As explained in the section of this website that explores the origin of the Roll, this manuscript easily lends itself to propaganda. This section explores the idea of the roll as propaganda in greater depth.
Genealogies as Propaganda
At first glance, the propaganda value of genealogical rolls would appear to be limited. Unless heavily illustrated, rolls require a literate audience and are unwieldy objects, difficult to present to a large crowd.
Other means, such as proclamations, were more effective at spreading information among the urban populace in the Middle Ages. Proclamations reached a wide audience easily, and were by far the most obvious point of contact between a king and his subjects.
On the other hand, it seems to be a reasonable conclusion that genealogical rolls contributed to attempts, particularly by the Yorkists, to promote claims to legitimacy in the latter half of the 15th century.
Chronicles, regarded as authentic and authoritative sources, were consulted in political life in England. Chronicles and genealogical rolls (which act almost as ‘digest’ version of chronicles with diagrams) were a subtler form of propaganda than proclamations, but could be powerful weapons.
For example, in 1457 John Hardyng presented a chronicle to Henry VI. After the Yorkists claimed the throne, Hardyng rewrote his chronicle and presented an ‘updated’ version to Edward IV in 1464. Although the two editions were similar, the latter emphasised the Yorkists, much like the revised Canterbury Roll.
Perhaps widespread circulation was not the point of rolls like the Canterbury Roll. They were authoritative documents, like chronicles, used to explain 'history' as imagined by the rich and powerful for political purposes.
The use of Latin in the Canterbury Roll in a period when composition in either Latin or English was acceptable is a point of interest. The relative lack of decoration on the Canterbury Roll suggests that it was originally made for a literate audience. It differs from rolls with ornate decoration that could have been posted on walls and gates for semi-literate people.
Among the literate, the use of the vernacular had increased from the 12th century onwards. English even had royal patronage, as King Henry V encouraged the its use for patriotic purposes in his wars against the French. However, Latin continued to be the language of education and prestige, and had an authoritative quality. A belief that Latin prose is somehow better and more ‘serious’ may have been precisely why the Canterbury Roll was written in Latin.
Latin appealed to a smaller but specific readership: the educated classes, the clergy and nobility, men and women whose support the monarchy needed.
The French Connection
Although the Canterbury Roll appears to focus only on the British Isles, the English claim to the Kingdom of France is yet another aspect of propaganda included on the manuscript. Please click on the image below for a brief exploration of this French connection.