Whatley (2020 Congress)

Laura J. Whatley
(Fine Arts Department, Auburn University — Montgomery)

“Sealing the Historical Record in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Maiora

Abstract of Paper
Intended To be presented at the 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies [CANCELLED]
(Kalamazoo, 2020)

Rescheduled for the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2021)

Session I of II on
“Seal the Real:  Documentary Records, Seals, and Authentications”
Part I:  “Signed & Sealed”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Mildred Budny
2020 Congress Program
2021 Congress Program Planning

[Published on 10 March 2020, with an Update on 17 March 2020 reporting the Cancellation of the Congress as a whole,
and with an Update on 19 November reporting the Rescheduling for the 2021 Congress



Matthew Paris (circa 1200 – 1259) was a monk at the Benedictine monastery of St. Albans just north of London. He served as St. Alban’s official historian, producing his Chronica Majora between circa 1220 and 1259.  It survives in original manuscript in three volumes (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MSS 16 + 26 and London, British Library, Royal MS 14 C. VII). The chronicle is celebrated for its eye-witness accounts of events during the reign of Henry III (died 1272), its biting rhetoric especially regarding foreign affairs, and the pen-and-ink illustrations in the monk’s own hand. To suggest that Matthew Paris was interested in documentary culture and record-keeping in thirteenth-century England would be an understatement.

Both text and image in the Chronica Majora reveal Matthew’s acute awareness of the power and authority of written records such as charters, letters, and papal bulls. Indeed, Matthew frequently rendered seals and sealed documents in the margins of the chronicle, often in close physical proximity to a textual discussion or copying of a document. Seals, as objects as well as images, appear in Matthew’s chronicle in one of three distinct ways. First, Matthew included
numerous simple drawings of sealed writ in the margins (Image A). In these cases, the document is blank or has nondescript lines of “text,” and the seals are represented as round disks appended to the documents in outline or color. Second, Matthew would illustrate a complete visual record of the seal, including its iconography and legend(s). For example, he drew a detailed facsimile of the recto and verso of the imperial seal of Frederick II prominently in the text column, in which he describes a letter from Frederick to the king of England (Image B). And third, Matthew produced marginal drawings that closely correspond to sigillographic imagery, revealing his general knowledge of seal iconography and an understanding of the role of seals to signify and embody (Image C).

This paper seeks to better understand the relationship between history writing and sealing culture in England as evidenced in Matthew’s Chronica Majora. It will consider text/image relationships, explore iconographic correspondences between drawings and real seals, and locate Matthew’s impulse to record sealed documents and seals within broader historical practices. Matthew Paris offers a unique paradigm for the use of seals in relation to documentary culture, the visual impact of seals, the recording of seals viz. the art of drawing, and the authentication of writ in relation to history writing.


Images A–C, Left to Right.  Images courtesy Laura J. Whatley.

A)  Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16, folio 43r, detail.  Charta de Foresta.

B)  The Same, folio 66v.  Imperial gold bulla of Frederick II.

C)  Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 26, folio 110v.  Pair of Knights Templar on a Horse.  (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16, folio 43r. Marginal illustration of the 'Charta de Foresta', with dependent seal. Image courtesy Laura J. Whatley.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16, folio 43r, detail. Charta de Foresta.

Imperial Seal of Frederick II. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16, folio 72v. Image courtesy Laura Whatley.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 16, folio 72v. Imperial Seal of Frederick II.


2 Templars on Horseback. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 26, folio 110r. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 26, folio 110r, detail. Pair of Knights Templar on Horseback. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)