The Middle Dutch Brut, by Sjoerd Levelt

Published in the Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies series of Liverpool University Press is my edition and English translation of the chronicle which I have called the Middle Dutch Brut. The Prose Brut was the principal historiographical tradition of late medieval England, and exists in various versions in Anglo-Norman French, Middle English and Latin. The Brut tradition was always international, multilingual, and political, and was continuously adjusted to both include local knowledge but also to reflect local politics, and to address local audiences – these characteristics of the Brut tradition are given further dimension by this Middle Dutch Brut, expanding significantly our understanding of the reach and forms of late medieval historical writing about Britain.

The Middle Dutch Brut was originally published in Utrecht by Johan Veldener on Valentine’s Day of 1480, as one of a series of regional chronicles appended to a Middle Dutch translation of the Latin universal chronicle Fasciculus temporum. In English scholarship, Johan Veldener is best known for the business partnership he developed with William Caxton, whom he helped establish as a publisher.

My research has shown that the Middle Dutch Brut was compiled some years earlier, between the middle of 1465 and early 1468, during the first reign of Edward IV, and not originally for inclusion in the Middle Dutch Fasciculus temporum. It was written by an author with a specific interest in and knowledge of English historical sources (though not perhaps in English) as well as Dutch ones, using a range of sources, including a prose Brut chronicle, the Fasciculus temporum itself, and Middle Dutch sources, including a chronicle of Holland and Jacob van Maerlant’s Spiegel historiael. The author was deeply invested in English contemporary politics, of which the work bears the traces; the Middle Dutch Brut, therefore, attests to an interest not only in English history, but also in English current affairs, in the Dutch Low Countries.

Page from the Middle Dutch Brut, including the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, and information about the house of Lancaster. Dat boeck dat men hiet Fasciculus temporum (Utrecht: Johan Veldener, 1480), fol. 226v. Wellcome Library, EPB/INC/5.c.1 (public domain). Full reproduction.

The overall structure of the Middle Dutch Brut is that which is known from the Brut tradition: a chronicle of Britain, commencing with Albina followed by Brutus and the name-giving of Britain, followed by an account of the British line of succession ultimately based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, followed by the kings of England to the time of compilation. Within this framework, the Middle Dutch Brut is a much abbreviated version: for the great majority of kings, only regnal years and familial relation of succession are given; before the Plantagenet kings, only a few episodes – Albina, Brutus, the coming of the Saxons, the conversion of the English, and the Norman Conquest – are accorded more extensive narrative accounts.

Most interesting are a number of characteristic narratives from the time of Edward I onward, apparently based on a selection of polemical sources. Thus, for example, the chronicler claims Edward’s brother Edmund Crouchback was disinherited because of his hunchback, despite being the older of the two; people who claim the opposite do so out of partisanship, the chronicler states. This story, known as the ‘Crouchback Legend’, is not ordinarily part of the Brut tradition. It had been cultivated in the 1390s to support Henry of Lancaster’s claim to the throne, based on his descent from Edmund Crouchback through Blanche of Lancaster. The chronicle, here, is exactly the kind of chronicle of which we are told by fifteenth-century chroniclers that John of Gaunt had them fabricated in support of the Lancastrian claim, but which were promptly dismissed as patently absurd falsifications, even by supporters of the Lancastrians. There are few English sources that as vociferously reject any challenge to the ‘Crouchback Legend’, and there is no other extant chronicle of England which includes it uncritically in the way the Middle Dutch Brut does.

By the time that Johan Veldener printed his Middle Dutch Fasciculus temporum, including the Middle Dutch Brut, Edward IV had firmly established Yorkist rule in England. It is remarkable to see an unabashedly Lancastrian propaganda piece come to press at this time – the politics of the Middle Dutch Brut, when it was printed, were already stale. In all likelihood, therefore, Johan Veldener himself had no propagandistic reasons for his publication of the Middle Dutch Brut, and may well not even have recognized its politics.

While being the first known standalone history of England in Dutch, and the only one in the Brut tradition, the Middle Dutch Brut shows a remarkable if idiosyncratic sophistication and adeptness in negotiating English and Dutch sources, as well as Dutch and English interests. It attests to an author in the 1460s willing to make a significant effort to produce a propagandistic chronicle of England for a Dutch speaking audience, and to a publisher in 1480 who saw a chronicle of England as an interesting proposition for the historically interested Dutch-reading public.

Sjoerd Levelt is Senior Research Associate of the Leverhulme Trust project The Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch Relations, c.1150–c.1600, University of Bristol. He studied Dutch and English Medieval Studies in Amsterdam, Berkeley and Oxford, received his PhD in Combined Historical Studies at the Warburg Institute, and previously taught at the Universities of Exeter and Sussex, and Bilkent University (Ankara). 

Find out more about Sjoerd Levelt’s new book The Middle Dutch Brut on our website.


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