The Imagining History project

brut detail

About the Project

Page Information

Author: Jason O'Rourke
Revised: July 25, 2005 August 8th, 2005
Reviewed: Stephen Kelly John Thompson

What is the Brut?
Project Rationales
Resources for the Scholarly Community

The 'Imagining History' project is the first large-scale collaborative investigation of the manuscripts of the Middle English Prose Brut chronicle, arguably the most prolificly disemminated secular text of the English Middle Ages. The project explores the cultural capital of the Prose Brut within the larger context of the ubiquitous 'English Brut tradition', which finds its origins in Norman historiography - specifically in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittanniae - and shapes much of the late medieval and early modern historical imagination in Britain.

What is the Brut?

The Middle English Prose Brut survives in approximately 183 manuscripts and fragments. It recounts the history of Britain from its mythical foundation by the Trojan Prince Brutus, commingling Galfridian materials with more traditionally understood historiographical discourses characteristic of the later medieval chronicle. While Latin and Anglo-Norman versions predate the Middle English text, the latter version witnesses an explosion of vernacular interest in british historiography: "in both the Middle Ages and early Renaissance it served as the standard account of English history."1 Together with its Latin and Anglo-Norman antecedents, and related historiographical and literary works, what we are terming the "English Brut tradition" is therefore central to our understanding of the historical imagination of the later medieval and early modern periods.

Brut chronicle versions were copied in many different locations across Britain, but they have a particular affiliation to London, and are often found sharing the same manuscript as other chronicles of the city. Marginal inscriptions including signatures of owners and readers suggest that the Middle English Brut was widely read by members of the growing middle strata of late medieval English society such as merchants and grocers, as well as by the rural and urban gentry. Many readers of the text were professional or amateur scholars, who used it as a tool in the research of family histories. One Brut manuscript even shows signs of being consulted by members of a commission set up by Henry VII to trace his Welsh descent. Clues left by scribes who copied the chronicle provide us with information about the differing ways in which books were produced in parts of Britain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Notable collections of Brut manuscripts can be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the British Library in London, although libraries and private owners as far afield as Australia, Japan and the USA also hold manuscripts. The Brut was printed by William Caxton in 1480, and was thereafter reprinted more frequently in the 15th and 16th centuriess than any other English text.

Project Rationales

The "English Brut tradition" has been almost universally neglected by modern scholars working on topics relating to late medieval and early modern textual cultures. It is our argument that 'imagining history' through this tradition should be central to our conceptualization of medieval and early modern popular historiography in these islands. The reasons for this are self-evident: with the striking exception of the extant copies of the English Wycliffite Bible translations, the texts of the Brut tradition survive in more medieval and post-medieval manuscripts and early printed editions than any other English vernacular work produced as either verse or prose. Compared to the number of extant manuscripts and early prints preserving work of the canonical poets of the late Middle Ages, such as Langland or Chaucer, the statistics are staggering: at least 181 handwritten copies of the Middle English Prose Brut survive that were produced between the fourteenth and seventeenth century, now identified by no fewer than 215 separate entries in Lister Matheson's excellent descriptive catalogue, The Prose Brut, the Development of a Middle English Chronicle (1998). To this number might be added the thirteen early printed editions, also at least forty-nine manuscripts containing Anglo-Norman texts and an unknown - indeed still growing - number of Latin and Welsh translations and associated versions, all apparently derived from either Anglo-Norman or English forms of the work. Understandably, the bulk of modern scholarly attention has been dedicated to identifying and describing the extant manuscripts and texts, research that - due to the enormity of the codicological task - relied for the most part on nineteenth-century editorial standards of textual scholarship (for which see Edward Donald Kennedy's judicious bibliographical summary in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English and Matheson's recent published surveys of Brut scholarship). Research on most other aspects of the Brut manuscripts and texts has remained largely undeveloped.

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