Annabel Patterson,
Reading Holinshed’s
Chronicles (1994)

Over the last month or so I have been reading Annabel Patterson’s 1994 book Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles.  Here is the first of several thoughts I have on the subjects that she brings up.

In her chapter on Protocols Patterson discusses the multivocality in Holinshed in some detail.  The marginalia contained notes to sources where relevant although these were far from complete.  Holinshed himself noted that he had ‘rather chosen to shew the diversitie’ of opinion among those sources that he relied upon rather than ‘by over-ruling them…to frame them to agree to [his] liking’ (Patterson, p.35).  Patterson notes that other histories written in the sixteenth century (such as that by Hall, Grafton and More) gave lip service to referencing sources although the re-issue of Fabian’s chronicles in 1559 did contain additional marginalia that noted the original source material.  Perhaps, then the protocol of noting sources in the margins was beginning to take shape as early as the 1550s.  Certainly John Foxe, in his Acts and Monuments, added copious marginalia noting his sources although these were often far from an accurate guide to what he had actually used.  For instance, many if not all his references to the Venerable Bede derived from other sources (prominently John Bale’s recent catalogue of English writers) and not from a copy of Bede at all.  In my researches on Foxe I could find no evidence that he had ever actually read Bede’s ecclesiastical history for himself.

What is interesting about this marginalia (beyond the fact that it helps us to identify the sources that were used to compile the accounts in Holinshed and Foxe) is the reason for their inclusion.  As stated above, Holinshed had chosen to show the diversity of opinion in his sources.  The printer who had re-issued Fabian claimed a similar reasoning as to show ‘the diversities’ of Fabian’s sources.  Foxe made similar claims.  One of Patterson’s central arguments in her Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles focuses on the role of censorship in the writing of the chronicles.  In relation to the noting of sources, Patterson recognises that these marginalia might, in part, provide protection from censorship or rebuke as the words are clearly labelled as that of another.  However, Patterson is right to argue also that there was more to it than that.

John Foxe often added marginalia to prove that he was telling the truth.  It was rare that Foxe would change an account taken from an original document.  What he would do instead is twist the meaning of that account by taking it out of context or ignoring other information contained in the source that was less useful to his argument.  He did this under the belief that the old chroniclers had been corrupted by the antichrist and had therefore written only a partially true account themselves.  Foxe therefore saw himself as doing a service by shifting the truth from the false.  So for Foxe sources were referenced to deepen the truth-claims that he was making.  What he wrote was not his own opinion but that of past writers (Catholic monks at that) who could not entirely suppress the truth.

In Holinshed and Foxe sources were also noted so that the author could challenge their authenticity or even (in some cases) interact with that source.  Patterson has noted the inclusion of ‘I’ in various passages of Holinshed’s chronicles where the author has argued his opinion against that of the original source (Patterson, p. 36-7).  Indeed, Patterson shows that Foxes’ Acts and Monuments were used as a counter-balance to Holinshed and his successors in the accounts of Edward VI and Mary Tudor.  Holinshed intended for a more neutral stance on religion whilst Foxe obviously focused on his protestant revision of the past.  A comparison of Holinshed and Foxe is therefore interesting as opposing histories of their own period.

In the Acts and Monuments Foxe used a similar strategy when dealing with Polydore Vergil’s history.  Vergil was viewed by Foxe as the most recent in a line of Popish writers whose goal was to distort the truth and destroy evidence that did not support the Roman Catholic position.  Indeed Foxe and others charged Vergil with the destruction of manuscript sources (a charge that was made somewhat ridiculous as it had been a partially protestant act that had destroyed the monastic libraries and thus hundreds of old manuscripts).  In the Acts and Monuments Foxe often noted Polydore Vergil in the margins in comparison to other older sources to show how distorted history had been written by Vergil.  Any error or uncertainty in Vergil was abused to its fullest in Foxe’s revisions.

All of this suggests that sources were noted in sixteenth century histories (especially near the end of the century) as a means to defend and strengthen truth-claims, to protect against censorship or claims of heresy and treason.   Although sources were noted to allow others to find their base material this was not the priority and only served the purpose of making it more difficult for opposing historians to attack their truth-claims.  The reason for this evolution in historiographical practice I think must derive in part from increased debate and disagreement between historians over the authenticity of past accounts (made more essential due to the opposing sides of the reformation), the increased availability of accounts made possible from the expansion of the printing press as a medium of distribution, and from humanist as opposed to scholastic methods of looking at texts.


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