On 'Matthew Paris'
by Paula Jansen
Matthew Paris (1200? - 1259) was a famous chronicler, maybe even the
most famous one of the Middle Ages in England. Matthew's exact birthdate
is not known, but it is certain that he took his religious vows at the
monastery of St. Albans on 21 January 1217. From that can be concluded
that he must be born around 1200. It was often thought that because
of his last name, which was also spelled as Parisienis or De Parisius,
he must have been French or educated in Paris, but this turns out not
to be the case. Nothing is certain about Matthew between 1217 and 1247,
probably because he was a cloistered monk. He started writing his famous
Chronicles from 1245 onwards and many have questioned the reliability
of the historical events he relates. It is thought that, although Matthew
was a monk, he witnessed some of the events himself, such as the marriage
of King Henry III and Eleanor at Westminster in January 1236. Most of
his information he got from the visitors of the abbey that lay on a
well-travelled route to the north.
However, Morgan does not portray Matthew as the famous chronicler, but
he pictures him in another area he became famous for. He was not only
a chronicler, he was also a cartographer. His maps of England and Scotland
are said to be the earliest ones of these regions.
In 1246 Matthew received a request from King Haakon of Norway to help
another monastery out of financial trouble. He went to Norway where
he saw the great fire of Bergen, an event he also deals with in his
chronicles. It is very plausible that Morgan is writing about Paris's
trip to Norway in this sonnet. He sails north, into the unknown (lines
1-4), sees the outlines of Scotland and is so fascinated that he decides
to make a map out of it (lines 6-7).
Morgan uses a historical figure, Matthew Paris, and historical facts
as his trip to Norway and his cartography and combines that in a sonnet
that has a vivid viewpoint on future events and future hopes.
"[When] Alexander their king / is dead will they live in love and
peace" (lines 9-10) refers to the death of King Alexander III.
He was king of Scotland between 1249 and 1285 and when he died his only
heir was his granddaughter, who lived in Norway. She died on her way
to Scotland, which was the beginning of a long and bitter succession
dispute. England took over the rule of Scotland ("new courts"
line 9) and the War of Independence followed. The hope expressed in
line 10 that Scotland will not go to war, proved to be vain.
Morgan's Matthew also asks if in the future Scotland will turn into
an exploring or conquering country. This can be read in the lines 10-13:
"get / bearings, trace mountains, count stars, take capes, straits
/ in their stride as well as crop and shop, bring / luck home?".
The counting of stars refers to navigating at sea, whereas "crop
and shop" implies trade relations between other countries yet to
be explored. It also shows the contrast between travelling or exploring
The answer to the question that Matthew asks can be answered negatively
now. However, Matthew cannot answer this question yet. Thus, the last
two lines still express hope for the future: the Scots must take off
where Matthew ends. The margin on his map is the pelagus vastissimum
et invium (huge and impassable open sea) that is waiting to be explored.
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