Richard of Poitiers


With humility typical of a medieval monk, Richard of Poitiers (fl. 1150- 1170) compared himself to a simple woodcutter. His early writings compiled the basic elements of history, he stated, like trees hewn and hauled for another craftsman to shape into their final form. By the end of his life, however, Richard had himself taken this raw material and transformed it into a number of polished texts. This research project will undertake the first critical edition, study and translation of these works.

Richard’s writings fall into two groups:  those focused on secular political history and those on ecclesiastical subjects. In the first group is his Chronica – a universal chronicle narrating human history from Adam to Richard’s time– and a brief lament on war's destructive effect. In the latter group is a biographic Catalogus –a chronological listing– of the Roman popes and three brief treatises on the Roman clergy. Richard’s interests are very wide-ranging and his writings incorporate hagiography, epic romance, exegetical musings, genealogical lists and ethnographic description, as well as material more commonly considered ‘proper’ history.

The polyvalency of Richard’s writings has sown confusion among past editors and the work on Richard of Poitiers is often divided against itself. Researchers have sought to underscore the professionalism of his historical scholarship, while concurrently discounting him as overly credulous. And indeed, what are we to make of Richard? He promises to provide a truthful account of the past, he offers a long list of his sources and appeals to up-to-date historiographical methodologies, but also perseverates on Merlin’s prophecies, describes a Persian king as Christ personified and juxtaposes contradictory accounts without feeling the need to resolve their differences.

When read from beginning to end, Richard’s works demonstrate the political and religious purpose underlying the text. Exemplary biographies (Alexander the Great, King Arthur) provide moral and ethical lessons within a larger narrative of providential history. Omens, prophecies and miracles evidence God’s hand in human affairs. Political dynasties and noble genealogies elucidate racial-religious justifications for European superiority (and Muslim inferiority). And at the end of it all, Richard validates Henry II’s Angevin empire as the natural outcome of all these currents. With such interests, Richard parallels ideas increasingly popular in twelfth-century Latin and vernacular writing.

At present, Richard’s writings are available only in centuries-old partial editions. These texts are difficult to access, are marred by errors, and only reproduce a few final folios of the Chronica and the Catalogus from a small number of manuscripts. Scholars have therefore remained hesitant to use these editions until the textual tradition is resolved and a complete text is made available.

Our preliminary research has identified fourteen extant manuscripts containing Richard’s works. We have confirmed three redactions of the Chronica written by Richard (α,β,γ) and two more (δ, ε) expanded by anonymous continuators based on Richard’s original version (α). The Catalogus has two redactions, the first appearing at the time of the chronicle’s first revision (ca. 1162). The other works exist in one version. The existence of multiple redactions introduces complexities into the editorial process and insists on establishing Richard’s texts in a recensionist editorial framework. These redactions should not be merely considered as impediments for modern researchers, however, since they allow us to trace an author (and his continuators) augmenting and refining texts, ideas and style over two decades.

Due to the editorial demands of the manuscript tradition, the potential value of highlighting each redaction and other practical considerations, we intend to publish two editions: one in print and one online. Print remains the medium of choice for recensionist editions, whereas the Internet offers a dynamic environment for collecting and juxtaposing a series of diplomatic editions. These two editions, together with a translation, will provide scholars with the first real access to Richard of Poitiers’ works.

For updates on the editorial work, please see the project page.

Ricardus Pictaviensis, Richard of Poitiers, Richard von Cluny

“To make provision for posterity, therefore, it pleases me to add, if not the sum of all things, then what little I am able to know about [the history] preceding our own times, and what happened during that time in different parts of the world.”

Richard of Poitiers, Chronica, prologue