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Higden, Ranulflocked

(d. 1364)
  • John Taylor

Ranulf Higden (d. 1364)

manuscript illumination [kneeling, left]

© The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Higden, Ranulf (d. 1364), Benedictine monk and chronicler, appears to have been a Cheshire man, although little is known about his life. According to a colophon in one copy of his chronicle (Bodl. Oxf., MS Laud misc. 619) he entered the abbey of St Werburgh, Chester, in 1299. There is no evidence that he studied at a university, or travelled much outside Chester. The one reliable fact for the later years of his life is that in 1352 he was summoned by Edward III to appear at court with his chronicles. A note in the Laud manuscript suggests that he died in 1364 after living over sixty years in religion.

Higden's major writing was his universal chronicle, in seven books, known as the Polychronicon. Apart from the Polychronicon he wrote a guide to sermon literature entitled the Ars componendi sermones, the Speculum curatorum, which was an aid to preaching, and a number of minor works including a collection of Latin sermons. Although his name has been associated with the Chester cycle of Whitsuntide plays there is no evidence that he was in any way connected with them. His reputation rests almost entirely upon the Polychronicon. That work offered to the educated and learned audience of fourteenth-century England a clear and original picture of world history based upon medieval tradition, but with a new interest in antiquity, and with the early history of Britain related as part of the whole. Higden's historical narrative is particularly notable for its description of the Roman world. An interest in the ancient world had been developing for some time in fourteenth-century England. Higden was clearly aware of this, for he says that at the request of his fellow monks he changed his plan of writing a history of his own country and decided to enlarge the scope of his work. A further feature of his account is the description of the world contained in the first book of the Polychronicon. Through the medium of John Trevisa's translation this section of Higden's work proved to be one of the most popular parts of his chronicle. To illustrate this description Higden included a world map in the later versions of his chronicle. The most elaborate copy, which may be the closest one to the original, is found in BL, Royal MS 14 C.ix.

The Polychronicon went through a number of editions in Higden's lifetime. The Latin text survives in a short, an intermediate, and a long version. Although it was once thought that the intermediate version was the original one, it is clear from Higden's autograph copy in the Huntington Library (Hunt. L., MS 132) that the short version of the text written soon after 1327 is the earliest, and that the narrative was then expanded into the later and longer accounts. A medieval text was rarely completed and Higden was still revising his chronicle at the time of his death.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries John Bale and Humfrey Wanley supposed that the short version of the text was the work of one Roger of Chester who called his compilation Polycratica as opposed to Polychronicon. The shorter work, they believed, was incorporated into the longer one. The name Roger of Chester does not, however, occur in any contemporary script, and there is no justification, as the editors of the Rolls Series edition themselves stated, for supposing that the short version represents the work of anyone other than Higden himself. Wanley was further misled into thinking that a text found in BL, Harley MS 655, was also the work of the apocryphal Roger of Chester. This text is simply a form of the Polychronicon taken from the short version which adds passages from the later books of the Historia aurea of John Tynemouth.

The Latin text of the Polychronicon survives in over 100 manuscripts testifying to its immense appeal. Many cathedral churches and larger religious houses possessed copies. In the later middle ages copies were also owned by individual clerics as well as by parish churches, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, members of the nobility, and the wealthier merchants of London. The influence of the Polychronicon is most clearly seen, however, in the continuations that were added to its text during the second half of the fourteenth century. As regards chronicle writing, that period may be termed the age of the Polychronicon continuation. The first continuation from 1340 to 1377 was a standard account which went through a number of versions. Its importance lies in the fact that it covers a period when there are few first-rate contemporary chronicles, due to the fact that several writers, notably Adam Murimuth, Robert of Avesbury, and Geoffrey Baker, ended their work in the 1340s and 1350s.

One important continuation covering the years 1348–81 was written by John Malvern (d. in or before 1414?), chronicler and monk, of Worcester, who is probably to be identified with the sacrist of that name who became prior of Worcester in 1395 and died before November 1414. What is known as the Rolls Series A continuation of the Polychronicon (1348–81) is ascribed to John Malvern in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 197A. Although in the Corpus manuscript Malvern is credited with the continuation from 1346, it seems certain that his work only began in 1348, and that the text from 1346 to 1348 was by an unknown author.

Malvern's continuation borrows from the final version (E) of the first Polychronicon continuation (1340–77), and from Walsingham's text as printed in the Chronicon Angliae. It contains none the less some original material, and achieved a certain popularity towards the end of the fourteenth century, when it was used to follow the main text of the Polychronicon in a number of manuscripts.

Several of the major chronicles of Richard II's reign were also written as Polychronicon continuations. One of these is Walsingham's contemporary history for the years 1376–7, the so-called ‘scandalous chronicle’ which was once found continuing a Polychronicon now divided between Bodl. Oxf., MS Bodley 316, and BL, Harley MS 3634. The Westminster chronicle (1381–94) was a continuation of three other works, including Malvern's chronicle, which were themselves continuations of the Polychronicon. The chronicle of Adam Usk (1377–1421) also follows a text of Higden's work. The most popular continuation covering Richard's reign was the Vita Ricardi secundi (1377–1402), the work of two monks of Evesham, which was sometimes used to form an eighth book of the Polychronicon. In addition several religious houses added their own brief additions to Higden's text.

The influence of the Polychronicon extended beyond these continuations. The English translations of the Latin text increased knowledge of the work among a lay audience. The first translation of the Polychronicon was made by John Trevisa during the 1380s. A second translation, made in the fifteenth century, is found in a single manuscript, BL, Harley MS 2261. Although fewer manuscripts of Trevisa's translation survive than copies of the Latin original, it would be wrong to underestimate its influence, for many copies of Trevisa's version in lay households may have failed to survive. The influence of Higden's chronicle is also to be seen in the work of chroniclers like the author of the Eulogium historiarum who attempted to model their writings upon the Polychronicon. Although the influence of the Polychronicon was to decline at the close of the middle ages, the universal outlook that it reflected lived on among the writers and antiquaries of the Tudor age.


  • Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden monachi Cestrensis, ed. C. Babington and J. R. Lumby, 9 vols., Rolls Series, 41 (1865–86)
  • J. Taylor, The universal chronicle of Ranulf Higden (1966)
  • A. Gransden, Historical writing in England, 2 (1982), 43–57
  • A. Gransden, ‘Silent meanings in Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon and in Thomas Elmham's Liber metricus de Henrico quinto’, Medium Aevum, 46 (1977), 231–40, esp. 231–3, 238–9
  • V. H. Galbraith, ‘An autograph manuscript of Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 23 (1959–60), 1–18
  • J. G. Edwards, ‘Ranulf, monk of Chester’, EngHR, 47 (1932), 94
  • D. Woodward, ‘Medieval mappaemundi’, The history of cartography, ed. J. B. Harley and D. Woodward, 1 (1987), 286–358
  • G. B. Stow, ed., Historia vitae et regni Ricardi Secundi (1977)
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Laud misc. 619
  • obedientary rolls, Worcester
  • Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records, 44 (1883), 556


  • BL, Royal MS 14 C.ix
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Laud misc. 619
  • Hunt. L., MS 132


  • manuscript illumination, Bodl. Oxf., MS Bodley 316, fol. 8 [see illus.]
Bodleian Library, Oxford
English Historical Review