Seminar Four

Constructing National and Regional Territories, Then and Now

In this seminar we look at two iconic works, both much cited, only one of them much studied (to date) on literary courses.   One is the first vernacular history-writing in French, Geoffrei Gaimar’s Anglo-Norman History of the English, and the other the most famous of the chansons de geste, The Song of Roland.  Depending on manuscript dating, these works may be roughly co-eval: Gaimar’sEstoire des Engleis was most probably composed before 1140 and the earliest date assigned to the Chanson de Roland’s earliest manuscript is c. 1130. Both are currently being re-thought: Gaimar’s work has previously been taken as a national history, a Normanizing assimilation of Anglo-Saxon history and culture that, so to speak, adds chivalry and courtesy to the perspectives of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Roland has been taken, since at least the later nineteenth century, to be the cornerstone of (continental) French nationhood.

Gaimar uses a variety of sources, from Latin, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably other historiographic writing and oral sources from the Lincolnshire region in which he worked. More recent scholarship focuses on this regional context, shared by Gaimar and his Lincolnshire patron, Lady Constance FitzGilbert, and on the relatively sympathetic treatment Gaimar gives the Danes (Lincolnshire being in the territory of the Danelaw).   Like much early historiography, the Estoireincludes many narratives that we have since decided are to be classified as romance (notably the story of King Haveloc and the foundation of Grimsby in Gaimar’s case at which we look here- cf the later well known Middle English romance of Havelok the Dane), but the power of fictionalizing narrative in representing the origins and histories of different groups is not to be underestimated. Attention to the rich and varied historiographical writing of medieval England has both powered and been empowered by post-colonial approaches in medieval studies.


Extracts from the new edition by Ian Short, Geffrei Gaimar Estoire des Engleis/History of the English (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010)- on E-res, as is whole book, so you can also read its Introduction.  Only the first and the last of these extracts is required for this seminar (pp. 2-47 of facing page text and translation, effectively some 20 not very full pages of modern English prose, with a chance to track original lexis on the page opposite, plus the 2-3 pages of his famous epilogue and appendix).  Since the new edition costs £90.00, I have taken the opportunity to put up a few further short extracts for those who find some of the currently important discussions about Gaimar of interest, especially  his relation to one of his major sources, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle(ii) the story of Buern Bucecarle, which figures in discussion of Gaimar’s attitudes to chivalry and women. See below under Further Reading for  more information.


Henry Bainton, ‘Translating the ‘English’ Past: Cultural Identity in the Estoire des
Engleis’, in Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England 1100-1500, ed. J. Wogan-Browne et al (Woodbridge and York, 2009), pp. 179-88. (book on reserve in Walsh).

Bérat, Emma, ‘The Patron and Her Clerk: Multilingualism and Cultural Transition’, forthcoming inNew Medieval Literatures [with the kind permission of the author I am distributing a pdf].


(requires only  the final extract and the opening of the extant text and its Haveloc story) What kind of ‘England’ and English culture do Gaimar and Constance Fitzgilbert construct in the opening of the Estoire ?

The study of Old French epic is intimately related to nineteenth century nationalism and to the appropriation of the genre to continental nationalising French literary history. We study the most famous object of the French nineteenth-century cultural heist from the English archives, while also noting  the circumstances of its ‘discovery’ or ‘creation’ in nineteenth-century archival explorations.  More recent scholarship (especially since Sarah Kay’s 1995 book) has begun to distinguish between the deployment of the past as part of the ideology of the chansons de geste and the question of their historical pastness in relation to twelfth-century literature: how oral and how literary the chansons de geste are is intimately bound up with this, since the extant manuscripts have been largely treated as the writing down of much earlier oral performances. An equally urgent concern in contemporary scholarship is the question of whether we should see Roland as crusade literature, and if so, of what kind: crusading and propagandist? Or more thoughtful and compelling than this?


The Chanson de Roland, ed. Gerard J. Brault (University Park and London; University of Pennsylvania State Press, 1984  and repr). (on list of set texts: one copy on reserve in Walsh).


Jane Gilbert, ‘The Chanson de Roland’, in Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 21-34.  A good concise and thought-provoking mise-au-point. (Book on reserve in Walsh).

Andrew Taylor, ‘Was There a Song of Roland?’, Speculum 76 (2001), 28-65. On the C19th discovery/creation of the Chanson de Roland. (journal on-line in Walsh).


(a) the chanson de geste is often seen as the predecessor of romance, an antique, oral,warrior-class epic song  from the roots of a people and its nationhood as opposed to newer clerical chivalric romances addressed to and peopled by women.  Consider the well-foundedness or otherwise of this belief in the case of the Chanson de Roland.  How far is the chanson de geste the text of a warrior class, how far does it participate in clerical culture?

(b) The Chanson de Roland devotes as much attention to dispute resolution among the Franks as to the conflict between them and the Saracens:  how different are the Saracens from the Franks in the Chanson de Roland’s representation of the two groups?


1. Gaimar

*Laura Ashe, ‘‘Exile-and-return’ and English Law: The Anglo-Saxon Inheritance of Insular Romance’, Literature Compass 3 (2006), 300-17.(online in Walsh).

—  Fiction and History in England, 1066-1200 (Cambridge, 2007). On reserve at Walsh.

Gillingham, John,  three essays in his The English in the Twelfth Century(Woodbridge:  Brewer, 2000):  (i) ‘Gaimar, the Prose Brut and the Making of English history’, pp. 113-122, on Gaimar as historian, (ii) ‘The Introduction of Chivalry into England’, pp. 209-131, and (iii) ‘Kingship, Chivalry and Love: Political and Cultural Values in the Earliest History in French, Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis’, pp. 223-58. (whole book on reserve at Walsh).

Short, Ian,  ‘Gaimar’s Epilogue and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Liber Vetustissimus.’Speculum 69 (1994), 323-4. (on-line in Walsh). (de rigueur for study of the epilogue and the patronage circle)

Dalton, Paul, ‘The Date of Geoffrey Gaimar’s History of the English’, ChaucerReview 42.1 2007:23-47.(on-line in Walsh).

The Havelok Tradition

Kleinman, Scott, The Legend of Havelok the Dane and the Historiography of East Anglia’, Studies in Philology 100 (2003): 245-77) Informatively studies names in Gaimar for their relation not so much to history as to historiographical writings.

Moll, Richard J., ‘”Nest pas autentik, mais apocrophum”: Haveloks and their Reception in Medieval England’, Studies in Philology 105 (2008), 165-206.  Studies medieval scepticism about the historical veracity of Havelock in the rehandling of Havelok materials in French, Middle English and to a lesser extent Latin re-tellings.

See also for general background, C.P. Lewis, ‘The French in England Before the Norman Conquest’, ANS [Anglo-Norman Studies] 17 (1994), 123-39.

2. Chanson de Roland


Blanks, David, ed., Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe  (1999).

Heng, Geraldine, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (Columbia University Press, 2003). Online in Walsh.

Metlitzkee, Dorothee, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (Yale: Yale University Press, 1977).

Ramey, Lynne Tarte, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature(2001).

Said, Edward, Orientalism (1978 and many reprints): though omitting the Middle Ages, still of fundamental importance  for Western thinking about ‘Easternness’.

Southern, R. W.,  Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1968 and repr.).

Strickland, Debra Higgs. Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003).

Tolan, John V. Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia UP, 2002).

—, Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages (Florida, 2008).

The Chanson de Roland

Ashe, Laura ‘A Prayer and a Warcry’: The Creation of a Secular Religion in theSong of Roland’,  Cambridge Quarterly 28.6 (1999), 349-67. (online in Walsh).

Douglas, David, ‘The Song of Roland and the Norman Conquest’, French Studies14 (1960): 99-116.

Haidu, Peter, The Subject of Violence: The Song of Roland and the Birth of the State(Indiana University Press, 1993). (on reserve in Walsh).

*Hyams, Paul, ‘Henry II and Ganelon’, Syracuse Scholar 4.1 Spring 1983): 23-35. (AP2 S96 in Walsh).

*Kay, Sarah, The Chansons de Geste in the Age of Romance: Political Fictions(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) (on reserve in Walsh).

Kay, Sarah, ‘Ethics and Heroics in the Song of Roland.’ Neophilologus 62 (1978):480-91. (online in Walsh).

Kinoshita, Sharon, Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) (on reserve in Walsh).

—‘Alterity, Gender and Nation in the Chanson de Roland’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (JMEMS special issue on race and ethnicity) (2001), 79-111.

Kong, Katherine, ‘Guilty as charged? Subjectivity and the Law in La Chanson de Roland and ‘Lanval’’, Essays in Medieval Studies 17 (2000), 35-46.(on-line inWalsh).

Spiegel, Gabrielle M., Romancing the Past: The Rise of Vernacular Prose Historiography in Thirteenth-Century France (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1993 and repr). (an important study of the rising value of prose in medieval texts, as it developed in the Roland tradition).

*Stein, Robert M., Reality Fictions: Romance, History, and Governmental Authority, 1025-1180 (Notre Dame, 2006), esp. Ch. 4, From Romance to Epic, pp. 161-206. (one of the best and most sophisticated recent studies: on reserve in Walsh).

Eugene Vance, Reading the Song of Roland (Englewood, NJ, 1970).

Warren, Michelle, History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). On reserve in Walsh.

—, ‘The “Noise” of Roland’, Exemplaria 16.2 (2004). On line in Walsh.

Vance, Eugene, ‘Style and Value: From Soldier to Pilgrim in the Song of Roland’, Yale French Studies (1991) 75-96. On line in Walsh.

The Roland Tradition

Joseph J. Duggan’s Chanson de Roland: The French Corpus  (2005) gives some of the many variant texts (the medieval development and re-writing of Roland is a field in itself): Duggan also edits the 1969 Concordance to the Chanson de Roland from Ohio State University Press. For a study of the Oxford Roland together with later versions see Margaret Jewett Burland, Strange Words: Retelling and Reception in the Medieval Roland Textual Tradition (Notre Dame IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2007).

The chanson de geste in England

For the chanson de geste in Anglo-Norman (pending the publications of the current Charlemagne in England project), see, Ruth J. Dean, Anglo- Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (London: ANTS, 1999), nos.76-82.2, which gives the fundamental information.  In the Middle English guides (Albert E. Hartung gen ed., Manual of the Writings in Middle English, in Walsh reference section, see vol. V on Romances) it is possible to see how much cultural overlap there is between the concerns of Anglo-Norman chansons de geste and the later Middle English romances focussed on crusading, the holy land and the recovery of relics.   (Note that the category chanson de geste isn’t used in Middle English, only the wider one of ‘romance’, and that you will find the chanson de geste material particularly among the group of Firumbras or Fierabras romances and in the Roland andVernagu and Otuel materials).  It is sometimes hard (in both Anglo-Norman and Middle English) to distinguish between these and the celebratedly nasty Middle English Siege of Jerusalem and Titus and Vespasian romances (which have their less well known counterparts in the French of England in the Venjeance Nostre Seignur and associated materials). The issue of religious nationalism and whether it is accompanied by a fanaticism that makes these texts more propangandist or whether the texts succeed in critiqueing as well as mirroring the assumptions of their societies runs through modern discussion of the chanson de geste and allied material.