Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Wace's Roman de Brut: An Anglo-Norman Aeneid

by Mark Patton

It is often assumed that knowledge of, and interest in, classical civilisation died out in Britain and Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire, and only re-emerged at the time of the Renaissance. This, however, has only ever been a partial truth. It is certainly the case that very few people in Medieval Britain or western Europe could read Greek, but Latin was always the language of the Catholic church, and secular, as well as religious texts from the ancient world were read and copied in the monasteries, universities and royal courts of Europe. Einhard, the 9th Century biographer of Charlemagne, drew heavily on the work of the Roman historian and biographer, Suetonius.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c1136), drew on Virgil's Aeneid, and on Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War, to create a mythic ancestry for the British Royal line going back to Brutus, the great-grandson of the Trojan Aeneas, who supposedly established his "New Troy" on the banks of the Thames. This narrative is the earliest source for many of the Arthurian legends, as well as the story of King Lear and his three daughters.

Geoffrey's Latin prose was accessible only to scholars, churchmen and princes, and was never, in itself, likely to have much popular appeal. It was the Jersey-born poet, Wace, who first narrated these stories in vernacular verse (Anglo-Norman, rather than English) that was both easily remembered and capable of being performed. He appears to have dedicated his Roman de Brut to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1159. It is clearly related to the Chansons de Geste, which were being performed by jongleurs all over Europe and, as such, it is likely to have played a greater role in the dissemination of the stories than Geoffrey's original text.

Vortigern, from Wace's Roman de Brut. British Library, Egerton MS 3028 (image is in the Public Domain).

No complete English translation of the Roman de Brut existed until Judith Weiss published her prose translation in 2002. His eight syllable lines, however, are quite easily comprehensible to most French-speakers. Wace features as a character in my forthcoming novel, Omphalos, and I wanted to show him performing part of the poem, so here I present an extract of the original, together with my own verse translation:

Brutus esquarda les montaines,
Vit les valees, vit les plainnes,
Vit les mores, vit les bocages,
Vit les eues, vit les rivages,
Vit les champs, vit les praeries,
Vit les porz, vit les pescheries,
Vit son pople multepleier ...
... Pensa sei que cite fereit
E que Troie renovelereit ...
... Sa cite fist desur Tamise ...
Pour ces anceisors remembrer
La fist Troie Nove apeller
Puis ala li nuns corumpant
Si l'apela l'am Trinovant,
Mais que le nom guarde, si trove,
Que Trinovant est Troy Nove.

"Brutus looked over the high mountains,
Saw the valleys, saw the plains,
Saw the meadows and the fields,
Saw the harbours and fisheries,
Saw how his people might prosper there,
Saw his chance to build a city,
To rebuild Troy on the banks of the Thames,
And to remember his ancestors, he called it 'Troie Nove,'
But the name became corrupted,
For people called it 'Trinovant,'
But well must we remember that 'Trinovant' is Troie Nove."

"Trinovant" is here (as in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account), a reference to Julius Caesar's Commentaries: the Trinovantes were the pre-Roman people of Essex, who allied themselves with Caesar to defeat their more powerful tribal neighbours, the Catuvellauni.

King Arthur encountering a giant, from Wace's Roman de Brut. British Library, Egerton MS 3028 (image is in the Public Domain).

Whilst it is clear that Geoffrey of Monmouth's text is Wace's primary source, he did far more than simply translate it into Anglo-Norman verse. The Roman de Brut is the earliest source to mention the Round Table, and Excalibur as the name of King Arthur's sword.

Merlin building Stonehenge, from Wace's Roman de Brut. British Library, Egerton Manuscript 3028 (image is in the Public Domain).

Wace was a churchman, a canon first at the Abbey of St Etienne in Caen, and later at the Cathedral of Bayeux, and he seems, for his time, to have been quite well travelled (in my novel, he guides pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela, which seems at least plausible), spicing his poem with descriptions of the many of the places that feature in the stories.

The church (formerly abbey) of St Etienne, Caen. Photo: Urban (licensed under GNU).

Geoffrey of Monmouth is often derided as a writer of "pseudo-history," and it would be easy to tar Wace with the same brush. Nobody seriously believes that the Trinovantes (or the Romans, for that matter) were descended from Trojans. This, however, seems to me to miss the point, which is that they are great stories and, as literary works, just like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil's Aeneid, they have played a key role in defining a cultural tradition that extends down to the present day.


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


  1. I loved this post. Geoffrey is indeed the first mention of King Arthur and the giant story is said by at least one Romanz analysist to contain a subtext ,that of the terrors of the crusades , especially sieges where human flesh was eaten. And of course the Holy Grail Quest so the Kings of England had very pure and noble ancestry!

  2. I read a translation, along with Layamon's, at university(sorry I can't use the original letter, which looks like a number 3!) and, of course, Geoffrey of Monmouth who was also the first to mention Merlin. Fascinating stuff! And why wouldn't they want their own Aeneid? :-) In fact, there's a series by Sara Douglass based on the Trojan origins story.

  3. There is a "translation" available online, but it's a partial one (only the Arthurian passages) and rather a poor one compared to Judith Weiss's. I can't fault hers in any way, but it is quite expensive.