1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gervase of Canterbury

GERVASE OF CANTERBURY (d. c. 1210), English monk and chronicler, entered the house of Christchurch, Canterbury, at an early age. He made his profession and received holy orders in 1163; but we have no further clue to the date of his birth. We know nothing of his life beyond what may be gathered from his own writings. Their evidence suggests that he died in or shortly after 1210, and that he had resided almost continuously at Canterbury from the time of his admission. The only office which we know him to have held is that of sacrist, which he received after 1190 and laid down before 1197. He took a keen interest in the secular quarrels of the Canterbury monks with their archbishops, and his earliest literary efforts were controversial tracts upon this subject. But from 1188 he applied his mind to historical composition. About that year he began the compilation of his Chronica, a work intended for the private reading of his brethren. Beginning with the accession of Stephen he continued his narrative to the death of Richard I. Up to 1188 he relies almost entirely upon extant sources; but from that date onwards is usually an independent authority. A second history, the Gesta Regum, is planned on a smaller scale and traces the fortunes of Britain from the days of Brutus to the year 1209. The latter part of this work, covering the years 1199–1209, is perhaps an attempt to redeem the promise, which he had made in the epilogue to the Chronica, of a continuation dealing with the reign of John. This is the only part of the Gesta which deserves much attention. The work was continued by various hands to the year 1328. From the Gesta the indefatigable Gervase turned to a third project, the history of the see of Canterbury from the arrival of Augustine to the death of Hubert Walter (1205). A topographical work, with the somewhat misleading title Mappa mundi, completes the list of his more important writings. The Mappa mundi contains a useful description of England shire by shire, giving in particular a list of the castles and religious houses to be found in each. The industry of Gervase was greater than his insight. He took a narrow and monastic view of current politics; he was seldom in touch with the leading statesmen of his day. But he appears to be tolerably accurate when dealing with the years 1188–1209; and sometimes he supplements the information provided by the more important chronicles.

See the introductions and notes in W. Stubbs’s edition of the Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury (Rolls edition, 2 vols., 1879–1880).  (H. W. C. D.)