The Brut – also known as the English Chronicle – was a popular history of England in the medieval period. It is the earliest known prose history of Britain and traces the country’s mythical origins.
The Brut’s contemporary popularity is demonstrated by the fact that it survives in the original Anglo-Norman (the French dialect of England), as well as Middle English and Latin versions. Over two centuries the original text was continued, supplemented and translated. The development and relationship between these different compilations is very complex but a brief outline of Trinity’s manuscripts is provided below.
The Anglo-Norman prose text describes the discovery and settlement of Britain by Brut (latin: Brutus), grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Brutus landed on the Isle of Albion and defeated the indigenous giants led by Gogmagog. He founded the city of New Troy (London), settled the land and named the country Britain. Some of the early texts also contain a preface based on an Anglo-Norman poem Des Grantz Geanz which tells the story of the giants: thirty three wilful daughters of King Diocletian of Syria murdered their husbands and were banished to an island which they named Albion after the eldest daughter Albina. The women were impregnated by the Devil and gave birth to giants which inhabited the land until their defeat by Brutus.
The Brut narrative continues with descriptions of British Kings including the now-familiar stories of King Lear, Arthur and Merlin. By the time the annals reach the Norman and Plantaganet Kings of England, the account becomes more historical. The earliest section of the Chronicle is a mix, therefore, of history and legend, romance and chivalric ideas while the latter parts, which were augmented by other material, are more political in focus.
Current scholarship suggests that the first composition was in Anglo-Norman sometime after the death of Henry III in 1272 by an anonymous compiler working from Latin sources including Geoffrey of Monmouth. There are 49 known Anglo-Norman prose editions of the Brut of which two – R.7.14 (ff. 1-147v) and R.5.32 (ff. 1-59) – are at Trinity.
R.7.14 falls into the group known as the Anglo-Norman ‘long’ version which was a revised text extended to include prophecies of Merlin and events up to the raid of Archibald Douglas and the battle of Halidon Hill between the Scots and the English in 1333. Manuscript R.5.32, the ‘short’ version also contains one of only three known copies of Robert of Avesbury’s Latin Chronicle of Edward III (begins f. 59).
Around the turn of the 15th century the ‘Long Version’ was translated into English. Some English versions also extended the content in an attempt to keep the work up-to-date. It was these Middle English versions which gained wide popularity though a few versions in Anglo-Norman continued to be made. Four Trinity manuscripts contain Middle English versions of the Brut. These later editions draw on urban Chronicles from London. Manuscript O.10.34 (ff.1-160) belongs to a group known as the ‘common’ version and ends in 1419 with the conclusion of the siege of Rome.
Manuscript R.5.43 also contains a History of the Three Kings of Cologne and the Brut (f.39-199v) ends with the seige of Harfleur in 1415 while manuscript O.11.11 (3v-130v) is an abbreviated text which continues further to 1437.
The Anglo-Norman Brut became the standard historical text owned by aristocrats and religious houses while the English versions reached lower down the social stratum to merchants and landowning gentry. Manuscript O.9.1 (ff.49-227) is a good example of a text which was probably owned by a member of the mercantile class. The Brut text is followed by a copy of an indenture and includes appended material from a civic Chronicle (198v onwards).
Later chroniclers including Holinshed and Stow used the Brut as a basis and it was the first English chronicle to be printed by Caxton in 1480. Trinity’s early printed edition is VI.3.2 printed by the Julyan Notary in 1504.
The importance of the Brut lies in the use of the English language for writing history in the late-medieval period when previously such texts had been written in Latin or French. It also reveals the impetus towards the creation of a national identity and, in the later extensions, the desire to provide a factual historical narrative for the laity.
Lister M. Matheson, The Prose Brut: The Development of a Middle English Chronicle (Arizona, 1998)