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An Anglo-Norman Reader

 | 
Jane Bliss

Story

Story

Texte intégral

Longue est la geste des Normanz
E a metre grieve en romanz.
Se l’on demande qui ço dist,
Qui ceste estoire en romanz fist,
Jo di e dirai que jo sui
Wace de l’isle de Gersui,
Qui est en mer vers occident,
Al fieu de Normendie apent.
En l’isle de Gersui fui nez,
A Chaem fui petiz portez,
Illoques fui a letres mis,
Pois fui longues en France apris;
Quant jo de France repairai
A Chaem longues conversai,
De romanz faire m’entremis,
Mult en escris e mult en fis.

  • 1 There is an ancient misreading which gives him a ‘first’ name, as if Wace were a family name. But W (...)
  • 2 France (Île de France) was then a different country, distinct from Normandy; hence André de Coutanc (...)
  • 3 Wace also wrote saints’ lives and other kinds of narrative.

‘The tale of the Normans is a long one, and it’ s hard work to turn it into French. If anybody wants to know who says this, and who put this story into French, I say and I’ll tell you that I am Wace from the island of Jersey,1 which is in the sea away to the West; it belongs to Normandy. I was born in the isle of Jersey, and taken to Caen when I was small. There they set me to learn my letters; I spent a long time at my studies in France.2 When I came back from France, I stayed in Caen for a long time. I set myself to making histories in French;3 I wrote many, and I composed many, of these.’(vv. 5297–312)

  • 4 See, for example, Legge p. 30.
  • 5 See Walters, ‘Wace and the Genesis of Vernacular Authority’, for the status of ‘romanz’ in Britain (...)

1The modern French word ‘histoire’ conveniently includes both History and Story,4 whereas the English language distinguishes between them. In medieval literature it is usually a waste of time trying to decide which is which; here I simply group passages according to Dean’s catalogue. Her sections are ordered generically, and my passages are taken from the following: (1) Historiographical, (3) Romance, (4) Lais Fables Fabliaux & Dits. However, it will be seen that there are plenty of stories in the later part of this book.5

2For this book I begin, as I end, with a Channel Islander: Wace tells us he was born in Jersey. One of the earliest ‘histories’ in the vernacular was written by the father of Arthurian literature and thus of many romances and, later, novels. My book travels from Wace of Jersey back at last to Alderney, another Channel Island and also home to story-tellers.

3Wace uses several terms for story and writing:

    • 6 ‘gestes’ (gesta) originally meant the acts; it is also used for tales that recount them.
    • 7 One of the other MSS has ‘estoire’ instead of ‘geste’ in v. 5297; we would suppose that one scribe’ (...)
    • 8 The Chanson de Roland is the best-known example (a good translation is The Song of Roland, tr. Saye (...)

    Geste means both Action (doings, exploits, adventures),6 and Story (Wace is referring to the history of the Normans), although the terms may be interchangeable.7 Chansons de Geste is a widely-used term for epic poems,8 which are conventionally distinguished from romances by their theme of a hero representing his culture and kin-group against a common enemy, typically Saracens.

    • 9 Romance heroes are less likely to be fighting Saracens than dragons; their adventures are more like (...)
    • 10 Burgess, the modern translator of this version (details given below), prefers as I do not to collap (...)

    Romanz means both Language (early, and often Insular, French) and Story (the word quickly became standard for narrative, often historical and often romantic).9 Both Wace’s chronicles are entitled Roman (de Brut, and de Rou). Wace says both ‘romanz faire’ and ‘romanz escrivre’ (above). He is both making and writing, not only history but also story, in French.10

  • Estoire, as has been pointed out, means both History and Story. The two words mean different things in modern English. Wace identifies himself as the one who has put the ‘estoire’ (fictional or not) into French.

  • Letres means, straightforwardly enough, ‘letters’: Wace learns to read and write when he learns his letters, and he continues his education later. However, he would have become literatus, which meant lettered in Latin; you could not call yourself lettered if you could read only French. Nor did the skills of reading and writing go together automatically as part of medieval education: some people learned to read, at least in French (or English) but could not write except perhaps their name. Others might be ‘literate’ in a more modern sense in that they were familiar with a good range of literature, but (in a less modern sense) they enjoyed it by getting somebody to read to them.

4Given the number of different terms for language and literature used by Wace in one short passage, it is not surprising he uses a double phrase for his method of composition in the last line.

Notes

1 There is an ancient misreading which gives him a ‘first’ name, as if Wace were a family name. But Wace is his given name (cf. Gace, and other forms; one of the MSS spells him Vaicce), and if anything he would be identified outside his own place as ‘Wace de Jersey’. See Wace, The Roman de Rou, ed. Holden, p xvi & note 11; Wace’s Brut, ed. and tr. Weiss, p. xi & note.

2 France (Île de France) was then a different country, distinct from Normandy; hence André de Coutances’xenophobic fury at the French (in Roman des Franceis, below).

3 Wace also wrote saints’ lives and other kinds of narrative.

4 See, for example, Legge p. 30.

5 See Walters, ‘Wace and the Genesis of Vernacular Authority’, for the status of ‘romanz’ in Britain as closer to Latin and therefore preferable to Old English.

6 ‘gestes’ (gesta) originally meant the acts; it is also used for tales that recount them.

7 One of the other MSS has ‘estoire’ instead of ‘geste’ in v. 5297; we would suppose that one scribe’s preference was to emphasize the ‘doing’, another’s was for the ‘telling’ of events.

8 The Chanson de Roland is the best-known example (a good translation is The Song of Roland, tr. Sayers; details of editions are in Sayers’ introduction). A hundred years ago, in Arabia, ‘the tribal poets would sing us their war narratives: long traditional forms with stock epithets, stock sentiments, stock incidents grafted afresh on the efforts of each generation’ (Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, p. 128); this is a fair definition of the genre.

9 Romance heroes are less likely to be fighting Saracens than dragons; their adventures are more likely to involve ladies. ‘romanz’ first meant French, then story (the first romances were written in French). In v. 5311 above it refers to narrative.

10 Burgess, the modern translator of this version (details given below), prefers as I do not to collapse the two verbs in v. 5312 into one. Wace seems to distinguish between ‘escris’ and ‘fis’ (unless he is merely filling up a line).

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