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Conclusion: ‘The Learned Clerk and Humanistic Practice’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2016

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Summary

A writer's writer, Walsingham clearly imagined his work being read outside the monastery. The evidence suggests that parts of the Chronica maiora were indeed incorporated into the fourteenth-century continuations of the Polychronicon by scriveners in London, with copies of that text subsequently brought to other parts of the country. Walsingham was also prescient in imagining his future influence, beyond the Middle Ages: fifteenth-century chroniclers knew and used his Chronica maiora (whereas the Westminster and Anonimalle chronicles were not used until after the end of the Middle Ages). Thomas Otterbourne took most of his coverage for 1406–20 from Walsingham, and John Capgrave (d. 1464) used Walsingham extensively for material before 1376 and again for coverage of events between 1376 and 1417. Copies held by antiquarians of the early sixteenth century formed the basis of the first print edition, in 1574, by Archbishop Parker, an edition copied by Stow (Chronicles of England, 1586) and Holinshed (Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577)—the latter, of course, forming much of the basis for Shakespeare's indelibly popular accounts of this period in medieval English history. As witness to the era, Walsingham's chronicle has surpassed in influence every other text produced in England in the late fourteenth century with the possible exception of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The classicist compositions, however, have followed a distinctly quieter route. Certainly Whethamstede and Wylde were early admirers, but there is no chorus of claims by early humanists to classify Walsingham as one of their own. Even though his impassioned defense of poetry shares many features with that of his contemporary, Coluccio Salutati, the so-called ‘dictator of the humanist world of Italy’, it does not rise to the level of disputation that characterizes the latter's work. And if Poggio Bracciolini had made it to St Albans during his visit to England in 1418–23, inventoried the scriptorium and even sat down and talked to Walsingham for a few hours, he probably would have nevertheless concluded—as Roberto Weiss asserts—that classical scholarship in this country was ‘still conducted on medieval lines and completely unaffected by the Renaissance’. Given the specificity of Poggio's desire to find lost or rare classical manuscripts, or evidence of scholars formally trained in Greek and Latin belles lettres, such a conclusion seems inevitable: Walsingham's classicism belonged to the Middle Ages.

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The Classicist Writings of Thomas Walsingham
`Worldly Cares' at St Albans Abbey in the Fourteenth Century
, pp. 173 - 180
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2016

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