The wonder is that the components of this book were written by a host of contributors, many working more than a thousand years ago and centuries apart. Yet, in the careful hands of its translators and editors, "The Plantagenet Chronicles" brings us a cogent record of two and a half critical centuries. On the whole the original contributors managed to avoid self-consciousness--although self-righteousness was another matter. Many of the Chronicles' entries began life as personal letters. Great events of the day mixed with gossip and the trivia of local events. Thus the maiming of a horse took a share of ink and precious parchment from one of the most momentous events of the twelfth century, the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. To read this exquisite compendium is to imagine monkish figures bent over quills in poor light, huddling beneath their cowls. They nurse the warmth of guttering candle-flame fanned by winter drafts in a dark scriptorium. Add the sound of wind, a scratching quill, an island of flickering light in a darkness of damp stone, and the vision is complete.
"The Plantagenet Chronicles" grew, story by story, layer upon layer, until men such as Ralph of Coggeshall and Ralph de Diceto had compiled a curious mixture; several centuries worth of major and minor events in medieval France and England. And what centuries! Unceasing violence and prayer, fear and the clash of mortal enemies, life under the spiritual and temporal threats of priests and overlords. Here is the failure of King Henry II's and the German emperor's crusade, brought down because "God despised [the armies], for they abandoned themselves to open fornication and to adulteries hateful to God..." On the other hand, when monkish opinion detected the Almighty's favor, the Chronicles bring us entry upon entry of the blood-stained heroics that built Henry II's Angevin empire, a swathe of the richest land in Europe stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. Then comes that curious, love-hate relationship between the king and the queen who bore his sons, the subtle, driving Eleanor of Aquitaine.
If much of "The Plantagenet Chronicles" leads us through the building of King Henry's empire, the closing chapters tear that empire down: the book draws to a close after the barons forced the Magna Carta on King John, just after the fates of France and England were finally severed and torn apart. The temper of the Chronicles is constant: immense events interweave with and surrender space to the mundane and the trite. Thus the chronicles end with the portentous death of King John and a priestly gutting of his character. But the last line belongs to local color, to the guts themselves: "His intestines...since he was rather fat, were interred in Croxton Abbey."
"The Plantagenet Chronicles" is a wonderful source-book. Its text offers strong doses of human foibles that thread through a rich tapestry of superb, well-chosen illustrations.