Chronicles and Lives

History as a formal academic endeavour, concerned with such issues as evidence, interpretation, and cause and effect, did not exist in Caxton's day, or for several centuries after it. The history books of his time presented information but did not analyse. They fall into two main categories, Chronicles and books of Lives.

Chronicles simply recorded events, laid out as a chronological narrative and concentrating on the genealogy of rulers and their deeds and misdeeds, sometimes interspersed with notes on remarkable natural – or supernatural – events. Often, as with Polychronicon, these were written in Latin by monks, working from earlier chronicles to be found in monastic libraries, and later translated into English. The starting point was often the creation of the world, as in the Mirror of History and the Nuremberg Chronicle, with the description continuing in ever increasing detail up to the present day of the compiler. Sometimes as with the Saxon Chronicle the compass was more specific. Fabian's chronicles are a later example, written in English by a lay author.

The most common books in the second categories were hagiographies – lives of the saints – of which the Golden Legend is a prime example. Such works concentrated on the good deeds and miracles attributed to individual saints and were intended to encourage their veneration. Other biographical compilations were concerned with figures from the classical world, as in the Latin editions of Plutarch's Lives and Dio Cassius and also, famously, with English martyrs.