Magazine article History Today

Wace without Prejudice: Valentine Fallan Offers a New Look at a Once-Derided Source for the Norman Conquest

Magazine article History Today

Wace without Prejudice: Valentine Fallan Offers a New Look at a Once-Derided Source for the Norman Conquest

Article excerpt

THE FIRST TRANSLATION of the complete Roman de Rou, probably written in the 1160s by the Norman poet Wace (born around 1100, died after 1174), has just been published as The History of the Norman People. This panoramic narrative poem is known mainly for its epic account of the events of 1066, although it was singled out for stringent criticism when Wace's rhyming list of the 'Conquerors' Companions', though treasured by genealogists, was discredited by an influential Norman specialist in 1944. The dramatic centrepiece can now be read in the context of the whole book and its outspoken conclusion--the author's verdict on the ironic reversal of Normandy's fortunes from the beginning of the twelfth century. The new translation reveals Wace as a meticulous researcher, and offers a rationale for his naming of the 'Companions'.

Wace was the master-poet of Anglo-Norman history and the only literary representative of the century's cross-Channel culture. Born in Jersey and educated in Caen and Paris, he identified himself as a Norman and wrote in his own language, yet his work was, to contemporary minds, Anglo-Norman and demonstrates his society's dual perspective, one dating from long before 1066.

Wace's legacy is being pro rooted in his birthplace with readings to celebrate the eccentric political status of Lea Isles Anglo-Normandes: 800 hundred years of voluntary loyalty to the English monarch in the person of the titular duke of Normandy. In 1204, this last outpost of the Anglo-Norman realm resisted the French invasion. Jersey had been part (If the Cotentin, with similar Frankish, Celtic and (as Wace noted) Viking roots. In a daring diplomatic coup, the baronial tenants opted for self-government and alliance with King John.

The first section of Roman de Rou relates the history of the region of northern France formerly known as Neustria, and the resistance of the western peoples, from rural workers to barons, against the dukes of Normandy in Rouen. But in 1047 the King of France supported his vassal William at the battle of Val-es-Dunes which left, him master of all Normandy. In 1066, lands in Jersey were among grants to the new abbey's in Caen, the city William founded.

During the twelfth century at least two other vernacular histories of 1066 were written. The earliest, by Englishman Geoffrey Gaimar, was unashamedly partisan. The English-born Latin chroniclers addressed the ethnic tensions and--for some--their mixed parentage, by questioning the Conquest propaganda and by affirming their national history, stalling with Bede and translating The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Gaimar was also the first to write (in about 1140) an Anglo-Norman version (now lost) of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin 'history' of the Britons. Over in Caen, Wace was working on his own translation, a vivid and judicious adaptation, finished by 1155.

Wace's initial source for Roman de Rou was the official Gesta Normannorum Ducum (GND). William of Jumieges had dedicated this work to 'the orthodox king of the English' (William I), at whose request he had updated it and added a pre-1066 section 'to explain the (Norman) origin of King Edward'. The sceptical Wace translated material from the independent history by Orderic Vitalis, two GND continuations and several English chronicles.

His theme was the struggles of successive dukes in commanding loyalty and re-inforcing the mythic identity, of the Normans as a united, expensive and victorious people. He represented the concerns of diverse sectors of the population, and included atypical characters and exploits from chansons de geste. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.