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Southern Italy and the Construction of the Historia ecclesiastica of Orderic Vitalis

Southern Italy and the Construction of the Historia ecclesiastica of Orderic Vitalis

Paper by Daniel Roach, University of Exeter

Given at the 2011 Haskins Society Conference, Boston College

Of all the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman historians, Orderic Vitalis was the most interested in southern Italy. Besides covering the political events involving Normans in the region, he recounts several stories (some extensively) about relics and gifts that were coming from Italy to his monastery at St Evroul.

Daniel Roach asks why Orderic Vitalis was so interested in these stories and finds that physical objects played an important role in the writing of his work, the Historia ecclesiastica. He notes that many historians have found it frustrating in the way it was put together, noting its “chaotic nature” and its habit of moving from events in the distant past to Orderic’s present.

Orderic’s Historia includes several telling stories of how these relics came to his monastery from daughter houses of St Evroul based in southern Italy. Some of these relics even came to St Evroul after being stolen from their homes in Italy.

Roach notes that medieval monasteries greatly valued relics, and it played a crucial role in a monastery’s identity. This was true for the monks of St Evroul, including Orderic, who saw it as “visible and lasting reminders” of the importance of his monastery. In his writing, he wanted to deliberately link the past actions of the monks of St Evroul to their present situation and wanted to show his contemporaries and successors what happened to these relics and where they ended up at St Evroul. Orderic also wanted to highlight the importance of the monastery in his 12th century, and remind them of the links between the St Evroul and Southern Italy.

Roach includes several stories from Orderic Vitalis’ Historia ecclesiastica, such as:

At about this time a certain Norman knight, William Pantulf, travelled to Apulia and, since he had a great reverence for St Nicholas, sought resolutely for some parts of his relics. Since God favoured his quest he obtained a tooth and two fragments of the marble tomb from the men who had translated the relics…So in the year of our Lord 1092….while the monks showed their great devotion and the laymen their joy, they received the holy relics in the month of June, and carefully placed them in a silver casket generously provided by the knight William. The relics were often visited by many who suffered from fevers and other infirmities, and by the merits of the beloved Bishop Nicholas those who asked in faith recovered their health according to their desires.

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