14.09.07, Urbanski, Writing History for the King

Main Article Content

John Spence

The Medieval Review 14.09.07

Urbanski, Charity. Writing History for the King: Henry II and the Politics of Vernacular Historiography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp. 272. ISBN: 9780801451317 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
John Spence
Independent scholar

This book contributes to the growing body of scholarship exploring the agendas and approaches of those innovative twelfth-century vernacular chroniclers who wrote compelling histories in Old French that offered persuasive lessons for their contemporary readers. Charity Urbanksi's aim here is to understand how two such works, Wace's Roman de Rou and Benoît de Sainte-Maure's Chronique des ducs de Normandie, took up this challenge with the added spur that their patron (and possibly their most demanding reader) was Henry II himself, seeking an account of his Norman ancestors. The central proposition of the book is that Wace chose not to satisfy the requirements of a royal commission to recount the king's family history in a manner which suited Henry's needs (given the challenges of his rise to power and his reign), whereas Benoît (as Wace's successor in the role) cleaved closely to a partisan, celebratory approach. In broad outline, this will be familiar to those already acquainted with recent scholarship on Wace and Benoît, such as the work of Elisabeth van Houts, Francoise Le Saux and Jean Blacker, but the argument has been fleshed out in considerable detail by Urbanski.

The first chapter sets the context for the writing of Old French historical narratives in the mid-twelfth century, providing a useful summary of the current scholarly consensus around the transition from verse to prose and of Wace and Benoît's predecessors in vernacular history-writing. This does not focus on the different formal models or rhetorical effects which Peter Damian-Grint has explored; rather it sets the scene in terms of the kinds of histories being recounted and their audiences.

Chapter 2 deals with the reign of Henry II as context for the challenges which, Urbanski argues, drove the king to commission first the Rou and then the Chronique. This focuses on the circumstances under which Henry came to the throne and his early concern to establish his sons' succession; later events such as his dispute with Thomas Becket and his sons' rebellions are somewhat played down in comparison, though these are factors that Urbanski later returns to for their influence on Wace and Benoît's writing.

Urbanski's third chapter tackles Wace's Roman de Rou, and describes a more partisan and political Wace than the one who has usually emerged from recent studies. Here, Wace's motivations in providing his unique account of Norman history are seen as primarily stemming from his personal and institutional background. His efforts to present multiple accounts, particularly of the Norman Conquest and Henry I's reign, are, Urbanski suggests, to provide 'cover' (90) for Wace to criticise the Norman historical orthodoxy and advance an alternative, more critical narrative of events--a narrative Wace secretly supported. There is less of the uncertain, tentative Wace that we have sometimes seen in recent criticism; in Urbanski's view Wace is methodically testing the limits to what criticism he can advance within the new genre of a royally-commissioned vernacular history.

The final chapter turns its attention to Benoît's Chronique des ducs de Normandie which Wace tells us was commissioned when his own Rou failed to please Henry II. Benoît's consistency in representing the official line of Norman historiography over both the Conquest and Henry I's conflicts with his elder brother Robert Curthose is, perhaps inevitably, less exciting to consider than Wace's adventurous development of a new, multi-voiced narrative. However, Urbanski carefully looks at Benoît's conservative treatment of his sources, illustrating the care he took to represent the succession of Norman kings as almost beyond reproach. The Conclusion, as well as pulling together the threads of the book's argument, glances at the legacy of the Rou and the Chronique, noting the irony that Wace's text apparently became more widely read than Benoît's more official account. This is perhaps not unconnected with its willingness to depart from the official Norman view of the past.

The main text of the book is accessible and in many ways helpful in introducing Wace and Benoît to those unfamiliar with these histories. However, the book does include many long quotations from both the Rou and the Chronique which are usually placed in its footnotes, with lines separated by diagonal slashes, and these are not often translated (there is a rare exception at p. 199, n. 145), but are quite frequently paraphrased in part in the body of the text. This presentation may have been required by the press to keep the book a publishable length, but it does make it more challenging to continually relate the argument to the crucial evidence in the primary texts.

Regardless of this minor point, this is a careful analysis of Wace and Benoît's differing approaches to Norman and English history in the context of Henry II's reign. It will surely be used by those studying these significant writers in the future.

Article Details

Author Biography

John Spence

Independent scholar