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Chronicles, stories, myths

The moving word

The perception of a common past is crucial to the formation of every culture and medieval English society was no exception. Latin and vernacular traditions converged in a variety of narrative forms to transmit accounts of past events, traditional stories and tales of origin, in which fictional and historical elements often overlapped. In the Middle Ages, as in most eras, history is a body of knowledge within which social groups seek recognition and from which those with power expect a sense of legitimation.

By the early thirteenth century, under the influence of monastic chronicles, historiography began to play an increasingly important role in political narratives. The use of prose in chronicles began to parallel and then gradually replace that of verse as the preferred medium for historiographical writing. Many important works on medieval English history were written in French, rather than Latin, throughout this period, as the use of the vernacular frequently accompanied the use of prose. Jean de Wavrin’s Chronique d’Angleterre provides a unique and well-informed account of contemporary political events by a former Flemish diplomat who fought alongside the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Vernacular literature – i.e., written in a living language other than Latin – became a common repository for a historical consciousness in which facts and deeds were remembered increasingly along with legends and folkloric beliefs. The Roman de Horn and the William of Palerne, both composed by authors clearly embedded in a French literary heritage, are examples of this lively confluence of oral traditions and historical motifs.