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* Medieval Studies: Rolls Series

Guide to interdisciplinary research in medieval studies.

The 'Rolls Series' or Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi scriptores; or, Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages. 253 vols.

The Scope

The 253 volumes of the Rolls Series, containing a total of 99 works, were published in London between 1858 and 1911. While the main focus of this collection is the editing of medieval chronicles, it also includes a significant number of letters, treaties, charters, poems, and sagas. Most of the texts illustrate the history of England, but there is also material related to other parts of the British Isles. In a strict chronological order,  the electronic  Index to the Rolls Series lists these 99 works, including a very useful description of the content of each of these titles.

The name 'Rolls Series' originated from the fact that John Romilly (1802-1874), Master of the Rolls and Head of the Public Record Office from 1851 to 1873, undertook the leadership for the major administrative and financial work involved in this project. Deciding about editors and proposals for publication, Romilly made sure that during his tenure the publication of each of the volumes was appropriately funded by the government. Despite the fact that Romilly was the head of P. R. O. , the Rolls Series did not have anything to do with these archives. Very few of the texts of the Series were actually held in the P. R. O. , and its staff did not participate in their editing (Caenegem, 1978: 201-202).

Background and Genesis of the 'Rolls Series'

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the English government had sponsored a series of editorial initiatives aimed at publishing state records for official consultation. 17 volumes of Foedera [1], edited by Thomas Rymer (1642/3-1713), had been published by 1717, and the multi-volume sets of Rotuli parliamentorum and Domesday Book [2] had been completed by 1777 and 1784 respectively. In the first years of the nineteenth century, many English scholars were fully aware of the need to continue  this type of government-sponsored publications so that primary sources of British history could be available to a wider audience. The antiquarian and scholar Henry Petrie (1768-1842)  played a central role in the realization of these aims. Patronized by the George John Spencer, second Earl of Spencer (1755-1834), Petrie was working on the expansion of the Althrop library when in 1818 he arranged an important meeting at Spencer House in order to obtain public funds for the publication of historical sources to the age of the reformation. Eventually, the overall scheme as designed by Petrie was approved by the prime minister, Lord Liverpool. Next, Petrie, who had been appointed Keeper of Records in the Tower of London in 1819, compiled a selection of primary sources before the Norman Conquest, which were ultimately published as Monumenta Historica Britannica in 1848. Petrie's scholarly efforts were supported  by two important measures: the establishment of the Public Record Office in 1838 as the official repository of British public records, and the inauguration of a series of Record and State Papers Commissions designed to sponsor editorial projects such as a new edition of Rymer's Foedera and Statutes of the Realm.

In the 1850s a new generation of scholars and antiquarians began to think about new ways whereby they could consolidate and develop the important work Petrie had begun. The immediate result was the planning of what would become the Rolls Series, for whose genesis three individuals would be directlly responsible: Sir John Romilly (1802-1874), Sir Thomas Duffus Hardy (1804-1878), and Joseph Stevenson (1806-1895). Romilly had a prominent career in parliament, having being solicitor-general and attorney-general  in Lord John Russell's ministry of 1848, and then becoming Master of the Rolls in 1851.  Hardy entered the Record Office at the Tower of London under Petrie's tutelage when he was only fifteen years old.  He eventually became an accomplished archivist and palaeographer, and edited numerous documents for the Record Commission. Today he is best remembered for his exceptional descriptive catalogue of manuscripts, which was completed by his younger brother William Hardy  and C. T. Martin, and printed in the Rolls Series. Stevenson started his scholarly career as one of the editors of Rymer's Foedera in the British Museum. He was sub-commisioner of public records from 1834 to 1839, and in 1849 he became vicar of Leighton Buzzard, where he started a catalogue of English writers and their manuscripts for the Clarendon Press. His extraordinary skills as editor of medieval chronicles made him essential in the launching of the first volumes of the Series.

While Hardy, Stevenson and other scholars had been pressing for the publication of historical records without results for years,  the breakthrough suddenly came with a letter written by Stevenson on 29 November 1856 and adressed to Sir Charles Trevelyan, Permanent Under-Secretary of the Treasury. Again, Stevenson strongly argued about the need  for the publication of the pre-reformation records of English history. Trevelyan then passed the letter to the Master of the Rolls, John Romilly, who, after nine weeks,  replied with a full endorsement of Stevenson' petition. On 26 January 1857, Romilly submitted proposals to her Majesty's Treasury for the publication of a series called Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland from the Invasion of the Romans to the Reign of Henry VIII. It is most illustrative to transcribe Romilly's proposals as they were  printed on the first page of each volume of the Series. Indeed, there is no doubt that Romilly and his close advisers had a very concrete idea about the scope, methodology, and criteria for the selection of the material of the Series (Ward & Waller, 1916: vol. 12, 395-6; Knowles, 1961: 137-159).

The Master of the Rolls suggested that these materials should be selected for publication under competent editors without reference to periodical or chronological arrangement, without mutilation or abridgement, preference being given, in the first instance, to such materials as were most scarce and valuable.

He proposed that each chronicle or historical document to be edited should be treated in the same way as if the editor were engaged on an Editio Princeps; and for this purpose the most correct text should be formed from an accurate collation of the best MSS.

To render the work more generally useful, the Master of the Rolls suggested that the editor should give an account of the MSS. employed by him, of their age and their peculiarities; that he should add to the work a brief account of the life and times of the author, and any remarks necessary to explain the chronology; but no other note or comment was to be allowed, except what might be necessary to establish the correctness of the text.

The works to be published in octavo, separately, as they were finished; the whole responsibility of the task resting upon the editors, who were to be chosen by the Master of the Rolls with the sanction of the Treasury.

The first two titles were published in February 1858: John Capgrave's The Chronicle of England, edited by F. C. Hingeston, and Abbey Abingdon's Chronicon Monasterii de Abingdon, edited by J. Stevenson. Many of the volumes of the Series included a facsimile of a page from one or several of the main manuscripts collated for a particular edition.

Is the 'Rolls Series' still relevant to Scholars?

When discussing whether modern scholars would still consider using any of the 221 volumes of the Patrologia latina,  I echoed what I believe to be  the unanimous verdict. Indeed, many of the volumes were hastily published, often neglecting the most basic editorial standards. However, as a whole the Patrologia is still an essential tool for scholars interested in ecclesiastical history and patristics. Some of the works included in this set happen to be expertly edited, being a necessary reference for subsequent editions and, more importantly, there are hundreds of documents, such as charters and papal bulls, which have not been printed elsewhere yet. This opinion can be also applied to the Rolls Series. Admittedly, as M. D. Knowles forcibly argues, for many decades the project depended on the unlimited energy of an enlightened amateur, John Romilly, and on a very small group of archivists and antiquarians, some of whom lacked the broad historical knowledge or the methodological skills that were then possessed by the disciples of Leopold von Ranke and Léopold Delisle in Germany and France respectively. In fact,  from the very beginning these defects were mercilessly highlighted by reviewers (Knowles, 1961: 158-159). It was discovered, for instance,  that Hingeston, the editor of Capgrave's Chronicle of England, did not use the original manuscript for the edition but only Petrie's transcript. Inexplicably, he was commissioned to edit a two-volume selection of the letters of the reign of Henry IV. The first volume appeared in 1860, underscoring Hingeston's inability to produce a reliable text in any of the three languages employed in those letters: Latin, French, and English (Knowles, 1961: 145).  The shortcomings of a particular volume could also produce an invigorating scholarly exchange in the form of letters, reviews, articles, and even new monographs. Sometimes these debates went too far in their bitterness, as is shown by the strong criticism launched by J. H. Round against Hubert Hall's edition of The Red Book of the Exchequer (Liber Rubeus de Scaccario).[3] Hall and Round each produced a brief book, privately printed and with a small circulation, where they summarized their views as well as the controversy (Round, 1898; Hall, 1898).

Nevertheless, the Series also includes some scholarly jewels.  In 1889 the legal historian F. W. Maitland was asked to prepare a scholarly edition of Petitions to Parliament for the Series. However, Maitland soon realized that, if one ought to describe how the parliament worked and evolved as an institution, all those petitions should be dated accurately, certainly a task that would take many years. Finally, he decided to focus on the Parliament Rolls of 1305, which had not been printed in full yet.  The edition was published in the Series in 1893 as Records of the Parliament holden at Westminster 28 Feb., 33 Edw. I (1305), and the result of this edition would dramatically change the way scholars viewed the development of parliament as an institution. At an early age, Maitland argued, the parliament was essentially a royal event, rather than a representative body of a wide spectrum of society;  it was also a court of justice before it was engaged in legislation. Essentially, Maitland concluded that a parliament during the reign of Edward I was merely an extension of an old aristocratic council. In a modest footnote on page 88 of the introduction,  Maitland masterly summarized his challenge to the established view on the history of parliament, particularly the opinion represented by the historian and Bishop of Oxford William Stubbs (1825-1901) (Maitland, 1957: xv-xx).

The fact that Maitland expressed his challenging views on the nature of the early English parliament rather modestly, sometimes in footnotes like the one displayed above, delayed the scholarly impact of this edition for several decades.


1. As translated from the title page of Rymer's edition, Foedera is a collection of "all the leagues, treaties, alliances, capitulations, and confederacies, which have at any time been made between the Crown of England and any other kingdoms, princes and states."

2. The fiscal document Descriptio totius Angliae was completed in 1087 under William the Conqueror. It is commonly known as Domesday Book, i. e. book of the Last Judgement, as if this document had the last word in any dispute about land tenure. It contains detailed information about estates and their owners, their value, appraisal for taxation, population, etc.

3. It is a thirteenth-century manuscript that contains deeds and charters of William the Conqueror and Henry I, including also records of serjeanties (a kind of land-tenure in return of some service to the lord).


Select Bibliography

Caenegem, R. C. van. Guide to the Sources of Medieval History. Amsterdam; New York; Oxford: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1978.

Hall, Hubert. The Red Book of the Exchequer. A Reply to Mr J. H. Round. London: Spottiswoode & Co. Printers, New-Street Square, E. C. 1898.

Knowles, M. D. "Great Historical Enterprises. IV. The Rolls Series." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. 5th Series, vol. 2 (1961): 137-159.

Maitland, F. W. Selected Essays of F. W. Maitland. Chosen and Introduced by Helen M. Cam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Round, J. H. Studies on the Red Book of the Exchequer. London: Spottiswoode, printers, 1898.

The Cambridge History of English History. Ed. A. W. Ward &  A. R. Waller. Volume XII. The Nineteenth Century I. New York;Cambridge: G. P. Putnam's Sons; Cambridge University Press, 1916.

Pablo Alvarez