Geoffrey Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis

Estoire des Engleis (“History of the English”) is the oldest surviving work of historiography in the French vernacular, composed sometime after 1135 under the patronage of Constance FitzGilbert, the wife of a minor Lincolnshire nobleman. It describes the history of England starting from Cedric of Wessex’s landing on its shores in 495 and continuing all the way through the death of the Anglo-Norman king William II in 1100. Although Gaimar was a learned cleric, he composed his history in French verse, rather than in Latin prose, presumably for the better entertainment and edification of his aristocratic audience.

As one of his modern translators remarks with great enthusiasm:

Breaking the monopolistic hold that Latin had over historiography and the church-centered perspective it propagated, and broadening its accessibility to include those hitherto excluded from historical culture, were amongst the most far-reaching achievements of the humanist venture that we call the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Once the vernacular becomes a vehicle for the preservation of culture, whole swathes of society are admitted into the world of learning by being given a key to the past, functional access to the present, and a means of communicating their hopes and aspirations for the future.

Ian Short, Introduction to Estoire des Engleis (2009)

Across the many centuries his work covers, Gaimar continually references juxtaposed themes, such as violence and peace, treachery and loyalty, wisdom and imprudence. In the multi-cultural world of post-Conquest England, he also deals sympathetically with the Normans’ predecessors (much of the pre-Conquest material is in fact translated and adapted from the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), promoting reconciliation and understanding amongst England’s peoples.

Even more interestingly for the reader, Gaimar also occasionally takes breaks from his litanies of coronations, battles, and omens to introduce intriguing characters, from Haveloc the “Cinderella” prince to the dazzingly beautiful Aelfthryth, and from wise King Alfred to the dashing English outlaw Hereward.

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