Possible narratives: re-telling the Norman Conquest
By Giueseppe Brunetti
The Garden of Crossing Paths: The Manipulation and Rewriting of Medieval Texts. Venice, October 28-30, 2004, edited by Marina Buzzoni and Massimiliano Bampi (Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, 2005)
Abstract: William of Malmesbury (1125) casts the Norman Conquest as an ‘ancipitous narrative’ – equally possible courses of events leading to the same outcome. The Bayeux Tapestry (1070s) is such a narrative. And three modern novels on the Conquest (Bulwer Lytton 1848, Muntz 1949, Rathbone 1997) are here seen as narrations of alternative possibilities with an invariant outcome and an invariant theme: Harold as the expression of English civil society.
1. The ancipitous narrative
When, in 1125, William of Malmesbury sets about narrating the reign of Edward the Confessor (ch. 197), he warns the reader that:
hic quasi ancipitem viam narrationis video, quia veritas factorum pendet in dubio.
And he reports in juxtaposition the English and the Norman versions of the great crisis of 1051-1052, a crucial step in the course of events leading to the Norman conquest of 1066. The situation remains unchanged for the modern historian of the period: in his biography of Edward the Confessor Frank Barlow (1970: xxvii) writes that:
the historian meets uncertainty at every point […]. Sometimes the only course that he can honestly follow is to offer several equally plausible possibilities, between which he cannot decide.
William’s “ancipitous way” can be equated with Borges’ “forking paths” – of the type that might be called ‘forking in’ as opposed to ‘forking out’.
‘Forking out’ is when a course of events leads to several possible outcomes, or when an event branches out into alternative courses – the battle of Hastings won by Harold, or fought by William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada of Norway, if the latter had won the battle of Stamford Bridge against Harold of England. Modern historiography and fiction make much use of this narratology of possible worlds. In three recent volumes a number of historians have revisited crucial events in history and imagined alternative outcomes and their consequences. The novelist Philip Roth has imagined the United States under the presidency of Charles Lindbergh, the aviator, who wins the 1940 election against Roosevelt and starts a policy of isolationism, pro-Nazism and anti-Semitism. This is the counterfactual type; a fictional variation is the alternative story-lines developed in parallel by films.