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Writing History for the King

Writing History for the King: Henry II and the Politics of Vernacular Historiography

Charity Urbanski
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt32b522
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    Writing History for the King
    Book Description:

    Writing History for the King is at once a reassessment of the reign of Henry II of England (1133-1189) and an original contribution to our understanding of the rise of vernacular historiography in the high Middle Ages. Charity Urbanski focuses on two dynastic histories commissioned by Henry: Wace's Roman de Rou (c. 1160-1174) and Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Chronique des ducs de Normandie (c. 1174-1189). In both cases, Henry adopted the new genre of vernacular historical writing in Old French verse in an effort to disseminate a royalist version of the past that would help secure a grip on power for himself and his children. Wace was the first to be commissioned, but in 1174 the king abruptly fired him, turning the task over to Benoît de Sainte-Maure.

    Urbanski examines these histories as part of a single enterprise intended to cement the king's authority by enhancing the prestige of Henry II's dynasty. In a close reading of Wace's Rou, she shows that it presented a less than flattering picture of Henry's predecessors, in effect challenging his policies and casting a shadow over the legitimacy of his rule. Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Chronique, in contrast, mounted a staunchly royalist defense of Anglo-Norman kingship. Urbanski reads both works in the context of Henry's reign, arguing that as part of his drive to curb baronial power he sought a history that would memorialize his dynasty and solidify its claim to England and Normandy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6972-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Norman Genealogical Table (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Map of the Angevin Empire (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. Introduction (pp. 1-7)

    Sometime around 1160, a Norman cleric named Wace began a history of the Norman dukes and kings of England at the behest of Henry II of England (r. 1154–89). Wace had come to Henry’s attention after dedicating an earlier work, the Roman de Brut, to Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Adapting material from various Latin histories, Wace had already completed a narrative that chronicled the deeds of the Norman dynasty from their Viking founder, Rollo (or Rou), to the reign of Henry I when he was abruptly fired around 1174. The reasons for his dismissal are unknown, but Wace...

  8. Chapter 1 Situating the Roman de Rou and Chronique des ducs de Normandie (pp. 8-37)

    For much of the Middle Ages there was a division between spoken and written language in Western Europe. Latin, which had been adopted by the early Christian church, continued to be used as the written language of much of Europe and the lingua franca of the Catholic Church long after it had ceased to be spoken as a native tongue. Literacy, however, was defined as the ability to both read and write in Latin, and Latin literacy was generally confined to the upper echelons of society. During the disorders of the tenth and eleventh centuries, Latin literacy declined among the...

  9. Chapter 2 Henry II (pp. 38-82)

    Henry fitzEmpress arrived in England in December of 1154 to claim the throne of a kingdom that had been ruled by his mother’s family for almost a century.¹ At the age of twenty-one, Henry was already duke of Normandy, duke of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou. His father, Geoffrey the Fair of Anjou, had turned the duchy of Normandy over to him by 1150 and had left him the family patrimony, the counties of Anjou and Maine, upon his untimely death on September 7, 1151.² Henry had subsequently acquired the duchy of Aquitaine in 1152 through his marriage to Eleanor,...

  10. Chapter 3 The Roman de Rou (pp. 83-147)

    Around 1160, Henry II commissioned Wace, a clerc lisant born on the Norman island of Jersey and living in the Bessin, to produce the first vernacular history of his maternal ancestors, the Norman dukes and kings of England.¹ Wace had recently finished another vernacular history, the Roman de Brut. Based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Brittaniae, the Brut recounted the history of the Britons from their Trojan founder, Brutus, to the death of King Cadwallader.² To judge by the number of extant manuscripts, the Brut had enjoyed a success akin to that of a contemporary best seller and had...

  11. Chapter 4 The Chronique des ducs de Normandie (pp. 148-206)

    Sometime around 1174, Henry II transferred the commission for a history of his Norman ancestors from Wace to Benoît de Sainte-Maure.¹ Obviously dissatisfied with the history that Wace had taken almost fifteen years to produce, yet equally unwilling to abandon the project, Henry appears to have searched for a more amenable author. In turning to Benoît, Henry chose an author with notable similarities to his predecessor. Benoît was close to the Anglo-Norman court and the popularity of his previous work, the Roman de Troie, had endowed him with a certain degree of fame.² Like Wace, Benoît had experience in adapting...

  12. Conclusion (pp. 207-216)

    Since there were already perfectly good Latin histories of his Norman ancestors that would have served Henry II’s purposes (Robert de Torigny’s F redaction of the Gesta Normannorum ducum would have done an excellent job), and neither Wace nor Benoît significantly extended the material covered by their Latin sources, Henry II must have commissioned a vernacular history of his dynasty in the hope that it would reach the widest audience possible—a mixed audience that was not necessarily literate in Latin. It is possible, of course, to argue that Henry merely wanted a vernacular history of his ancestors that he...

  13. Bibliography (pp. 217-240)
  14. Index (pp. 241-253)