Gervase of Canterbury (DNB00)

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GERVASEof Canterbury (Gervasius Dorobornensis) (fl. 1188), chronicler, was born, apparently of a Kentish family, about 1141. As he had a brother Thomas in his monastery, who is conjectured to be identical with one Thomas of Maidstone, we have a possible clue to his birthplace; but the information is too imperfect to warrant more than an hypothesis. Gervase became a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, on the first Saturday in Lent, 16 Feb. 1163 (Hist. Works, i. 173). The new archbishop, Thomas Becket, received his profession, and it was he who conferred holy orders upon him (p. 231). Dom Brial's statement (Recueil des Historiens de France, xvii. præf. pp. xi, xii, 1818) that Gervase was prior of St. Ceneri before he went to Canterbury is impossible on chronological grounds. Of his earlier years in the monastery nothing is recorded beyond an incidental notice (ii. 396) of his presence at the archbishop's burial on the morrow of his murder, 30 Dec. 1170. Thenceforward his works contain more and more information as to the events connected with his church and monastery, which he seems never to have quitted for any length of time. He gives, for instance, a minute account of the burning of the cathedral, 5 Sept. 1174 (i. 1–6), though this record is apparently not quite contemporary, since it is probable that he did not begin writing until 1185; and he takes an active interest in the disputes of his monastery, which continued in an acute form until long after the election of Archbishop Baldwin in December 1184. His writings are of great interest for the history of the important religious body to which he belonged. ‘He writes throughout as the champion of the cathedral convent against the whole world, and especially against the archbishop, wherever the interests of the archbishop and convent are opposed. Where there is no such opposition he is willing to act and write as the archbishop's champion, and his interest is never more vivid or his argument stronger than where the rights of the archbishop and convent are identical’ (Stubbs, i. pref. p. xvi).

The earliest controversy in which Gervase appears to have been personally concerned was one between the archbishop and the abbot of St. Augustine's, Canterbury, which lasted from 1179 to 1183, and on which he wrote two ‘imaginationes’ or statements of the case (i. 68–83). These have the look, however, rather of exercises than of statements drawn up for use in the contest. The same criticism applies also, though with not so high a degree of probability, to a set of tracts or statements prefixed to Gervase's ‘Chronicle’ (i. 32–68), which relate to the disputes between Archbishop Baldwin and the monastery of Christ Church (1185–91). There are several traces of his personal action in the affair, and on one occasion, in December 1186, he was sent with other monks to announce to the archbishop the appeal of the monastery to Rome (i. 343 f.). It is further possible that he was in part the author of some of the letters drawn up on behalf of his monastery, and printed by Bishop Stubbs in his collection of ‘Epistolæ Cantuarienses’ (Chronicles and Memorials of the Reign of Richard I, vol. ii. Rolls Series, 1865). The relation of the smaller tracts to the Chronicle which follows them, as well as of the Chronicle to the life of St. Thomas by Herbert of Bosham, furnishes a satisfactory argument for fixing 1188 as the date at which Gervase began the composition of the larger work. That opens at the accession of Henry I (1100), and was continued apparently year by year until 1199. The materials for its earlier portions are chiefly derived from Henry of Huntingdon and Florence of Worcester—of the latter Gervase seems to have used a continuation no longer extant—together with perhaps the chronicle of St. Augustine's, Canterbury, and the ‘Historia Pontificalis’ of John of Salisbury. Afterwards his authorities are the lives of St. Thomas and the ‘Gesta regis Henrici,’ attributed to Benedict of Peterborough; and by degrees the work acquires the character of an independent chronicle, though its interest is to a great extent limited to the affairs of the author's monastery. Gervase contemplated the production of a second book of this history (i. 594); but no such work is now known to be in existence, and there is no proof that it was ever written.

In November 1189 he went with a deputation to Westminster, and accepted Richard I's proposal to arbitrate between the monastery and the archbishop (Epp. Cantuar. 315 ff.; cf. Gervase, i. 462–72). In 1193, as sacrist of the convent, he met the new archbishop, Hubert Walter, 3 Nov., at Lewisham, and delivered to him his cross, the speech which Gervase made on the occasion being duly recorded by him (i. 520–2). Before 1197 he had ceased to hold the office of sacrist (p. 544), and we possess no further notice of his life or doings. It is only from the internal evidence afforded by his ‘Gesta Regum’ that we can infer with probability that he ceased to write in 1210, in or soon after which year his death may be presumed to have taken place. The day of his death is equally uncertain, since three Gervases appear in the Canterbury necrologies under 1 Jan., 14 March, and 30 April.

Besides the ‘Chronica’ with the preliminary ‘Tractatus de Combustione et Reparatione Cantuariensis Ecclesiæ,’ and other short pieces already mentioned, Gervase was the author of a smaller chronicle known as the ‘Gesta Regum’ (ii. 1–106). This work is in its earlier portions a compilation from Geoffrey of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, and other known sources, and in part an abridgment of the larger Chronicle. From the point where the latter ends, the death of Richard I (1199), it assumes an independent character, and is of considerable value for the first half of John's reign. The fact that the notices of the year 1210 are immediately followed by a narrative beginning with 1207 combines with other evidence to support the view that Gervase's own work ends here; the continuation runs on to 1309, with some additions down to 1328.

Further, Gervase wrote a history of the archbishops of Canterbury, ‘Actus Archiepiscoporum Cantuariensium,’ from St. Augustine to the death of Archbishop Hubert; and a topographical work, the ‘Mappa Mundi,’ containing a list of the counties of England, Wales, and part of Scotland, with the ecclesiastical foundations in each, their dedications, &c., hospitals, castles, and waters and springs; together with a list of bishoprics in the British Isles and on the continent of Europe.

Gervase is not one of the great historians of his age, but he illustrates with fidelity the tone and temper of his monastic world. Much of what he writes has the value of contemporary knowledge and observation, or at least of personal recollection; and much bears the impress of recording the local tradition of the writer's religious house. Even that which is not original has at least the value of a contemporary or nearly contemporary corroboration of the statements which it repeats.

The ‘Chronicle’ and ‘Actus Archiepiscoporum’ were first printed by Twysden in his ‘Historiæ Anglicanæ Scriptores decem,’ col. 1290–1683; the whole of the works were edited with prefaces by Bishop Stubbs (‘The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury,’ in two volumes, Rolls Series, 1879, 1880).

[The older bibliographers, Leland, Bale, Pits, Cave, and Tanner, add nothing to the information afforded by Gervase's works, now that they are all printed. What other scanty materials exist are collected and made use of in Bishop Stubbs's preface to his edition.]

R. L. P.