The Brut Chronicle

The medieval prose Brut  is a legendary and historical chronicle of England named after its first hero, Brutus, a descendent of Aeneas and the epic founder of Britain. Espousing chivalric ideals and celebrating the deeds of knightly heroes, the Brut  resembles aristocratic chronicles in content. History and romance are at times difficult to distinguish, especially in its earlier sections, which include the stories of King Lear, Merlin, Arthur, and others of legend. Yet even the descriptions of Edward III and Henry V are suffused with a concern for the noble and heroic. Later parts of the Brut  draw much of their material from the urban chronicles of London, which were addressed to a different audience, and this material tends to reflect the political and practical concerns of wealthy merchants and civic leaders rather than those of the nobility. It is these sections that have received the most modern attention, primarily from historians seeking contemporary accounts of historical events, and yet the entire chronicle was no doubt read by its earliest audience as in some sense accurate history.

The prose Brut  survives today in several different forms. Current scholarship argues that it was first composed in Anglo-Norman sometime after 1272 by an anonymous compiler working from Latin sources. This Anglo-Norman version was later extended to 1333 and then, in about 1400, translated into English. The English version in turn received its own set of continuations, some extending as late as 1461. Most of these later additions, especially those of the fifteenth century, represent original English composition.

The Middle English version, extant in over 170 manuscripts, achieved a remarkably wide distribution in fifteenth-century England. If we can measure popularity by the number of surviving manuscripts, then this work was the second most popular Middle English prose text in England. Only the Wycliffite translations of the Bible are found in more manuscripts. Copied over and over, it underwent various modifications, especially at its end where scribes continually added material in an effort to keep the work "up-to-date." Later chroniclers, including Holinshed and Stow, borrowed frequently from the prose Brut, and it was the first English chronicle in print, produced by Caxton in 1480. The enormous popularity of the Middle English Brut  is a significant fact. For one thing, it attests to the establishment of the English language as a medium for historical writing in the late Middle Ages--earlier chronicles having been written and read in Latin or French. Furthermore, it is an indication of the importance of historical writing for the time, making the work useful for understanding the meaning and function of history in the late Middle Ages and for exploring the relationship between such histories and England's national self-consciousness in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The large number of surviving manuscripts presents us with a tremendously rich and yet thoroughly complicated textual tradition. What exactly the manuscripts represent and how they relate to one another has not yet been definitively answered. These textual complexities have hampered editorial work; only one complete edition has been published in this century, made by Brie for the Early English Text Society (1906, 1908), and based on roughly two dozen manuscripts. The traditional classification of Middle English manuscripts, promoted by Brie, is founded primarily on narrative content rather than textual analysis. A key distinguishing factor among manuscripts has thus been the chronological extent of any particular text's continuations beyond 1333, the year of the victorious battle against the Scots at Halidon Hill and the English translation's original ending. Three major continuations have been noted: those describing events between 1333 and the death of Edward III in 1377, those continuing to 1419 and Henry V's conquest of Rouen, and those ending in 1461 with the accession of Edward IV. Such a system of classification has many anomalies and weaknesses, however, and Matheson has promised a revised study of manuscript affiliation, obviously a daunting task.

University of Michigan MS 225

University of Michigan MS 225 is a text of the Middle English Brut. It is an unruled paper manuscript measuring 288 x 205 mm. with no discernible watermarks. The writing block, roughly 210 x 130 mm., fluctuates slightly in size, each folio side typically consisting of 34-35 long lines. MS 225 contains only the Brut, which runs 135 leaves, though not carrying over to the final verso. The manuscript hand mixes Secretary and late Anglicana forms. Initials (usually 2-line) and rubrics in red begin unnumbered chapters. Space for initials and rubrics is left unfilled on folios 111r-v and 112r. Folios 92v and 93r are blank. Eleven folios (verso) have catchwords in the far lower right margin.

The first 33 folios have frequent marginal references and notes in a more modern hand; thereafter, a few sporadic notes and pen trials. The four final leaves (136-139) contain various signatures and ownership inscriptions, the most legible names being Thomas Marshe, L. Philippus, and C. Howes. There is also an inscription on folio 111r. Two parchment leaves at the beginning and one at the end may have been part of the original binding. The name Thomas Marshe also appears on the recto of the second parchment leaf. The manuscript is presently in a nineteenth-century binding.

MS 225 has been dated circa 1420.

Foliation: Paper, ff. ii (modern) + ii (original parchment) + 139 + i (original parchment) + ii (modern).

Collation: Although the present binding makes a definitive collation difficult, the surviving catchwords suggest that it is I8 (1 lacking), II-V8, VI-XI12, XII-XIII8, XIV12.

Missing its first leaf, the text begins imperfectly on folio 1r:

And that same nyghte they cut hyr husbondis throtis & so þey died / And when Dioclysian hyr ffadir wist there of he made much sorowe / & wold have brent his doughtirs But his Barons counsellid hym / that he shuld voyd the londe of hem for evir more
The chronicle ends with the surrender of Rouen to Henry V in 1418, the final two lines found at the top of folio 135r:
and then the kyng entird in to the toun & restid hym / in the Castell till þe Toun was set in rewle & governunce
The remainder of 135r is blank, except for a colophon in red at the bottom:
Here endithe a boke callid Brute of the Croniculis of / Englond made & compilid by notabill clerkis of / all the actis of all þe kyngis that evir was in this / londe sithend Brute first conquerid it

The version of the Brut  found in MS 225 apparently represents a later stage in the development of the English text than that of Brie's edition. It contains two interpolations not found in Brie: the Cadwallader episode (34v-35v), and Queen Isabella's letter to the "Roialte" of London (92r-93v). Matheson claims that both these interpolations can be used as criteria for manuscript classification, although he has not yet explained their significance in this regard. The text of MS 225 is described in a University Library acquisitions ledger as "a much curtailed and condensed version of the text" edited by Brie, a description evidently provided to the 1962 Supplement  to the De Ricci Census, which repeats it. Although this claim is overstated, the text does present a version more concise than that found in Brie's edition. It seems likely that MS 225 belongs to a group of texts that will fall into Matheson's projected category of the "Abbreviated Version" (see his p. 213).

MS 225 was in the University of Michigan's possession in 1945, although how much earlier is unclear. It is not listed under Univ. of Michigan manuscripts in the 1935 De Ricci Census. It was probably not one of the 120 Middle English manuscripts listed by Brie (1905), of which only five have not been positively identified and located (on this, see Kennedy, pp. 2635-6).


Brie, Friedrich, W.D., ed. The Brut, or The Chronicles of England. 2 vols. The Early English Text Society, os 131, 136. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1906, 1908.

Brie, Friedrich, W.D. Geschichte und Quellen der mittelenglischen Prosachronik The Brute of England oder The Chronicles of England. Marburg: N.G. Elwert'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1905.

Kennedy, Edward Donald. Chronicles and Other Historical Writing. Vol. 8 of A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500. Gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1989. 2629-37, 2818-33.

Matheson, Lister M. "Historical Prose." Middle English Prose: A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1984. 209-48.

Sources for the Study of Late Medieval and Renaissance Paleography. Ed. Nicholas H. Steneck. Preprint edition. Ann Arbor: [Univ. of Michigan], 1978. 36. [Contains a transcription of folio 62v of Univ. of Michigan MS 225.]

Supplement to the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. C.U. Faye and W.H. Bond. NY: Bibliographical Society of America, 1962. 289.

Written December 1996 by David Ruddy