Wednesday, December 03, 2014

   Identifying the individual in the Contemporary Histories of the Twelfth Century Anglo Norman Historians

   When the historian Charles Haskins in an essay in 1927 first applied the idea of a Twelfth century renaissance, it was pivotal in reshaping modern interpretations of the Middle Ages. Previously, historians had accepted the picture first propagated by the propagandists of the 15th century, who, wishing to emphasise the difference with their own dynamic age, created a narrative of the middle ages as a stagnant society, violent, ignorant and mired in superstition. Most modern medievalists have largely abandoned this in favour of a view of the period as one of far more profound change and development. When understood in its most popular as an intellectual awakening or revival, then there is little problem, however, the anachronistic application of the term ‘renaissance’ has led some writers (including Haskins) to seek to discover a full range of the humanistic teaching of the 15th century Republican Italian city states in the still coalescing  monarchical realms of the 12th century. 
 There was a flowering of intellectual expression in the 12th century amongst the literate population of Western Europe. This was, in part, a reflection of the increased confidence within Christendom as a whole after the turn of Millennium: as the existential threats whether from pagan tribes to the North and East, or from Islam, in the Mediterranean were either converted, and brought within the fold of the Church or were being turned back by the armies of Christ. The crusades brought increased contact with Byzantium and the Levant, which in turn led to a wealth of newly rediscovered classical works being brought to the attention of Western scholars. Previously, such Pagan works had been viewed with suspicion by the Western Church, but, in these newly confident times there was a wider audience for them, both within the Monasteries which had been the safe houses of learning in the West since the fall of Rome, and also, slowly, outside of the confines of the cloister. Evidence that this might prove the existence of a humanistic concept of individualism is difficult to pin down, all too often 20th century readers imposed false interpretations onto 12th century ideas; for example, a key motif of 12th century individualism is Abelard’s dictum “know thyself”, this unequivocal expression of self-awareness seems to prove beyond doubt the humanist thesis, however, as Swanson points out “Scito te ipsum” can also be translated as “know what you are”, a far less definite statement . 
The historians of the 12th century were, like almost all literate men of the age, churchmen, and more specifically, monks, who considered their labours as a part of their devotions and the histories that they wrote evidence of God’s plan for the world; all of their histories should be read, therefore, both as historical records and religious works.
 To decide whether there is a concept of the individual in the history writers of the 12th century, this study looked at how three of the most prominent actors in Anglo Norman affairs of the time: the ‘truncated dynasty’ of Henry I; his daughter, the Empress Matilda, and his most favoured illegitimate son Robert, Earl of Gloucester, have been treated in the works of three contemporary historians; John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury, and Orderic Vitalis. 
 These three historians were almost exact contemporaries, all three writing their histories through the height of the reign of Henry I; and then, all three compelled return to their labours by the descent of the kingdom into civil war after the death of King Henry. All three cease their labours in the early 1140s, probably due to their deaths, at the very nadir of the fortunes of the Anglo Norman kingdom.
The Chronicon Ex Chronicis of John of Worcester has been somewhat overshadowed by the modern repute of William and Orderic, and the annalistic form it maintains appears somewhat archaic to modern readers. Worcester had a tradition of Historical writing which predated John’s Chronicle, and this, as well as John’s use of older histories, the universal chronicle of Marianus Scotus, and a version of the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle  (themselves being annalistic in form), which influenced his style
In his own time though, John was very influential, the longevity of his labours and the reliability of his chronology gave him a certain celebrity status in the early twelfth century; Orderic Vitalis recounts a visit to Worcester Abbey in the early 1120s to see the venerable Chronicler at work in his cell. The Worcester chronicle was used as a source for other histories, notably by Orderic, and also by the writer(s) of Durham’s Historia Regum.
Henry I is not mentioned in John’s chronicle is not until he is made a knight by his father, William I, in 1086, as presumably up until this point Henry is still a child, and therefore not an independent actor. Henry next appears in 1091, taking and holding Mont Saint Michel against his brother King William II. Henry only moves to the forefront of John’s Chronicle after the death of William Rufus; when the crimes and failures of William were contrasted unfavourably with Henry’s initial actions as King, notably, freeing the Church, restoring the laws of Edward and restoration of the commons, and the arrest of Flambard, and recalled Anselm from his exile in France. Anselm officiated at Henry’s marriage, to Matilda, daughter of the Scottish King and a direct descendant of Edward the Confessor.  Throughout his chronicle John studiously abstains from applying any descriptive phrases to King Henry; limiting himself entirely to Henry’s deeds, and yet he does succeed in impressing upon the reader a clear picture of Henry as king distinct from his predecessors and peers.
Henry is portrayed as a king who carries through his will, sometimes very violently, such as his enforcement of financial probity in England, but crucially, he does so effectively (in contrast to his brother William). John also demonstrated that Henry was willing to give way when in dispute with the church when the king’s dispute with Anselm over the investiture of his chosen bishops is resolved by Henry’s acceptance of the Pope’s decision. However it is noticeable that Henry still got all of his proposed bishops invested.
 John does not recount in any detail Henry’s actions whilst in the Norman part of his realm, presumably because he had no consistent correspondent, and Henrys frequent forays to pacify the fractious Norman Lords or meet the challenge of Angevin and French invaders were regularly simply recorded as having “crossed over the sea”. 
 Possibly the most dramatic moment of Henry’s life, the sinking of the White Ship and the drowning of Henry’s heir, and only legitimate son, William, is described in typically succinct style: 
“This disaster horrified and distressed the mind of the king, who reached England after a safe voyage, and of all who heard of it, and struck them with awe at the mysterious decrees of a just God.”
John’s strict chronological method shifts dramatically in 1130, to recount in frenetic detail three dreams which greatly disturbed the king, which he states are based upon the eye witness testimony of Henry’s physician, Grimbald, who watched the king terrified in his bedchamber and striking out with his sword at his unseen tormentors. Grimbald claimed to have watched the king whilst he slept and then to have discussed the dreams with his lord in the morning, John reported that Grimbald counselled the king to redeem his sins by alms giving.
The dream is evocative of similar ‘dreams’ which are recounted in Medieval stories and texts, both by the inclusion of the three estates of society; those who work, those who fight, and those who pray, and also with the reported ‘realism’ of the dream as experienced by the dreamer. 
Hollister emphasises that John had finished the main part of his history in the mid. 1120s and the dream sequence was written in the late 1130s, he argued that the vocal interruptions suggested that the piece was designed to be read aloud, to other churchmen, and that the complaints of the clergy in the third dream would have been understood as aimed at the depreciations of King Stephen, rather than of Henry. This is possibly unfair to John, who does employ these rhetorical devices elsewhere, and it seems likely was simply trying to give a verbatim account of Grimbald testimony which he heard first hand whilst at Winchcombe. Neither does John feel the necessity of hiding criticism of King Stephen behind allegory, in the entry for the same year John records Henry pledging to not collect the ’Danish Tax’ for seven years if the storm affecting his ship would abate: 
“When he had so promised there was a great calm. On his return, to everyone’s rejoicing he fulfilled his promise. King Stephen, who now reigns, also promised in a royal decree that he would never collect the Danish tax. We hear that it is now again demanded throughout England by a perjury odious to God. This cursed offence overturned the prophetic pledge just as it had been made.” 
 John’s first mention of Matilda is upon her betrothal as a child to The German Emperor Henry IV in 1110, and marriage in 1114. It seems that among her entourage was a correspondent of John’s as, unlike his lack of reporting from Normandy, whilst Matilda is in Germany, John has a stream of information from the Imperial court, although this is always about the Emperor, rather than his young wife. Matilda does not become an actor in her own right throughout John’s Chronicle, even after the death of the emperor in 1123. Matilda is always referred to through the prism of the men who had claim over her; her father, the King, her husbands, the Emperor, and later, Geoffrey of Anjou. Even though it is clear that Matilda must have been a formidable character in her own right, this is nowhere shown in John’s Chronicle.
 Robert, Matilda’s half-brother, features first in John’s chronicle at the royal court of Christmas 1128, when King Henry has his court swear to support Matilda, or any child of hers as king in the case of Henry dying without having anymore sons. John clearly ascribes the perjury of this oath as the cause of England’s woes after Henry’s death.  This does not mean that John becomes a supporter of Matilda’s rebellion, Stephen is the lawful king throughout John’s Chronicle, the sin of perjury is the cause of the suffering of the nation, but this does not in John’s view justify rebellion. Robert returns to John’s narrative after Henry’s death, launching the Angevin rebellion against Stephen, but as with Henry, and of his daughter, John gives no description of Robert. Toward the end of John’s chronicle, his dispassionate account slips, as he describes the assault on Worcester by an army loyal to the Empress and the sack and burning of the town. Perhaps John’s change of style is a reaction to his witnessing of these traumatic events, or, alternatively what has been recorded are the eye witness reports of which there was no time left for John to edit fully for final inclusion in the chronicle.
Orderic was the son of a Norman father and English mother, tutored by an English monk (from whom he took his name) and spent almost his entire life at an abbey in Normandy, he was thus an ideal exponent of the new Anglo Norman kingdom. Where John often left a blank page when Henry left England for France, Orderic could report at first hand from his home in the Abbey of Saint- Evroult. Though Orderic’s history covers all of the Anglo Norman Kingdom, it was the ability of a ruler to control Normandy which greatly influenced his attitude to that lord. 
The death of William Rufus and the succession of Henry allows Orderic to write a damning obituary of the acts of  King William:
 “…considering his squalid life and dreadful death…virtually past redemption and unworthy of redemption by the Church, for as long as he lived they had never been able to turn him from his vices to salvation ” whose death was mourned only by “mercenary soldiers, lechers, and common harlots (who) lost their wages through the death of the lascivious king, and lamented his wretched end not through respect but out of vile greed that fed on his vices”
 Which he places alongside a glowing eulogy to the good governance of Henry: 
“He governed the realm committed to him by God prudently and well through prosperity and adversity…outstanding in his preservation of peace and justice… earned the affection of all, clerk and lay alike, who enjoyed orderly rule… King Henry did not follow the advice of rash young men, as Rehoboam did, but prudently took to heart the experience and advice wise and older men.” 
For Orderic, it was Henrys imposition of stability upon the fractious lords of Normandy which made him a great king. Orderic believed: “The Normans to be an untamed race, and unless they are held in check by a firm ruler they are all too ready to do wrong”. 
 Robert, Henry’s older brother, who Orderic held responsible for the anarchic state of Normandy, failed utterly to be that strong ruler:
“But Robert, a weak Duke… sunk in sloth and voluptuousness, he feared his vassals in his own Duchy more than they feared him” 
Orderic believed that Robert had abandoned his responsibility to his subjects when he went on crusade, and upon his return, became the pawn of those “alarmed by the energy of King Henry and preferring the mildness of the sluggard Duke William” who influenced him to rebel against Henry and invade in 1101.
 Henry, in contrast, attracted to himself those who were repulsed by Robert’s ineptitude and indolence, who, by listening to wise counsel, was able to buy Robert off and thus separate him from his rebellious supporters . 
 Orderic writes in a very different style from John, adopting a far more classical style, he often inserted direct speech into the narrative, in order to allow Orderic to ascribe motive and explain certain otherwise ‘out of character’ actions. Orderic used this device liberally and expected his audience would understand what he was doing. 
Despite these rhetorical flourishes Orderic’s approach is not that different from that of John. Orderic fills out his history more comprehensively than John, but is still overwhelmingly concerned with actions and the consequences of those actions. Orderic does occasionally use attributive adjectives in association with Henry, and others, but these are often honorific or declamatory in nature, for example; “ingenious bishop”, “sluggard Duke Robert“, “energetic King”, “the wise Henry”, which in themselves tell the reader little about the personalities.
 The death of Henry’s heir in the White Ship disaster is related by Orderic in far more dramatic style than John; Orderic graphically recounts the events on the dockside and on board the doomed craft, adding for dramatic effect what he imagines must have occurred amongst the stricken crew. This was a real disaster; alongside William and his young bride perished the cream of the next generation of Anglo Norman nobility.
Orderic relates the most complete description of how Henry is told of the loss of his son, with the nobles of the court afraid of his grief kept the news from him: 
“The magnates wept bitterly in private and mourned inconsolably for their loved kinsfolk and friends, but in the kings presence they struggled to restrain their tears to avoid betraying the cause of their distress. However, on the following day, by a wise plan of count Theobald’s a boy threw himself weeping at the king’s feet, and the king learned from him that the cause of his grief was the wreck of the White Ship”
 Orderic’s account fits with the commentary of other contemporaries, and has been accepted by modern historians. Orderic employ biblical and classical allusions in his narrative, which he expected a similarly educated audience would understand in order to convey meaning; his account of King Henry discovering the loss of his heir is reminiscent of the book of Samuel, when King David’s servants afraid that David would harm himself in his grief were afraid to tell him of the death of his first child with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12), and also in the way in which, after Joab’s victory at the forest of Ephraim, King David is told of the death of his beloved, but errant son, Absalom (2 Samuel 18). Orderic expected his audience to recognise the allusion and see Henry’s grief for his son as the equal to David’s for Absalom.
 Having given a eulogy to Henry at the start of his reign, Orderic gives a pious account of his death and funeral arrangements and then concentrates upon the collapse of Normandy into internecine strife on the news of his death.
 Once Stephen is accepted by the English church Orderic does not dispute the legitimacy of his claim, and even his failure to adequately defend Normandy from internal strife and Angevin depreciation does not lead him to question Stephens claim. Matilda and Robert are thus described as Rebels throughout his account. Orderic does not mention at all the Christmas 1127 oath, which is so prominent in both John of Worcester’s account, and that of William. Matilda’s marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou is mentioned without further comment. From her marriage onward, Orderic refers to her as the countess of Anjou, rather than Empress. On Henry’s death, Matilda is sent by her husband to invade Normandy; the behaviour of Angevin troops in Normandy does appear to be a serious factor in Orderic’s attitude toward the Empress’s cause. Orderic drew a parallel between the invasion of Normandy by the Angevins and Earl Robert’s raising of the Welsh “wild men”. By far the most famous of the 12th century historians in his own time, and also amongst modern historians, was William of Malmesbury; "a gifted historical scholar and an omnivorous reader, impressively well versed in the literature of classical, patristic and earlier medieval times as well as in the writings of his own contemporaries. Indeed William may well have been the most learned man in twelfth-century Western Europe." William was a close confident of many of those who he wrote in his history, and was eye witness to many of the events on which he writes. He was also very close to Henry’s court, he was commissioned to write the Gesta Regum Anglorum by Henry’s first wife Matilda in 1118 He was also a strong advocate of the Empress’s cause (and dedicates the work to the Empress), and more specifically that of Earl Robert, who was a patron of Malmesbury Abbey and who commissioned William’s continuation of his history, the Historia Novella. William use of language is very classical in style, and he inserts Roman and Greek references and allusions into his works throughout. William euligises Henry, writing of him as being predestined to be king; “the centre of all men’s hopes while still an infant, for he alone was born a prince, and the throne seemed destined to be his” William uses descriptive writing far more than our other two historians. William describes Henry as being of average height, balding head, and having a tendency to snore. William’s candour is not all it seems as writing disparagingly about the physical features of a subject was a common feature of medieval writers, for example, Einhard describes Charlemagne’s pot belly, small head and high pitched voice. This may reflect the medieval belief in the imperfect and corrupt nature of the body, as opposed to the soul inside. It is the opposite of the 15th century obsession with the perfect model of man. William portrays Henry as a ideal secular monarch, does so as a scholarly monk would have him be; as a scholar king, more at home in the council chamber than the battlefield, averse to violence, and free from fleshly lusts. William has difficulty in adjusting this portrayal to Henry’s actions as monarch. Henry’s personal dispatch of a traitor from the battlements of Rouenor his policy toward debasers of the coin do not describe a king adverse to violence, nor his conduct at Tinchebrai (bizarrely described by William as without bloodshed) is of a King happier off the battlefield. William, as royally appointed historian, also has difficulty in explaining the energetic love life of Henry. For John of Worcester, there was no real problem; Henry marries in 1101, and again in 1121:  “having been a widower for some time, that he might not in future lead a dissolute life,” Henry’s illegitimate children are simply there, and need no further explanation. For Orderic, Henry’s fecundity cannot be ignored completely, but is largely swept aside, Henry marrying as he was: “not wishing to wallow in lasciviousness like any horse or mule which is without the use of reason”, Henry’s illegitimate children are introduced when they intrude upon the history without further comment- illegitimacy is a fact, the sin was not that of the children, and the role of royal illegitimate children as marriage/ diplomatic fodder was widely accepted. William of Newburgh might describe “...his lusting after women, in which he rivalled the wantonness of Solomon”, but William cannot allow his king such licence. William writes; “All his life he was completely free from fleshy lusts, indulging in the embraces of the female sex (as I have heard from those who know) from love of begetting children and not to gratify his passions” As Kathleen Thompson put it: “(in) His endeavours in this area, as with much of his life, Henry was eminently successful” Henry had twenty, known, illegitimate children as well as his two legitimate ones. The loss of his only, legitimate, son in the White Ship disaster threatened all of Henry’s hopes to establish a dynasty. William’s description of the disaster echoes Virgil who he quotes directly. William spends some time writing of those who perished in the disaster, but strangely does not report Henry’s grief, moving on to his need to find a new heir by finding a new wife. William finished his great history before the death of Henry and dedicated it to King David and the Empress Matilda. He was commissioned to continue the history by her brother Earl Robert of Gloucester in the early 1140s. In the Novella Historia William provides the fullest contemporary account of the oath of 1127, in which Robert, his patron, features prominently and which establishes Matilda’s claim for the throne. At Henry’s death bed William has Henry reassert Matilda’s claim. In the Novella Historia Robert is the clear hero, much of the book concerns his deeds, and the Earl is often praised by William, whilst the Empress, becomes somewhat transparent, she is present in William’s account, but never truly as a protagonist, always as a figure that events are taking place around. Whether considering the Chronicle style of John of Worcester, or the far more classical approaches of William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, it is not possible to discover a humanistic interpretation of the individual. Although Both Orderic and William both use Latin in deeply classical style which can give the impression of a humanist interpretation, this is not what is happening,    
 Twelfth century society was one in which the power of the Monarch was only recently being established, and in reality was constantly being challenged by powerful local lords, who themselves were constantly under threat from castellans and incursions of neighbouring lords. The political ideal was one of an ordered and stable society united by bonds of fealty and obedience under the divinely anointed rule of king with the support of the church and the obvious disparity between the brutal reality and this ideal only served to make the ideal more sought after.
 The 12th century historians were all monks, religious men, who had studied their theology and understood that the actions of a man can be recorded but his intentions are unknown to all but God, and it is not the role of a historian to claim to see what exists in a man’s soul, only God can do this, and only God can tell if that man, whether he be a King or a pauper has truly repented his sins and had made sufficient penance to be saved at the Final Judgement.
What were important were the actions of the man, and the consequences of those actions, not his intentions. Trying to guess what went through his mind would not make sense to them; as ideas which were not acted upon were not considered moral failings, but instead a victory over the influence of Satan.
 Neither was it the role of the historian to seek to understand Gods Will, but instead to faithfully record the events that they witness, or can find reliable sources for, so that future readers may through their work discern the Will of the Almighty. 
  Does the biblical allegory in Orderic’s account of the White Ship disaster or the coyness that William adopts when discussing Henry’s love life damage their worth as historical documents? Not if it is remembered that our historians were not writing for modern eyes; their audience were contemporary scholars at least as skilled in theology as they were themselves who would recognise the references and from them could see the truth in the allegory, and who were alive enough to the frailties of men to not need them spelled out. It is possible to see the individual in these histories, but this is conveyed by our historians through the actions of the protagonists, trying to impose anachronistic interpretations upon them is both unfair and it risks missing the real historical worth of their works, as insights into the medieval worldview. Bibliography Primary sources Chibnall, M. Orderic Vitalis: the Ecclesiastical History Vol. V. 1975 Chibnall, M. Orderic Vitalis; the Ecclesiastical History Vol.VI 1978 King and Potter William of Malmesbury: Novella Historia Oxford 1998 Mynors, Thomson, and Winterbottom, William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum Oxford 1998 Walsh & Kennedy, William of Newburgh: the history of English Affairs Bk. 1 Warminster 1988 Secondary sources Chibnall, M. The World of Orderic Vitalis Oxford 1984 Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge 1927. Hollister, C. W. Henry I London 2001 Gransden, A. Historical writing in England c.500 to 1307 London 1996 Swanson, R. N The twelfth century renaissance Manchester 1999 Internet resources Thorpe, Weaver & Forester John of Worcester Chronicon ex Chronicis 1854 online at accessed on 21/04/2012 Journals Thompson, K. State of affairs: the illegitimate children of Henry I Journal of medieval history 29 2003

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