09.03.18, Aird, Robert Curthose

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David Crouch

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.018


Aird, William M.. Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, c. 1050-1134. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 328. ISBN: 978-1-84383-310-9.

Reviewed by:
David Crouch
University of Hull

Duke Robert II of Normandy, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, has not been well-served by biographers. The earlier historical study on him by Charles Wendell David was published in 1920 in the days when John Horace Round was active and Frank Merry Stenton still had to write his chief works. Anglo-Norman studies have moved on a long way since then, but somehow academic attention has passed Robert by. So William Aird's full-scale biographical treatment of the duke might well be said to be overdue. But since the first full biography of the duke's youngest brother, King Henry I of England, only appeared in 2001 (C. Warren Hollister and Amanda Frost, Henry I, New Haven: Yale University Press), the oversight is perhaps understandable. Sources for Robert's life are not exactly abundant, especially the charter sources so beloved of Anglo-Norman scholars. The bulk of what we know of him comes from the historians of his own day (notably his senior contemporary William of Poitiers and younger contemporaries Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury). Each of these authors present difficulties, as we will see. Even more difficult is the later twelfth-century author, Wace of Bayeux, whose history of the dukes of Normandy (the Roman de Rou) was composed at least thirty years after Duke Robert's death, though it has a good deal to say about him. Nothing daunted, Dr. Aird has produced a volume of over 300 pages which gives due consideration to every aspect of the duke's life. Some of the events of Robert's career are very much worthy of attention, not least his prominent role in the First Crusade, of which he was one of the principal commanders. Robert saw Constantinople in its full imperial grandeur; was largely responsible for the victories at Dorylaeum and Ascalon, and was present when Jerusalem fell. His household chaplain, Arnulf of Chocques, became first Latin patriarch, and there was some rumour at the time that Robert was himself a candidate for the throne of Jerusalem.

Robert's reputation amongst historians of the Ango-Norman period has not been high. Dr. Aird draws attention to one reason. As Lewis Warren accounted for the abysmal posthumous reputation of King John by the "black legend" of his iniquities concocted by Roger of Wendover, furthered by Matthew Paris and adopted by William Stubbs, so Dr. Aird accounts for Duke Robert's low reputation by the deceit and manipulation of the record by the Norman monk-historian, Orderic Vitalis. Orderic has acquired something of a Bedan reputation at the devoted hands of Marjorie Chibnall, whose edition of his Historia Ecclesiastica has put the academic world so much in her debt. It is unusual to see Orderic cast as a historiographical villain, but Dr. Aird makes his case. So frantic was Orderic to justify the unprovoked seizure of Normandy by King Henry I from his brother in 1106, that he was willing to cast Robert, the accomplished warrior and great hero of Christendom as incompetent, lazy, buffoonish, corrupt and irreligious, a man whose dispossession and long imprisonment (he died in 1134) was fully justified by appeal to the public good. Robert has been unfortunate in death and in life in his enemies. His opposition to his father, the Conqueror, against whom he rebelled in 1079, and to his brother, Henry I, pitted him against two of the occupants of the pantheon of the school of constitutional history. No wonder that Professor David took against him, for he wrote in the days and under the influence of Haskins and Maitland, historians who saw the Domesday Book and the Anglo-Norman exchequer as pinnacles of human achievement in the Middle Ages. Against these gloomy and solid characters, Duke Robert "Curthose" (as his father derisively nicknamed him) appears vapid, emotional and wayward, the man who mortgaged Normandy to pay for his adventuring in the East. Something of this reputation continues to the present day, for Warren Hollister, the biographer of Henry I, also had little time for Duke Robert, whom he saw as a catspaw in the hands of wilier men, like his uncle, Odo of Bayeux, or the machiavellian bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard.

Dr. Aird is more interested in meeting Duke Robert on his own terms and putting his career in some proper perspective. For this we must be grateful. He is nowhere more successful than in his examination of Robert on crusade, on which we get nearly fifty pages. On his return, the duke was one of the most prestigious and glorious figures in western Europe. His forcible dispossession of his duchy and imprisonment within only five years is therefore all the more surprising and tragic. Dr. Aird's explanation of this disaster is largely convincing. But whether he entirely succeeds in absolving Robert from contemporary charges of fecklessness and incompetence is another matter. He certainly makes his case that Orderic Vitalis is untrustworthy on the subject of Duke Robert, and one might go on to say that Orderic is unreliable on many other matters too. But it is true that a more contemporary writer, Guibert de Nogent, is equally dismissive of Robert's capacities as a ruler, even while giving him full credit for his crusading heroism (190). And there is no reason why Guibert should have adopted either Orderic's viewpoint or King Henry's propaganda. He was writing well before Orderic completed his Historia and well outside the English sphere of influence.

When seeking to account for Duke Robert's fall, Dr. Aird looks elsewhere. He finds Robert a man who was sincerely devoted to family, and wished to be at ease with his sinister and ambitious younger brothers, who both abused his good nature. Robert is principally characterised here--somewhat anachronistically--as a "chivalrous" man. What Dr. Aird means by this is that the duke exhibited the recognised military virtues of the time: bravery, hardihood, and fellow-feeling towards other knights. Here he relies to some extent on the later writer Wace, a canon of Bayeux and dynastic propagandist of the Plantagenet dynasty. In Wace's writings he finds a more generous portrayal of Duke Robert, and therefore privileges his account of the duke, which is written in the language and metre of the contemporary geste. It is troubling that Dr. Aird can only justify such a break with the canons of historiography simply by saying that Wace had done his research amongst older inhabitants of western Normandy and preserved oral testimony (10). The evidence Wace preserves is worth considering certainly, but not to the exclusion of far better-placed writers. The author's standpoint on his "chivalrous" and honourable hero eventually begins to direct the evidence. This is most alarming in his treatment of King Henry I, who is consequently forced into the role of the book's anti-hero. When Robert was humiliated in 1102 at Henry's court, "...he, at last, understood that his brother was without honour and could no longer be trusted. For a man who valued the bonds of family and chivalric honour, this realisation was profoundly disillusioning" (218). This sort of analysis begs so many questions that one can only stand puzzled at its implications, and wonder if in trusting Henry Robert was not indeed as stupid as more hostile writers have concluded.

However, Dr. Aird has done a great service to Anglo-Norman history in this fresh and comprehensive look at a neglected and misinterpreted career. Duke Robert did not deserve to be treated so dismissively by earlier generations of historians, and Dr. Aird tells us why. It has to be said in conclusion however that he has not himself been well served by his publisher. Although errors of fact and date are few, the remarkable number of inconsistencies in the text is distracting to the reader. Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, is sometimes "Edgar Ætheling" and at other times "Edgar the Ætheling" (144-5). On one and the same page we find the name Radulfus rendered "Ralf" and "Ralph" (14), as also is Ranulfus (241). For good measure it is also translated as "Raoul" in the index (321). At other times the author's consistency is there but not necessarily welcome. The Norman place name "Aumale" is always for some reason "Aumâle". If there is a policy on the treatment of French toponymic surnames, it escaped me. The particle "de" or "of" is quite often used capriciously and erratically of the same person. On one page we have "William of Ferrers," a man who is "William de Ferrières" a page later (242-3). The index occasionally treats the same man as two different characters (as Robert de Beaumont, who is also entered as Robert, count of Meulan). Several footnotes have not been updated when proofed and refer the reader to "p. 000". If the Boydell Press wishes to maintain any reputation as an academic publisher, it should invest in professional copy-editing and not leave it all to the author.

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David Crouch

University of Hull