As those of you who are attending the Fifteenth Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society know, one of the special events this year is a twilight cruise around Manhattan in the World Yacht Princess. Something more than a floating version of the infamous Kalamazoo medievalist dance, the cruise promises award winning jazz, swing dancing, food and unlimited booze.
But before you purchase your ticket to this aqueous revel, consider this: doesn't this luxury ship stuffed with partying Chaucerians have all the makings of a really bad disaster film? Forget Poseidon Adventure, Titanic or even Snakes on a Plane. I have visions of the Wreck of the World Yacht Princess, in which young scholars throw decorum to the wind and desperately deploy senior colleagues as flotation devices. Think of how much arcane knowledge could perish.
Then again, think of how many jobs would open for today's graduate students.
So, in honor of my vision of medievalist catastrophe, I offer this commentary on a disaster narrative from the Middle Ages. It was supposed to appear in my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain, but (prolix fellow that I am) I had to cut this and much else to get the thing down to size. Without further ado, then the Sinking of the White Ship; or, The Titanic of the Middle Ages.
Things Fall Apart
The twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury embraced his dual Norman and English heritage, proclaiming it the key to a balanced understanding of the perturbed English past. From his evident pride in "having the blood of both nations in my veins" (History of the English Kings 3.Preface), it is tempting to conclude that post-Conquest Norman versus English antagonism was coming rapidly to an end by the time he wrote. Yet William's narration of a tragic event of 1120 offers a glimpse of the anxiety that circulated beneath his confident embrace of mixed blood and middle paths.
When the White Ship capsized crossing the channel to England, lost to the nocturnal sea were not only King Henry I's only legitimate son, but also the communal dream of England passing peacefully to an heir. Henry had arranged for the men of England and Normandy to bind themselves formally to prince William five years earlier, a public proclamation that the throne would finally move smoothly from father to son rather than wobble under the stress of another interfamily contest. No wonder that that the young man was held to be spes Angliae, "the hope of England" (5.419). The expression refers to a prophecy made by Edward the Confessor on his deathbed, in which the kingdom of England was figured as a maimed tree awaiting restoration of an absent branch (2.227). Henry's marriage to Matilda meant that William carried in his veins the revered bloodline of Alfred the Great. William's accession to the throne would restore England to its pre-conquest wholeness, repairing the historical chain ruptured after Edward's death.
The loss of Prince William, as sudden as it was unexpected, stunned England. The sinking of the White Ship captured the imagination of writers in Britain and abroad, resulting in no less than seven extant accounts. C. Warren Hollister aptly compares it to the loss of the Titanic, a maritime disaster that similalrly came to symbolize the passing of an age. The shipwreck at Barfleur was recognized almost immediately as marking the end of the dynasty founded by William the Conqueror in 1066, a brief line of Norman kings composed of a father and two quarrelsome sons. Likely to end with it would be the long calm that under Henry had finally held the realm. True, Henry's reign was steeped in blood and violence, but only when considering the whole of Britain. While the Welsh, Scots and Irish endured frequent bellicose action, England was relatively unperturbed. The English people enjoyed a special affection from their king, something that could not be said during the reign of his father or brother. Henry's first child, Robert, was the son of an English woman, born when Henry was only twenty. Relationships with other women of English blood followed, producing numerous children of mixed blood to whom Henry appears to have been an attentive father. After ascending to the throne and marrying Matilda, Henry's anglophilia earned him and his wife the mocking names Godric and Godgifu at the francophone court. Yet whereas William the Conqueror's bastardy had posed no insurmountable block to his coronation, by the time Henry became king illegitimate children were barred from succession. Robert, despite all his accomplishments, could never replace the dead William. Queen Matilda had passed away in 1118. Desperate to produce a legitimate son, Henry remarried in 1121, but it quickly became clear that Adeliza, the teenaged queen, and the king, now in his fifties, were not going to have offspring.
William of Malmesbury completed the first version of his monumental History of the English Kings about six years after William drowned, and finished a major revision the year Henry died. Perhaps with the uncertainty of the realm's future in mind, he declared of the White Ship that nulla umquam fuit nauis Angliae tantae miseriae, "No vessel that ever sailed brought England such disaster" (5.419). England, it seemed in both 1126 and 1135, was again facing the deeply troubling questions about historical continuity and collective identity that the two king Williams and Henry had striven so energetically to resolve – as had, in fact, William of Malmesbury himself in undertaking to write the History of the English Kings. No wonder the foundering of the vessel resonated with such melancholy for its medieval historians. The event catalyzed some of William's most powerful writing.
William's portrait of the shipwreck is imbued with both classical gravitas and searing horror. The prince is depicted as full of confidence in both himself and his future, having been indulged with "all the sweets of kingship except the name of king" by his doting father. The scions of noble families who join William on the White Ship are merry youngsters in search of frolic, while the exuberant rowers are filled with both drink and song. William of Malmesbury's Latin is magnificent here, by turns frantic and achingly sad, setting bits of Virgil's Aeneid adrift in a swell and crash of vivid prose:
Erat enim nauis optima, tabulatis nouis et clauis recenter compacta. Itaque ceca iam nocte iuuentus sapientiae indiga simulque potu obruta nauem a littore impellunt. Volat illa pennata pernitior harundine et crispantia maris terga radens imprudentia ebriorum impegit in scopulum, non longe a littore supra pelagus extantem. Consurgunt ergo miseri et magno clamore ferratos contos expediunt, diu certantes ut nauem a rupe propellerent; sed obsistebat Fortuna, omnes eorum conatus in irritum deducens. Itaque et remi in saxum obnixi crepuere concussaque prora pependit. Iamque alios undis exponebat, alios ingressa per rimas aqua enecabat, cum eiecta scafa filius regis excipitur.
They had a splendid ship, provided with new planking and nails. It was already night and pitch dark, when those young hotheads, drunk as well as foolish, put out from shore. The ship sped swifter than a feathered arrow, and skimming the sea's curling top, she struck, through the carelessness of her besotted crew, a rock projecting from the surface not far from the shore. Hapless souls, they jumped to their feet and in a babel of shouting unship iron-shod poles for a long struggle to push their vessel off the rock; but Fortune was against them, and brought to naught all their endeavors. So 'the oars smashed against the crags, fast hung the battered prow.' Already some were being washed overboard, and others drowned by the water that came in through the cracks, when they got off a boat with the king's son in it. (5.419)
Prince William decides to turn back and save his drowning half-sister Matilda, whose cries echo through the night. As he returns to the ship a mob (multitudine) "jumped at once in this boat, and she was swamped, and took them altogether to the bottom." Only one man escapes, an agrestis ("peasant, country fellow"), and William would have us believe that this artfully rendered visualization of marinal catastrophe comes from his eyewitness report (totius tragediae actum expressit). That Prince William's body was never recovered, allowing no funeral, no tomb, no closure, made the loss all the more profound.
"The hopes of all men were lifted as to a tower's top, when all was thrown into confusion by the mutability of human things" (tam omnium spes in speculam erectas confudit humanae sortis uarietas, 5.419). Tracing an intimate connection between Normandy and England, this craft foundering in a dark sea was weighted down not just by its three hundred revelers but, in his retrospective narration of the event, the dashed hopes of its historian, thunderstruck that by some perverse turn of fate the ship's cargo of certainty, stability and continuity never arrived on English shores. The History of the English Kings strives to connect the glorious English past to its post-conquest history, attempting to render a perturbed present more certain. The sinking of the White Ship once more severed the chain aligning the past, with its providential momentum and progressive teleology, to a secure and predictable future. Everything was in doubt.