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03 March 2020

A ‘Full House’ of Brut English Chronicles

Libraries are renowned for being quiet places but you should have heard the excited cries of 'Housey Housey!' when we recently acquired a copy of the Saint Albans Chronicle printed in London by Wykyn de Worde in 1520.  Its acquisition means the British Library can now, uniquely, provide access to the complete sequence of printed editions of this English Chronicle.

The distinctive Printer’s Device used by Wynkyn de Worde on the last printed leaf of the Descrypcyon of Englande The distinctive Printer’s Device used by Wynkyn de Worde on the last printed leaf of the Descrypcyon of Englande bound before his 1520 edition of The English Chronicle.
British Library shelfmark: C.194.b.430. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Originally Anglo-Norman, the ‘Brut chronicle’ refers to a collection of medieval works on the history of England that incorporate the mythological founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy. It became the most popular vernacular historical chronicle and its wide circulation in manuscript made it an obvious contender for the early printing press.  It saw thirteen editions between 1480 and 1528, the first by William Caxton, and the last by Wynkyn de Worde.
 

'Here come Normans'! The book’s decorative start to the Norman conquest in the 1520 edition.'Here come Normans'! The book’s decorative start to the Norman conquest in the 1520 edition of The Chronicle. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Just as its many scribal forms were embellished and supplemented, the English Chronicle’s printed versions were treated to additions also.  In just the two years between Caxton’s first and second editions the vocabulary of the text was modernized and punctuation increased.  Spacing was improved and the breaking of words was avoided (i.e. gen- | till became Gentille; des ||| turbaunce became dysturbbauce).  Caxton introduced additions using ‘many dyverse paunflettis and bookys’ he had at his disposal and so the Brut was brought up to the times of Edward IV.  Caxton also responded to the growing interest in geography amongst ordinary readers by printing a Description of Britain but his information was lifted from Ralph Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century text badly in need of updating.  The Chronicle and the Description became frequently bound together or printed together in later editions.

Caxton’s second edition (1482) with 35 cuts inserted from the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles This copy of Caxton’s second edition (1482) has a lovely feature of intervention by a past reader; 35 cuts from the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles have been inserted in the margins at an early date. British Library shelfmark C.10.b.4. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1486 the work was edited and expanded by the so-called ‘Schoolmaster of St Albans’.  It was given a new prologue, a summary of the lives of the Popes (pre-Reformation of course and destined, as with the newly acquired copy to have occurrences of the word ‘Pope’ censored and scored through) and was generally made more readable.  It also saw the introduction of woodcut illustrations; Biblical and topographical: Tower of Babel, Rome and London.  In 1497 the St Albans text was selected by Wynkyn de Worde for a new edition.  Using more popular illustrations like battle scenes, Kings, and mythological curiosities such as the fabled wrestling match between the giants Gogmagog and Coryn, de Worde published five editions of the Chronicle.  Another London printer, Julian Notary, introduced eye-catching illustrations of Adam and Eve, Noah, and Abraham in his 1504 and 1515 editions.  These illustrate developments in how books were becoming tailored for a wider, more popular audience.  Yet no more than a dozen copies of this 1520 edition survive.  The copy acquired comes with noteworthy English provenance having been in the Library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire since the 17th century.
 

Battle between Coryn and Gogmagog 'How Brute arryued at Totnesse in the yle of Albyon / And of the / bataylle that was bitwene Coryn / and Gogmagog.'  This battle is believed to have took place on Plymouth Hoe (where commemorative figures of the two giants were cut into the turf up to medieval times). Coryn defeated Gogmagog by tossing him upon the rocks below. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For library workers it is an especial pleasure to be able to provide readers with examples of the entire printed representation of a particular work - all in one place under one roof – a ‘Full House’ so to speak in Library Bingo lingo!
 

Woodcut illustration depicting violence and shipsA glorious woodcut illustration depicting violence and ships, both of which feature prominently in the English Chronicle!  Printed by Julian Notary, in 1504. British Library shelfmark: G.5994 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Table of thirteen printed editions of the Brut chronicle 'Eyes down for a full house!' All thirteen printed editions of the Brut chronicle held at the British Library. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

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