Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Medieval French Praise Song

From the eleventh century on, writers have disagreed as to what actually happened at The Battle of Hastings. The earliest contemporary account of the battle is the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, attributed to Guy of Amiens. The Carmen was known in the Middle Ages, disappeared and was recovered in the Bibliotheque de Bologne in 1838. Edwin Tetlow, writing on the subject of The Battle, called Hastings an enigma writing, 'The story is befogged by legend, lie and propaganda  aspects, by lack of acceptable evidence'. Recently there has been disagreement as to its actual location.

 As for The Carmen historians think it was written before 1070. It was written in Latin at St Riquer in Ponthieu, which was one of the centres of the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century and one can assume that the poet is influenced by earlier Carolingian poets. Therefore the Carmen is a celebratory poem set down to praise Duke William's victory at Hastings and it was probably written either to be presented during Easter celebrations in Normandy in 1068 or to celebrate Queen Matilda's coronation on 18th May 1069.

Queen Matilda

By the poet's own admission in its prologue, the poem is one of praise to preserve memory of'William's achievements through the ages' and 'the hope of acquiring the Duke's favour.' The poem's narrative, written in elegiac couplets describes events leading to the battle from the Duke's arrival at St Valery, the battle itself, the death and funneral of King Harold, the siege of London and William's coronation. Its epic narrative suits its purpose of celebration. Its thrust is that William was deprived of his legal rights and was seeking justice. The subtext, however, is that Amiens wrote the poem to press home the gratitude owed by the duke to Guty of Amiens own relatives, the contribution of Ponthieu and that of neighbouring Eustace of Bologne to Duke William's victory (Eustace of Bologne was one of the most colourful characters associated with Hastings). Throughout the poem Amiens praises the duke's accomplishments, his fighting ability and organisational skill. Like many Carolingian poems of this nature it has an overtly political drive. It is, though very beautiful, a propagandist work, a seriously literary work aimed at an audience who expected entertainment as well as history.

William built Cathedrals and saw himself as the military arm of the reforming Church

In it the poet uses the tools of Carolingian poetry, classical and old testiment imagery, deliberate exaggaration, panegyric appeals and poetry as a tool for debate and attack. For example, the numbers of the enemy's fighting men is greatly exaggarated to make the victory seem greater, The English suffered great losses 'indeed ten thousand suffered destruction'. Amiens denigrates the enemy. The English nobility is described as 'effeminate young men, sluggish in the art of war, whatever their number.' The English mass in a phalanx like an animal to be hunted down. The hound, the continental cavalry, is by comparison, noble and swift. It follows the leading horseman, William and later, Eustace, who are poised to lead, chase and destroy the boar.

Harold is attacked viciously in the poem. He is an oath breaker and accused of fratricide and here Amiens uses the Biblical story of Cain and Able to image Tostig's death at Stamford Bridge. 'The envious Cain heved off his brother's head, and buried his head and body in the earth.' King Harold is portrayed as 'the heir of dark deception', a reference to Satan, as 'relying on deceit' , as 'dishonourable' and as 'a master of cunning'. The Duke is powerful and just. Leonine imagery, popular throughout the middle ages, is used for William. He is depicted as more beautiful than the sun, wiser than Solomon and readier than Pompey.
Interestingly, Amiens uses poetic license to heighten the poem's drama and make propagandist inference. He records the long-haired star as appearing in September just as Duke William lands his fleet at Pevensey. It is recorded as appearing in March in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

Duke William set sail with a huge fleet from St Valery but only when the winds were favourable or blessed by God

So, as we writers all know, primary sources such as The Carmen give us a real flavour of a period but always should we recognise their provenence, no matter how we use them. And how we use them is the writer's prerogative as after all, like Amiens, we are writing stories too. This said, I do love the Carmen. It is really a beautiful piece of literature and worth reading as such too, and if this period is your interest, it is one of the best primary sources descibing the Battle. Just do not take it as a literal truth but as what it is, a praise poem written down very close to the actual event.
Carol McGrath-The Handfasted Wife, a novel about Edith Swanneck, King Harold's common law wife will be published by Accent Press in June 2013, the first novel in a trilogy titled The Daughters of Hastings. 


  1. Great post, Carol! I can't find the text of the Carmen online, either in Latin or in English. There seem to be two translations available (Frank Barlow's at £101.65, which has the advantage of having the Latin and English side-by-side, and Catherine Martin & Hope Muntz's at £35).

  2. Full text available for a day here:

  3. Shocking to discover how little I actually knew considering that 1066 is one of the few dates in common knowledge...

  4. Excellent post Carol. However, the 'Queen Matilda' illustration is actually the 'Empress Matilda' at her marriage!

  5. ouch, ouch re Matilda. There were other pics too free to use and double ouch as I could not tell the difference. I did wonder! Had difficulty with format on this post and apologise for the loss of quote marks. Thank you for the comments. The Carmen I used was in the Bodlean in Oxford. This piece was extracted/ condensed from my original Phd thesis chp on The Carmen but I was told I was doing an English Phd and so I had to abandon the chapter. The text, by the way, is available in a book by Stephen Morillo for anyone interested. Google him. I read it in Latin and English. Loved it!

  6. There is a difference in the Muntz and Barlow translations. Barlow refers to the English army with a diiferent term to Muntz who uses the word 'effeminate'. I think Barlow used 'nancy boys'!! Is that even PC nowadays?

  7. One day I would like to read The Carmen- now that I know it exists. Thank you, Carol!


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