Continuing here my blogging of the original version of my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain -- a project that was called Stories of Blood. In retrospect it's the version I wish I had published.
Part one (Real and Recent Blood) is here, part two (The Blood of Race) is here, and the bibliography is here in PDF.
Histories of Blood
|Silvester II. and the Devil Cod. Pal. germ. 137 f216v|
Race is messy. Dispersed across scattered elements like law, custom, language, and environment, precariously resting on blood that inevitably refuses to course through straightforward lines of kinship or descent, race cannot solidify without some architectural structure than can circumscribe its volatility within some demarcated form. To make the fugitive components of race cohere often requires the catalytic power of a foundation story. This account of origins must be persuasive enough to transform a complex past into a comprehensible history. Without such an account to anchor its claims to distinctiveness, a race will have great trouble gaining its substantiality. Race requires narrative.[i]
And narratives of race require blood.
"At the Extremity of the Known World," c. 686
At the age of twelve Bæda was a veteran of monasteries. His kinsmen had delivered him to the monks of Wearmouth five years ago, a tearful boy. Now he had learned to love the cloister's solitude. Gone were the thoughts of rolling apples down the slype to see how many monks he could trip. Gone too were the plans he once entertained of composing red caricatures of his brethren in the pages of the bible he had been copying, though it did still amuse him to consider the nose he would have given Wulf.
Not long ago Bæda left Wearmouth for nearby Jarrow, a new monastery that wanted inhabiting. He accompanied its abbot Ceolfrith and twenty monks who had become twenty friends. Puerulus, the older men had called him, "little guy." At twelve the affectionate nickname did not fit him as well as it once had, but now that all the brothers who had spoken it lay dead, Bæda did feel like a small boy again. Only he and Ceolfrith remained. Two monks slumbered in the dormitory, two monks chanted the daily cycle of prayers, two monks persevered in the daily routine that kept Jarrow alive. The monastery had become too large, its stone too cold. The sound of his feet no louder than the briny drizzle, Bæda feared that he was becoming a ghost.
In his dreams he saw faces burning with fever. He had done what he could to ease their anguish, had carried bread and broth for dwindling appetites, water for thirst beyond endurance. Sometimes he relived the last moments of their lives, when shaking calmed, eyes stilled, warmth emptied. Washing corpses with cold water, he saw the patterns that blood forms under dead skin, cloudy stains that pool, blue and then yellow and then brown. The return to oblivious earth. What haunted Bæda most, what had settled poisonously in his stomach and would not be dislodged, was that monks were supposed to die filled with joy, rushing toward heaven's secure embrace. Cuthwin had been the worst, screaming against the ebb of life as if screaming alone could arrest his dissolution.
For three days Bæda drifted through the monastery, the world slowly fading. The sea sent cold mist drifting. The drip of water from the roof was for the boy the only reminder that time had not stopped. Then Ceolfrith suddenly brightened, and insisted that they no longer abbreviate the daily singing of the psalms. They would pray as if Jarrow's unity endured, and it would endure. So they again chanted psalms with anitiphons, this convent of two, and in that circulation of heavy Latin Bæda learned something he would carry with him for the rest of his life. Words are powerful enough to revivify the dead, to anchor the vanishing in life, to create from the broken past the stone-solid foundation of communities yet to come.[ii]
Producing the English
The monastic historian known today as the Venerable Bede composed his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum [Ecclesiastical History of the English People] early in the eighth century, c. 731. When he let his mind wander over the expansiveness of Britain, he saw before him, in the words of one recent critic, an island that was an "untidy patchwork of Saxon adventurers, acculturated Britons, and Celtic kingdoms."[iii] Despite the sheer heterogeneity of this expanse, Bede envisioned the possibility of a pan-insular political union. He did not imagine that the rival kingdoms, warring polities, and varied populations of Britain might be gathered into some multiracial collective, however. In Bede's vision the entirety of the land constituted the natural dominion of a single and singular gens Anglorum, the English people. Neither this unity nor this race quite existed in Bede's own day. Yet the history that Bede narrated centered around a confederacy of blood that, even if not yet true, leapt from the pages of Ecclesiastical History a few centuries later to become the thing that Bede had been able only to dream.
Bede's historical narrative opens with Julius Caesar's invasion of the island: "Now Britain had never been visited by the Romans and was unknown to them until the time of Gaius Julius Caesar" (1.2). Britain is from the start linked to classical history and oriented toward distant Rome. Because the narrative is initiated from a Mediterranean rather than indigenous point of view, other possible histories vanish into silence. These alternative beginnings can be barely glimpsed in the descriptive section that introduces the Ecclesiastical History. Here Bede offers a precise and seemingly neutral delineation of the British Isles: massive Britanniashared by the Picts, Irish, Britons and Angles; the Orkneys; proximate Ireland; Oceanus infinitus, the "boundless ocean" that encloses these fertile expanses in its watery embrace. Describing the contours of the archipelago and its present population means acknowledging that the islands possess a history much longer than the one that begins with Caesar's bringing of Britain into the orbit of Rome.
The temporal heart of Bede's History is the period between the fifth and early eighth century. Both before and during this time the British Isles were a maelstrom of cultural clash, admixture, alliance. The Picts and the Britons (disparate and shifting collectives of peoples, some Romanized, some not) formed their greater and smaller collectives, many enduring for years, others coalescing as briefly as the life of the warrior-king behind them. Warriors from Ireland arrived in what would someday be called Scotland and Wales, establishing the maritime kingdom of Dál Riata. Beginning in the fifth century ethnically various peoples migrated from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany, assimilating or loosely incorporating some indigenous groups, displacing or eradicating others. Over time these plunderers-turned-settlers combined warbands with more sedentary pursuits. Medieval writers referred to this resettlement as the adventus Saxonum; modern historians usually label it the Anglo-Saxon migration, the foundation for what becomes England. Recent archeological and historical work has stressed the survival of native polities even as their leadership was displaced or absorbed, forging out of patchy amalgamations of Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British elements emergent kingdoms like Mercia.[iv] Parvenu realms fought relentlessly for hegemony, incorporating conquered rivals to form larger kingdoms, expanding into lands still held by Britons and Picts. These peoples, meanwhile, continued to form their own shifting solidarities, especially in the form of competitive principalities.
By the time Bede set pen to vellum the inhabitants of Britain had long spoken a variety of languages broken into an abundance of dialects. No doubt rapidly changing patois enabled trade and other less ephemeral forms of exchange; many islanders would have been multilingual, indeed multiracial. The peoples of Britain were for much of this period more alike than different: possessing cultures and speaking languages that lacked internal uniformity; prone to forming princely, kingly, and familial factions of variable scope and duration; mixing pastoral and pillage economies with less mobile religious and agrarian pursuits; willing to ally themselves militarily and matrimonially with those outside their linguistic and cultural circles. The British archipelago was, in short, as unsettled as it was multiplicitous, an unquiet expanse engendering the fluidity and compoundedness that contemporary scholars like to call creolization, métissage, doubleness, mestizaje, and hybridity.
An implicit acknowledgment of this racial and cultural multiplicity can be glimpsed when in the space of a few short chapters of the Ecclesiastical History we witness Edmund of Northumbria converting to Christianity, reorienting his northern kingdom along a Mediterranean axis; Rædwald of the East Angles erecting a temple in which one altar serves Christ and another receives human sacrifices; the pagan English of Mercia joining forces with the Christian Britons of Gwynedd; the sons of Æthelfrith of Northumbria living in secure exile among the Irish and Picts; the English king Oswald speaking perfect Irish to the visiting bishop Aidan of Iona, a man who oversees monasteries that conjoin his native country to the Picts and the Angles (2.13-3.3). Despite such multicultural vectors, however, onto the primal and enduring heterogeneity of the islands Bede projects a reductive separateness. Bede's narrative is rather like the Hadrianic and Antonine walling projects that he describes early in the text, demarcations that engender unity through profound and irreversible exclusions. Like the ramparts erected by the Roman emperors to keep the barbarians from endangering the Romanized sections of the island, or like Offa's Dike closer to his own day, Bede immures Britain into separate and unequal geographical spaces. He parcels the vastness of the island into a simplified, racialized geography.
Four living languages thrive on the island, Bede writes, each straightforwardly representing an insular people: Irish, Pictish, British, English (1.1).[v] By demarcating Britain's races linguistically, Bede is able to delineate four distinct peoples who in actual fact did not often think of themselves within such a definitive, massively collective framework. True, writers like Julius Caesar, Tacitus and Gildas had for their own purposes gathered the entirety of insular linguistic groups into single categories. Yet even if such communal nomination was available and even at times effective when Bede wrote, these grandiose designations did not necessarily have great import for the quotidian struggles in which the islands' populations engaged. Political realities more frequently eroded than buttressed the efficacy of overarching linguistic and cultural unities. Although he had to acknowledge quietly the alliances that mingled the insular peoples, Bede took as a foundational assumption that, in stepping back far enough and surveying all of Britain as if with the eye of God, the island's scattered population would resolve into four races, naturally and patently distinct. United by language, Bede implies, each was formed by an individuating history and a particularizing origin.[vi]
Bede nominally composed an account of the Roman church in England, a church still in its infancy. Bede was born, after all, a mere seventy-five years after the arrival of the missionary Augustine in Kent, and his own country of Northumbria had been Christian for a mere fifty years.[vii] Given the church's recent arrival and relative fragility, it could be argued that Bede's ambition was only to provide for it a stable history in the hopes of an enduring future. Along the way, however, Bede's Ecclesiastical History also furnished the English race (gens Anglorum) with its generative past, a narrative structure that would enable a dispersed and heterogeneous peoples to behold an ultimate community. This harmonizing bent is most evident when Bede describes his favorite "English" kings -- beloved, we suspect, because they happen to be Christian kings of Northumbria, and the monk was ethnically a Northumbrian.[viii] In a culminating moment of insular harmony, the glorious Edwin reigns peacefully over "the whole realm of Britain" (omnes Brittaniae fines, 2.9), both "the English and the British race" (genti Anglorum simul et Brettonum, 2.20). One of Edwin's men famously imagines that his world is a fire-lit meadhall, shielding the king and his thanes from the wintry storms that rage outside (2.13). This potent image of community is in a way a figure for Edwin's kingdom itself, capacious and stable, but thoroughly and unthinkingly English in its terms of belonging (the Britons did not dream of meadhalls when they wanted to symbolize harmonious earthly unity; it is not possible to imagine the gens Brettonum seated with Edwin by that warming fire).[ix] The stability and pan-insular unity that Edwin achieves comes to a cataclysmic end, however, when he and his army are slaughtered in battle. They fall against a twofold enemy: the nefarious heathen Penda, ruler of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that was a dangerous rival to Bede's Northumbria; and Cædwalla, rex Brettonum, "king of the Britons." Bede's title for Cædwalla is a typical exaggeration on his part, for Cædwalla (that is, Cadwallon ap Cadfan) was king only of Gwynedd, a powerful British kingdom in what would become northwest Wales. Although racially English, Penda is easy to detest, since he remains an idol-worshipping pagan after the Christian destiny of the gens Anglorum has been made clear.[x] Cædwalla is another story. Like Edwin himself, Cædwalla is a Christian king, a troubling point of similarity. Welsh literary tradition suggests that Edwin spent time in exile at the court of Gwynedd, probably at the time it was ruled by Cadfan, Cædwalla's father.[xi] Yet despite a shared creed and historical alliances that clearly crossed racial boundaries, Bede distances Cædwalla at every opportunity, introducing him as "a barbarian who was worse than a heathen" [barbarus erat pagano saeuior]. By insisting that in taking arms against the English Cædwalla committed an act of insurrection [rebellauit], Bede not only grants Edwin more power over the Britons than he likely exerted, he renders what may have been military self-protection on Cædwalla's part an unforgivable revolt.[xii] After Edwin of Northumbria dies in fierce battle at Hæthfelth (12 October 633), the Britons and their king are described in monstrous terms:
Caedualla, quamuis nomen et professionem haberet Christiani, adeo tamen erat animo ac moribus barbarus, ut ne sexui quidem muliebri uel innocuae paruulorum parceret aetati, quin uniuersos atrocitate ferina morti per tormenta contraderet, multo tempore totas eorum prouincias debachando peruagatus, ac totum genus Anglorum Brittaniae finibus erasurum se esse deliberans. Sed nec religioni Christianae, quae apud eos exorta erat, aliquid inpendebat honoris, quippe cum usque hodie moris sit Brettonum fidem religionemque Anglorum pro nihili habere, neque in aliquo eis magis communicare quam paganis.
Cædwalla, although a Christian by name and profession, was nevertheless a barbarian in heart and disposition and spared neither women nor innocent children. With bestial cruelty he put all to death by torture and for a long time raged through all their land, meaning to wipe out the whole English nation from the land of Britain. Nor did he pay any respect to the Christian religion which had sprung up amongst them. Indeed to this very day it is the habit of the Britons to despise the faith and religion of the English and not to co-operate with them in anything more than with the heathen. (2.20)
Barbaric, cruel, bloodthirsty, bestial: these are the very terms that Gildas had used to describe the invading Saxons, now turned against the Britons themselves.[xiii]These are also the very same racializing slanders that will be disseminated by the English against the Welsh four hundred years later, with a similar emphasis on distancing two Christian peoples from each other and reducing complicated interrelation to an impermeable binary.[xiv] Nothing demonizes an enemy more facilely than the claim that little children are being tortured; the king of the Britons does even worse, adding women to the list of innocents slaughtered. Cædwalla attacks with genocidal intention (erasurum se esse deliberans), making the object of his fury not mere Northumbrians but totum genus Anglorum, "the whole English race." Bede's hyperbolic Latin term for Cædwalla's military objective, erasurum, comes from eradere, "to abolish, to extirpate." This harsh verb can also mean "to obliterate, to cause to be forgotten," making it clear that the Britons pose a threat to the very memory of the English on the island -- a threat, in fact, to the project of Bede's History itself. The passage is, moreover, just as reductive in its treatment of the English as it is of the Britons, depicting both peoples as impossibly self-contained and homogenous collectives. Imperiled by the blood they share, the totum genus Anglorum must now shed the blood of the monster-like Britons to endure. Cædwalla and his savage race are foundationally excluded from this emergent community because they are its catalyst, the endangerment that brings the possibility of a pan-English union into being.
The disaster at Hæthfelth and the loss of Edwin set the stage for the ascendancy of Oswald, the king who will spectacularly destroy the abominable [infandus] leader of the Britons (3.1). The fevered pitch of Bede's Latin in describing Cædwalla has seldom invoked notice. Infandus is a horrific adjective that means "unspeakable, bestial, unnatural." It was famously used by Vergil to describe the man-eating Cyclopes in the Aeneid.[xv] Oswald, on the other hand, is a figure of supreme unity in Bede's Historia, a harmonizing force so potent that he evokes a repetition of the same cultural geography that delimited the island at the opening of the Ecclesiastical History: Oswald "held under his sway all the peoples and kingdoms of Britain, divided among the speakers of four different languages, British, Pictish, Irish, and English" (3.6). So immune to division is Oswald that after his royal corpse is dismembered by Mercian enemies, the severed pieces retain their vitality. The soil from "that very place where Oswald's blood was spilt" absorbs the liquid's curative powers (3.9-10); his bones shimmer with numinous light (3.11); even a splinter of the wooden stake on which his severed head had been displayed heals the sick (3.13); his hands "have remain uncorrupt until this present time ... and are venerated with fitting respect by all" (3.6). The body of Oswald can be broken, scattered, made to seem as if it could never again constitute a whole. Yet corporeal fragmentation only serves to disseminate the king's power more widely into his community. Like the royal blood that ebbs from his flesh to saturate his native soil, the dispersal of the king's body ensures that his unifying potency fills the land and its people alike. Oswald's cadaver is a powerful figure for the gens Anglorum itself, diverse peoples that Bede's History consolidates by imagining for them a collective history, a durable corporate identity.[xvi]
Every race needs some narrative architecture to give to its untidiness and heterogeneity a determinate shape. Through history or through myth, narrative congeals the blood of race, circumscribing its flow to delimit the bodies from which can be traced contemporary descent, barring others (such as Caedualla infandus and his Britons) from this emergent collectivity. Such a foundational mythology will bolster a race's claims to power, distinctiveness, superiority. Susan Reynolds has observed that because they are communities, kingdoms promote their own political unity by fostering myths of common descent ("Medieval Origines Gentium" 381). No less potent for being specious, this unity inevitably comes about by excluding from power aboriginal populations, or other peoples who are perceived as competitors or threats. Origin myths tend to grant each race its singular descent in order not only to explain how present segregations came about, but to uphold such a configuration as the culmination of inevitable historical processes.
Bede bequeathed to the later Middle Ages the potent idea that the sundry ethnic and political groups that marauded in Britain beginning in the fifth century composed a single race, the gens Anglorum. It is often not pointed out, however, that Bede knew well the originary variousness of the peoples who comprised the arrival of the "English." In describing the intended mission of Egbert to their ancestral homelands, he writes:
[Egbert] knew that there were very many peoples in Germany from whom the Angles and the Saxons, who now live in Britain, derive their origin; hence even to this day they are by a corruption called Garmani by their neighbours the Britons. Now these people are the Frisians, Rugians, Danes, Huns, Old Saxons, and Boruhtware [Boructuari] (5.9).
Bede's list is woefully partial. It contains laughable inaccuracies as well as opaque references. Yet its presence makes clear that Bede was cognizant of the multiplicitous beginnings of his people.[xvii] Such an acknowledgement is rather surprising on Bede's part, for elsewhere he inevitably distills from the ethnic hodgepodge of the island's invaders three impossibly neat groups: Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.[xviii] Even this tripled origin is not as varied as it seems, since in Bede's account these groups lack distinguishing difference. All are in fact easily reduced into the umbrella term Angli ("English"), as is evident in Bede's Latin title for his monumental work (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum). Bede no doubt borrowed such collective language from the Roman Church, an institution that had long promulgated the useful myth that a singular English people actually existed: thus Pope Gregory's slave market insistence that the blond-haired denizens of England are as angelic as they are apparently unvaried (2.1) and thus the same pope's addressing Æthelberht, king of the Cantuarii [a Jutish people], as "king of the English."[xix] Yet no matter from where Bede drew his unitary frame, its effect was undeniable. The numerous and quarrelsome "Anglo-Saxon" kingdoms and their polyethnic populations now had a monolithic history within which they could recognize themselves as having always constituted the English, eternal and unchanging. Bede's History, in other words, is a story of race, replacing the fluidity of insular identities with a stable and reductive past in which peoples were and ever remain Britons, Romans, Angles. Like Oswald's incorruptable body, like his alembic blood that drenches the battlefield to endure into the present, Bede's Angliare a race that is ultimately devoid of internal difference, inflexible in their refusal to intermix with other races, and immune to historical change.[xx]
Bede died in 735. About sixty-five years later, Wearmouth and Jarrow were abandoned, probably because they had fallen victim to the brutal Viking raids the area experienced. The stone of the empty monastery crumbled. Yet the structure of belonging that Bede had erected for the gens Anglorum endured, as did the exclusions upon which this vision was based.[xxi] What Bede envisioned textually took several centuries to realize fully politically, but England possessed a remarkably corporate identity from at least the tenth century onwards.[xxii] Bede's formula of "Angles, Saxons, and Jutes" became "Angles and Saxons" (as in Asser's description in the 880s of King Alfred of Wessex as Angul-Saxonum rex), thence to Angli or English (a reduction already, as we have seen, anticipated by Bede). By the time Edward the Confessor ascended the throne in 1042, the southeast portions of the island had long been in fact as well as in narrative possibility a singular English nation populated by a singular English race, the Englisc or Angelcynn. Even if its unity proved ultimately precarious, as the multiple claimants to the throne at Edward's death made clear, England before Hastings had been the "largest area of integrated power" in the west, a "precocious" and formidable "nation-state."[xxiii] Bede's triumphal vision of English history as the chronicle of a people in their distinctiveness from other peoples was no longer a mere vision of the past, but had become the past itself, in all its imperturbability. Any disruption to this intimate entwining of people with polity was destined to be traumatic -- was destined, in fact, to provoke not just a struggle over continuity and history, but a crisis of race itself.
Things Fall Apart
Considering that England in the tenth and early eleventh centuries firmly welded a unified vision of race to a potent national identity, it might be expected that the series of Danish kings who held the throne between 1016 and1042 would have disrupted the kingdom's sense of its own stability. Yet Cnut, the first of these Scandinavian monarchs, quickly learned that the most effective government of the realm was to be accomplished through the integration of his court into native political structures. Racial violence was mainly limited to the opening of his reign, when the bloodshed was in fact quite fearsome. Yet the indigenous patriciate was not, as it was to be under William, replaced wholesale by men who did not speak the native tongue. The insular church saw no major changes in its structure or leadership, no colonial attempts at ecclesiastical "reform." When martial tactics were replaced by a policy of accommodation, ethnic competition -- and, thereby, stark division – quickly faded. Danish blood mixed with English not only among the royal progeny (Cnut married Emma, the widow of his predecessor Æthelred) but also in powerful families like the Godwinesons, destined to provide the kingdom with its last pre-Norman king, Harold. Linguistic and cultural differences, never insurmountable, were blunted by synthesis and absorption. Such assimilation had good precedent. The eastern parts of the island once known as the Danelaw supported a racially commingled population since the ninth century, a people who contemporary historians sometimes call "Anglo-Scandinavian" but who (as far as we can tell) simply used the designator English for themselves, no matter how hybrid their customs or blood.
Harthacnut, the third and final of the Danish monarchs, died in 1042; according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, he perished after drinking himself into a stupor. Æthelred's son Edward returned from his long exile in Normandy to claim the kingdom. To the surprise of those who had been awaiting the restoration of native blood to the throne, however, Edward seemed disturbingly alien. The new king brought with him both Norman friends and francophile ways. His accession caused some consternation over how foreign he was going to allow a court that he was supposed to be restoring to its proper Englishness become. Yet Edward eventually married into the same Godwine family that had become powerful during the reign of Cnut and his progeny. Under Earl Godwine's watchful eye the royal court was re-anglicized, and Edward settled into a satisfyingly English reign. Even if the king's relationship with the Godwinesons is best described as vexed, even if battles were fought over such racially-charged issues as the appointment of Norman clerics to English bishoprics, nonetheless the rule of the Confessor (as Edward came to be called years after his death) ultimately seemed deeply continuous with the great procession of unitary monarchs outlined by Bede. Edward's reign could not last forever, however, and he never produced an heir. The stage was set for the fatal clash between Harold Godwineson of England and Duke William of Normandy.
The venerable collectivity that for convenience's sake we now refer to as "Anglo-Saxon England" shattered in 1066. Harold was slain in battle at Hastings, and William was crowned king at Westminster. Though both these men were of quite mixed blood, to contemporary historians Harold was simply English, William was simply Norman, and 1066 had been a clash between two races – again, despite the fact that their respective armies were in no way ethnically homogeneous. Known in Latin as victor (the Conqueror) to those who revered him, and by the epithet of nothus (the Bastard) to those with a more conflicted bent, King William deeply transformed the kingdom that was now his.[xxiv] Unlike Cnut and his sons, William systematically replaced the secular and ecclesiastical elites who had governed the island with men who differed from the native population in custom, language, descent, allegiance, history. This massive and thorough purge severely frayed the meshwork that had bound country so intimately to race. As French-speaking settlers from across the Channel buttressed their new positions of power, peppering the landscape with towering castles and peopling cities and towns with an arriviste haut monde, England (and later Wales, Scotland, Ireland) was caught within that web of rapid change, violent clash, pervasive anxiety and ambivalent desire that we have come to label postcoloniality, a restless and conflicted state of being in which a once stable world becomes irremediably uncertain. England was no longer a solidarity bound by a myth of common descent, no longer a community that could imagine its own unity.
To some extent William and his followers endeavored to play down the historical disjunction that the conquest represented, especially in the years immediately following Hastings. After all, William had justified his claim to the throne of England by asserting consanguinity with the royal line.[xxv] In the youth of his reign the Norman king's impulse was to emphasize continuity, drawing up the majority of his early royal writs in English, retaining priests like Edward the Confessor's trusted Regenbald in his chancery.[xxvi] Recent interpreters have emphasized that the Norman turn to those strategies that were to produce a bifurcated, recognizably postcolonial society did not happen immediately.[xxvii] The narrative strategy of some twelfth century historiographers was likewise to underscore a continuousness between pre- and post-conquest England, even if both were ultimately most alike simply in being recipients of a translatio imperii that divided insular history into discrete epochs of limited duration.[xxviii] Wresting continuity from the messy heterogeneity of history was, in fact, a Norman specialty, enabling them several centuries earlier to become Normans. Like the northern tribes who reduced their originary multiplicity to the singular Englisc, the Normans had had to invent a unifying identity out of their own racial variousness. Normannitas, as it has been called, was the culmination of years of what the historian Eleanor Searle has wittily labeled "predatory community."[xxix] Although they had strategically adopted the language and culture of the Franks whose land they had taken, and although they might in Latin be referred to as Franci or even Galli, the Normans were in origin "Northern men," erstwhile Scandinavian raiders.[xxx] An Icelandic skald was visiting Rouen as late as the 1020s, and Duke William of Normandy had a great-grandmother named Gunnor who lived long enough potentially to have taught the future Conqueror his first words.[xxxi] As the work of Nicholas Howe has emphasized, the English knew well their own northerly origin, having long been fascinated by their myth of an adventus Saxonum.[xxxii] The Normans' ethnic continuity with the people of England could have been invoked by them to imagine the Conquest as the rejoining of previously sundered peoples, especially given the Norman proclivity to project and thereby forge community by imagining unity where none previously existed. A narrative of reunion might have been especially attractive to the residents of the swathe of England known as the Danelaw, where northern colonization had resulted in a hybrid culture often described as Anglo-Scandinavian.[xxxiii] Alliance through the recognition of shared history might have particularly assisted in the annexation of East Anglia, the populous region where the large and economically vital city of Norwich was located. Harold Godwineson, William's rival for the English throne, had not only been born of a Danish mother named Gytha, he had also held the earldom of East Anglia from his youth.
Yet despite William's claim to the throne through descent, despite even the occasional attempt by Norman nobles to "discover" English ancestors for themselves, the Normans never seriously attempted the promulgation of a shared national mythology, of a harmonizing Norman and English racial heritage.[xxxiv]"Formed by history rather than by race," in Marjorie Chibnall's apt phrase, the gens Normannorum was a people "of exceptionally mixed blood."[xxxv] According to the official myth of origin commissioned by William's grandfather and composed by Dudo of St-Quentin, the founding father of the Normans was a Norwegian lord named Rollo (probably a Latinization of Hrólfr) who was granted an inspirational vision in which he united disparate races into a singular, invincible people.[xxxvi] Cognizant of their impure origins, the Normans nonetheless cultivated a strong sense of themselves as a people set apart, Normanni ex Normannis, "Normans from Normans."[xxxvii] In England, this unitary ideology no doubt aided in establishing themselves as the minority government of a population who vastly outnumbered them. It has been estimated that the Normans and their allies numbered perhaps 10,000 after the conquest, constituting less than one percent of the country's population.[xxxviii] Yet into the hands of this small elite came control of the church, the government, and almost all the land.
The English meanwhile were quickly transformed from indigeni to a gens subacta, from native dwellers to a subject race. As William's reign progressed and the foundations of his power strengthened, the English were systematically dispossessed of their lands, their goods, their cultural and linguistic prestige.[xxxix] As a consequence, after the conquest neither language nor a shared sense of the past conjoined England's rulers to those subject to their authority. The difference in language was divisive not only because French was a quotidian reminder of the difference between a new political elite and a native populace inexperienced at being conquered, but also because linguistic difference was so central to medieval conceptions of race. Yet as difficult as the new linguistic divide must have been for the English, the loss of a communal history, of a unifying national mythology, was hardly an easier blow to be borne. Robert Stein describes the lasting historiographic repercussions of this gulf best: "In the writing of history in the twelfth century, the Norman conquest of the English marks a crisis of cultural identity, of the principles of legitimate sovereignty, and of historical explanation."[xl] An integral link in the long chain of English history had ruptured, and it was difficult to imagine how it might ever be repaired.
Producing the English
The Gesta Regum Anglorum [Deeds of the Kings of the English] was not just William of Malmesbury's magnum opus, the achievement of long years spent in wearisome research and hand-cramping composition. The Gesta was, quite literally, the product of William's blood.
In the prologue to this remarkable work of twelfth-century historiography, the first complete account of the English undertaken since Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History, William writes that he was motivated by affection for his homeland (propter patriae caritatem) and by the urging of Queen Matilda, wife to Henry I. His intention in composing the Deeds of the Kings of the English was, he asserts, "to mend the broken chain of history" (interruptam temporum seriem sarcire), restorative work required, it seems, because a historiographic void separated his own day from the terminus of Bede's definitive text. The English lacked a continuous history, a deficiency for which the Deeds of the Kings of the English was to be the remedy. William of Malmesbury was himself the result of a more literal interrupta temporum series, a rupture in the chain of time. Half Norman and half English, William would not exist to be writing in the 1120s if the conquest had not derailed the trajectory of English history sixty years earlier. In connecting Bede's Ecclesiastical History to the present day, William aimed to accommodate the Norman conquest into an unbroken narrative of the kingdom. Whereas Bede fashioned his series temporum from a history of the church in England, however, William intended to revitalize English community by narrating the activities of England's kings.
Even had he not been a monastic historian himself, William would still have been forced to acknowledge that his kindred spirit Bede had created the foundational history of the English. Nancy Partner refers to the "hovering, magisterial presence of Bede in English intellectual life," for through Bede's sober Latin prose English historiography was bequeathed an enduring dignity.[xli] The Ecclesiastical History became tout court the truth of England's past, as authoritative as it was hegemonic. No alternative to Bede existed, the annalistic Anglo-Saxon chronicle being too sparse to compete with Bede's narrative pageant of kings, popes, abbots, and miracles. The first book of William's Deeds of the Kings of the English is therefore mainly derived from the Ecclesiastical History, though with a tellingly difference. Like his bureaucratic counterparts in the burgeoning administrative apparatus of the kingdom, William was far more of a systematizer than his Northumbrian predecessor. As he reworked Bede's sprawling data, he neatly divided monarchs into chronologically and geographically precise successions. Despite this reordering William, like Bede, never questioned that the history of the island of Britain was English history, singular and reductive. The Irish, Britons, Picts and Scots might provide convenient havens during kingly exiles, and even more convenient enemies for heroic regents to destroy, but William kept the non-English races at his narrative periphery. Even within his account of England under the Norman kings, the Welsh, Irish, and Saracens appear in the text to rebel, menace border settlements or the Holy land, or simply to offer a foil for English superiority. They do not for the most part get to have their own stories narrated. Although William allows that the English may once have been similarly barbaric, especially in the days when Hengest and Horsa led the first invasion troops to British shores, he insists that the gens Anglorum long ago progressed into more civilized ways. The other island races -- and the Saracens as well -- have remained much as they have always been, locked in their own primitive temporality. Yet given that William, like his beloved Bede, writes history in order to differentiate, unite, and glorify the English at the expense of the other peoples with whom they share Britain, how is he to narrate the Norman conquest? Doesn't a foreigner on the throne and the wholesale replacement of the nation's ruling class, secular and ecclesiastical alike, pose a profound challenge to maintaining that the history of the British Isles is triumphantly English?
In part William gets around this difficulty through his clever title. Gesta regum Anglorum means The Deeds of the Kings of the English, not The Deeds of the English Kings, acknowledging a potential disjunction between ruler and ruled. Yet for whose homeland (patria) does he feel the motivational affection that he claims in his preface? William admits that the Normans and the English are very different races, a confession that would seem to put his restorative project in jeopardy. The English, he writes, are incorrigible in their love of strong drink ("it is ingrained in that nation to dote on waissal rather than wealth," 3.245); have a pagan-like, inborn credulity (innata credulitate, 2.125); possess a barbarous language (Prologue; 2.165); appreciate neither good architecture nor good manners; cannot restrain their own rashness; overindulge in food and drink to the point of illness; wear too much gold jewelry; and sport gaudy tattoos (3.245). In the wake of 1066, they also seem a race of permanent losers, an irreparably downtrodden people: "No Englishman today is an earl, a bishop, or an abbot; new faces everywhere enjoy England's riches and gnaw her vitals, nor is there any hope of ending this miserable state of affairs."[xlii] There are few positives attributes on this list, suggesting that William might simply have performed the same identification that many children of mixed blood did: align with the more powerful race. The Normans of his text are, after all, kindly disposed to strangers, as evidenced by Robert of Normandy warmly welcoming King Æthelred into exile (2.178, 3.254). They build grand structures but live moderately (3.245). They are not only "well dressed to a fault" but fussy -- in a good way -- about their food (3.246). Given to war, they nonetheless lack the English inclination to reckless fury. Although not always faithful, Normans are reliably ambitious, pious, tolerant of racial difference, and generous (3.246). William of Malmesbury's version of William the Conqueror seems to have these racial differences in mind when he declares that no man of English descent may be a part of the post-conquest hierarchy of the church (3.254).
Yet William of Malmesbury is no Norman manqué. He describes the Battle of Hastings as "a fatal day for England, the deadly ruin of the sweet homeland in the change of new masters" (dies fatalis Angliae, funestum excidium dulcis patriae, pro nouorum dominorum commutatione, 3.245). Only after this "dies fatalis" conjoined the fate of the English to that of the Normans could William himself have been born. How can William of Malmesbury, unintentional byproduct of a sweet country's ruin (excidium, the very word that Gildas had once used to describe the fall of Britain at the hands of invading Saxons) narrate the connection between the English past as Bede imagined it, singular and uncomplex, and its racially complicated present? William's uncertainty in attempting an answer to this question is most evident as he narrates the return of Æthelred's son Edward to his homeland. At Harthacnut's boozy death, Edward sails from exile in Normandy to coronation in England, bringing numerous Norman friends. After these nouos homines et aduenas ("new men and foreigners," 2.197) are granted comfortable positions at the court, English nobles begin to chafe. Chief among these grumblers are Godwine and his sons, men who prospered under the Danish kings and do not want their power diminished. William attempts a balanced account of Godwine. English reasons for praising him are followed by the Norman charges against his character. What side might garner more sympathy is suggested when William concludes the chapter with Godwine declaring to Edward that he hopes to choke to death if he is undermining his king, promptly asphyxiating on a mouthful of food. Despite this colorful picture of Godwine's demise, however, William says that he cannot tell which race interprets this mixed moment in history more truthfully:
Propter istas, ut dixi, altercationes periclitatur oratio, dum quod ex asse uerum diffiniam non habeo, uel propter naturale utrarumque gentium discidium, uel quia ita se res habet quod Angli aspernanter ferant superiorem, Normanni nequeant pati parem. (2.198)
It is these differences of opinion which, as I have said, put my narrative at risk, since I cannot decide what precisely is the truth, either from the natural division between the two races or because the fact is that the English are scornful of any superior and the Normans cannot endure an equal.
Either the Normans and the English are so naturally different that never the two shall meet (a possibility that would not bode well for a writer like William, in whom the two races have in fact met), or else they simply cannot be judged as anything but equals, a deadlock of interpretation. William would here seem to be throwing up his hands in despair ... and yet after this temporary pause he cheerfully continues with his unfolding history.
The Deeds of the Kings of the English is pulled in conflicting directions by its author's ambiguous affiliations, by his restlessly mixed blood. William loves the English for their glorious past. He sympathizes with their rather wretched present, especially because they continue to be barred from the positions of authority that they once enjoyed. He loves the Normans for their cultivated manners, their arts and their architecture. He is a Benedictine monk, an order that flourished under the reform-minded Normans. William resents both races for their numerous vices, and especially (it seems) for their mutual, destructive hatred. The Normans are clearly the elites, and therefore the most beneficial race with which to identify – and, as we have seen, William is fully capable of being a Norman apologist. Yet he is writing a history of England, not Normandy; he is resident not in some new Norman foundation but in a monastery founded by Aldhelm (d. c.709), an institution dating from the days of his beloved Bede, and a monastery supported by Athelstan himself in those glory days of a powerfully unified England.[xliii]William's ultimate strategy for advancing beyond racially polarized impasses of analysis and identification is to provide two irreconcilable views of events like Godwine's death and the Battle of Hastings, and then move on without synthesis. Although William often subtly weights such bifurcated accounts toward the side that eventually prevails, the fact that he allows history a constitutive doubleness makes his writing very different from the accounts of those contemporary writers who explicitly choose sides. In the preface to the third book of the Deeds, William notes in frustration that previous historians of William the Conqueror allowed racial bias to vitiate their accounts. The Normans praised William to excess, while the English saw only wickedness in his reign.[xliv] Because he has the blood of both races flowing through his veins (utriusque gentis sanguinem traho), William declares, he will blaze a "middle path" (temperamentum, literally a "proper mixture"). This medial way consists for the most part of setting history's contradictions next to each other, without turning noisy difference into some counterfeit harmony.
"Proper mixture," the alchemy of compound blood, is in fact the key to understanding the aftermath of the conquest in William's text. The Normans in William's narration do not so much interrupt English history as provide another link in history's chain of progress, albeit a transformative one. William writes history in an evolutionary mode. The English, he observes, have changed greatly over time.[xlv] Their elemental barbarism slowly gave way to a more advanced culture, as they (like the French) learned to live in towns and foster commerce.[xlvi] After the Normans introduce England to sophisticated architecture, customs, laws, and manners, the English remain the English, only better. "In William's view," John Gillingham observes, "it was French culture, not Christianity alone, which made the English civilised."[xlvii] Gillingham perhaps overstates the permanence that William grants to the stages races achieve as they progress from primitivism to cultured modernity.[xlviii] By the eve of the conquest, William thought, the English had regressed to their pre-Christian ways, wallowing in sin and forgetful of the religious fervor that glimmers so brilliantly in Bede's History. Perhaps that is why Godwine comes off so badly as he attempts to anglicize his regent Edward (a king who, like William of Malmesbury, was of mixed blood, having descended from Emma of Normandy when Æthelred broke with English tradition and married outside his race). The advent of the Normans restores the English to their prior sanctity (3.245). The conquest is a punishing reminder from God of the importance of past achievements rather than a movement to some new mode of being. English accomplishment in refined manners and increased civility seem to be an added bonus of the Normans' arrival rather than the catalyst that moved the race out of an enduring barbarity. William is careful, moreover, not to conflate the Normans with the French. The former race is for him as Germanic as England's primal Angles, sent forth like them from an overpopulated motherland (mater) in search of a better life (1.5). Like the primordial English, moreover, the first Normans are rather uncouth (Rollo, their founder, is possessed of an "innate and uncontrollable barbarity" [ingenita et effrenis barbaries uiri, 2.128]), becoming progressively more civil as they progress from Northmanni to Normanni. No matter how different the two races seem in the eleventh and twelfth century, William implies, they are nonetheless bound by a shared origin and a remarkably similar genesis.
After the reign of William the Conqueror, William of Malmesbury tends no longer to dwell upon Normans and the English as racially distinct groups. Some critics see in this turning away from an emphasis on difference and new tendency to speak of conquerors and conquered as a single national collective evidence that widespread acculturation had been quickly effected and that England remained bifurcated only for a very brief period. Yet William was a monastic writer whose brethren had much at stake in depicting what had in fact been a purge of political and ecclesiastical leadership as not having left in its wake enduring disparities. English monasteries were in the main dedicated to English saints; the stable Englishness – pre- and post-conquest – of these foundations therefore needed to be emphasized. William's Deeds was, moreover, dedicated to a queen who, with her husband, had seen the present monarchy as continuous with the pre-Norman past, a part of English history rather than a disruption, novelty or innovation.
Perhaps William's mixed viewpoint, like his mixed blood, is ultimately more synthetic and continuist than it at first seems. Perhaps he can offer some confidence in a happy and unbroken future after all. Or perhaps, as Marjorie Chibnall has observed of the post-conquest historians who, finding in themselves a compoundedness of culture as well as blood, knew somehow that they were "in the process of becoming English," but "sometimes had to wonder just what they were."[xlix]
A Young Man at Sea, 1120
Seventeen, drunk, immortal, Prince William stood upon ship's deck, watching the lights of Barfleur dwindle. A salt wind stroked his hair, and utter darkness held the night. The craft skimmed the waves, heaved by merry drunkards, singing as they rowed. William smiled. His father doted on him, the future of the English realm. His companions hung upon his every word, mimed his every gesture. The English people called him the ætheling -- happy recognition that, when he was king, the blood of Alfred the Great would be restored to the throne, albeit in a body that seemed mostly Norman. As the White Ship raced towards open sea, William felt that he was being propelled into a world that opened wider every day. His mother Matilda had been the sister of the Scottish king; lately he had begun to dream that he would add another kingdom to his own. What an example his father had set with his campaigns in Wales and Ireland.
The White Ship hit the rock with so much force that wood groaned, cracked, split. The painted prow vanished beneath black water. Three hundred screamed, their maritime revel broken by the knowledge that they were about to be pulled to the seafloor. William felt someone grab him, toss him like so much cargo into a little boat. They raced from the foundering ship. When he heard his sister scream not to be left behind, he ordered his men to turn around. "But she's a bastard!" someone breathed. William backhanded the man. The little boat returned to the sinking ship. The sea came alive with desperate hands, fighting for some solid island in an ocean intent on their oblivion.
They were overwhelmed. The little boat took on water, sank. About to join the massive White Ship among the crabs and shellfish, William's only thoughts were of his father. The third son of the Conqueror, veteran of wars of succession, King Henry I had fought his entire life to ensure that the throne would pass peacefully to a lawful heir. Once he drowned, Prince William knew his father's plans would come to nothing. Blood. Civil war. In the ocean's cold embrace, brine in his mouth and in his lungs, William atheling, destined for death, could not help laughing at how changeable the world had become. Every solid island dissolves into sea.
Things Fall Apart
William of Malmesbury's confident embrace of dual racial heritage as the key to a balanced understanding of English history is undoubtedly the most frequently quoted line from his Deeds of the Kings of the English. From William's proud declaration of "having the blood of both nations in my veins" (3.Preface) it seems possible to conclude that Norman-English racial antagonism is coming to an end, that the future of England is at once hybrid, certain, and unbroken in its relation to the past. Yet in a tragic event of 1120 can be glimpsed the erosion of some of the confidence in an unconflicted future that animates William's praise 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's only legitimate son and a retinue three hundred strong, but the monarch's dream of England passing placidly to an heir. Henry had long called William "atheling," an Anglo-Saxon designation for a male eligible to succeed to the throne but in Henry's use a term for the heir apparent. Henry had arranged for the men of England and Normandy to bind themselves formally to the prince five years earlier, a public assurance 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" (Deeds 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 Queen Matilda, granddaughter to Edward Atheling, meant that William carried in his veins the revered bloodline of Alfred the Great. His accession to the throne would restore England to its pre-conquest wholeness, repairing the historical chain ruptured at Edward's death by replacing its missing piece.
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.[l] C. Warren Hollister aptly compares it to the loss of the Titanic, a maritime disaster that likewise came to symbolize the apssing of an age.[li] 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 of his 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 he and his wife the mocking names Godric and Godgifu at the francophone court.[lii] 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 atheling. 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.[liii] When Henry himself died in 1135, a bitter fight for succession erupted into the open, causing a severe erosion of the crown's ability to unify the kingdom.
William of Malmesbury completed the first version of his monumental Deeds of the Kings of the English perhaps six years after William atheling drowned, and a major revision the year Henry died.[liv] 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 must have seemed in both 1126 and 1135, was again facing the deeply troubling questions about historical continuity and racial belonging that the two king Williams and Henry had striven so energetically to resolve – as had, in fact, William of Malmesbury himself in undertaking the Deeds of the Kings of England. No wonder the foundering of the White Ship took on such melancholic resonance for its medieval historians. For William, the event catalyzed some of his most powerful writing. His 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 him (totius tragediae actum expressit).[lv] 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 Deeds of the Kings of England is obsessed with connecting the English past to the post-conquest present, constructing from history's volatility an ordered chronology that bestows upon the present day a sense of inevitable culmination. John Gillingham has written that "William looked upon English history as a progress from barbarism to civilisation" -- a "smug assumption" on William's part, perhaps, but one that betrays his foundational tenet that in the movement from distant history to the present day the English people and the English nation progress, grow better, assume more heroically the mantle of their destiny.[lvi] The sinking of the White Ship severed the chain aligning the past, with its providential momentum and progressive teleology, to a secure and predictable future.
As William of Malmesbury knew when he completed the Gesta in 1126, and as was amply evident in 1135 when he finished a first revision, the inevitable death of King Henry would raise difficult questions about Englishness, and the potential separateness of England's races would have to be reconsidered. As it turned out, by the time Henry's grandson Henry II ascended to the throne and began bringing this anxious and prolonged process of reflection to a conclusion, native Englisc and Norman-descended Engleis would be securely united, while a fringe of people called the Scots, Welsh and Irish would find themselves irremediably excluded from this emergent community. None of this, however, could have been predicted by William as he labored upon his history, a work commissioned by Henry's wife Matilda and completed for her daughter of the same name.[lvii] He wrote between two catastrophes, each of which influenced his narrative: the Norman conquest of England begun in 1066, that "crisis of continuity" that made envisioning an unbroken history of island almost impossible; and the nearing of an uncertain future, the approach of a tumultuous era that would witness bloody civil strife over succession to the throne. As William ruminated upon the English past, there were plenty of contenders for the country's future. The German Emperor Henry V, Henry's son-in-law, was widely supposed to be the next king of England until he died in 1125; William Clito of Normandy, Henry's nephew, clearly wanted the job as well, and began plotting his strategies soon after the White Ship sank. Yet William Clito also died before Henry, in 1128. The Empress Matilda, Henry's widowed daughter, returned from Germany to live in England in 1126, and Henry designated her his heir a year later. Stephen of Blois, grandson of the Conqueror through his daughter Adela, also had his eye on the throne. The list could be multiplied, but the point is already clear: what would follow the death of Henry was murky, but it would certainly entangle the crown in a struggle over what part of its multiplicitous, multiracial history would determine the English present.
Although Norman by birth, King Henry seemed English in a way that the previous two kings had not. His reign, as stable as it had been long, had seen his subjects become for the most part comfortable in their deepening unity. Although the process was more plainly visible in the work of his contemporary Henry of Huntingdon, William of Malmesbury lived at a time of shifting racial self-identification.[lviii] Except perhaps for a minority of aristocrats able to hold expansive lands on both sides of the Channel, most of the settlers whose families arrived on British shores after Hastings over time began to think of themselves as belonging to England rather than Normandy, Brittany or France. By the 1130s, the sons and daughters of erstwhile Normans started to speak confidently of themselves as English, even if they sometimes used the phrase les Engleis in their self-designation.[lix] By the time William of Malmesbury was composing the Deeds of the Kings of the English the very Normans whom he had berated for squeezing the English out from their positions of ecclesiastical and secular power were quietly enduring the same fate as the foreign invaders he had described during the reign of King Alfred's son Edward: sub nomine Anglorum reseruati, "preserved under the name of the English" (2.125). What would happen if a foreigner were now seated on the throne? Could the realm really be ruled by a woman as Henry intended, an event almost without precedent?[lx] An anxious future haunted William of Malmesbury and his contemporaries as they considered the wreck of the White Ship, its precious cargo irrecoverably lost to a dark space between England and Normandy. What they could not have known was that their worst fears were about to be realized. The civil unrest following Henry's death was a severe setback to England's emergent unity, and a violent reminder of Norman and English historical difference. Civil war and contention for the throne were about to halt, at least for a while, this formerly steady process of racial drift.
In the 1120s William did not suspect how acute a challenge loomed to the burgeoning sense of national community that his Deeds of the Kings of the English not only recorded but fostered. William was unsettled enough in his own self-identification to refrain from commenting directly upon the ongoing assimilation of conqueror and conquered. Indeed, he may not have even recognized the profundity of this incipient change for what it was; nothing is more difficult, after all, than to speak of transformations in the fabric of everyday life when one is living in their midst. Like Gerald of Wales after him, William tended to explore cultural hybridity through what we would today call fantasy: bodies, identities, and realms that do not respect the accepted rules for how the world should look, move, work. For twelfth-century writers, however, such moments were an integral part of historiography, a thoroughly self-conscious genre that frequently employed the marvelous and the monstrous as a means of examining cultural problems difficult otherwise to frame. William used the fantastic to ruminate over uneasy or unlooked-for admixture, creating complicated visions that were never simply affirmative. The most negative figuration of mixed Norman and English blood in William's text is the ominous birth of conjoined twins at the Norman-Brittany border. This two-headed, four-armed woman possesses only one stomach and two legs: "there were two mouths to eat with, but only one channel for digestion" (2.207). After one sister dies, the other carries the rotting cadaver for three years before she herself expires. This prodigious creature who was both singular and plural was commonly seen as a figure for England and Normandy, a thriving kingdom conjoined to a moribund duchy. Its ancient nobility all dead (omni nobilitate antiquorum extincta), England will be happy (felix) again, William observes, only once it regains its freedom (libertatem). The trouble with this formulation, however, is that the twins are not simply joined together by some inconvenient band of flesh, but inextricably melded, two subjectivities in a single body. There is no way to separate them, and no way that the "English" sister can be free from a body in which two identities have literally become one, despite their differences. To make matters even more complicated, William follows his explication of this prodigy with a lengthy treatment of English saints, whose special proclivity is to remain as if alive even when they become corpses: "all with skin and flesh inviolate and joints yet supple ... even with something of the warmth of life" (2.207).[lxi]
These two unreconciled identities in a monstrously amalgamated body appear in William's narrative shortly after his famous account of the sorceress of Berkeley. This extraordinary woman has always lived outside the limits of an acceptable life (non ponens modum, 2.204). In both her sexuality and her will to power she is, among twelfth-century Englishwomen, a brazen nonconformist. Yet she realizes that in death she will be reclaimed back into the punitive system that she has so far employed her every wile to escape. Enjoining her children to sew her inside the skin of a deer and wrap chains around her coffin, she attempts to cheat the devil of her cadaver. Satan knows his own, however, even when they reside in alien dermis. He removes the witch from her doubled body and flings her upon "a stallion, black, whinnying proudly, with iron barbs set point upwards all down its back" (2.204). Literally fixed into place, destined for unending torment, the sorceress is last heard screaming for help as she and the demonic retinue vanish. William has been condemned in the past by critics who do not see the point of such marvels. These episodes perhaps seem exorbitant, even extraneous, when they interrupt a narrative filled with the sober minutiae of kingly reigns and episcopal achievements. Yet, like the imperfectly melded sisters of the Norman border, the sorceress of Berkeley offers a compelling meditation on difficult identities and the limited possibilities for belonging. To embrace a selfhood without acceptable historical precedent -- to be something novel, compound, plural -- is to risk obliteration.
Related themes enliven the long account of the necromancer Gerbert of Aurillac, destined to become Pope Silvester II, a figure of intimate otherness who is in the end uncannily similar to William of Malmesbury himself. William opens the second book of the Deeds with a prologue in which he relates his own voracious reading. From childhood he has been obsessed with books and learning, he admits, and then he describes how he built a capacious library through exhaustive searching. Later in the same book, another expansive search for knowledge unfolds, this time with clearly transformative consequences. "John, also called Gerbert" is introduced into the historical narration as the author of a papal letter mandating peace between King Æthelred of England and Duke Richard of Normandy (2.165-66). William reproduces the letter in full, then gives an account of Gerbert's remarkable life -- a narrative interpolation so long that it cannot be dismissed as a mere digression, demanding "to be accounted for rather than dismissed."[lxii] Initially a monk, this intellectually ambitious man leaves the cloister for Spain, where he spends years among the Saracens, the twelfth century's favorite figure for racial and cultural otherness (2.167). He quickly masters the classical subjects that fascinated the author of the Deeds himself, but the dark arts as well. Gerbert pursues arcane books with a zeal very similar to what William described as animating his own pursuit of books and knowledge earlier in the text.
Once the former monk has been infected by Saracen knowledge -- once his solidly Christian identity has been opened to unprecedented impurities -- he is capable of accomplishing wonders previously unknown to history. The greatest of these feats is the discovery (but not the attainment) of a realm fashioned of the purest gold, a dangerous and much sought-after kingdom hidden to all previous human eyes (2.169). Yet despite his earthly and intellectual triumphs, despite rising all the way to the papacy, Gerbert's unconventional identity cannot endure. At the end of his life he gives the order that he be chopped into small pieces and scattered. The fragmentation of his body aligns Gerbert with the sorceress of Berkeley and the conjoined twins of Normandy as a mixed creature who, despite a startling innovativeness, cannot possess the secure future he so passionately desires, literally coming apart before its advent. William's account of Gerbert is, moreover, uncharacteristically dilatory, containing similar stories of identities brought beyond acceptable limits: a Jewish necromancer who knows the "ineffable name of the Lord" and who can snatch the treasures which Christians fail to apprehend (2.170); two elderly women who delight in imprisoning men in the bodies of animals, selling them at the market to embark on new lives, imprisoned in selfhoods they never dreamt would be their own (1.171).
William's marvels, vivid eruptions of the new, contrast sharply with the cold functionality of the few wonders Bede describes in his Ecclesiastical History. Bede employed supernatural events to make theological or moral points, to edify, and to reveal divine favor, well-precedented uses of the marvelous in historical writing.[lxiii] In comparison those William describes at such lengths might seem extraneous, inconsequential. Yet the three I have mentioned all arrive at particularly perilous times for the English in his historical narration. Gerbert's story is inserted into the section of the Deeds when Æthelred is rapidly losing control over a kingdom ravaged by Danish marauders. The sorceress and the conjoined twins appear shortly after William turns to a consideration of Earl Godwine and his children, a prelude to the events at Hastings. Two women in one body, witches who entrap men in animal casings or don such second skins themselves, a necromancer-pope who unites Christian certainties to Saracen possibility: these are powerful icons of hybridity and cultural overlap. Since all three perish horribly and seem to merit their ends, it could be argued that these are unremittingly negative figurations, warnings against the dangers of not keeping categories discrete. Yet William's breathless narration betrays a deep-seated fascination on his part, an enchantment that their deaths cannot lay quickly to rest. William of Malmesbury was capable of speaking about the past of his beloved homeland with great confidence. Like Bede's vision of history, Englishness is never examined so much as assumed; it dominates, collects, purifies. These strange figures of impurity and hesitation provide another version of that past, branching and ambiguous paths that if acknowledged could disrupt the chain of history once again, ruining William's careful repair work. William does not follow these uncertain roads to their unknown destinations, preferring stable histories and secure futures. He distances his wondrous bodies geographically or through their gender. Despite his allowance of contradiction into his narrative, despite his acknowledgement that history is messy, incongruous, difficult to sort, The Deeds of the Kings of the English ultimately sides with continuity and firm foundation over invention and disruptive innovation. The blood of two races harmonized into his seemingly pacific body, William composes a history that, although undercut at times by a captivating ambiguity, is in the end an accommodationalist text, allowing the Normans and English a past to share and a national community to inherit.[lxiv]
The problem, of course, is that (as William of Malmesbury so elegantly put it, adopting his classicist mode) whenever the hopes of a people are raised to some pinnacle, whenever a secure future seems about to arrive, confidence and desire will inevitably find themselves confudit humanae sortis uarietas, "hurled into confusion by the mutability of human things" (5.419). Every solid island dissolves into sea.
People who dwell in glass nations shouldn't hurl rocks, especially at those who live upon bryn glas, the blue hills of Wales. I suppose it's easy to feel that this oppression theme gets overplayed. All this scholarly chatter about the injustices of the past? A mean-spirited attempt to turn something noble into something base. You think someone wants to rob you of your enjoyment – weren't the Middle Ages just as full of human possibility as the nations of today? Fine. If it bothers your love of all things old and venerable to acknowledge the barbarism behind the culture, then go back to sipping your espresso and admire Chaucer's meter in peace. But I think that I should tell you that Bede and William didn't just write histories of blood, they wrote histories in blood. Our blood. Yes, yes, yes: the Britons plundered, executed, and castrated with the best of them. We did this before our country was threatened by the English. We did this before we even knew we were a We. I don't see how that changes a right to indignation.
You'll say I'm being overly dramatic. You'll say I'm being shrill. Nobody likes to have it pointed out that the texts they've come to love record actual murder, violence, rape. So I lost my brother when some Norman asshole decided that Iorweth was living on land that was his now. So my sister had a child after some horny knight decided she looked pretty in the fields. No one wants to know that human beings suffered and died because of these histories. No one wants to know that the structure of the world is unjust. In my opinion the only preaching worth doing is to the converted, because there's no changing anyone's mind. History is history. The past is etched in the most durable of stone, and that's not a material you can tamper with.
Unless you happen to be very clever.
England under Norman rule continued in some ways to resemble the country that had existed prior to Hastings, but the kingdom was in the end a new creature, an entity for which insular history provided no exact precedent. In this world altered by conquest, in the face of interrupted history, William of Malmesbury's strategy was mainly restorative, adding an account of the three Norman kings (books 3-5 of the Deeds) to the definitive English past narrated by Bede (book 1), a continuous English history recoverable also in other native sources, provided the historian searches diligently enough (book 2). William's narration is not seamless. His Deeds do not record some post-conquest era of placid accord or some happy union among England's peoples -- but then again, one glimpses few moments of either peace or unity in Bede. Still, it is possible to trace a quietly ascending movement toward harmony in William's text, propelled by an underlying belief that history's ambiguities cannot derail the progress of the English nation over time. His positing of a bond, however knotty, between Anglo-Saxon and Norman England effectively united two eras that might otherwise have remained disjunct. Upon its publication William's Deeds was therefore accepted as an authoritative account of English history, subsuming and completing Bede.
William of Malmesbury's text quickly came to share its definitive status with a work composed by another historian of mixed race. Henry of Huntingdon, the brilliant archdeacon of Lincoln, was the son of a Norman cleric and an Englishwoman of unknown name. That two ambitious English histories should have been written so close together in time by children of compound heritage is suggestive. Compelled by a desire for a more settled present, these writers may also have turned to history to imagine a more certain future. Although William and Henry carried their hybridity quite literally in their blood, the same desire for a stable past and future seems to have motivated their audiences, likewise the products of a hybrid and changing culture, to consume these works of history so ardently. Henry of Huntingdon published a first version of his Historia Anglorum [History of the English] around1133. Bishop Alexander of Lincoln had commissioned the text with a pedagogical intent (1.4). Composed in a straightforward Latin that betrays little of William of Malmesbury's weighty classicism, Henry's History of the English was to instruct about their shared past the "less educated multitude" (V.Preface) – that is, the literate clergy who staffed a burgeoning governmental and ecclesiastical bureaucracy, ministering to the secular and religious needs of the nation. As Henry's confident use of the first person plural pronoun indicates, his seven book, all-encompassing account of "the origins of our people" (1.4) was securely English in its outlook. Britain vanishes in a single line: "this, the most celebrated of islands, formerly called Albion, later Britain, and now England" (1.13). Following the Romans, Picts and Scots, Angles and Saxons, and Danes, the Normans figure a fifth wave of insular invasion. At first they seem intent on genocide. William purges England of its native aristocracy ("there was scarcely a noble of English descent in England ... it was even disgraceful to be called English," 2.38), while God himself turns against what had been his specially favored people ("God had chosen the Normans to wipe out the English nation," 2.38; "the Lord deservedly took away from the English race their safety and honour, and commanded that they should no longer exist as a people," 3.1). Yet over time Norman and English difference fades. By the Battle of the Standard in 1138, English history and Norman history have become the same thing in Henry's narrative: they are both English history in the mode of Bede, continuous and collective and progressive (4.9).
William of Malmesbury claimed that his mixed blood gave him a view of history not available to the English or the Normans in their separate purity. While arguing for an ultimate continuity, his narrative is riddled with contradiction, difference, and ambivalent figures who cannot find the "middle path" its author so ardently espouses. Composing a work not fully completed until 1154, Henry of Huntingdon on the other hand reveals a growing certainty in English triumphalism, and in Anglicization as an inherent good. The Welsh, the Scots and the Irish are consequently denigrated as barbarians, a term William employed because he was a classicist, and the Romans had called inferior races barbari; had he been writing in a different genre, such as romance, William would simply have described the same people as monsters. The Normans meanwhile quietly fade into ther very race they seemed destined to supplant. William of Malmesbury, Norman and English, chose a path that kept both racial possibilities alive while making their confluence as stable as he could manage. Henry of Huntingdon, likewise Norman and English, chose the synthesis that William avoided, thereby distilling from the clash of two races an anglophile identity both for himself and for the amalgamation that becomes his Angli, "our people."
Not all post-conquest historiographers were quite so eager to embrace narratives of English and Norman congruity, especially because such histories inevitably diminished the cultural complexity of past and present, tending to be hostile to the regions of Britain that did not care to worship at the altar of a superlative England. Yet any alternative account of the insular past would necessitate unseating Bede from his ancient throne, a seemingly impossible task. Would anyone in their right mind accept that the history of Britain might not be, as Bede, William and Henry (and Gaimar, Wace, La3amon) had assumed, the same thing as the history of England? If the past of the archipelago could be seen through the eyes of one of its other races, the assumed and infuriating Englishness of the isles might dwindle, allowing it to be challenged for the hubristic assumption it was. For Britain to stop being subsumed into England, for the country that occupied only the southwest corner of the island to lose its claim to being the naturally dominant power and begin to share the insular past and present, to narrate British history differently, a believable alternative would have to appear. To begin to loosen the tenacious grip of England's claim on Britain (and perhaps in the process to open some space in which Normans did not have to become English to make the island's history their own), a new post-conquest historiography began to trace the island's first settlement back to classical Troy.[lxv] The British past suddenly stretched far into what had been barren prehistory. Previously known to the Latin-reading intelligentsia only through the terse accounts of authors like the self-aggrandizing Julius Caesar and the dyspeptic monk Gildas, the pre-English epoch was suddenly filled with the deeds of Britain's most ancient race, the Britons, a race now known to the English and the Normans as the Welsh. Contrary to the received wisdom that the arrival of the Angles and Saxons in the mid-fifth century marked the end of the Britons' dominion on the island, moreover, an enthralling narrative of a king named Arthur appeared, a Briton who died almost a hundred years after the advent of Hengest and Horsa. This British monarch fought the Saxons long after they were supposedly in control of the island, and extended his British empire across most of the known world. The Briton hegemony, it suddenly appeared, not only extended far deeper into the past than previously assumed, its tenacious effects had endured more than a century and a half longer than English writers had claimed, and might even be destined to return some day, resurgent and revitalized.[lxvi] It was as if someone had hurled a Molotov cocktail against Bede's Ecclesiastical History, William's Deeds, and Henry's History of the English, challenging the authority of had been an imperturbable triumvirate through the history-changing power of a prequel.[lxvii]
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britannie [History of the Kings of Britain] was wildly successful from the moment it first appeared sometime between 1136-38. Seeming to come out of nowhere but declared by its author to be a translation of an ancient book in the British tongue, Geoffrey's text provided an unbroken account of two thousand years of insular history, all through non-English eyes.[lxviii] The notion that the Britons were of Trojan descent derived from the ninth-century Historia Brittonum [History of the Britons], composed by an unknown author commonly called Nennius. Geoffrey's fully enfleshed History, however, bore little resemblance to this skeletal amalgam of Welsh and Latin sources. Famous today as the text that bestowed King Arthur to European mythology, Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain is a sprawling narrative that describes how exiled Trojans were given Britain by divine mandate, through a prophecy from the goddess Diana. Like the Israelites arriving in Canaan, this chosen people exterminate the aboriginal giants who inhabit their promised land and render the emptied island a new patria(homeland). Christening themselves Britons after their leader Brutus, and their island Britain from the same source, this technologically advanced race develops a nation already ancient by the time Julius Caesar arrives to cast a greedy eye upon their shores. British glory endures through a succession of spectacular kingships and a series of civil wars, culminating in the reign of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon. Arthur extends British dominion over most of the known world, transforming Britannia from the hinterland it seems in classical texts to an imperial power more venerable than Rome.
A masterful interweaving of material derived from Welsh legend and annals, biblical and classical tradition, real and invented history, and from its author's fecund imagination, the History of the Kings of Britain possesses the most capacious scope of any piece of twelfth-century historiography. Geoffrey of Monmouth was very much a participant in the twelfth-century efflorescence of historiography. He clearly admired William of Malmesbury, so much that Michael A. Faletra aptly calls him William's "most wayward historiographical heir."[lxix] Henry of Huntingdon admired Geoffrey in turn, indicating that he had composed a text that his compeers in English history could recognize as belonging to the same mode of writing as their own. Yet Geoffrey of Monmouth was not aiming to supplement or collegially contribute to the vision of English history originated by Bede and revitalized by William of Malmesbury.[lxx] Even if shorter in its total number of vellum pages, Geoffrey's millennia-spanning narrative details such a longue durée that the Ecclesiastical History and Deeds of the Kings of the English dwindle into brevity by comparison. Just as important as what Geoffrey includes, moreoever, is what he strategically omits: any human presence on the island before the arriving Trojans, and any indication that the Saxon occupation is anything but a temporary seizing of insular dominion.
Geoffrey's History provides an epochal account of insular history in which the Angli are transformed into greedy parvenus. When the Britons are dispossessed by perfidious Germanic raiders, the ancestors of the very English conquered by the Normans in 1066. Suddenly, however, this race lacks the long history and sheer permanence of the Britons on the island. The centuries-long tenure of the English becomes comparatively brief, a savage interlude rather than an enduring regnum. Anglo-Saxon England ceases to be entitled permanently to that nation-state whose formation was narrated by Bede and continued by William and Henry. Whereas Bede conflated his ethnically complicated forebears to the three affiliated kinship groups of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, moreover, Geoffrey further reduces these peoples to the singular Saxones, removing both diversity and nuance. As E. A. Freeman pointed out long ago, it was only the enemies of the English (especially the Irish, Welsh, and Scots) who regularly called "Saxons" a people who typically used the self-designation "English" (Angli, Anglici, Englisc).[lxxi] Geoffrey ends the History of the Kings of Britain with the Saxons in triumph, yet he intimates that the "British people [will] occupy the island again at some time in the future, once the appointed moment should come."[lxxii] Some versions of the History include a bare mention of Athelstan, the revered grandson of Alfred the Great under whom England reached an undeniable acme. This king had also been a patron of Malmesbury Abbey, where his body was eventually interred; no doubt William would have seen it as especially demeaning to have a favorite monarch so dwindle. No version of Geoffrey's text contains much of substance about other English kings. By passing over Bede's grand procession of monarchs, abbots, missionaries, and saints, Geoffrey relegates to silence the very stuff of English history. Absent are iconic figures like Cædmon, the first recorded English poet, and Coifi, the pagan priest who joyfully smashes the idols he has spent his life attending. Absent are the brilliant minutiae of English kingdoms and the byzantine successions that so fascinated William of Malmesbury. The ascendancy of Wessex and the unifying glory of Alfred's son Edward likewise vanish, too recent to merit notation.[lxxiii]
When history familiar from English sources does appear in the History of the Kings of Britain, the point of view from which it is retold changes sharply, deflating all previous claims to grandeur. Sent by the pope to Christianize the English, the missionary Augustine requests help from the native British bishops. The prelates curtly rebuff him with the declaration that "They had no interest whatsoever in the Saxons' faith or their religion, and they had about as much in common with the Angles as they had with dogs!"[lxxiv] Such episcopal jeers take much of the wind out of Augustine's sails, at least for readers cognizant of Bede's meticulous and adoring account of his mission. So much for pan-Christian unity. The reigns of Edwin and Oswald, the political zenith of Bede's book, fare little better. Bede was content to leave Cædwalla's attack upon Edwin of Northumbria an unmotivated rebellion. According to Geoffrey's fuller account, Edwin was raised in exile at the court of Cadvan, where he grows up with the king's son, Cadwallo. Despite their differences, the two princes become close friends. They are about to rule the island as dual kings when Brian, Cadwallo's nephew, reminds his uncle not only that the Saxons have long intended to "press on with the extermination of our race" [genus nostrum exterminare insistent], but that Cadwallo is about to provide the Saxons the perfect opportunity to complete that mission (191 12.2). When Cadwallo subsequently declines to give Edwin the promised crown, war erupts between the two peoples. Penda of Mercia appears, that notorious pagan and potent ally of Cædwalla in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. In Geoffrey's version of the past, however, Peanda finds himself the leader of "a vast horde" (cum maxima multitudine) of Saxons, beaten into submissive obedience by an utterly dominating king of the Britons (196-97 12.7-8). Geoffrey is happy to repeat Bede's hyperbolic description of Cadwallo as a potent leader bent on genocide ("He was determined to scrape the entire English race from the boundaries of Britain" [omne genus Anglorum ex finibus Britannie abradere uolens]" 198 12.9), but such violence against a people who have invariably attempted the same against the Britons renders Geoffrey's Cadwallo more heroic than monstrous.
As in Bede, Oswald eventually succeeds Edwin. Yet whereas Bede's Oswald quickly slaughters "the abominable leader of the Britons" (2.1) and instigates an era of supreme unity on the island, in the History of the Kings of Britain Cadwallo ensures that Oswald is slain at Peanda's hand. He then gloriously presides over the entire isle with the obedient Mercian as his subject king. Edwin and Oswald are given an extended presence in the History of the Kings of Britain to erode the authority of Bede's narration of the past. Unlike William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth does not admit to conflicting versions of these kings. He is a confident revisionist, not a conflicted accommodationist. Like Hengest and Horsa earlier in Geoffrey's text, however, Edwin and Oswald are exceptions rather than the rule. The splendid pageant of personalities familiar from the Ecclesiastical History and Deeds of the Kings of the English are elsewhere in the History of the Kings of Britain replaced by an undifferentiated horde of Saxones, haughty transmarinal colonialists who also happen to be perfidious, rapinous, and land-hungry. Needless to say, in the process of rendering the English aliens to the land they have long inhabited, Geoffrey sloughs off onto them the worst of the Normans' own imperialism.
These Saxons are also, when compared to the Britons, belated. In the mode of Bede and William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey offers a full account of the British past – so ambitiously full, in fact, that it dwarfs in its temporal span both the Ecclesiastical History and the Deeds of the Kings of the English. Included in The History of the Kings of Britain are, after all, the wanderings and first discovery of the island by the Trojan refugee Brutus; the magical arrival of Stonehenge, transported by Merlin from Irish shores; a procession of kings and queens who distinguish themselves through cunning, intelligence, parricide, perfidy, sodomy, martial vigor, lawgiving, heroism; an insular landscape alive with wonders and magic; the glorious and culminating reign of Arthur; the quick and sad end of the British era and an affirmation of its eventual return. Biblical and classical history unfolds at the margins. Events like the founding of Rome and the prophecies of Isaiah are referred to in an offhand way, temporal anchors for the narrative that also serve as subtle reminders that what we witness in Geoffrey's text is contemporaneous to what has traditionally counted as "real" history. Having emptied the island of Bede's resplendently English content, Geoffrey provides for Britain an alternative history stretching so far into the past that anything occurring afterwards is doomed to temporal insignificance.
The History of the Kings of Britain is as richly detailed as it is (in John Gillingham's words) "shot through and through with ambiguity."[lxxv] Scholars have yet to determine conclusively what Geoffrey of Monmouth's precise objective might have been in composing the text. Gillingham has argued that the Historyattempts to exalt the contemporary Welsh, rendering them suitable allies for the Normans opposed to King Stephen.[lxxvi] The History first appeared not long after the death of Henry I, in the midst of the inevitable civil war over his succession. As William of Malmesbury was fond of pointing out, Henry had been especially skilled at subjugating Wales. Seizing upon the uncertainty following the king's demise, many Welsh rose in rebellion. Under the leadership of some impressive kings they made substantial progress in retaking captured lands. Robert of Gloucester, eager for help in unseating Stephen and placing his half-sister Matilda on the throne, gladly allied himself with the Welsh insurgents. The Gesta Stephani, a text written by an author whose sympathies clearly did not lay with either Robert or the Welsh, described this alliance as between rebels against Stephen and "a dreadful and unendurable mass of Welsh, all in agreement, all in complete harmony, together to overthrow the king" (1.54). Robert of Gloucester's strategies made comrades at arms of a people whom his fellow Normans, including his father King Henry, had long been demonizing as part of their program of conquest. Geoffrey's History, in Gillingham's view, introduces the magnificent figure of Arthur to make it abundantly clear that this Welsh-Norman union is not a mere exigency of war but the joining of two noble races already allied by blood. Robert of Gloucester is, in fact, one of the dedicatees of the History of the Kings of Britain.
But then again, so is Robert's bitter enemy, Waleran of Meulan, ardent upholder of Stephen's throne. One manuscript of the Historia is even dedicated to Stephen himself, making it confusingly clear that the work straddles both sides of the divided kingdom without necessarily endorsing the future (or the past) of either.
We may never know what exactly Geoffrey of Monmouth hoped to accomplish in composing the History of the Kings of Britain.[lxxvii] No matter what his intended purpose, however, the Normans obliquely gained through Geoffrey's text the long insular presence that they so embarrassingly lacked, since they also considered themselves to be of Trojan blood. Dudo of St-Quentin, the official chronicler of the Norman myth, had written that the race sprang from Trojan warriors who settled in Denmark (Dacia), accompanying the fleeing Antenor.[lxxviii] As we have seen, Geoffrey's revisionist historiography employed a dual strategy: fortunate "remembering" of Britain's full and continuous history, and silent passing over of the richness of the English past. Both these techniques worked to alleviate some of the anxiety Norman latecomers felt in realizing that their claim to lands that they had come to consider home rested precariously on recent force rather than more comfortingly on ancient entitlement. Geoffrey's imperial Britons, as J. S. B. Tatlock pointed out long ago, also granted a historical precedent for Norman ambitions and achievements.[lxxix] By composing (or, as he claimed, translating) a new "old" history, Geoffrey asserted discrete histories and destinies for the island races. The Britons -- and, by implication, the Normans -- receive an aura of superlative separateness, a difference from the English that they continued to carry in their flesh. The English, in turn, become monstrous: to describe his Saxones Geoffrey employs the very terms that were being disseminated in his own day to denigrate the Welsh, turning tables in order to distance and dehumanize the majority population of England. In part Geoffrey borrows the abusive epithets from Gildas, who lived through the Saxon invasions and waxed vitriolic whenever he described those who had seized British lands from his own people. But Geoffrey goes much further, adopting a racializing rhetoric that calls to mind crusading polemic. When the royal House of Constantine temporarily retakes Britain from its Saxon enemies, these Germanic aliens are represented as impious pagans, as dog-like as the Saracens who seized the Holy Land. Arthur dismisses them as a race "whose very name is an insult to heaven and detested by all men" (146, 9.3), and his archbishop promises that those who die in battle against such a despicable enemy will ascend directly to heaven (147, 9.4), as if they were crucesignati storming Jerusalem. By stressing interrupted history, racial distinctiveness, the indivisibility of the isle, the brevity and perfidiousness of English dominion, and the relation of vigorous empire to a nation's civil harmony, Geoffrey of Monmouth's story of race accidentally or intentionally offers an implicit defense for the transfer of insular power in 1066.
Although conquest and colonization have immediate, catastrophic effects, the profoundest of the changes they engender can take multiple decades to register. Marjorie Chibnall has observed that "the most lasting consequences" of the Norman conquest became evident only "some eighty or a hundred years after 1066."[lxxx] Among these enduring effects was a pervasive, chronic uneasiness over the relationship of England as a national collective to the polyglot, heterogeneous peoples who composed its population. Geoffrey of Monmouth completed the History of the Kings of Britain about seventy years after Hastings. If Geoffrey's text participates in a process of imagining a new national community, it does so rather perversely: not by connecting the Normans more intimately to the original Angli, as William of Malmesbury or Henry of Huntingdon do, but by excluding the latter from this new vision of insular rule. Even if by the late 1130s the Normans were vanishing as a separate race, "turned into Englishmen," the historical rupture represented by the colonization of the island in 1066 continued to be evident in lasting disparities between English and French speakers.[lxxxi] With its viciously reductive depiction of the Saxons as a people unified by their degeneracy, a people "whose very name is an insult to heaven and detested by all men" (145 9.4), Geoffrey's text went a long way toward naturalizing some of those inequalities, rendering the economic, social, and legal differences which had been promulgated over the preceding decades as differences in the blood.
Blood is in fact a central concern of the History. Throughout the millennia that Geoffrey chronicles, blood motivates, catalyzes, unifies, stains. Arthur's war against the Saxons, for example, is not launched to regain stolen land but (in his own words) to take vengeance for the blood of fallen countrymen (sanguinem conciuium meorum hodie in ipsos uindicare conabor, 146 9.3). Sanguineous flows are frequent in the History of the Kings of Britain, especially in the spirited portrayals of battle. A particularly memorable tempest in the narrative is even composed of human gore. This deluge of heavy crimson saturates the island, turning what had finally become a placid kingdom into a body violently wounded by history.
The legend of King Lear is now best known through Shakespeare's tragic drama, a stormy account of obstinacy, madness and forgiveness. Both Lear and his beloved Cordelia die as the drama reaches its tragic close. Edgar's final speech can envision only apocalypse: "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long" (V.iii). Yet Shakespeare was taking great liberties with his ultimate source, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. According to Geoffrey's version of events, Cordelia and her husband wage a successful campaign against her greedy sisters, restoring her repentant father to the kingship of the isle. When Lear later dies of natural causes, the now widowed Cordelia rules for five tranquil years (32, 2.15). Indignant that a woman should occupy the throne, Goneril and Regan's conniving sons, Marganus and Cunedagius, unseat and imprison Lear's daughter. At first the cousins happily share the kingdom. True to Geoffrey's recurrent theme of divided realms making for tempestuous times, however, an avaricious Marganus later provokes his cousin by incinerating his lands. A great civil war erupts, ending only when Marganus is slain. Cunedagius rules thereafter for thirty-three untroubled years, and at his death the throne quietly passes to his son, Rivallo. The new ruler is described approvingly as a peaceful and prosperous young man who governs the kingdom well (iuuenis pacificus atque fortunatus, qui regnum cum diligentia gubernauit, 33, 2.16). During Rivallo's sovereignty, however, a rain of blood pours from the sky for three days and "men perished from the flies that swarmed" (in tempore eius cecidit pluuia tribus diebus sanguinea et muscarum affluentia homines moriebantur).
Shakespeare's King Lear famously erupts in "Storm and tempest" (as the stage direction declares), a howling embodiment of a kingdom's disintegration. Geoffrey's pluvia sanguinea reflects no such disturbance in the social order, since both Rivallo and his father are (or became) peaceful kings with long, prosperous tenures. The deluge cannot therefore incarnate a troubled present, but perhaps it recalls a traumatic past. Erupting after many decades of calm, the hematic storm thunderously brings to Rivallo's reign a reminder of the troubled history upon which it is built: the familial treason against Lear; the violent rebellion [insurrexerunt] of Marganus and Cunedagius against their lawful queen; Cordelia's suicide as she languishes in prison; the ravaging of the land by the warring cousins ("they refused to stop their outrages, they laid waste to numerous provinces"); the division of the island; fatal hostility between power-hungry factions, violence that includes not just the killing of Marganus but the slaughter of innocents caught in the battle for supremacy (cedem non minimam is Geoffrey's litotes for the carnage). Soaked in a ruddy flow so overwhelming that it now collects in pools to rot, the land rebukes its occupants for the copious blood they have shed to gain their ascendancy.[lxxxii] Drenched in pluvial gore, transformed into a pestiferous expanse, Britain itself becomes a suffering body.
Despite her nephews' indignation at a woman ruling the island, Cordelia was right. "You are worth just as much as you possess" she declares to a father intent on fragmenting the realm, a stern rebuke to his notion that a multiplicity of communities can adequately replace the pure and singular one gathered beneath his crown. Lear's misery lasts just as long as the partition of his kingdom endures. Once he has gathered his divided people back into a unity he can contentedly reascend the throne. Cordelia follows her own advice when she succeeds her father and maintains the integrity of Britannia for five happy years, until Marganus and Cunedagius foment revolt. The two cardinal sins in Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain are civil dissension and the division of the realm. After the death of Marganus, Cunedagius becomes monarchiam totius insule ("king of the whole island"). His pan-insular regnum seems to be what allows him his thirty-three years of splendid (gloriose) reign. All the good kings in Geoffrey's text --Brutus, Ebraucus, Belinus and Brennius, Aurelius, Arthur -- know or quickly learn that violence directed outwards is the path to glory, that the only blood which may be productively shed is the blood of another race. Seizing the land of those who do not share one's language, customs, descent is the foundation of vigorous empire, the essence of heroism. Upon a knowledge of shared and sacred blood, on the other hand, depends the very possibility of the Britons recognizing themselves as an enduring collectivity, as a people set apart.
It has been claimed that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in order to glorify the Britons because he himself was of Welsh descent.[lxxxiii] His chosen geographic designator, Monemutensis, does not prohibit this explanation, given that the border settlement of Monmouth was occupied in the twelfth century by a mixed population of Normans, English, Bretons and Welsh. The earliest Latin manuscripts of Geoffrey's History are remarkably open to the possibility of a magnificent Welsh future. I have already mentioned John Gillingham's theory that the Arthurian portion of the text is a direct result of the events of 1136, when in the early turbulence of Stephen's reign some Norman-descended nobles allied themselves with the Welsh. At the death of Henry, an alliance of Welsh kings, Morgan ab Owain and Owain ab Gruffudd, began to take back land seized by the Marcher barons. Gillingham reasons that Geoffrey glorified the Welsh in order to render them sufficiently heroic allies for the Normans opposed to Stephen, reversing the process of monsterizing the Welsh that had long justified the subjugation of Wales. William of Malmesbury attests that stories of Arthur were still circulated by the Britons "even in our day" as "the mainstay of his falling country, rousing to battle the broken spirit of his countrymen."[lxxxiv] Yet if Geoffrey's text was simply meant to glorify a people who had found themselves relentlessly portrayed by their enemies as barbarians, the History was an utter failure. Despite its wide popularity the narrative did very little to arrest the process through which Wales was being transformed into part of England's degenerate Celtic Fringe.
An explanation that looks only to the events of 1136 cannot account for the unparalleled success of the History, a work that survives in an astonishing 215 manuscript copies.[lxxxv] Even if the text is on its surface concerned with the Britons and their history, and no matter how popular the work became in Wales itself, Geoffrey's narrative immediately and enduringly fascinated audiences for whom the southwest of the British Isles was not a great concern. The poet Wace completed a French translation of the text by 1155, apparently at the behest of Queen Eleanor herself. His version often substitutes Engleterre for Geoffrey's Britannia, demonstrating exactly whose history he thought he was narrating.[lxxxvi] La3amon, translating the same story into English, makes the same substitution. When Richard I went on crusade, he nominated as heir his nephew Arthur, demonstrating just how English that British king became as the twelfth century wore on.[lxxxvii] If the History of the Kings of Britain was meant to be Welsh history, it was disturbingly easy to pilfer that past from its native country and assimilate its content to stories told by a kingdom still intent on subjugating Wales. What, then, could have so strongly appealed to the text's enthusiastic readers, who were for the most part profoundly uninterested in any Britain that was not England, in any past that held merely Welsh grandeur?
Perhaps the History of the Kings of Britain so intrigued its audiences outside of Wales because the long line of kings depicted in the text were not ultimately all that Welsh. Bold conquest and internecine strife were certainly not unknown in Wales, even if this expanse of Britain was by the eleventh and twelfth centuries more invaded than invading. Yet Wales had no history of a centralized monarchy such as that depicted in the History, having long been composed of warring kingdoms of fluctuating size.[lxxxviii] On the other hand, the English – and the Normans who sat upon the throne of England – possessed exactly such a history of unified monarchy and, as is already evident in Bede, paninsular ambition. Brutus in Geoffrey's account is a conquistador in the Norman tradition. His cultivation of fields, energetic program of architectural development, frenzied founding of cities, and promulgation of law codes were Norman strategies for securing new territory. The struggles over succession, civil wars, and aristocratic powerplays that animate the History are more characteristic of the English empire from 1066-1036 than of anything that unfolded in any of the kingdoms of Wales, or in Britain's pre-English past. The History of the Kings of Britain is not a transparent allegory or roman à clef. Although both Arthur and William the Conqueror possessed transmarinal empires and were engendered under a cloud of illegitimacy, Arthur is not simply a figure for William. Neither Gwendolyn nor Cordelia are the Empress Matilda, although their stories share profound similarities.[lxxxix]Writing at Oxford, not in Wales, Geoffrey of Monmouth mixes the proximate with the strange. His readers in England loved his text because the safely exotic events that it narrates were also remarkably familiar. Distanced by its projection of a dangerously recent history into an ancient era, distanced by having its English history inhabit alien bodies, the History of the Kings of Britain ultimately upheld the present by making of the past its simulacrum.
This process of projection and distancing enabled some cleverly disguised political critique. The gory rain during Rivallo's kingship is an eruption of blood that has been repressed but not forgotten: the blood shed during the ravaging of the countryside, insurrection, civil war during the time of Lear, Cordelia, Cunedagius – blood that was supposed to have dried up generations ago but flows again decades later from wounds that never really healed. Such pluvia sanguinea might suggest most directly some blood famously shed a few generations before Geoffrey wrote, a massacre accomplished by William the Conqueror in 1069-70. Waging a campaign of terror in the face of an English rebellion, William commanded the Vale of York laid waste. The inhabitants of Yorkshire either starved to death or were forced to abandon their homes.[xc] Orderic Vitalis, a native of Shropshire who as a boy may have known from personal experience those who suffered during the campaign, had to turn at this point in his narrative from his usual praise of William to observe that the innocent were by his actions condemned to slow starvation. He can muster no explanation for the catastrophe, and resigns himself simply to memorializing its human toll: "I would rather lament the griefs and sufferings of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrators of such infamy."[xci] The city of York was "almost wiped out," writes William of Malmesbury, its citizens decimated "by famine or sword" (Deeds 3.248). Ordinarily restrained in his depictions of the violence used by the new king of England, William here becomes awestruck at the ravaging's brutal wake:
[William] then gave orders for the towns and fields of the whole region to be devastated, and the fruit and grain ruined by fire or water ... Thus a province once fertile and a nurse of tyrants was hamstrung by fire, rapine, and bloodshed; the ground for sixty miles and more left entirely uncultivated, the soil quite bare even down to this day. As for the cities once so famous, the towers whose tops threatened the sky, the fields rich in pasture and watered by rivers, if anyone sees them now, he sighs if he is a stranger, and if he is a native surviving from the past, he does not recognize them. (3.250)[xcii]
Soaked in blood, the land becomes alien to those who once inhabited it. Geoffrey knew William of Malmesbury's Deeds well; he may also have known the Deeds of the Bishops of England, where a traumatized William repeated the description almost verbatim as a prologue to his overview of the church in Northumbria.[xciii]Perhaps he has this very passage in mind as he describes the events that culminate in the three-day rain of blood. Perhaps the years preceding the composition of the History of the Kings of Britain were too full of similar scenes, not just as recorded in historical texts but as witnessed not far from Monmouth, during the often murderous subjugation of Wales. The sanguineous tempest, moreover, has other parallels in William's text. According to the Deeds of the Kings of the English, just before the demise of William Rufus a spring in Hampstead began to run abundant gore (fons sanguinem tam ubertim manauit ut uicinum uadum inficeret, 4.331). The day before his death, the king dreamt that he was being bled, a common medical practice at the time for sick and healthy alike. During this phlebotomy the king's vital liquid suddenly spurts skyward, blotting out the sun (4.333). When a stray arrow pierces William Rufus while hunting the next day, the cadaver does in fact drip blood copiously over the land (cruore undatim [lit. "in waves"] per totam uiam stillante) while being ignominiously transported to Winchester.
That blood should run copiously in the Deeds of the Kings of England and in the History of the Kings of Britain is not surprising -- except, perhaps, for we readers who live in a more antiseptic age, when blood simply is not seen as frequently as it would have been during a medieval life. The most precious of the bodily humors, a sacred substance that figures suffering and redemption, the most visible marker that the boundaries of the body have been penetrated, and a potent condensation of human life itself, blood is everywhere in medieval texts. Twelfth-century historiography does not, as far as I can tell, demonstrate an excessive fascination with the fluid, but treats blood with the same mixture of reverence and symbolic potential as contemporary texts of other genres. Most often blood flows as a metonymy for the violence humans commit against each other, as in Geoffrey's description of mortal battle between the Britons and Romans ("the earth was drenched with the blood of the dying," 4.3) or between the Saxons and Britons ("wherever one looked there was blood flowing and the screams of the dying roused to fury those who were still alive," 123 8.5). Sometimes, however, blood circulates to carry with it a racial identity. Most often such blood features in vivid stories meant to separate one group from another, but more quietly blood also flows throughout Geoffrey's narrative in ways that utterly confound any lasting attempt at racial distinction.
No matter what else the text might be, the History of the Kings of Britain is a racial myth. As the twelfth-century Welsh who found in its narrative the promise of glory to come would atttest, the History gives solidity and continuity to a dispersed people. It could legitimate the promulgation of a communal identity based upon shared history and descent. By projecting a Norman mode of kingship and conquest into the past, it also implicitly buttresses the Norman conquest, and reinforces the distinctiveness of both the Normans and the Britons from the English. Perhaps this desire to keep the insular races distinct explains why the text recurrently envalues purity of blood. When a womanless band of Picts arrive from Scythia and ask the Britons for wives, the Britons firmly refuse to marry into such an inferior race (4.17). Once the fiercely expansionist leader Maximianus subdues Gaul, he imports a new population for the area from across the channel. He leaves Conanus Meriadocus in charge of this "second Britain," who in turn strives "to prevent any mixture of blood" between colonists and natives. Conanus therefore imports seventy-one thousand warbrides from the homeland, so intent is he to avoid intermingling (5.15). The passion of Brennius for a Danish princess almost causes the ruin of the island (3.2). Part of the great evil of Vortigern, the tyrant who improvidently invites the Saxons into Britain, is his refusal to respect the separation of peoples. Not only does he "import pagans to mingle with the local population" (8.2), degenerating his kingdom to the point at which "no one could tell who was a pagan and who was a Christian, for the pagans were associating with [the Britons'] daughters and female relations" (6.13), he himself marries Renwein, daughter of the Saxon leader Hengest (6.12). Vortimer, Vortigern's pure-blooded son by another woman, rises against his father in an attempt to take Britain back for the Britons, only to be poisoned by his treacherous stepmother (6.14). Perhaps a certain magical pool described to a wide-eyed Arthur says it all. Naturally fashioned in the shape of a perfect square, the pool harbors four types of fish, and "the fish of any one corner were never found in any of the others" (9.7). Substitute Britons, Picts, Scots and Saxons for the allegorical fish and pristine Britain suddenly becomes perfectly unmixed, impossibly pure.
Square pools do not exist in nature, nor do fish self-segregate; that is why the pool is a marvel. In Geoffrey's British history, despite the fact that racial purity is so often declared paramount, the races frequently mingle. Just like Norman-English and Norman-Welsh marriages in Geoffrey's own day, these unions produce children who carry the blood of two peoples. At first glance, it seems that mixed blood progeny cannot fare well. Assaracus, son of a Trojan mother and a Greek father, agrees to help the exiled Brutus because of his anger at having been disinherited by a brother of undiluted Greek blood. Brutus is happy to employ the man so long as he is useful, but the Trojan's subsequent talk of preserving the "purity of noble blood" suggests what he really thinks of his mongrel ally (1.4). Habren, the daughter of king Locrinus by a German concubine, is hurled into a river by his angry wife (2.5). Bassianus, the son of a Roman puppet ruler through a British woman, finds himself raised to the insular throne because his people prefer him over his brother of pure Roman descent (5.2). His reign is quite short, however, because a man named Carausius, humbly born but of untainted British ancestry, rallies the Britons to "massacre the Romans and wipe them out of existence and so free the whole island of that foreign race." The half-blood Bassianus soon lies dead on the battlefield (5.3).
Yet Constantine, the son of the Roman Constantius and the Briton Helen, becomes not only the king of the whole island but the famous emperor of Rome, "overlord of the whole world" (5.8). Perhaps most suggestively of all, the founding father of the Britons, Brutus himself, takes the Greek princess Ignoge for his wife, mixing his own genealogical line with the blood of an inveterate enemy. It could perhaps be argued that only the race of the father counts in a patriarchal society, overwriting or overcoding the blood of the mother. Such a model seems almost Aristotelian: the mother contributes inert matter to the child, while the father gives both form and life. Thus the famous English rebel against the Conqueror, Earl Morcar, had a sister named Ealdgyth. She bore a daughter to her first husband, Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, upon whom was bestowed the resonantly Welsh name of Nest. Ealdgyth had a son by her second spouse, King Harold II of England. Ulf carried an Anglo-Scandinavian appellation that well embodied his royal father 's racial heritage.[xciv] In both cases the descent of the father determines the child's name. Perhaps, then, the children of Brutus are just as Trojan/British as he is. Historically speaking, it was easier in the eleventh and twelfth century for children of mixed heritage to identify with their male parent, since he tended to be of the dominant race. The Norman conquest, for example, consisted mainly of a male immigration. With the exception of the highest ranking of these new arrivals, men who maintained transmarinal identities, the Normans in England very often took English wives, alliances that do not seem to have been perceived as diluting their racial identities. What perhaps surprised the Norman fathers, however, is how quickly their children began to identify with their maternal blood, considering themselves English and becoming enthralled by the island's history. Thus William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Orderic Vitalis.
Yet in Geoffrey's text carrying the blood of two peoples seldom allows a singular or stable racial identity to be embraced, or for a dual ancestry to be forgotten. Despite the apparent bias in favor of racial separateness in the History, in the actual unfolding of historical events Geoffrey demonstrates the impossibility – and sometimes the sheer destructiveness – of rejecting out of hand hybridity and commingling. Attempts to maintain purity of blood almost always fail. Contrary to an earlier prohibition against taking British wives, not long afterwards the Picts do just that, "intermarrying more and more with the Britons" (5.3). These marriages are enabled by Carausius, the pure-blooded Briton who rallied his people to commit genocide against the Romans and keep the island free of foreigners. The desire of Conanus Meriadocus to prevent his soldiers from mixing their blood with that of the Gauls spectacularly backfires when he sends to Britain for suitable wives. Of the 71,000 women shipped across the channel to meet his demand, the luckiest drown when their ships founder. The remainder are blown so far off course that randy barbarians either slay or enslave them (5.16). Conanus Meriadocus and his men, we must assume, were forced to take their brides from Gaul after all. Earlier in the narrative, when the Roman-Briton Constantine leaves for Italy, his British uncle Ioelinus accompanies him. Through his Roman wife Ioelinus has a son named Maximianus, "a Briton on his father's side ... but from his mother and by race he was a Roman, and by birth of royal blood on both sides" (5.9). This child of impure descent is the very same Maximianus who disastrously demands British wives to maintain his people's undiluted blood in Gaul.
As Peggy McCracken has written in her analysis of the role of women's blood in medieval literature, descent might be claimed from the father, but the mother's contribution to her offspring's identity can never be completely effaced. Blood, especially when it comes from a woman, tends to be ambivalent, multivalent.[xcv] The same might be said more generally about women's roles in twelfth century historiography, especially in their relation to race and descent. Although from time to time a powerful female figure will emerge (Hild, Æthelflæd, Cordelia), the chronicles of the past written at this time are for the most part accounts of the deeds of men.[xcvi] Geoffrey is no exception, imagining a vigorously martial world in which the great leaders are men and in which women are seldom eligible to have their stories narrated. There are, of course, exceptions: Gwendolen, Estrildis, Cordelia, Tonuuenna, Genvissa, Judon, Renwein, Ygerna, Guenevere.[xcvii] Helena, the niece of king Hoel abducted by a Saracen giant, seems borrowed from crusading polemic to figure the dangers posed by Muslims to the Christian bodies they desire to embrace; that she dies before she can be raped by the monster does not obviate the threat of miscegenation that hangs over the dreadful episode. Even unnamed women do sometimes have their stories told, however, and often these are stories of race. Take, for example, the 71,000 women assembled in London to provide wives for the Britons who have conquered Gaul. They do not know that they are doomed to perish at sea, be slaughtered by enemies, or become enslaved, yet none of them wants to abandon home and family for unknown shores ("they all had their personal wishes in the matter," 5.16). Their fate becomes all the more horrible as a result. Britain is depopulated, then overrun by Picts, all "through the madness of Maximianus" (6.3), the hybrid who disastrously demanded that blood be kept pure.
Perhaps no untold story resonates more somberly than that of Ignoge, the Greek princess who is forced to become the wife of Brutus. Geoffrey writes what might be called a cold history: little human feeling animates it, and he is not given to moments of aching identification such as William of Malmesbury's wrenching account of the White Ship. Ignoge has very little presence in the text, with the exception of a depiction of her last sight of her native land, an episode at once so evocative and so moving that, as Robert Hanning observes, it "interrupts the flow" of the narrative, so that "for a moment the issues of national birth and freedom are forgotten; history itself is forgotten."[xcviii] Here is Geoffrey's description of the fading shores of home as glimpsed through a bereft Ignoge's eyes:
The Trojans sailed away ... Ignoge stood on the high poop and from time to time fell fainting in the arms of Brutus. She wept and sobbed at being forced to leave her relations and her homeland; and as long as the shore lay there before her eyes, she would not turn her gaze away from it. Brutus soothed and caressed her, putting his arms round her and kissing her gently. He did not cease his efforts until, worn out with crying, she fell asleep (1.11)
As Ignoge's eyes close in forgetful sleep, lost at that moment are the possibilities for any life she might have chosen for herself, for any history she might have dreamed. She is destined to become an appendage of Brutus, the source of his progeny. We next see Ignoge in what appears to be a mere afterthought, as she appears much later in Britain to legitimate the birth of three sons for Brutus. She is never thereafter mentioned again. Her sons divide the land and carry on their father's work; it never occurs to them that in their bodies the blood of Troy mingles with that of Greece. They are simply Britons, as their father christened his people, and they never dwell upon complexities of history and descent.
Yet Ignoge's gaze opens up the possibility of another story. Transported far from any place she might belong, destined to be an alien among strangers, suspended between cultures and no longer able to be one or the other, Ignoge embodies everything her children so easily forget. Yearning for a home that can never be hers, this princess conveyed to an unfamiliar land suggests the difficulties faced by those who carry an identity full of difference, ambivalence, conflict. Her body a place where conqueror meets conquered, where a war unfolds between loathing and desire, Ignoge looks not just back to a receding homeland but forward to the impossible bind of mixed race progeny on an island increasingly dominated by a single race. Ignoge is Greek, her husband Trojan, her children Britons, but tears like hers will one day well in a body that finds in its veins the incompatible blood of Normandy and Wales.
Geoffrey of Monmouth dreams of a world where the races might be distinguishable, distinct, but as that textual world unfolds in its complexity, its peoples mingle and become -- despite their fervent belief to the contrary -- impure. Geoffrey is rather like William of Malmesbury in this way, a writer who likewise dreamt of clean divisions of history but was left with an anxiously mixed identity both for himself and for his nation. William's frustrated insistence that the present would be less difficult if the past had only been more pure is seen most clearly in his Vita S. Dunstani, (Life of St Dunstan), where he bewails the English king Æthelred's marriage to a Norman woman:
To prolong the harm he did so that it affected posterity, [Æthelred] contrived that his successors should lose all England, by marrying Emma, daughter of Richard duke of the Normans, the result being that in after years the Normans were able to claim England as of right and bring it under their control, something better seen today than put down in writing.[xcix]
William's England was no longer wholly English. Like the blood that coursed through his veins, Norman and English difference had commingled, had changed the world profoundly. He might imagine that there had been a time of impossible purity, of separateness and of self-boundedness, but like Geoffrey's vision of the Trojan Britons such unadulterated wholes were myth, not history.
Purity might be an impossible dream, but that did not stop this dream from being passionately embraced, much to the sorrow of those who carried blood that could never seem untainted. For these impure beings history was filled with heartache, and the present never ceased to hurt.
In the Prison of the Castle
He could not see the boy, could not see anything at all, but he felt the trembling in the little body, a shaking that increased each time they edged closer to the plunge. If only the brat would stop crying. The wind was cold, and his hand was getting wet.
The prisoner had dreamt this moment for years. Captive to an unending dark, he had learned with fingertips the castle's every passage. On a day when the air had turned bitter and a quiet held the keep, the prisoner seized the castellan's son. Bolting each door behind him, he carried the child to the highest crenellation. He howled into the wind until he knew he was being watched below. "What do you want?" the castellan shouted, and the prisoner liked the helplessness in that father's voice. The words he hurled back had been rehearsed every day inside his head: "I want you to know agony, son of a whore! Wasn't it enough to blind me? Do you think I'm a beast, that you can geld me?" The prisoner smiled. He couldn't help it. "I want you to take your knife and cut off your balls."
At each word of protest from the castellan the prisoner pushed his son closer to the plummet. Desperate, the castellan pretended to obey. He ordered his steward to ram a sword hilt into his thigh. The household groaned.
"Where does it hurt?" the prisoner demanded. When the castellan wept of the pain in his loins, and the prisoner pushed the boy's legs over the parapet. The steward struck another blow, and this time the castellan wailed of an agony in his heart. The boy now dangled by his collar over the stone, moments from death. "No more lies!" The father took hold of his knife and cut. He loved his son that much. As blood flowed over his hand and down his legs he shouted to the tower "My teeth! My teeth ache like icy hell!"
The prisoner nodded. He had won. "I believe you," he whispered. With the boy still in his hands he leapt over the edge. They fell to their death, the child clinging to the prisoner's side as if this madman might shield him from the coming blow. The castellan would have no son, no possibility of another heir. He would live, as the prisoner had lived, outside of the stream of time, immured in a miserable present, captive to a future he could never choose, history's unending hurt.
To save his soul the knight built a monastery on the spot. It is still there today. They call it the Scene of Sorrows.[c]
[i] R. H. C. Davis made this point lucidly in trying to explain the insecurity that prompted the Normans to be always speaking of themselves: "Peoples ... can remain peoples only so long as [their shared] experience is kept alive, by handing on the story of it from generation to generation. A voice speaking on behalf of a nation calls a nation into being" (The Normans and their Myth 15).
[ii] "Nearly at the extremity of the known world" is James Campbell's description of Bede's native Northumbria (Essays in Anglo-Saxon History 29). This fabulation is based upon an episode in the Life of Ceolfrith that has traditionally been assumed to refer to the young Bede. During the devastating plague of 686, abbot Ceolfrith and a young boy (puerulus) are said to be the only survivors at Jarrow, where even in the wake of the devastation they continued to sing the psalms with their antiphons. Judith McClure and Roger Collins have argued that the Latin noun puerulus would not likely refer to the twelve year old Bede (see their introduction to Bede's Ecclesiastical History, xiii). As we will see in the vita of William of Norwich, however, puerulus could indeed be used of a twelve year old in order to stress innocence and pathetic suffering in the face of traumatic events. Nonetheless McClure and Collins' caution that nothing ties Bede definitively to Jarrow rather than Wearmouth is well taken.
[iii] Peter Brown makes this observation in The Rise of Western Christendom 9.
[iv] A good survey of this mixed historical origin in its relation to the textual promulgation of a seemingly all-encompassing Anglo-Saxon culture is Alfred K. Siewers, "Landscapes of Conversion," especially 8-12.
[v] Bede also includes ecclesiastical Latin on his list. Latin offered the possibility of a unifying tongue, even if Bede had his doubts over whether the Britons and the Irish could be Christian in the same way as the converted English. References to Bede's History are from the edition and translation by Colgrave and Mynors.
[vi] In fact the first chapter of the first book of the History gives a brief origin for the Britons (who arrive from Armorica), the Picts (originally a band of men from Scythia), and the Irish. A cursory arc of chapters gives the Romans their presence on the island (1.2-13), intermingling them with the Christian Britons. The remainder of the work is then devoted to the English.
[vii] George Hardin Brown emphasizes these points in Bede the Venerable 9.
[viii] Specifically, Bede was a native Bernician (Northumbria was made up of the former kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira); N. J. Higham goes so far as to call him a "Bernician jingoist" (An English Empire 65). Bede gives a brief account of his own life in the Ecclesiastical History 5.24, where he writes "I was born in the territory of this monastery [Wearmouth and Jarrow]." Bede describes the Northumbrians as a race in the Ecclesiastical History 2.9: "gens Nordanhymbrorum, hoc est ea natio Anglorum quae ad aquilonalem Humbrae fluminis plagam habitabat." Cf. 3.1.
[ix] The image also nicely gets at what Bede hopes to accomplish by composing an ecclesiastical history, in that the interior of the hall represents the pagan kingdom, while its stormy and uncertain exterior are that kingdom's past and future. Christianity, Edwin's counselor argues, will help them to better understand that unfamiliar outside, "what follows or indeed what went before" (2.13).
[x] Though of course that is exactly what Edwin was, until he converted six years previous to this battle. That Penda has such power in Mercia also suggests how much wishful thinking Bede is displaying in writing that Edwin "held under his sway the whole realm of Britain, not only English kingdoms but those ruled by the Britons as well" (2.9). Penda's violence against Christians is so spectacular in Bede's text that by the time John Britton is writing a history of Norwich cathedral in 1816 he refers to him simply as "the sanguinary Mercian monarch" (History and Antiquities of the See and Cathedral Church of Norwich 8).
[xi] N. J. Higham gathers the sources in The Convert Kings 149 and 195 n51, as well as An English Empire 137. See also the notes in the Colgrave and Mynors edition of the Ecclesiastical History, 162 and 202-3. Bede is vague on Edwin's wanderings during his exile (2.12).
[xii] Cf. 2.9, where Edwin is glimpsed spreading his control across the island by force.
[xiii] N. J. Higham makes this point in An English Empire 133-35; for an analysis of the animal attributes deployed by Gildas see Higham's The English Conquest53-56.
[xiv] Cf. Joaquín Martínez Pizarro: "What modern historical scholarship has had to correct in Bede's account of the Anglo-Saxon Landnahme is precisely this sense of alienation and lack of contact and mutual assimilation between Britons and English, together with the idea that the spread of the latter pushed the former into Wales and the areas of the North" ("Ethnic and National History" 66).
[xv] 3.644. Higham argues that infandus has its suggestive counterpart in the description of the Saxons by Gildas as nefandus, and therefore constitutes part of Bede's reworking of Gildas's terms (An English Empire 134).
[xvi] As N. J. Higham argues, the process of imagining a pan-insular unity culminates in Bede's description of Oswald's successor, Oswiu, a Bernician king who wields a Roman-like imperium over all the island's peoples (An English Empire 62, 66-67). Oswiu is the king who most clearly buttresses "Northumbrian claims to erstwhile British territory and to supremacy throughout Britain, as well as to the general supremacy of English kings and the English people over other inhabitants of Britain" (62).
[xvii] Walter Pohl writes of the "atmospheric" intent of such polyethnic lists in general, and of its ambiguity in Bede's usage ("Ethnic Names and Identities in the British isles" 15-16).
[xviii] On the complicated ethnicities behind Bede's three categories, see the provocative essay by John Moreland, "Ethnicity, Power and the English."
[xix] See the letter that Bede reproduces in 1.32. On the papal tendency to make vast unities out of disparate peoples (Gallia, Germania, Italia, Anglia), see G. G. Coulton, "Nationalism in the Middle Ages" 29.
[xx] Cf. Walter Pohl: "In Bede's ethnic model, there is no room for what me might call ethnogenetic processes -- people can come and go, or even be destroyed, but they do not mix or change. Thus, after almost 400 years of Roman rule, the Romans can simply leave or be killed, and leave the Britons they have once conquered to themselves. Bede also disregards -- or rather denies -- the possibility that many Britons might have become Angles or Saxons. This is a point of view common to the whole discourse of ethnicity in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Such a view could in the long run lead to contradictions between the actual situation and a text as influential as Bede's Ecclesiastical History. But it could also contribute towards stabilizing ethnic identities as a basis for political legitimacy" ("Ethnic Names and Identities in the British Isles" 25)
[xxi] Bede set influential but not inalterable terms for future relations between the English and the people who had been the Britons and were more frequently being called the Welsh. Alfred the Great, for example, owes his biography to a Welshman named Asser, attached to Alfred's court because of the overtures the English king made to the principalities to his west. Yet Bede's exclusions and monsterizations were powerfully effective as his work was adopted by twelfth-century historiographers, who had their own reasons for wanting to render Welsh and Irish Christians as barbaric as possible, as we shall see.
[xxii] See the wide-ranging work of James Campbell, especially "Was it Infancy in England? " "The Late Anglo-Saxon State: A Maximum View," and "The United Kingdom of England: The Anglo-Saxon Achievement." See also R. R. Davies, The First English Empire 50-55 and 196-200, and "The Peoples of Britain and Ireland, 1100-1400: II Names, Boundaries and Regnal Solidarities," 10-12; Sarah Foot, "The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest"; and Patrick Wormald, "Engla Land: The Making of an Allegiance."
[xxiii] The quotations are from James Campbell, "The United Kingdom of England" 31.
[xxiv] When Orderic Vitalis describes William as Guillelmus nothus rex Anglorum ("William the bastard, king of the English"), he articulates at once the glory and ignominy that William might embody, depending on who was describing him (The Ecclesiastical History 4 7.1). Nothus indicates the illegitimate son of a known father, and is not therefore the worst possible status to possess as a child born out of wedlock. Stephen Morillo suggests the description nobilissimo victori in William of Jumièges's Gesta Normannorum Ducum is the first reference to William as "the Conqueror": The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations, 19.
[xxv] William of Poitiers summarizes the Duke of Normandy's claim from descent succinctly in his Gesta Guillelmi: "And if anyone asks the reason for [William's] blood claim, it is well-known that he was related to King Edward by close ties of blood, being the son of Duke Robert, whose aunt, Emma, the sister of Richard II and daughter of Richard I, was Edward's mother" (The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, 2.30).
[xxvi] Simon Keynes, "Regenbald the Chancellor (sic)," esp. 217, 220. Though, as David Crouch observes, symbolic gestures often cloaked the harsher reality: "William's rhetoric was all about continuity and inheritance; his actions spoke of high-handed superiority and dispossession" (The Normans 103).
[xxvii] In The English and the Norman Conquest, Ann Williams argues that the true turning points for the conquest were marked by the resistance offered to William by the citizens of Exeter in 1068 and the revolt of 1069-70: "If William ever intended to create a genuine Anglo-Norman realm, like the Anglo-Danish synthesis achieved by Cnut before him, the revolt put paid to the idea. From this time onwards he took every opportunity to replace the English magnates, lay and ecclesiastical, with Normans and others on whom he felt he could rely. It is this wholesale replacement of Englishmen at the highest levels of society and government that gives the Norman Conquest its special character" (44). The conquest, in other words, is best seen as a changing, multiregister national reconfiguration of long duration and lingering effect. On the lasting challenges posed to Norman authority and the difficulty with which the conquest proceeded in the north of the country, for example, see William E. Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation.
[xxviii] Michael A. Faletra rather too flatly advances this argument for William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth in "Narrating the Matter of Britain," concluding that "the historians active in the eleventh and twelfth century … together created a series of texts that celebrate Norman achievements and provide a discursive foundation for the Norman conquest of Britain" (60). Robert M. Stein, having elsewhere well described the impulse to narrate the conquest as continuity ("The Trouble with Harold" 186, 189, 195), usefully explores the rhetorical complexity of William of Malmesbury's text by mapping it across his divided personal allegiances and emplacing the Historia within the contradictory, post-conquest desire "to make history English" ("Making History English" 104, 98). See also Andrew Galloway's account of the mutability of William's allegiances in "Writing History in England," 264-66. John Gillingham advances a similar argument for Henry of Huntingdon's changing ethnic affiliations in The English in the Twelfth-Century128-30.
[xxix] Eleanor Searle, Predatory Kinship 237-49. Robin Fleming usefully expands Searle's formulation to "at once co-operative and predatory" by comparing the conquests of Cnut and William, finding important continuities between the Anglo-Scandinavian and Norman aristocrats: Kings and Lords in Conquest England, p. xiii. The Normans have been increasingly placed by scholars within a dispersive international context, in that their imperium intermingled the north of Europe with its south, with the Mediterranean, and beyond: John Le Patourel, Feudal Empires: Norman and Plantagenet and The Norman Empire; Kurt-Ulrich Jäschke, Die Anglonormannen.
[xxx] Hugh M. Thomas has made the intriguing argument that the Normans in England were called Franci, Francigeni, Romani and so on because the English word normenn (found, for example in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1066, where it refers to the army of Harald Hardrada) designated Scandinavians. Thus Ælnoth of Canterbury, in exile in Denmark, referred to Norse peoples as Normanni and to William the Conqueror's cohort as Francigeni. Because the Normans spoke French and had assimilated so much Frankish culture, they were (Thomas argues) perceived by the English as Franci rather than Normanni or normenn. See The English and the Normans 33-34 on the English use of these descriptive terms, and 38-39 for their Norman acceptance (an acceptance somewhat surprising given that a Norman hostility to the French surfaced from time to time throughout the period).
[xxxi] Eleanor Searle, Predatory Kinship 242.
[xxxii] Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England.
[xxxiii] H. R. Loyn stresses the historical continuity between the Danelaw and Normandy in The Norman Conquest, as does R. Allen Brown in The Normans and the Norman Conquest 94. The possibility of unity is implied in the rhetoric which Henry of Huntingdon invents for a speech William delivers on the eve of Hastings, only to be dismissed by depriving the English of their own Scandinavian origin and hybridity: "'Ah! Let any of the Englishmen whom our Danish and Norwegian ancestors have conquered in a hundred battles, come forth and prove that the nation of Rou, from his time until now, have ever been routed in the field'" (Historia Anglorum VI.29)
[xxxiv] Robert Stein writes of the Norman desire to find English ancestors in "Making History English" 106. Frank Barlow articulates the profound difference between 1066 and the conquest of 1016 when he writes "William, however, did not become another Cnut … William and his army were more foreign than Cnut and his. Englishmen had become accustomed to Scandinavian rule; but in 1066 they did not recognize the Vikings in their new French dress." "The Effects of the Norman Conquest" 128.
[xxxv] Marjorie Chibnall, The Normans 5, 3.
[xxxvi] Dudo of St-Quentin, The History of the Normans, esp. 146-9. On Hrólfr as the Norse equivalent of Rollo see David Crouch, The Normans 297-300. Cassandra Potts finds a similar sentiment about the hybrid but ultimately expressed in the Inventio et miracula Sancti Vulfranni, with its vision of a Rollo who likewise catalyzes the emergence of a unified Norman identity from a racially multiplicitous beginning: "'Atque unum ex diversis gentibus populum effecit': Historical Tradition and the Norman Identity." Further on Dudo see Emily Albu, The Normans in their Histories: Propaganda, Myth and Subversion,7-46. Historically speaking, Rollo was a Viking jarl (leader of a raiding party) from Norway whose full name was likely Hrólfr Ketilsson. For an excellent overview of what historical facts can be recovered about Rollo, see David Crouch, The Normans 1-8.
[xxxvii] The phrase is taken from a charter composed for Richard de Montgomery, a follower of William the Conqueror, as he speaks his racial identity. See Eleanor Searle, Predatory Kinship 242 and Hugh M. Thomas, The English and the Normans 32. On Norman heterogeneity and Normannitas as a chosen and performative rather than pregiven identity, see ibid. 244. R. H. C. Davis argues that this myth of separateness endured in England until the loss of Normandy in 1204 and the consequent forced choice between English and French allegiance and lands during the 1220s: The Normans and Their Myth. Such apparently harmonious unity has perhaps been overplayed (e.g. H. R. Loyn, "The diversity of origin [of William's cohorts] was more than counterbalanced by the feeling of unity found under the banner of William" [Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest 332]). Cf. Pauline Stafford on the rebellion of 1075: "We witness striking continuity when we see how Norman nobles now in English shoes reacted to the demands of a Norman duke who was also now an English king. William's rule could be seen and was seen as oppressive, by his Norman followers as much as by his English subjects" (Unification and Conquest 105-6).
[xxxviii] Eric Fernie, Architecture of Norman England 20.
[xxxix] A century later, Richard Fitz Nigel described the implicit philosophy as well as the mechanics of this dispossession in his Dialogus de scaccario [Course of the Exchequer], where he writes that William was surprisingly merciful to "the conquered, and probably disloyal, English" when he allowed them to hold lands through service or contract but not inheritance. See the edition of Charles Johnsonwith, 53-54, from which the terms indigeni and gens subacta used above are also taken. As Hugh M. Thomas points out, that Richard could employ the term indigeni so late into the twelfth century demonstrates how long the Norman versus English sense of separateness endured (The English and the Normans 66).
[xl] "Making History English" 97. Stein is following R. W. Southern's famous observation about the relation between "historical activity" as a "therepeutic" mode in the wake of social upheaval. Southern aptly labels the period from 1090 to 1130 as a time when "a crisis in national affairs ... seemed to alienate men from their past": "The Sense of the Past" 244, 246.
[xli] Serious Entertainments 5.
[xlii] "Nullus hodie Anglus uel dux uel pontifex uel abbas; aduenae quique diuitias et uiscera corrodunt Angliae, nec ulla spes est finiendae miseriae" (2.227).
[xliii] Rodney Thomson relates the history of the monastery to William's background in William of Malmesbury 98-99. R. W. Southern lingers over William's masterful reconstruction of Aldhelm's life in the Gesta Pontificum in "The Sense of the Past" 255.
[xliv] The bluntness of such a complaint needs to be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The E text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, contains as an entry for the year of the Conqueror's death (1087) an account of William's life composed someone who attended the royal court. The lengthy obituary commingles criticism with ample praise. Of William of Malmesbury's treatment of the Conqueror and other participants in the events surrounding the conquest Hugh M. Thomas concludes reasonably that around 1125 there were clearly "vociferous disputes between the English and the Normans about the characters and actions of key figures ... clearly the conquest was still a topic for heated debate over half a century after it occurred" (The English and the Normans 241).
[xlv] "Iam enim pridem moribus Anglorum insueuerat, qui uarii admodum pro temporibus fuere" ("Long since had it [i.e., the patria] grown used to the character of the English – though that changed greatly with the passage of time," 3.245). These are the lines that immediately follow William's observation that Hastings was a dies fatalis for England. Cf. William's initial description of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes as "warlike nomads" (armis ualidos, sedibus uagos) who are "possessed of a native ferocity of manners" (genuinam feritatem morum,1.4).
[xlvi] William contrasts this evolutionary achievement of the English with the Irish, who never progress from their squalid rusticity: "What would Ireland be worth without the goods that come in by sea from England? The soil lacks all advantages, and so poor, or rather unskilful, are its cultivators that it can produce only a ragged mob of rustic Irishmen outside the towns; the English and French, with their more civilized way of life, live in the towns, and carry on trade and commerce" (5.409).
[xlvii] See The English in the Twelfth Century 29. Cf. p. 6 "In William's eyes the more 'Frenchified' England and the English became, the better." The downside of this emphasis on Franconorman manners and cultivation is that the Welsh are rendered barbarians (18, 27-28).
[xlviii] Gillingham's emphasis on William's francophilia also downplays his classicism. As Monika Otter points out in her examination of William's rendering of a life of St Wulfstan from English into Latin, this translatio enables William to stress both the rupture caused by the Norman conquest and the continuities that traverse it ("1066: The Moment of Transition" 578-79.
[xlix] The Debate on the Norman Conquest 2.
[l] In addition to William of Malmesbury, the sinking of the White Ship is narrated by Orderic Vitalis (6.294-307), Simeon of Durham, Eadmer, Henry of Huntingdon (6.32), Hugh the Chanter, Robert of Torigni, and Wace (Roman de Rou, pt. 3, ll. 10173-262).
[li] Henry I 278. Hollister notes that Stephen of Blois, the future king of England, disembarked from the ship before it set sail, nervous at the rowdy crowd and suffering gastrointestinal distress, "diarrhea [that] probably determined the history of England during the nineteen years between 1135 and 1154" (277).
[lii] David Crouch speculates that Henry's Anglophilia originated in his own feelings of exclusion: "A marginal figure at court, he chose to associate with the marginalised nobility of England," going so far as to set up a ménage in the south midlands, "the nearest place to home that he could have named" (The Normans159). Crouch also points out that Henry's legitimate daughter was named and called by him Æthelic; the court called her Mathilda (160).
[liii] Neither Henry nor Adeliza were infertile, since both produced children by other partners. Yet each year without progeny caused more anxiety over succession; by 1122 a party was already forming to promote the succession of William Clito to the throne. Between 1125 and 1135, the succession debate was the unrelenting obsession of the court ((Crouch, The Normans 194,196-7).
[liv] Thomson and Winterbottom set 1126 as the date for the completion of the first versions (T, A) of the Gesta, and approximately 1135 for the second (C). A third revision (B) came later. See the introduction to the Gesta regum Anglorum, volume 1, xxiii. The first version, in which the White Ship episode appears, was completed around 1126 -- within six years of the shipwreck.
[lv] In other accounts identified as Berout, a butcher from Rouen.
[lvi] The English in the Twelfth Century 5.
[lvii] See the letters appended to the beginning of the Gesta and Rodney Thomson's discussion of the work's patronage in William of Malmesbury 4, 15, 34-35. It is unclear if Queen Matilda specifically commissioned William to compose the work, or if she laid the charge upon the convent of Malmesbury and he was chosen. A third letter addresses Robert of Gloucester, Matilda's supporter against Stephen and the dedicatee of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain as well.
[lviii] The assimilation of the Normans into the English was long dated to the loss of Normandy during John's reign, or perhaps towards the end of the twelfth century at the earliest, but see the revisionist work of John Gillingham, especially "Henry of Huntingdon and the Twelfth-Century Revival of the English Nation,"The English in the Twelfth Century 123-44.
[lix] Geoffrey Gaimar, for example, wrote a history of the English entitled Estoire des Engleis in the late 1130s. The work was commissioned by Constance, the wife of Ralph Fitz Gilbert, a Lincolnshire landowner. John Gillingham writes that "it is the earliest extant history written in French, yet not a history of the French, but of the English ... by the 1130s the Francophone secular elite, the gentry of the time, could see the Anglo-Saxon past as their past" (The English in the Twelfth Century 99). It also demonstrates that this connection to the English was past was desired by both men and women, reinforcing what has already been suggested by Queen Matilda's patronage of William's Gesta.
[lx] The only real exception to the rule that only men reign was the celebrated Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred. After her husband Æthelred of Mercia died, she became an important enforcer of the policies of her brother, the king of Wessex; a builder of cities; and a "terror to the enemy." William of Malmesbury calls her a virago potentisssima (2.125). Æthelflæd was not, of course, the ruler of a vast and burgeoning English empire in the way that Matilda would have been had her nomination as heir succeeded as Henry intended. As David Crouch observes, "unfortunately for Henry's plan for his daughter's succession, its most persuasive point was that he wished it to be so ... The idea of a woman succeeding to the throne was an untried innovation in England" (The Normans 199).
[lxi] Robert Stein writes astutely of this juxtaposition "The uncorrupted body of the saint ... stands over against this form of monstrous integration" ("Making History English" 102). See also his discussion of the same twins in "Signs and Things" 108.
[lxii] Monika Otter, Inventiones 98. Otter argues that Gerbert's wonders are an enactment of the "historian in his lab," animating the lifeless facts of history (101).
[lxiii] On the differences between Bede and William in their use of the wondrous see Rodney Thomson, William of Malmesbury 23-24.
[lxiv] He accomplishes this mission, of course, by writing in neither French nor English but in ecclesiastical Latin, a third component to his compound identity. See Robert Stein's sophisticated treatment in "Making History English," especially 104.
[lxv] Scholars have repeatedly observed that myths of Trojan origin tend to be most actively promulgated as part of either a program of imperialism or as an effort to promulgate a sense of shared ethnicity: "Peoples (gentes, populi, nationes) were normally thought of as social and political communities and … myths of the common origin of a people served to increase or express its sense of solidarity … [These origin myths concern] collectivities which generally corresponded to political units of the times when the stories gained currency but which were extremely unlikely to have had a single common descent" (Susan Reynolds, "Medieval Origines Gentium and the Community of the Realm," 375, 378). See also Richard Waswo, "Our Ancestors, The Trojans: Inventing Cultural Identity in the Middle Ages," 273. Nicholas Birns allows that the Trojan myth was a "secular paradigm which strengthened current political authority," but stresses the uncontrollable "subsidiary reverberations" which are central to its enduring vitality: "The Trojan Myth: Postmodern Reverberations," 49-50.
[lxvi]Until, that is, the death of Cadwallader (Bede's familiar Cædwalla) in 689. On Geoffrey of Monmouth's renarration of insular chronology, see R. William Leckey, The Passage of Dominion.
[lxvii] In her sensitive reading of Geoffrey's project, Kellie Robertson compares his History of the Kings of Britain to a minor literature as described by Deleuze and Guattari: "Geoffrey's claim that he is translating from Trojan-derived Welsh challenges not only the authority of Anglo-Saxon that is privileged in its relation to Latin, but also the Anglo-Latin historiographical tradition in which the Welsh were seen as morally corrupt and their subjugation by the Saxons read as the appropriate corollary to translatio imperii" ("Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Translation of Insular Historiography" 46). Cf. R. R. Davies, who writes that Geoffrey "torpedoed" the "smug Anglocentricity" of William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon "by making Britain, not England, the subject of his work and providing Britain with a glorious pre-English and non-English past" (The Matter of Britain 10). For this reason Davies calls the Historia a "counter-history."
[lxviii] In his dedication Geoffrey writes that book was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. No such book has ever been discovered, and numerous explanations have been offered throughout the years for what exactly Geoffrey means by this liber uetissimus. Most scholars now believe that Geoffrey did not have a precise source, but combined Welsh materials in innovative ways. Multiple versions of Geoffrey's text survive. I have consulted the composite edition by Faral (possessed of many drawbacks, but probably the closest to Geoffrey's original) and the two versions edited by Wright: the "Vulgate" or "standard" version (represented by the Bern MS, which probably circulated in Normandy), and the "First Variant." None of these versions represent some final, authorially sanctioned text. Both Faral and Wright employ the same chapter numbering, and the first reference in my quotations will be according to this numeration, with a note where the two texts differ in ways important to my argument. Lewis Thorpe did not adopt Faral's numbering system but used that employed by Commelin; my second set of numbers therefore gives the chapter and section of Thorpe's translation.
[lxix] "Narrating the Matter of Britain" 61. Davies writes that Geoffrey's Historia "patterned the history of Britain in early times on the sort of regnal and unitary lines so dear to fellow English historians of his ... It conquered time in a breathtaking fashion, appropriating almost two thousand years of hitherto largely unrecorded history" (The Matter of Britain and the Matter of England 4). See also R. W. Hanning, The Vision of History 135-36.
[lxx] The most eloquent examiner of Geoffrey's sheer competitiveness with William of Malmesbury is Valerie Flint, "Parody and its Purpose." J. C. Crick appropriately calls Geoffrey's work an "un-Bedan un-english account of early Insular history" that could disturb the secure anglocentrism of other historiographers ("The British Past and the Welsh Future" 62).
[lxxi] The History of the Norman Conquest of England 5 p.825.
[lxxii] "Dicebat etiam populum Britonum per meritum fidei ipsius insulam in futuro adepturum postquam fatale tempus superueniret" (205 12.16). The Welsh seized upon this confident prophecy of the end of English hegemony, causing the reviser of the Bern MS version of the History to add "The Welsh, once they degenerated from the noble state enjoyed by the Britons, never afterwards regained the overlordship of the island. On the contrary, they went on quarrelling with the Saxons and among themselves and remained in a perpetual state of either civil or external warfare" (207; trans. Thorpe p.284n).
[lxxiii] Geoffrey does mention Alfred as the translator of laws taken from the Britons, a backhanded way of acknowledging Alfred's fame that robs him of any real achievement (39, 47; 3.5, 3.13). Breaking the narration off in the early days of the Saxon occupation allows Geoffrey to leave English history as fairly empty, however.
[lxxiv] "fidemque et relligionem eorum pro nichilo habebant nec in aliquo Anglis magis quam canibus communicabant" (188 11.12).
[lxxv] Gillingham's discussion of Geoffrey is especially rich; see "The Context and Purposes of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain" in The English in the Twelfth-Century 19-39, quotation at 19. R. R. Davies describes Geoffrey as "a deliberate trader in multiple ambiguities" (The Matter of Britain and the Matter of England 6), and lucidly outlines the challenges which his work posed to the contemporary political order, especially in its "evasive ambiguities" (The First English Empire 39-41). See also Patricia Clare Ingham, Sovereign Fantasies, esp. 21-24, 43 (which describes Geoffrey's valorization of ambiguitas, or hybridity); Monika Otter, Inventiones 70-71, 77-80; and Michelle Warren, History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 25-82.
[lxxvi] See especially Gillingham, The English in the Twelfth-Century 19-39. Although they do not seem to have known each other's work, Richard Waswo makes similar though less historically specific observations about Geoffrey's recuperative project in "Inventing Cultural Identity in the Middle Ages" 284.
[lxxvii] Long critical traditions connect Geoffrey with parody or the glorification of the Bretons, while John Gillingham has argued that Geoffrey was a Welshman determined to give history and civilization to a people being represented by the "Anglo-French" as "barbarians, as brutish peoples without a history" (English in the Twelfth Century 31). In a sophisticated reading of Geoffrey of Monmouth's allegiances, Faletra argues that, like William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey's linear historical mode likewise justifies a translatio imperii (Britons-Saxons-Normans) but does so "agonistically" (69). At the same time, however, the Troy myth as narrated by Geoffrey and others was full of contradiction (Nicholas Birns, "The Trojan Myth: Postmodern Reverberations") ambivalence (Michelle Warren, History on the Edge, 25-30), and self-deconstruction (Lee Patterson, Negotiating the Past: 201-202). Thus R. R. Davies observes that the Historia ultimately posed "a profound political challenge" to those who would read it as a straightforward glorification of the ruling class -- especially because the book predicted through Merlin's mouth that the island would someday return to the Britons -- good news, indeed, for the Welsh, "the original owners and sitting tenants of British mythology" (The First English Empire 39-40). Perhaps Richard Waswo puts it best when he writes that Geoffrey's story could "be appealing and useful to almost any faction in the Anglo-French feudal domains … the local or racial loyalties of one writer or another do not much matter; the story's appeal is the force of the legend itself, and anyone can use it -- anyone, that is, who finds a foundation by invading culture-bringers to be the essence of civilization" ("Inventing Cultural Identity in the Middle Ages" 285-86).
[lxxviii] Dudo, History books 1 and 2. Thus Gerald of Wales could write that "the Normans (but not the English), although different in speech, were Trojans sicut et nostrates" (Susan Reynolds, "Medieval Origines Gentium" 385).
[lxxix] The Legendary History of Britain 426.
[lxxx] The Debate on the Norman Conquest 130.
[lxxxi] The phrase "turned into Englishmen" is from Ralph Davis's succinct formulation, "the paradox of the Normans is that though it was in England that they reached their acme and fulfilled themselves as Normans, yet in the long run the conquest of England turned them into Englishmen." Normans and their Myth 122. Chibnall discusses the process and surveys recent scholarship on the subject in The Debate on the Norman Conquest 128-29.
[lxxxii] Cf. Monika Otter, Inventiones 69-70, where the spectacular death of Lear's father Bladud (dashed to pieces after an unsuccessful attempt at aviation) anticipates his son's "fragmentation of the realm."
[lxxxiii] A related line of reasoning holds that Geoffrey was glorifying the Bretons, the Celtic people who are racially continuous with the Britons in his text. It is reasoned therefore that Geoffrey must have been of Breton descent.
[lxxxiv] William's observation comes during the siege of Mount Badon, a battle between the Britons and the Angli (the English, rather than the usual Saxones, Saxons) in which Arthur demonstrates his power. William notes that this king "deserves to be the subject of reliable history rather than of false and dreaming fable," the "many wild tales" that the Britons tell of him in William's own time ("Hic est Artur de quo Britonum nugae hodieque delirant, dignus plane quem non fallaces somniarent fabulae sed ueraces predicarent historiae, quippe qui labantem patriam diu sustinuerit infractasque ciuium mentes ad bellum acuerit," Deeds1.8).
[lxxxv] Thus the Historia eclipses even Bede, whose history that survives in 164 manuscripts – an impressive number that suddenly seems meager next to Geoffrey's success. See Julia Crick, The Historia Regum of Geoffrey of Monmouth III: A Summary Catalogue of the Manuscripts 9.
[lxxxvi] Wace is not consistent in this substitution, but when it appears it is telling – especially in his opening lines: "Ki vult oïr e vult saveir / De rei en rei e d'eir en eir / Ki cil furent e dunt il vindrent / Ki Engleterre primes tindrent" ("Whoever wishes to hear and know about the successive kings and their heirs who once upon a time were the rulers of England – who they were, whence they came ..." Roman de Brut 1-4).
[lxxxvii] Arthur of Brittany was the son of Richard's brother Geoffrey and grandson of Henry II. He was four when Richard designated him heir to prevent John from claiming the throne while he was on crusade.
[lxxxviii] That is not to say, though, that no Welsh tradition of paninsular British rulership existed; see especially J. C. Crick, "The British Past and the Welsh Future" 74.
[lxxxix] On Geoffrey's powerful queens as substitutes for Matilda, see Iona Tolhurst, "The Britons as Hebrews, Romans and Normans" 76-85.
[xc] David Crouch emphasizes the catastrophic human toll of the events in The Normans, 106-7.
[xci] Ann Williams gives this vivid passage from the Ecclesiastical History a characteristically measured treatment in The English and the Norman Conquest 42-43.
[xcii] "Tunc totius regionis uicos et agros corrumpi, fructus et fruges igne uel aqua labefactari iubet ... Itaque prouintiae quondam fertilis et tirannorum nutriculae incendio, preda, sanguine nerui succisi; humus per sexaginta et eo amplius miliaria omnifariam inculta; nudum omnium solum usque ad hoc etiam tempus. Vrbes olim preclaras, turres proceritate sua in caelum minantes, agros laetos pascuis irriguos fluuiis, si quis modo uidet peregrinus, ingemit; si quis superest uetus incola, non agnoscit."
[xciii] Deeds of the Bishops of England book 3, chapter 99.
[xciv] Ann Williams traces the fates of Ealdgyth, Nest and Ulf in The English and the Norman Conquest 51-52.
[xcv] The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero ix.
[xcvi] A notable exception is the Encomium Emmae, commissioned by a woman who had been queen to both an English and Danish king of England and a work that praises her as the legitimator of the throne's successors. Emma in this text is vividly portrayed as the mediator of an alien culture to her second husband, Cnut, a role which valorizes the racial mingling brought about through the marriage.
[xcvii] On women in Geoffrey's history -- and an argument that "unlike modern histories ... [he] seems unable not to mention women" -- see Shichtman and Finke, "Profiting from the Past" 21-27. Gransden sees in these women support for Matilda's claim to the English throne (Historical Writing in England, 207-8).
[xcviii] Vision of History in Early Britain 162.
[xcix] "Ut pernitiosus in posteros esset, commentatus est qualiter successio sua omnem Angliam amitteret, Emmam filiam Ricardi comitis Normanniae coniugio asciscens; unde succedenti tempore factum ut Normanni Angliam iure suo clamitantes ditioni subicerent, sicut hodie melius uidetur oculo quam exaratur stilo" (Vita S. Dunstani 2.34).
[c] The last paragraph is a quotation from Lewis Thorpe's translation of Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales 1.11. This fabulation is based upon the story Gerald narrates there of the prisoner of Châteauroux.
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