In my previous blog post, I mentioned that the next step in my research project is to look at primary source material. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to talk about primary sources a bit more specifically in this blog post. In regard to the different types of written sources from the medieval period, Joel T. Rosenthal, editor of Understanding Medieval Primary Sources, provides a useful breakdown of the material into three major categories: narrative histories, government records, and private or personal records (Rosenthal 1-2). Since the first category – that of narrative history – has arguably been the most influential in shaping analyses of Richard’s reign, as well as the most easily accessible to amateur historians such as myself (there is even a Medieval Chronicle Society!), it is here that I will focus my post.
Narrative history in the 14th century, as in most of the Middle Ages, came predominantly in the form of chronicles, which were typically produced by monks for the purpose of recording events in both the past and present. When considering this type of source, it is important to keep in mind that medieval historians had a wholly different conception of their office than modern historians, who usually at least attempt to examine multiple perspectives and avoid personal bias. G.O. Sayles provides a rather harsh assessment of the unreliability of medieval chroniclers, who he describes as being “receptacles of misinformation, scandal, and falsehood” who were “capable of not merely understanding but of distorting documents” and “could be hopelessly biased and indulge in character assassination”. Sayles goes on to specifically highlight the slanderous nature of chronicle accounts of Richard’s reign, asserting that “under Richard II [chronicles] became a vehicle of propaganda that was purposively devised and disseminated in order to denigrate the King and to put Henry of Lancaster’s usurpation of the throne in favorable light.” (Sayles; qtd. in Stow, 68). Although Stow’s analysis goes demonstrates the necessity of reading chronicle accounts with a critical eye, it is also undoubtedly too dismissive of chronicle accounts of Richard’s reign. To begin with, chroniclers provide us with useful insight into how contemporaries perceived events which took place in the medieval world. Additionally, although it is true that an account in a single chronicle is insufficient to confirm an event, accounts of the same event in different chronicles can be used to corroborate one another. Finally, although Sayles is correct to point out that the events at the end of Richard’s reign led to substantial bias in the accounts of many chroniclers, who often went back and revised their earlier work to be more hostile to the king; other chronicles end before Richard’s tyranny and the Lancastrian ascension, freeing them from being negatively impacted by pro-Lancastrian bias.
Thus, although they should certainly be approached with caution, chronicle accounts can potentially provide valuable insight into Richard’s reign. In my next blog post, I will discuss some of the most prominent chroniclers of the reign, along with their strengths and shortcomings.
Rosenthal, Joel T., editor. Understanding Medieval Primary Sources. Routledge,
Stow, George B. “Richard II in Thomas Walsingham’s Chronicles.” Speculum,
vol. 59, no. 1, 1984, pp. 68102. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/