Published today, Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis: Kingship and Power by Gemma Wheeler, aims to challenge past views of Gaimar by providing the first holistic study of his Estoire’s incisive commentary upon kingship. Here, Dr Wheeler shares an introduction to Geffrei Gaimar, his work and her new book.
What do we know about Geffrei Gaimar? As so often with medieval writers, not a great deal. He was based in Lincolnshire, was active during the first half of the twelfth century, had a female patron, and wrote the earliest surviving work of history in Old French, which is about the English. No, really, it is – welcome to trilingual post-Conquest England. (The third language, by the way, was Latin. It’s important to note, too, that Old Norse would have been heard in Gaimar’s east of England, an area of Scandinavian settlement.) His Estoire des Engleis is, in its surviving form, a faithful translation and adaptation of the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle interspersed with material drawn from a variety of other sources, some of which are lost to us.
Gaimar’s history of the English people and their rulers was, he tells us, once part of a larger work that told the story of the ancient British, reaching as far back into the legendary past as Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. This Estoire des Bretuns sadly hasn’t come down to us; to judge by the four surviving manuscripts containing Gaimar’s work, it was superseded by Wace’s Roman de Brut, which covered the same ground.
Still, not bad for a ‘simple-minded man’, as literary scholar J. S. P. Tatlock once described Gaimar. You might be thinking that this seems like rather a harsh assessment, and you’d be right. Gaimar’s frequently been dismissed as a peddler of tall tales and courtly trifles, along with the other writers working in Old French during that fascinating phase in Western European culture often described as the ‘twelfth-century renaissance’. In recent years, as our understanding of the interplay between history and literature at this time has developed, opinions on Gaimar and his peers have gained in nuance. As medievalist Rosalind Field puts it, this is romance as history, and history as romance; modern concepts of the boundaries between fiction and historical fact often tend to hinder more than they help in analysing works of this era.
Dominica Legge, an eminent Anglo-Norman specialist and an early champion of Gaimar, viewed him as a fundamentally apolitical writer. My book, however, approaches him from a different angle. I’ve chosen to examine the Estoire as a whole, with particular focus on its longer interpolations. Doing so enables us to discern allusions, both inter- and intratextual, that illuminate various aspects of Gaimar’s history. When non-sequential episodes are returned to and read alongside one another, as was commonplace for medieval readers, parallels and thematic resonances emerge that would otherwise be overlooked. In this way, a more complete picture of Gaimar’s views on good and bad kings can be constructed.
Gaimar’s history begins with a prince of Denmark. Not that prince of Denmark, though; Gaimar’s hero is Haveloc, the scullion-turned-king. This exiled youth’s ill-matched union with the enterprising princess Argentille – in an ancient Britain that sounds an awful lot like Anglo-Saxon England – ends up thwarting the plans of not one but two kings who, in their very different ways, are unworthy of their rank. The next major interpolation hinges on King Edgar ”the Peaceable”, a ladies’ man whose adulterous affair with Ælfthryth isn’t, in my analysis, quite as romantic as it looks on the first reading. Gaimar goes on to lead us through the reign of the tide-challenging Cnut, the dubious activities of Earl Godwine and his heirs, and the outlaw Hereward’s complicated legacy in the tumultuous years after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Finally, there’s William Rufus, whose fascinating career – and mysterious death while hunting in the New Forest in August 1100 – brings an end to Gaimar’s survey of England, its kings, and their opponents.
Edgar, Cnut, Rufus: three rulers apparently lauded by Gaimar as examples of empire-building, all-conquering kingship. When we examine – and re-examine – these episodes in the Estoire, however, repeated phrases and imagery accumulate to tell a very different story. Echoes of other, negative passages in Gaimar’s history can be discerned in superficially neutral descriptions of these kings’ actions, triggering comparisons that make us reassess our first impressions. The opening Haveloc episode, with its extended dream sequence in which Argentille watches, horror-struck, as her husband is dragged into a brutal conflict between the wild animals of the forest, serves as an interpretive key for all that follows. Again and again in the Estoire, we meet the tyrannical bear-king, the daring boar who slays him, and the turncoat foxes: shielded by royal smiles and courtiers’ compliments, brand-new players in this very old game take up their positions on the chessboard.
The Estoire des Engleis is the work of a multilingual writer whose elegant synthesis of his source material and understanding of the transmission of royal power makes him worthy of our full attention. His England’s story is a recurring nightmare of dispossession and treachery, but its tantalising, loose threads suggest a brighter end to Argentille’s dream. Cycles might be broken, lessons might be learned, and better days might yet come. Geffrei Gaimar’s audience in the war-torn 1140s must have been grateful for this message; it certainly brought me some solace, as I finished my book during the challenging summer of 2020.
This guest post was written by Gemma Wheeler who gained her PhD from the University of Sheffield.