Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 June 2018
Until recently there was a tendency in the study of medieval universal historiography to privilege texts that were regarded as original, in that they had brought something new to the genre and could be relied upon to illustrate new trends in historical writing. Other texts were also singled out because they deviated so clearly from a particular norm or tradition that they were deemed to be exceptional, or because they had enjoyed extraordinary popularity, and therefore were thought to have impacted on a relatively large cross-section of society. Such a focus on the exceptional, or the exceptionally popular, of course refers to more general trends in how past generations of medievalists have thought about relevance when studying medieval narrative texts. But it is important to realize that such a methodological position risks overlooking a substantial body of evidence that does not match any of these criteria.
These overlooked sources belong to a group of what I call – for want of other ways to classify them – ‘boring’ universal chronicles. They lack originality as regards the contents, in that they add little to what was already being transmitted in older or more prestigious works; they represent a way of thinking about the past that was, in some way or other, behind the times; and they failed to reach an audience beyond their authors’ immediate circle, remaining virtually unread until they were discovered by modern scholars. None of these factors – or, indeed, all of these factors combined – constitutes a good argument for dismissing these texts as irrelevant to our understanding of medieval historiographical culture, and of the various (social, educational, other) uses of chronicles. Although many are known through only one or two copies, as a ‘subgenre’ works of this type are extremely well attested in the manuscript evidence and in medieval booklists. Furthermore, the simple observation that there was a demand for such texts (however redundant they may look to us from an intellectual or creative viewpoint) – and the fact that substantial numbers of such texts were acquired in addition to what we consider to be the canon of medieval historiography – justifies us asking questions about why they were produced in the first place, what interests and concerns they reflected, and who found them useful.