The Medieval Review 11.05.29

Hingst, Amanda Jane. The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Pp. 296. . $40.00 978-0-268-03086-5.

Reviewed by:

Elisabeth van Houts
Cambridge University

This book offers a fascinating exploration of the physical and imaginary landscapes that surrounded the famous Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis (d. c. 1142). Born in 1075 the son of a French father, Odelerius a priest from of Orléans, and an unnamed English mother from Atcham near Shrewsbury, Orderic was educated in England before, at the age of 10, he was sent as an oblate to Saint-Evroult in Normandy. Apart from a few trips to other areas in France and to England, he was to spend the rest of his long life in Normandy, a place never quite the home in the Welsh borderlands he left, as he always regarded himself as an exile. Interested in the history of his monastery, his acquired homeland Normandy, and the exploits of the Normans in England and southern Italy, Orderic was a perceptive man with a keen eye for people, the fallibility of character, and the hand of God in all human action. Much has been written about this stoic figure who left for posterity an impressive historical narrative, an Ecclesiastical History (its title inspired by Bede's) in six volumes in modern print (including facing translation), which has been magnificently edited by Marjorie Chibnall. Yet, until the book under review was published, little attention had been paid to the monk-historian and the concept of landscape, a relatively new field of questioning and research, part of the much bigger intellectual field of "space."

A study of Orderic and his physical (and mental) landscapes whets the reader's appetite, as its purpose and scope seem valid and timely. We are presented with six chapters which cleverly allow Hingst to set Orderic in the most important historical settings of his narrative. The first chapter deals with Orderic's home in Ouche, the valley of his monastery of Saint-Evroult for which he gives detailed information in the earliest section of his magnum opus, though it should be pointed out that Orderic's actual descriptions are short and perhaps somewhat formulaic, as he wrote for an audience that knew its surroundings and hardly needed a reminder.

The second chapter opens up a significant aspect of Norman historiography on the origo gentis (the origins of a people) theme. In it Hingst approaches Orderic's narrative of the Normans in relation to the classical tradition of writing the history of a gens, beginning with the geographical setting of that people's origins. One of the very interesting questions studied by modern historians of the Normans is why none of the successors of Dudo of Saint-Quentin, the first Norman historian who wrote around the year 1000, elaborated on his origin story placing the Normans in Scanza (presumably Scandinavia) and later in Dania (for Denmark) called Dacia. Through this wordplay Dudo could link the Scandinavian Vikings with a people situated in the Balkans for which he found information in his authoritative source, Jordanes' Getica. Although Robert of Torigni, Orderic's successor as Norman historian, based first at Bec and then at Mont-Saint-Michel, extensively copied Dudo's geographical information, neither of the other early historians, William of Jumièges and Orderic Vitalis, seemed very interested in this particular classical tradition. Instead, so Hingst argues, Orderic replaced a geographical physical approach with a symbolical-theological one in the form of a Vita Christi, the life of Christ. At the final stage of editing his Ecclesiastical History, the birth of Christ therefore became the grand opening.

The second chapter is followed by an interlude which focuses on the sea as a landscape linking Normandy (as part of France) with England and further afield with Scandinavia. Hingst has some interesting things to say about Orderic's perspectives on the Orkney islands, amongst others, as the end of the known world. In the next chapter, Hingst concentrates on Orderic's intriguing, and repeated, use of Albion as the name for England, taken from Bede but rarely used in other late eleventh and early twelfth-century Latin historiography. Hingst speculates that Orderic's fascination may have come from his historical research in Crowland Abbey's archives where he may have been inspired by some (forged) charters of tenth-century kings, esp. King Edgar. In a perceptive comment she draws attention to Orderic's unique use of propago de Albione, Albion's offspring, by whom he means men of both Danish and Saxon origin (68). The Bedean vocabulary allows Orderic to integrate the various newcomers to England's soil after the defeat of the Britons, in anticipation of the next invasion of the Normans in 1066. A fourth chapter is devoted to Orderic's narrative of Jerusalem, his account of the first crusade taken from the chronicle of his colleague Baudri of Bourgueil. Whereas Albion's islands to the north had formed one edge of his world vision, Jerusalem allowed him to focus on the centre of the Christian world. In a highly original section, Hingst speculates to what extent Orderic may have been inspired by the mappa mundi image in a Thorney abbey computistical manuscript composed around 1110, only a few years before his visit to neighbouring abbey of Crowland. This is an important observation that opens a new area of research into Orderic's interest not only in the wider geographical and mental landscapes but also into the realm of physical time reckoning.

The final two chapters (5 and 6) are concerned with the haunted landscape of sinful and heretical Normandy. The former conentrates on the famous narrative of Hellequin's hunt, told to Orderic by Walchelin who in a vision saw the troops of Hellequin pursuing the ghosts of deceased Normans. For Orderic this vision illustrated perfectly what landscape lay ahead for the good Christian laity who perhaps unwittingly ignored sound pastoral advice. Another group that on purpose sidestepped the Church's guidance was the heterogenous heretical movement of Orderic's own time.

Hingst has offered a pioneering perspective on the concept of landscape to take a fresh look at Orderic's Ecclesiastical History. During her travels through Normandy she has let herself be inspired by the duchy's later history, with particular reference to American involvement. There is the presence of Charles of Haskins, the American godfather of Norman history, as well as her older compatriots who gave their lives in the assault on Normandy's coast in 1944, thereby allowing the defeat of Nazi- occupied Europe. From Haskins and Hollister to Hingst, the history of the Normans, through the ages, owes a debt to its American fans.