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 and farming.
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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