About the year 1300 Monk Roger of the Monastery of St. Werberg in Chester compiled a long narrative from earlier chronicles. Beginning in the 1320s, another monk at the monastery, Ranulph Higden, enlarged and extended Monk Roger’s work, entitling it Polychronicon—the “universal history.” The book begins with a description of the world and then chronicles events from the Creation through the ancient world to medieval Britain. John Trevisa, vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, translated Polychronicon into English in 1387 at the command of his patron, Thomas, Earl of Berkeley. He also produced an English version of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ encyclopedic De Proprietatibus Rerum. Extensive marginal notes made by Trevisa as he was translating Polychronicon reflect knowledge of and keen interest in biblical passages. It has been suggested that Trevisa had a hand in the Wycliffe translation of the Bible.
Trevisa’s translation of Polychronicon was very popular in the 14th and 15th centuries; numerous manuscripts of it still survive. Caxton appreciated that a printing of Polychronicon would appeal to readers. The language, however, had changed considerably over the century since Trevisa’s day, and Caxton, in his own words, “somewhat changed the rude and old english.” He also added a “Liber ultimus” that extends the chronicle to 1461.
Polychronicon provided readers a valuable complement to Chronicles of England, or Brut, which was the other widely popular English medieval chronicle. Caxton had published it two years earlier. Brut’s origin was a French chronicle, possibly written by a layman; Polychronicon was written in Latin by a Benedictine monk. Brut begins with the legendary account of the settlement of Britain; Higden tried to give readers an accurate picture of ancient world history, drawing on a wide range of available sources.
The present, exceptionally tall copy is the third and last early edition of Polychronicon and was printed in 1527 by Peter Treveris. It succeeded the editions of William Caxton in 1482 and Wynkyn de Worde 1495; the book is a page-by-page reprint of the latter. The last leaf of the index in the present copy has a corner restored and the following leaf, an interior blank, is missing. The last two leaves are resized with the inner margin renewed. Treveris printed The Grete Herball, the first English herbal, in 1516 and again in 1527 as his only other major works.
Chrzanowski 1527h *