Friday, January 9, 2015

Wace's Roman de Rou - An Epic History of the Anglo-Norman People

By Mark Patton

In an earlier blog-post, I introduced Wace's "Anglo-Norman Aeneid," the Roman de Brut, in which he wrote about the early history of Britain making King Arthur a descendent of the Trojan Brutus. Henry II was apparently so pleased with this poem that he commissioned Wace to write a second poem dealing with the more recent history of the Anglo-Norman people, beginning with the life of Rollo (846-932 AD) and continuing down to the Battle of Tinchebray (1106).

The "Rou" of the title is a Frenchified form of Rollo, a Viking leader who invaded Normandy, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 876 AD and "reigned for fifty winters." Under the terms of the Treaty of St-Clair-sur-Epte (911 AD), Rollo embraced Christianity and married Gisela, the daughter of the King of France (Rollo and Gisela are the 33 times great-grandparents of our present Queen).

The Marriage of Rollo and Gisela, from a 14th Century French manuscript. The contrast in dress between Gisela's father, Charles the Simple, on the left, and Rollo, on the right, makes an important propaganda point about the subservient status of the Norman Dukes.

Wace was a Jerseyman who served as a Canon, first at the Abbey of St Etienne in Caen and later at the Cathedral of Bayeux. He seems to have had a greater concern for historical veracity than some of his contemporaries, and this may, ultimately, have brought him into conflict with the king. The Roman de Rou was never completed, Wace himself tells us, because Henry transferred his patronage to his rival "Maistre Beneeit" (probably Benoit de Sainte-More). It survives in just one complete copy (made in the 18th Century and now in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France) and three partial copies (two in the Bibliotheque Nationale and one in the British Library).

Part of the British Library's copy
of the Roman de Rou (Royal C xi).

Sadly, none of these copies is richly illustrated in the manner of the British Library's (Egerton 3028) manuscript of the Roman de Brut, but the text is easily accessible in Glyn Burgess's English translation (available both in paperback and as an e-book).

As well as drawing on earlier chronicles such as William of Poitiers's Gesta Guillelmi and William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum, Wace includes material from oral tradition. Here, for example, he cites his father's apparent eye-witness account of the preparations for the Norman invasion of England in 1066:

"But I heard my father say - I remember it well, though I was a young lad, that when they set off from Saint-Valery there were 700 ships less four, either ships, boats, or ships carrying weapons or equipment,"

The embarkation of the Norman fleet
as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.

There is a suggestion that Wace's grandfather or great-grandfather may have been Duke William's chamberlain, Thurstan.

Wace may have been a historian keen to get his facts right when they were available to him; he was quite willing to use his poetic imagination when facts were in short supply. Here, for example, he describes a dream that Rollo had during the course of his military campaigns:

"One night, when Rou was thinking of many things, he saw a vision which terrified him. He had the impression of sitting on a mountain, so high that there was none as high in the whole of France. On the top, on its own channel, was a spring from which water flowed, which was fine and clear, pure and healthful. Rou was completely discoloured and blackened with leprosy. He was bathing in the water, and was cured at once. The mountain Rou dreamed of was teeming with so many birds, small and large, that they completely covered it. All the birds went and bathed in the spring ... Wherever they went, they obeyed Rou, and their left wings were completely red. When Rou got up the next morning ... he related his dream. There was a Christian among the prisoners, and he explained the dream. The spring on the mountain was holy baptism, the leprosy was sin, the birds are your companions, who will be baptised ..."

I suspect that this scene may have been provided some of the inspiration for Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules, and certainly it provided the inspiration for a scene in my novel, Omphalos, in which Wace himself features as a character.

"The Parliament of Birds,"
by Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton (1668-1754)
inspired by Chaucer's poem


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


  1. Thanks for this! I read the Roman De Brut for my English Honours thesis many years ago, comparing it with Layamon's version(sorry, no thorns or ashes on this keyboard!), but this is one I haven't come across. There is a translation in iBooks, but not this one. Maybe I should look under Glyn S Burgess - the style seems very readable.

    It must be nice to be a royal and able to see your ancestors illuminated in a mediaeval manuscript and ablse to say, "Yep, that's my many times great granny and grandad". ;-)

  2. This takes me back! I read Wace and Layamon about 40 years ago - just an interest in Arthurian literature and history at that time.

  3. I remember at The British Museum Bayeux Tapestry Conference it was thought that Wace should be looked at more closely. Clearly it was because his father was an eye witness to the invasion as a boy. Great post.

  4. And that's another thing. It reminds me of Suetonius saying in The Twelve Caesars things like, "my father was with Emperor Otho and he said ..." and "I remember when I was a boy..." It made you feel as if you were there.

  5. I had never heard of this and now I'm enjoying reading it! Thank you!

  6. Just an update on this: the picture of Rollo & Gisela above is 14th Century French propaganda. Scholars are increasingly doubt whether Gisela even existed, since she is not mentioned in any of the earlier French records. Rollo was already married "in the Danish fashion" to a Breton noblewoman, Poppa of Bayeux, and she, rather than Gisela, is now thought to have been the ancestress of the Norman Ducal and English Royal lines.


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