Serlo of Bayeux and England

Serlo of Bayeux and England

By Elisabeth Van Houts

Tabularia: Sources écrites des mondes normands médiévaux, No.16 (2016)

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library, CCCC MS 190 p.361

Abstract: After a short introduction highlighting Serlo’s ambiguous attitude to the English and its king in 1105-1106, I shall discuss three texts which link Serlo with England. First there is Serlo’s poem Defensio pro filiis presbyterorum of which the oldest copy is preserved (incompletely) in a manuscript of Exeter Cathedral c. 1100 (Cambridge CCC ms 190, p. 361). The first 59 lines, in a haphazard order, have survived and concentrate mainly on the sacrament of baptism, the fact that sons cannot be held responsible for the sins of their fathers and the legislators’ lack of attention for simony and homosexuality. Second, I will discuss Serlo’s poem ad Murielem, the versificatrix nun of Wilton (d. before 1113) which was written after Baudri of Bourgueil’s poem for her. Thirdly and briefly I will explore the implications of the suggestion, first raised by Edoardo D’Angelo, that the poem Septem maiores numeramus was written by Serlo for Queen Edith Matilda (d. 1118), perhaps as a contribution to one of her competitions organised for poets.

Introduction: At this conference dedicated to Serlo of Bayeux I would like to concentrate on Serlo’s ties with England. Given his Norman birth he was extraordinary proud of the great Norman achievements of the eleventh century. In his poem about the English attack on Bayeux in 1105, De capta Baiocensium civitate, he sharply contrasted the cowardness of the Bayeux knights with the bravery of their ancestors conquering southern Italy and England in 1066:

Dregs of the Normans! Shame of your fathers and ancestors! While you turn your backs in flight, the praise earned by the virtue of previous generations has been hurled downwards, as has the fame accumulated by the Normans over the previous years. That wild fury, which once burned us fiercely and used to attack the clergy with proud words, now lies wounded, when the necessity of warfare requires it… [And finally], would you care to recall ancient wars? [Indeed] the English chariots were conquered and fell without even lifting their weapons. The men who fathered you conquered the English, whilst you degenerate sons are ready for all shameful deeds. The Normans waged wars with far more courage in the land of Sicily; those same Normans gave proofs and confirmation of their virtue in Calabria,  and their honourable deeds are known to the Apulian people. Conquered Rome learned to suffer the arms of good warriors. The conquered city of Le Mans is accustomed to being subject to the Normans; you, degenerate Bayeux, now avoid the swords of Le Mans. A rough enemy is present: why does your virtue lie hidden and shut away? You are useless defenders, you who should defend us, and you shut yourselves off like this, while you shamefully listen to our groans.

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