One of the inevitable frustrations of working with primary sources is that they don’t always say what you would like them to say. Worse, they don’t take what seem like golden opportunities to say what you’re pretty sure they were thinking, but never seem to actually articulate. It’s almost like they weren’t writing with you, a graduate student roughly 800 years in the future, explicitly in mind!
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.
In his work the Didascalicon (c. 1125), one of the classic theological texts of the twelfth-century renaissance, Hugh of St. Victor lays out an integrated view of human knowledge, insisting upon the need for a scientific pursuit of the traditional arts in order to relieve life’s physical weaknesses and to restore humans’ union with the divine Wisdom. Unusually, as well discussing the traditional pedagogic categories of the trivium and quadrivium, he includes sections on the practical and mechanical arts (such as commerce and agriculture).
In his discussion of the process of study, Hugh also gives us an intriguing peek at his own school days:
This week I requested my first manuscripts from Special Collections – which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you take into account that this involves a Bodleian librarian cheerfully handing over 800-year-old books into my
grubby carefully scrubbed hands.
This figure of the author-writer came into existence in the years around 1170 after a gestation that had lasted several decades… It was the scholarly writer who groped his way toward fiction, not the oral storyteller who simply resorted to writing.
Per Nykrog, ‘The Rise of Literary Fiction’
Our books have informed us that the pre-eminence in chivalry and learning once belonged to Greece. Then chivalry passed to Rome, together with that highest learning which now has come to France. God grant that it may be cherished here, that the honour which has taken refuge with us may never depart from France. God had awarded it as another’s share, but of Greeks and Romans no more is heard; their fame is passed, and their glowing ash is dead.
Chrétien de Troyes, c. 1170