By Jonathan Sapp
Master’s Thesis, University of Akron, 2013
Introduction: For medieval authors, the past was constantly in a state of flux. Engaging in a selective process of remembering and forgetting, chroniclers critiqued or idealized both the past and the present in an attempt to order their world. In addition, the function of a chronicle was to teach moral and religious lessons to secular and monastic communities. The composition of chronicles was not linear, but was rather a combination of original research and selective compilation of sources from many other authors. Chronicles were part of a vibrant and shifting historical conversation that sought to order worldly events. Historians are often able to reconstruct older sources long lost by trying to sort out where authors received their information. Thus the writing of history in the medieval period differed markedly from modern historical methods. This approach gave monastic chroniclers a valuable opportunity to construct their own interpretations of and commentaries on contemporary events. This essay is concerned with this process within one such chronicle, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis.
Orderic Vitalis (1075-1142) was born in Shropshire, England of mixed English and French parentage. At the age of eleven, Orderic’s father sent him to the Benedictine abbey of St. Évroult on the southern border of Normandy. This region was often subject to the violent feuding of the local nobility. Consequently, Orderic was often hostile to the members of the aristocracy who perpetuated violence in the area, and he praised men such as Henry I who restrained violent nobles. In addition, king Henry I visited St. Évroult in 1113 and endowed the abbey with property. From 1123 to his death in 1142, Orderic compiled and composed his most widely known work, the Ecclesiastical History, a four-volume chronicle of the main events and figures of the Anglo-Norman realm, the Norman kingdoms of southern Italy and Sicily, and the Latin kingdoms of the Levant.
This essay examines Orderic’s portrayal of the three sons of William the Conqueror, as well as one member of the Anglo-Norman high aristocracy, in an effort to understand how and why his Historia Ecclesiastica recreates the nineteen-year period between the death of William the Conqueror and the ascension of Henry I as an age of violence, poor lordship, and ambiguous gender roles. Orderic derided Robert “Curthose” (1054-1134), duke of Normandy and eldest son of William the Conqueror, as an indecisive, rebellious, and indolent figure, yet he treated king Henry I (1068-1135) with great respect for his good lordship, decisive action, and maintenance of good order. William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror and King of England (1087-1100), is one of the more colorful characters in Orderic Vitalis’s Ecclesiastical History. Somewhat a creature of extremes, William is often depicted by Orderic as a knight of great renown and courtesy, while simultaneously the very image of aristocratic debauchery. However, the most violent figure in Orderic’s chronicle is undoubtedly Robert of Bellême (1056- 1130), viscount of the Hiémois, Earl of Shrewsbury, and count of Ponthieu. Bellême’s alleged cruelty, violence, and disregard for what Orderic perceives as proper authority play a prominent role in Orderic’s characterization of the Anglo-Norman realm in the years around 1100.