Dean of St Paul's, London, and chronicler
Ralph de Diceto is first mentioned in 1152, when he received the archdeaconry of Middlesex. He was probably born between 1120 and 1130; of his parentage and nationality we know nothing. The common statement that he derived his surname from Dias in Norfolk is a mere conjecture; Dicetum may equally well be a Latinized form of Dissai, or Dicy, or Dizy, place-names which are found in Maine, Picardy, Burgundy and Champagne. In 1152 Diceto was already a master of arts; presumably he had studied at Paris. His reputation for learning and integrity stood high; he was regarded with respect and favour by Arnulf of Lisieux and Gilbert Foliot of Hereford (afterwards of London), two of the most eminent bishops of their time.
Quite naturally, the archdeacon took in the Becket question the same side as his friends. Although his narrative is colourless, and although he was one of those who showed some sympathy for Becket at the council of Northampton (1164), the correspondence of Diceto shows that he regarded the archbishop's conduct as ill-considered, and that he gave advice to those whom Becket regarded as his chief enemies. Diceto was selected, in 1166, as the envoy of the English bishops when they protested against the excommunications launched by Becket. But, apart from this episode, which he characteristically omits to record, he remained in the background.
The natural impartiality of his intellect was accentuated by a certain timidity, which is apparent in his writings no less than in his life. About 1180 he became dean of St Paul's. In this office he distinguished himself by careful management of the estates, by restoring the discipline of the chapter, and by building at his own expense a deanery-house. A scholar and a man of considerable erudition, he showed a strong preference for historical studies; and about the time when he was preferred to the deanery he began to collect materials for the history of his own times. His friendships with Richard Fitz Nigel, who succeeded Foliot in the see of London, with William Longchamp, the chancellor of Richard I, and with Walter of Coutances, the archbishop of Rouen, gave him excellent opportunities of collecting information.
His two chief works, the Abbreviationes Chronicorum and the Ymagines Historiarum, cover the history of the world from the birth of Christ to the year 1202. The former, which ends in 1147, is a work of learning and industry, but almost entirely based upon extant sources. The latter, beginning as a compilation from Robert de Monte and the letters of Foliot, becomes an original authority about 1172, and a contemporary record about 1181. In precision and fulness of detail the Ymagines are inferior to the chronicles of the so-called Benedict and of Hoveden. Though an annalist, Diceto is careless in his chronology; and the documents which he incorporates, while often important, are selected on no principle. He has little sense of style; but displays considerable insight when he ventures to discuss a political situation. For this reason, and on account of the details with which they supplement the more important chronicles of the period, the Ymagines are a valuable though a secondary source.
See W. Stubbs' edition of the Historical Works of Diceto (Rolls ed. 1876, 2 vols.), and especially the introduction. The second volume contains minor works which are the barest compendia of facts taken from well-known sources. Diceto's fragmentary Domesday of the capitular estates has been edited by Archdeacon Hale in The Domesday of St Paul's, pp. 109 if. (Camden Society, 1858).
Being the entry for DICETO, RALPH DE in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.