, the manuscript seems to have fallen out of use as a record, superseded, forgotten or simply filled, and updates ceased..

The manuscript as a whole, with a history more accessible than most small-scale monastic chronicles can boast, provides valuable glimpses of possible motivations behind such an undertaking. Local and personal motivations sit side-by-side with a broader sense of national purpose. For example, if the first item (annals of the world) was written locally, as seems reasonable, a factor in the vicar’s decision to include it could well have been neighbourly reverence for the memory of its author and his not inconsiderable undertaking, from a man engaged in one no less ambitious. On the other hand, its contents demonstrate an anxiety to set local concerns, to which the majority of his efforts will be dedicated, in a universal context. Similarly, his local history and history of England suggests that he was among the many across England who felt prompted by the civil and natural disturbances of the 1320s to impose some order on events and dignify them with the name of history.

Later provenance and position within codex.

The picture is complicated around 1450 by Thomas Chesterfield, prebendary of Tervin in Lichfield Cathedral, who made a copy of Alan of Ashbourne’s chronicle and donated it to Lichfield Cathedral. It survives as MS Bodleian 956 pp. 113-229, and the inscription of the donor’s name on this copy led to the attribution of the authorship of both manuscripts to him in subsequent centuries (Greenslade 8-9 & notes; cf. Planta). The presence of two copies of the collection at Lichfield complicates their subsequent history.

The Franciscan house at Lichfield was dissolved in 1538, though other parts of the Lichfield establishment remained, including the cathedral, which is still in use today (Knowles & Hadcock 192). One of the two manuscripts, however, seems to have remained in the library of Lichfield Cathedral, as it was consulted there by William Whitelocke in the composition of his own history of Lichfield Cathedral in the late 1560s (Kettle, “Whitelocke”). This was probably the Chesterfield manuscript, as Whitelocke attributes the chronicle to him. The absence of both from the catalogue compiled by Patrick Young c. 1622 (Ker, “Young’s catalogue” 152 &c) suggests that both passed into the hands of a private collector at some time after 1670. Perhaps Whitelocke, “[o]ne of the few clergymen of the period to make a significant contribution to antiquarian studies” (Kettle, “Whitelocke”), felt it would be no disloyalty to his cathedral to allow such a manuscript to pass into the burgeoning library of some fellow antiquarian; or possibly the private circulation of his histories piqued someone’s interest in his source. The original Liber may also have been retired from the cathedral library prior to the dissolution, and fallen into private hands then.

Whether directly or through several intervening libraries, it was in Cotton’s hands by 1608, when he loaned it to Archbishop Bancroft (Tite 44-45). The loan entry reads only “Lichfield chronicle”, suggesting that at this time the manuscript was still circulating independently.

As for Chesterfield’s manuscript, this may be the one referred to in a note written c. 1617 in Bodleian Twyne 22 as the property of Thomas Allen (Tite 215). As Cotton indisputably possessed the original manuscript by that date, and had probably already bound it into the existing codex, Allen’s may very well have been the fifteenth-century copy – although it is also possible that he owned one of the manuscripts of Whitelocke’s adaptation.

Lacunae and potential.

- Basic codicological details and paleographical details are lacking, together with information about the contents of each section.

- As noticed above, this manuscript contains the sole surviving witness to the long redaction of Des Grantz Geanz. The second redaction, more than a hundred lines shorter, first appears in 1333, leading Brereton to suggest that this manuscript may be the source from which the second was abridged (vi). The lack of evidence regarding the origin of those manuscripts makes speculation somewhat futile, although it seems safe to say that both are evidence of an increased interest in this poem from the late 1320s onwards. If this is the case, judging only by the surviving manuscripts (which may not be representative), Lichfield Cathedral seems to have been a little ahead of the literary fashion.

- Many of the suggestions made above rest on the history of Lichfield from 1290 until Alan of Ashbourne’s death, particularly the local writing culture and the effects of the fire. For these, the chronicle itself may well be the best source we have, if it were available..

- The irregular number of folios – 75 does not divide easily into any set of regular quires – may suggest the addition or removal of folios or leaves after the primary stage of assembly. An examination of the manuscript could potentially confirm or deny this, as well as giving some indication of where changes may have taken place, potentially informing our understanding of how the vicars of Lichfield understood and interacted with their book as a historical document.


Brereton, Georgine E. (ed). Des grantz geanz: An Anglo-Norman poem. Oxford: Medium Ævum 1937.

Greenslade, M. W. The Staffordshire Historians. Staffordshire Record Society, fourth series, 11 (1982).

Kettle, Ann J. “Whitelocke, William (c. 1520-1584).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004. [http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/view/article/29318, accessed 03 Dec 2009].

Ker, Neil R. Medieval Libraries of Great Britain: A List of Surviving Books. London: Royal Historical Society, 1964.

--- (ed). “Patrick Young’s catalogue of the manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral”, Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2 (1950): 151-168.

Knowles, David & R. Neville Hadcock. Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1953.

Planta, Joseph. Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library deposited in the British Museum. The British Museum: Department of Manuscripts. London: Hansard, 1802.

Tite, Colin. The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use. The British Library. Bury St Edmund’s: St Edmundsbury Press, 2003.

Ward, H. L. D. Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum. London: British Museum, 1962.

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