By Penny Eley and Philip E. Bennett
Nottingham Medieval Studies Vol.43 (1999)
Introduction: According to Jean Blacker, the Norman Conquest was ‘the most visible cause of the upsurge in historical writing in twelfth-century England’ and in the continental territories controlled by successive Anglo-Norman and Norman-Angevin rulers. Her recent study of the historical writings of Gaimar, Wace, Benoit de Sainte-Maure and their Latin counterparts pays little attention, however, to the narration of the Conquest itself, focusing instead on the authors’ conception of the role of the historian, techniques of characterization, and the relationship between writer and patron. Given the importance of the events of 1066 in providing the impetus for Anglo-Norman historiography, it is interesting to consider in more detail how those events are mediated by texts commissioned to make the history of England and the Normans available to a vernacular audience. Our aim here is not to attempt to establish any more facts about the historical event, nor even, in a historian’s sense, to add to interpretations of the battle. It is rather to explore the literary approaches adopted by three vernacular writers working between the late 1130s and the 1180s, and in particular to consider how rhetorical resources are deployed to produce three very different visions of the same event, and how the choice of those resources may have been shaped by the political context within which each writer was working.
Unlike Wace and Benoit, Gaimar did not base his Estoire des Engleis principally on Latin chronicles composed by Norman apologists intent on glorifying William of Normandy and justifying the invasion of England in 1066. Gaimar, writing for an Anglo-Norman lady (Constance de Vertux, wife of Ralf FitzGilbert) with family connections in both Hampshire and Lincolnshire, was essentially translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which in itself gives his version a different slant from the other two. However, for the last 2,000 lines or so of his Estiore, which include the events of 1066, he incorporated much material not found in ASC. Although it is certain that Gaimar’s ASC sources were not any of the extant versions, it seems unlikely from a comparison of the entries for the Battle of Hastings found in the surviving MSS that his account could have been taken as it stands from a lost version of the Chronicle. We will need to look elsewhere for explanations of some of the key features of Gaimar’s narrative, notably his brevity in dealing with the battle itself as compared with the events which immediately preceded it, and his marked anti-Norman stance.