Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Diceto, Ralph de

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DICETO, RALPH de (d. 1202?), dean of St. Paul's, bears a surname otherwise entirely unknown. The presumption is that it is derived from the place of Ralph's birth. This place has often been identified with Diss in Norfolk, but the conjecture is not supported by any evidence either in the history of Diss or in the writings of Diceto, while it is contradicted by the mediæval forms of spelling the name of the town (Dize, Disze, Disce, Dysse, Dice, Dicia, Dyssia). After an exhaustive investigation of the subject Bishop Stubbs leans towards the conclusion that De Diceto ‘is an artificial name, adopted by its bearer as the Latin name of a place with which he was associated, but which had no proper Latin name of its own;’ and this, he suggests, may probably be one of three places in Maine, Dissai-sous-Courcillon, Dissé-sous-le-Lude, or Dissé-sous-Baillon. If this theory be correct, still Ralph de Diceto, who must have been born between 1120 and 1130, was probably brought at an early age into England, since, as Bishop Stubbs observes, ‘his notices of events touching the history of St. Paul's begin in 1136, and certainly have the appearance of personal recollections.’ His first known preferment was that of the archdeaconry of Middlesex, void by the election of Richard of Belmeis (the second of that name) as bishop of London. Richard's consecration took place on 28 Sept. 1152 (Stubbs, note to Gervase of Canterbury, Chron. a. 1151; Hist. Works, i. 148, Rolls Series, 1879), and the appointment of his successor in the archdeaconry was his first act as bishop, an act which the pope endeavoured to set aside in favour of a nominee of his own, and which he only sanctioned on the bishop's urgent petition, preferred through the mediation of Gilbert Foliot. From the fact of the appointment, and from the tenacity with which the bishop held to it, Dr. Stubbs conjectures that Diceto was a member of his family; for it was the prevailing practice to confer the confidential post of archdeacon upon a near kinsman; the family of Belmeis had long engrossed many of the most important offices in the chapter; and it was thus natural that this hereditary tendency should affect the archdeaconry. If this assumption be accepted, it is not hard to go a step further and suppose that Ralph was son or nephew of Ralph of Langford, the bishop's brother, who was dean of St. Paul's from about 1138 to 1160.

Diceto is described on his appointment as a ‘master,’ and he is known to have studied at Paris at two periods of his life (Arnulf. Lexov. ep. xvi.; Migne, Patrol. Lat. cci. 29, 30); the first time no doubt in his youth, the second some years after his preferment, probably between 1155 and 1160. Besides his archdeaconry, which was poorly endowed, he held two rectories in the country, Aynhoe in Northamptonshire, and Finchingfield in Essex, but at what date or whether at the same time is unknown. He performed his duties in them by means of a vicar. Apparently also he was once granted and then dispossessed of a prebend at St. Paul's, since Foliot, soon after he became bishop of London in 1162, exerted his influence with the king in vain to secure its restitution.

In the long conflict between Henry II and Thomas à Becket, Diceto's sympathies were divided. Himself on intimate terms with Foliot, and loyally attached to the king, he was careful to maintain friendly relations with the other side; and his cautious reserve made him useful as an intermediary between the parties. In 1180 he was elected dean of St. Paul's and prebendary of Tottenhale in the same cathedral. His activity in his new position is attested by the survey of the capitular property, which he made so early as January 1181, and of which all that remains has been printed, among others, by Archdeacon Hale (Domesday of St. Paul's, pp. 109–17, Camden Society, 1857); not to speak of a variety of charters and other official documents, many of which are still preserved among the chapter muniments. The cathedral statute-book also contains abundant evidence of the dean's work (Registrum Statutorum Ecclesiæ Sancti Pauli, pp. 33 n. 2, 63, 109, 124, 125, &c., ed. W. Sparrow Simpson, 1873). He built a deanery-house and a chapel within the cathedral precincts, which he bequeathed, together with the books, &c., with which he had furnished them, to his successors in office (see the bishop's confirmation, Opera, ii. pref. p. lxxiii). To the cathedral itself he gave a rich collection of precious reliques, as well as some books (Dugdale, History of St. Paul's Cathedral, pp. 337, 320, 322, 324–8, ed. H. Ellis, 1818). Finally, in 1197 he instituted a ‘fratery’ or guild for the celebration of religious offices and for the relief of the sick and poor (Registrum, pp. 63–5). He died on 22 Nov. (Simpson, Documents, p. 72), in all probability in 1202, though it is just possible that the date may be a year earlier or later. His anniversary was kept by the canons as that of ‘Radulfus de Disceto, decanus bonus.’

The historical writings by which Diceto is chiefly remembered were the work of his old age. The prologue to the ‘Abbreviationes Chronicorum’ (Opera, i. 18) seems to show that this book was already in process of transcription in 1188, and there are signs that it cannot have been composed before 1181, and was probably begun a few years later. Some isolated passages, however, look as though they had been reduced to writing at an earlier time. The ‘Abbreviationes,’ which are based principally on Robert de Monte, run as far as 1147. Their continuation, the ‘Ymagines Historiarum,’ carries the history from 1149 to 25 March 1202, but Diceto's authorship cannot be extended with certainty beyond 27 May 1199, where the most valuable manuscript of the book stops short. As far as 1171, if not as far as 1183, Diceto seems to have continued to make use of the work of Robert de Monte, though in these later years it is quite possible that the two historians exchanged notes. Besides Robert, Diceto derived much of his information down to the date of Becket's murder from the letters of Gilbert Foliot. In later years he was assisted in the collection of materials for his work by Richard FitzNeal, who was bishop of London from 1189 to 1198, and was in all probability the author of the ‘Gesta Henrici’ which pass under the name of Benedict of Peterborough, as well as by William Longchamp, the justiciar, and Walter of Coutances, bishop of Lincoln, and subsequently archbishop of Rouen. The peculiar advantages which Diceto thus possessed for knowing the secrets of the government, while his position in the cathedral of London gave him facilities for hearing all the ordinary news of the day, makes his ‘Ymagines’ an authority of the first rank for the latter part of Henry II's reign, and for the whole of that of Richard I. ‘It seems clear,’ says Bishop Stubbs, ‘that Ralph de Diceto wrote with a strong feeling of attachment to Henry II and the Angevin family; with considerable political insight and acquaintance with both the details and the moving causes of public affairs; in a temperate and business-like style, but with irregularities in chronology, arrangement, and proportion of detail which mark a man who takes up his pen when he is growing old; now and then he gossips, now and then he attempts to be eloquent, but he is at his best in telling a straightforward tale.’

Besides his two principal works Diceto wrote a variety of Opuscula, including regnal and pontifical lists and other historical abridgments and compendia, and a ‘Series causæ inter Henricum regem et Thomam archiepiscopum,’ mainly taken from the ‘Ymagines.’ Of all his historical writings we have the rare advantage of possessing manuscripts not merely contemporaneous, but written at St. Paul's and under the author's direct supervision. The greater part of the ‘Abbreviationes’ and the whole of the ‘Ymagines’ were printed by Twysden in the ‘Scriptores Decem’ (1652); all his historical works are collected by Bishop Stubbs, ‘Radulfi de Diceto Decani Lundoniensis Opera Historica,’ in 2 vols. (Rolls Series, 1876).

Besides these Diceto wrote ‘Postilla super Ecclesiasticum et super librum Sapientiæ,’ of which a copy was long preserved in the old library of St. Paul's (Dugdale, p. 393). He is also credited by Bale, possibly as a matter of course, with ‘Sermones’ (Scriptt. Brit. Cat. iii 62, pp. 255 et seq., ed. 1557). Bale further unduly extends the list of his historical works by separating portions of the ‘Abbreviationes’ and ‘Ymagines’ as distinct works.

[Except that the references have been verified, this notice is almost entirely based upon the elaborate biography and the criticism of Diceto's works contained in Bishop Stubbs's prefaces to his edition. Compare also W. Sparrow Simpson's Documents illustrating the History of St. Paul's Cathedral, Camden Society, 1880.]

R. L. P.