The Scottish History Society

Reviews of our publications

The chronicle of Melrose Abbey. A stratigraphic edition. I. Introduction and facsimile edition

Subject:  TMR 09.01.01 Broun and Harrison, The chronicle of Melrose Abbey (van Houts)
Date:  Mon, 12 Jan 2009 09:20:46 -0500
From:  The Medieval Review <[email protected]>
To:  [email protected], [email protected]

Broun, Dauvit and Julian Harrison, eds. The chronicle of Melrose Abbey. A stratigraphic edition. I. Introduction and facsimile edition. The Scottish History Society, 6th ser., v. 1. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 269, 1 CD-ROM. $75.00. ISBN-13: 9780906245293.

Reviewed by Elisabeth van Houts, Emmanuel College, Cambridge (UK) [email protected]

This is the first in a series of three volumes comprising a text edition, translation, introduction and facsimile of the Melrose Chronicle.  Having only the first volume with the introduction and the facsimile at hand, I feel slightly handicapped in my judgement of the whole project.  My comments can only be preliminary until the full set has been published.  The idea for a new edition of this important text is to be welcomed.  The Melrose chronicle is one of the most important narrative sources for the history of northern England and Scotland in the twelfth and thirteenth century not only as the foremost specimen of Cistercian historical writing but also because of the unique nature of the original manuscript in which it has survived.  The chronicle was almost certainly composed in 1173x4 at Melrose Abbey, founded in 1136, in Northumbria.  After the initial composition the original manuscript was worked on in fifteen stages by various scribes until the 1290s, after which a final item was added at stage xvi in the early fourteenth century at Thorney Abbey (Cambridgeshire) or its cell Deeping St. James (Lincolnshire). The entire chronicle, therefore, is a truly "living text" which during a period of more than 120 years was actively revised and updated by the Melrose monks as a collaborative enterprise.

The medieval book of the Melrose Chronicle consists of two parts, namely London, British Library MS Cotton Julius B. XIII fols. 2r-47v and Cotton Faustina B. IX fols. 2r-75v, of which the first part has only recently been recognised as an integral part of the historiographical project.  It contains Hugh of St. Victor's chronicle (on fols. 2r-40v), consisting of tables of popes and emperors up to the 1130s, the period when it was put together as a schoolbook designed for students to be memorised.  Here it is updated to 1173x4, when the Melrose chronicler started his work.  Hugh's chronicle on fols. 41r-47v is followed by Annals 1-249AD.  Of the three main scribes responsible for the Julius B. XIII texts two have also worked on Faustina B. IX.  A note found in the latter on fol. 11v suggests that the two parts formed one book when it was borrowed by an abbot of Dundrennan.  If this was the case, it also suggests that at some stage, perhaps as early as 1208, a narrative covering the period 249 (last date in Julius) and 731 (the first date in Faustina) may have been lost, because in 1208 another scribe in Julius fol. 30v noted that the chronological order revealed just such an hiatus.

How should such a collaborative project be edited and published? If the Melrose Chronicle was a single narrative with updated extensions at the end of each composition stage, a conventional edition could easily accommodate them.  If the chronicle was only interpolated, that is if additions were made at various stages into the main text, an edition can reproduce them, for example, by the use of different letter fonts. In the Melrose case, however, additions in the form of extensions and interpolations were composed in fifteen stages across the 120 years of the  collaborative project as it has survived in the same single manuscript.  To reveal clearly and unambiguously the various layers of this textual tradition, only a stratigraphic approach can bring a solution.  The term derives from archaeologists who coined the phrase in order to distinguish between layers of excavated buildings or earthworks, and which recently has been applied to manuscripts studies by the Dutch codicologist Peter Gumbert.  What the editors have in mind for the edition, and parallel translation, is to print the original text as it was composed in 1173x4 followed by fifteen separate blocks of text in chronological order which represent both the interpolations and the additions.  The resulting edition will consequently not represent the text as it appears in the original manuscript, but it will allow the readers to access the narrative blocks as they were composed by the fifteen or so scribes/authors who revised the narrative by adding bits of information that came to their knowledge later on.  In order to enable the readers to overcome the visual handicap of having to place these blocks of revised text in the right place, the editors have offered with the first volume a cd-rom with a facsimile of the complete medieval book, ie. the Julius and Faustina manuscripts.

In historiographical terms the Melrose Chronicle is a fascinating example of a living chronicle that during its period of growth reveals the transformation of its authors' political circumstances.  Whereas at the time of its composition the abbey of Melrose was an English foundation by a Scottish king (David I) in northern England, its sentiments were unambiguously English.  The Scots were more often than not the enemy.  In the course of the thirteenth century the chronicle's revisions reveal a shift in identity because the monks of Melrose increasingly identify themselves with the Scots against the English.

The two editors of the text are each responsible for approximately half the numbers of chapters.  They are both manuscript experts who complement each other nicely with Dauvit being more interested in the editorial and paleographical aspects and Julian being the historiographical connoisseur.  The project is an ambitious one, well
thought through and cleverly exploiting modern technology (ie. digital images on the cd-rom providing a facsimile) which allow the reader at every stage the advantage of seeing the original alongside an edited, translated and annotated text.

In two respects I have some minor reservations.  The introduction is incredibly densely written by specialists who do not always have their reader's ignorance in mind.  The impressive amount of detail on occasion (on scribes and paleography) can have an oppressive effect, but perhaps that is the result of the small print of the main text (with an even smaller one for the footnotes) which your reviewer, well into her fifties, does not always find easy to read.  The advantage of having a digital copy of the original manuscript is that at least its text can be enlarged on a computer screen.