Gaimar’s Rebels:Outlaw Heroes and the Creation of Authority in Twelfth-Century England
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 16 (1999)
Located at the interface of two languages, two literary genres, two national identities and two social classes, the most marginalized and overlooked literary genre of the English Middle Ages is the vernacular chronicle. The first of this genre, Geffrei Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis, has puzzled modern critics by its unorthodox style and apparently inconsistent historical perspective, which blends Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, local legend, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Gaimar’s chronicle was written for a woman, Constance, wife of Ralf FitzGilbert, one of the lesser nobility from Lincolnshire. Although not one of the great land-owners himself, Ralf FitzGilbert seems to have been well connected and rather typical of the men raised to prominence through an advantageous marriage. He was an undertenant of the Archbishop of York and held land of various magnates in Lincolnshire, one of whom was Gilbert of Gaunt, son-in-law of Ranulf le Meschin, Earl of Chester. He also had estates in Hampshire, which seem to have come to him by virtue of his marriage to Constance, since they are not recorded in Domesday. Gaimar tells us in his epilogue that Constance commissioned his history, and that he used a variety of sources in “English, Latin, and French.” His statement that “Cest estorie fist translater / Dame Custance la gentil” implies that she directed him to write an English history and may suggest that she had in mind a translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Gaimar also mentions that Henry I’s queen, Adelaide, commissioned from a poet named David a work about her husband, and that Constance possessed a copy of this work, for which she paid one silver mark, “ars e pesé,” and which she often read in her room ( “en sa chambre sovent le lit,” l. 6490). The book is thus for private reading by an obviously very literate woman, though not instructed in Latin, and the price she paid for it makes private reading a pleasure of great cost.
Gaimar’s description of the process of borrowing books also makes it clear that Constance took an active interest in the progress of the chronicle and had a hand in shaping it. The fact that Constance owned a copy of the book David had written for Adelaide suggests that Constance may have wanted to emulate Adelaide and that she saw sponsoring a work of history as a validation of her social status and indeed an affirmation of the role of her social class in the destiny of the English nation. It is thus surprising to find in a chronicle written as an authorizing text for the Anglo-Norman lesser nobility the inclusion of three romanticized stories of English outlaws, three proto-Robin Hoods who defy kings and even betray the nation to its foreign adversaries, including one who opposed the Conquest of Constance’s own ancestors.