Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis:
Kingship and Power
Thank you Dr Wheeler for taking the time to answer some questions for the Medieval Herald! Can you please begin by giving a brief overview of your book Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis: Kingship and Power?
My pleasure, and thanks for the invitation! The book examines Gaimar’s treatment of kings and other figures who wielded power in his Estoire des Engleis, a verse history in Old French which, in its surviving form, covers his England’s story from the arrival of the Saxons – preceded by a lengthy interpolation about an exiled Danish prince in ancient Britain, Haveloc – up to the suspicious death of the Anglo-Norman king, William Rufus, in 1100.
My book focuses on the kings to whom Gaimar devotes the most space: Haveloc and his enemies, both Danish and British; Edgar “the Peaceable” and his family; Cnut; and Rufus. Other power players – Eadric Streona, Earl Godwine and his heirs, Hereward – also loom large. I look for parallels between different figures, drawing out Gaimar’s apparent views on kingship by studying how repeated imagery and allusions build up to create a multi-layered picture of how a monarch should, and shouldn’t, govern.
One of the things you look at is models of kingship, what did you find? Did your research surprise you?
It certainly did. I’ve been struck by the level of complexity to Gaimar’s depictions of his kings and their rivals.
Haveloc the Dane’s story was the key to my analysis. The prophetic dream experienced by his wife, the dispossessed princess Argentille, while he’s still languishing in exile as the scullion, Cuaran, is a fascinating passage with significant repercussions for the rest of the work. I wasn’t expecting Gaimar to set out his stall so decisively with that opening interpolation, which establishes positive and negative models for kingship from the outset. The vivid personalities of Gaimar’s “bad” kings often make them weirdly likeable, I think: humour is deployed in intriguing ways by rulers such as Argentille’s manipulative uncle, the British king Edelsi, and William Rufus, whose reign brings the Estoire to a close.
There’s a repeated image in the Estoire of a king slain by an enemy posing as a trusted confidant, which ended up as a crucial thread in the book. The killing of the foolish young King Edward at the behest of – as Gaimar heavily implies in his account – the king’s stepmother, Ælfthryth, is a stunningly brutal and thematically sophisticated episode with a thriller-worthy final twist. Edward’s irritable search for his jester, the dwarf Wulfstanet, ends in bloodshed when he goes looking for him at the queen’s residence: a bloody silly way to die, as Daphne du Maurier put it in Don’t Look Now.
Still, the biggest shock is the fate of the unfortunate Edmund Ironside, which is given a pretty unique spin by Gaimar, to say the least! You may never look at a toilet the same way again… If you enjoy a good horror film, then Gaimar’s definitely the chronicler for you. He has a reputation for being a bit dull thanks to the annalistic passages derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but there’s treasure to be found even in the most innocuous episodes.
What do you mean by a ‘holistic study’?
There’s been some brilliant research on Gaimar in the past few decades, exploring specific aspects of the Estoire and analysing individual episodes in the work in detail. This is in addition to the sterling work by Gaimar’s modern editors, Alexander Bell and Ian Short: the latter’s superb translation/edition of the Estoire has been invaluable.
My aim in this book was to break down the Estoire into its constituent parts and try to determine what the overarching structure of Gaimar’s history might tell us about his attitude to kingship. His work is, in large part, a fairly faithful translation of the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, interspersed with lengthy interpolations that draw on other, obscure sources. Analysed independently of each other, these interpolations don’t necessarily reveal everything they have to offer; viewed alongside one another, and in the context of Gaimar’s larger work, parallels emerge that cast Gaimar’s seemingly neutral portrayal of certain figures and episodes in a very different light indeed.
Why have so many scholars dismissed Gaimar’s work? What drew you to his work?
I came to Gaimar through my research on Wace, another great twelfth-century historian working in Old French, whose own Roman de Brut appears to have superseded Gaimar’s own Estoire des Bretuns, to judge by the manuscript tradition. The Estoire des Bretuns was an account of the ancient British past, which, Gaimar tells us, preceded his version of English history in his greater work and reached back in time as far as Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. That material hasn’t come down to us, which is a matter of immense regret: presumably, he and Wace covered the same ground. I’d love to know how Gaimar depicted Arthur in that section of his original history. That legendary king’s shadow looms over the surviving work, especially the Haveloc interpolation.
I was initially intrigued by this under-studied writer whose work never appears in surviving manuscripts without Wace’s Brut. The rest is, well, estoire. I think Gaimar’s very sophistication as a writer and as a translator has, oddly enough, been a factor in his neglect, along with bizarre mischaracterisations such as J.S.P Tatlock’s description of him as “simple-minded”. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t share that assessment…
He’s difficult to pigeonhole: an historian writing in Old French about the history of England, who’s translating from an Anglo-Saxon chronicle for the benefit of an Anglo-Norman audience while based in Anglo-Danish Lincolnshire. It’s a fascinating cultural background and one absolutely worth exploring in the greatest possible depth. The intertextual richness of medieval literature more generally shouldn’t be a hard sell to a 21st-century culture immersed in memes and pop-cultural references, either, and Gaimar is a fine example of that.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? Has the medieval period always been of interest to you?
It has, although my academic path started out quite differently. I’m a modern linguist by training with a first degree in French, Spanish and Linguistics. It wasn’t until Masters level that my long-standing interest in medieval studies became my main research focus, following an undergraduate dissertation on the historical sociolinguistics of the Paston letters.
In my other career as a freelance writer with a focus on pop culture, I recently had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Christy Marx. She designed Sierra On-Line’s graphic adventure games, Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow, which I was beguiled by as a pre-teen in the early 1990s, so it was a treat to be able to tell her that she helped make me a medievalist! Jean Plaidy’s historical novels did the rest of the work a few years later.
These modern takes on medieval history and culture are fascinating in what they tell us about ourselves and our present. It’s been interesting to see Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel in cinemas recently. That’s a retelling of a controversial fourteenth-century episode featured in Froissart’s Chroniques, among other sources: the trial by combat of Jacques Le Gris on a charge of rape made by his former friend, Jean de Carrouges, on behalf of Jean’s wife, Marguerite. I remember reading potted biographies of the two combatants on the Online Froissart website years ago, when I was fortunate enough to do some transcription work for Peter Ainsworth and Godfried Croenen on that extraordinarily valuable digitisation project during my time as a doctoral student.
We love your cover! Can you tell us about it?
I do too, and I have Toni Michelle to thank for the fabulous design – what an honour to have something so beautiful as the gateway to my work!
I had a few tentative ideas for a cover image, and some very thoughtful advice from Elizabeth McDonald at Boydell and Brewer had really sparked my imagination after a few dead ends had thrown me off track. The one I ended up choosing caught my eye immediately as I browsed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue. It’s an image of a stained-glass window from Rouen Cathedral (dated to ca. 1200-1210) and depicting the fifth-century Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II in the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus: seven Christians who were said to have fallen asleep in a cave for two hundred years and awoken during Theodosius’s reign.
Apart from its obvious visual appeal, it’s a great thematic fit for my book. It’s from continental Normandy (right around the time King John lost it to France, amusingly) and depicts a ruler known to history as a scholarly man, content to leave the business of governing to his relatives and advisers – a character type Gaimar would certainly have recognised. It also shows Theodosius in the garb of a medieval king: the art of translatio as practised by Gaimar and his peers, recasting the ancient as the contemporary. I couldn’t be happier with it.
What do you have planned next?
I’m planning to do some work on Gaimar’s use of direct speech, which I didn’t have the space to do more than touch upon in this book. Gaimar’s female characters intrigue me, especially Ælfthryth, and an article on their depiction in the Estoire is on the horizon. I also have unfinished business with the jovial William Rufus and his entourage. Anybody who’s suspicious of jokers will feel very validated by Gaimar, entertaining though the Rufus material can be.
I’m particularly keen to look at Gaimar’s handling of prophecy and portents. The ominous “adders” mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are quite something in the Estoire: colour-changing, singing, paralysis-inducing snakes. I didn’t get to discuss them this time around, which is a situation I’m going to have to rectify at some point.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?
I completed the book during the first lockdown, which was certainly challenging. I’m very lucky to have institutional access to digital resources through my employer, though, and their library’s books-by-post service has also been a huge asset, as have open-access journals.
GEMMA WHEELER gained her PhD from the University of Sheffield.
Cover illustration: Emperor Theodosius II arrives at Ephesus, in a scene taken from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. From the nave aisle of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Rouen (c. 1200–1210). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Cloisters Collection, 1980.