The Physical Environment
Matthew Paris, the St Albans chronicler, lived a relatively comfortable life as a member of a large and prosperous monastic community, yet he was acutely sensitive to changes in the natural environment around him. In his most important work, the Chronica Majora, which covers the period from 1236 to his death in 1259-and from which the above two quotations are taken-he reports on events year by year, frequently summarising the most notable features of the past twelvemonth at the close of the year (see Tables 1 and 2). His apparent aim was to record English affairs, but his range is much wider than this,
encompassing news and documents from all over the British Isles, from the immediate continent of France, Germany, Italy and Iberia, from the
Scandinavian countries of Norway and Denmark, and from the Latin settlements in the Middle East which the French called Outremer, from which he avidly gathered news of the crusaders and the peoples they met. By no stretch of the imagination can Matthew be seen as a systematic or scientific writer, for his approach is gossipy and impressionistic, but his consistent interest in the weather and natural phenomena, together with attempts at interpreting these events, is striking. No year passes without some comment on rain and floods, on drought, on wind and storms, on frost, hail and snow, on the state of the air and atmospheric disturbances, on the tides, on earthquakes, on comets, stars and eclipses, on diseases among humans and animals (see Plate 1). In each of the eighteen years in which he provides a summary he always includes a passage commenting on the predominant weather conditions and the effects upon crops and animals.