Saturday, May 23, 2020

Wace, The History of the Norman People


Opening Passage:

One thousand, one hundred and sixty years in time and space had elapsed since God in His grace came down in the Virgin, when a cleric from Caen by the name of Master Wace undertook the story of Rou and his race; he conquered Normandy, like it or not, against the arrogance of France which still threatens them -- may our King Henry recognise and be aware of this. He who has very little income has very little benefit from it. But largesse has now succombed to avarice; it cannot open its hands, they are more frozen than ice. I do not know where largesse is hidden, I can find no sign or trace of it. He who does not know how to flatter has no opportunity or place in court; many people are force dto await their turn. It was not at all like this at the time of Virgil and Horace, nor of Alexander, Caesar, or Statius; then largesse had strength and virtue. (p. 3)

Summary: The Roman de Rou, despite its name, is not primarily concerned with Rou, i.e., Rollo, but, as the introductory passage says, "Rou and his race" and "Rou and the Normans" (p. 4); it is a story of the Dukes of Normandy through the generations, but Wace does not tell a narrowly dynastic story but a tale of the Norman people through the fortunes they share with their Dukes. It falls into three parts. Part I, often known as the Chronique Ascendante, runs backwards through time, starting with King Henry II in Wace's present and moving back to "Rou, the good conqueror, the brave, bold, good warrior" (p. 9). Parts II and III then start with Rollo and move forward to the death of Henry I (and thus the eve of the Anarchy, in which Norman control over England will break down into civil war between Stephen of Blois and Empress Matilda, who was the mother of Henry II, which is recounted at the very beginning). This is a very effective structure; it gives a sort of sense of time travel that would be missing if it had just started at the beginning. It also makes clear an important feature of the story Wace is trying to tell, of preserving the Norman heritage and Norman generosity that has been received by inheritance and political succession going all the way back to Rollo himself. Henry II is the son of Henry I, who is son of William II, also known as the Conqueror, who is son of Robert the Magnificent, who is son of Richard II, also known as the Good, who is the son of Richard I, also known as the Fearless or else as the Old, who is the son of William I, also known as Longsword, who is the son of Rou or Rollo, under whom Vikings or Northmen became Normans holding the finest lands of northern France. Each link in the chain sees extraordinary trouble, and maintains the links only with extraordinary prudence and courage; but maintain them they do.

There are a number of themes throughout the work, but two are particularly recurrent, a negative theme and a positive theme, both of which are found in the very opening of the work. The negative theme is the wickedness of the French, who are liars, perfidious and treacherous, who fear and despise the Normans and covet their lands and achievements, who will do anything for power, seeking always to subjugate the Norman people. This theme is more interesting than one might expect, because of course, the Normans hold their lands as vassals of the French; Normans and Franks hold mutual obligations to each other. The French occasionally break their oaths outright, but more often they maneuver so that there is at least a nominal fig-leaf to cover their treachery.

A good example is the French attempt to keep Richard I, who inherits very young (due, again, to French treachery), in his court, which is really to control him but is, at least to the public put forward as the concern and protection of a good lord for a young man of tender years. This creates a problem for the Normans of how to deal with this given that (1) the King essentially has Richard as a hostage and (2) they can't just break their own oaths outright. It also causes problems for gaining allies in the attempt to do something about the situation. One of the most interesting parts of the story is the ingenuity and loyalty of Bernard of Selnis, who manages to untangle the knot in which the Normans are bound, and one of the most interesting parts of that story is how he manages to create an alliance with Hugh, the Duke of Paris. Duke Hugh is sympathetic to the Normans; he has no quarrel with them, and because the King's treachery has resulted in his not being able to follow through on promises to the Norman, he would like to help. But Duke Hugh also has his obligations to the King, and whatever dishonorable acts the King may have committed toward the Normans, the King has done nothing dishonorable to Duke Hugh and his people. Indeed, this is quite deliberate; precisely in order to prevent him from any sort of alliance with the Normans, the King has been more than scrupulous about fulfilling his obligations to Duke Hugh, and has attempted further to ingratiate him by giving him extensive, and very profitable, lands in Normandy itself. So Bernard has to come up with a way to maneuver the situation so that the King of France will, of his own free choice, betray Duke Hugh, which he does by pressing the weak point in the King's plan: the King has finally regained the very rich lands of Normandy, in a society in which wealthy land is the source of power, but in order to keep them, he has had to hand over most of that power to Duke Hugh. Duke Hugh is honorable, but the treacherous cannot afford to trust. The treacheries of the French are many and various, and the plans by which the Normans have to outmaneuver have to be equally various, and therefore keep a constant interest.

The primary positive theme of the work is largesse. It is an essential element of Wace's story to tie Norman greatness to their generosity. This reaches a high point in the period that includes the saintly Richard the Good, the noble Robert, and William II, "the most generous of all the Normans" (p. 7). The great evils in the world of the Roman are covetousness and miserly greed; severity toward robbers and thieves is repeatedly given as the mark of a good Duke or King, and all the troubles of the Normans arise from the greed of their enemies. The Normans, however, despite being extremely shrewd handlers of wealth, are never concerned with money itself; they have a tradition of generous largesse, and money for them is not an end but a means for supporting good and great deeds. But as the opening passage notes, Wace's tale is a warning that the Normans are losing their way. A people whose greatness and invincibility was built on their generosity, whose name resounds because of their patronage of literature and the Church, who could reach their greatest achievements because of their shrewdness in making other people prosperous, have begun to be stingy and tight-fisted, unwilling to support the very things that clothe them with glory and that carry their name through the generations. They were made great by their largesse; if they are to remain great, it must be by largesse.

It would perhaps be a more noble sermon if it weren't for the fact that Wace cannot help himself, but repeatedly has to make clear that one of the kinds of largesse he means is largesse toward himself. Wace tells a good story, but he is not a storyteller to hide himself in the tale; he is constantly complaining about the fact that, a relatively poor man, he has to do this very difficult and important task of writing the history of the Normans and nobody is giving him a proper reward for it. He gives credit to King Henry for being the only one to reward him, but it's very hard to shake the feeling in some cases that Wace's praise on this point is halfhearted and more in the hope that it will stimulate the King to greater generosity than it is in gratitude for what the King has already done. Very possibly this is the reason why the King eventually gives the task to someone else, so that Wace is forced to bring the Roman to a close, grumbling to the end about how it's not his fault. It does, however, make the work stand out. This is not merely a glorification of the Norman Dukes; the complaining lends a very personal and humorous quality to it. The humorousness is unintentional; but it is real nonetheless.

The story does bog down a little bit in the reigns of Robert and William -- a lot of battles and similar hurricanes of names that one presumes Wace felt he could not skip. But that it is not merely bogging down for the reader can be seen in that Wace takes some time off from telling it to complain about how long the story is and how much more he has to go through. But this is also part of the charm of the work. Wace is not merely a storyteller; he is, complainer though he is, our companion through the whole thing.

Favorite Passage: There are many interesting side-lights throughout the story; this one, amidst all the preparations for William's conquest, was one that particularly jumped out at me. It also captures something of the tone of Wace, since he always seems more than a little disappointed with the world, himself, and everything.

Alan Fergent, who had a large company of Bretons, joined in the crossing; from Le Pallet came FitzBertrand, and the lord of Dinan came,a nd also Ralph of Gael and many Bretons from many castles, as well as those from the region of Brocéliande, about which Bretons often tell stories, a very long, broad forest which is highly praised in Brittany. To one side, the fountain of Barenton emerges beside the stone slab. Hunters used to go to Barenton during great heat and scoop out the water with their horns and moisten the top of the stone; in that way they used to get rain. Thus in days gone by it would rain, in the forest and all around, but I do not know for what reason. People used to see fairies there, if the accounts of the Bretons are true, and many other marvels. There used to be hawks' nests there and huge quantity of stags, but peasants have destroyed everything. I went there in search of marvels; I saw the forest and the land and looked for marvels, but found none. I came back as a fool and went as a fool. I went as a fool and came back as a fool. I sought foolishness and considered myself a fool. (p. 162)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Wace, The History of the Norman People: Wace's Roman de Rou, Burgess, tr., The Boydell Press (New York: 2004).