William of Poitiers

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For the counts of Poitiers, see William of Poitiers (disambiguation).

William of Poitiers (c. 1020 – 1090) was a French priest of Norman origin and chaplain of Duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) (Guillaume le Conquerant), for whom he chronicled the Norman Conquest of England in his Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum ("The Deeds of William, Duke of Normandy and King of England") or Gesta Guillelmi II ducis Normannorum. He had trained as a soldier before taking holy orders.

Life[edit]

William of Poitiers was born in Les Préaux, France, near Pont-Audemer to an influential Norman family, and Orderic Vitalis gives a short biography of him in his Historia ecclesiastica. Originally William trained as a knight, which gave him a much greater insight into the details of war than the typical medieval clerical writer. Once he turned to the priesthood, William studied at the renowned school of Saint Hilaire-le-Grand in Poitiers and was said by Orderic to have returned to Normandy 'more learned than all his friends and neighbours'.[1] William was given positions of ecclesiastical authority, becoming chaplain to Duke William and archdeacon of Lisieux; but little is known about his old age, and he probably retired into a religious house, or possibly political disgrace[2] Links between William of Poitiers and Duke William's rebellious son Robert can be found, and may explain the latter.[3]

Gesta Guillelmi[edit]

William of Poitiers wrote the Gesta Guillelmi some time after 1066. It tells the story of Duke William prepared for, and achieved the Conquest of England. It also justifies William's succession to the English throne. The bulk of the writing probably took place 1071 – 1077.

The Gesta Guillelmi is the earliest extended biography of any Duke of Normandy, and is an invaluable source for the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William of Poiters was well placed to write the Gesta Guillelmi, being both trained as a military knight and serving as a chaplain within Duke William's household.

There are no surviving manuscripts of the ‘Gesta Guillemi'. André Duchesne published an edition in 1619, although even his (now lost) manuscript was missing its beginning and end. Its present form covers the period from 1047 to 1068, and both starts and finishes mid-sentence. There is also some retrospective material concerning affairs in England after Cnut's death (1035). Orderic Vitalis says that it originally finished in 1071. The Gesta Guillelmi is most valuable as a source for the Battle of Hastings, probably based on first hand oral evidence.

The 'History' also serves as a panegyric to William the Conqueror. R. Allen Brown writes: "Within the panegyric there is a wealth of facts and details... most derived from personal knowledge and personal contacts, compiled and intelligently put together by a man uniquely qualified as both clerk and knight, closely connected with the court ... One may add that William of Poitiers must have known his hero from their joint youth up, and stress that as both former knight and former chaplain of the duke he is able to bring us closer to the heart of Normandy in the mid-eleventh century than any other writer of that age or later."[4]

Critiques of the Gesta Guillelmi[edit]

William of Poitiers undoubtedly thought of himself as an historian. He mentions in the Gesta Guillelmi that the duty of a historian is to remain within the ‘bounds of the truth.’; but he failed to obey this rule. Antonia Gransden in ‘Historical writing in England c.550 to c.1307’ shows that because William of Poitiers was just as much a panegyrist as a historian. She summarises Gesta Guillelmi as ‘biased, unreliable account of events, and unrealistic portraits of the two principle protagonists.’[5] Moreover, Orderic Vitalis, who uses the Gesta Guillelmi as his principal source in creating his ‘Ecclesiastical History’, chooses to omit or contradict many of Poitiers' passages in the Guesta Guillelmi, including denial of King William's mercy to the conquered English; having been brought up in England from 1075–1085, Orderic knew better. However, the Gesta Guillelmi cannot be dismissed; most of the panegyrical passages are easy to isolate, and there is a lot of material that William of Poitiers probably reports accurately.

What it tells us[edit]

Anglo/Saxon Society William of Poitiers details the life of Duke William. Nonetheless, there are a few insights into pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon society. For example, William of Poitiers reports that a Danish raiding party returned from England with ‘great booty’.[6] Furthermore, Harold is said to have had ‘abundant treasure with which to tempt dukes’.[7] (ii. 4) This may explain the numerous attacks England suffered during the 10th – early 11th century. William of Poitiers believed that the pre-Conquest English ‘all showed love of their country’, suggesting some sort of national identity that was lacking in Normandy.[8]

Norman Society William of Poitiers provides a picture of Norman France prior to 1066. The various rebellions Duke William faced in his early reign are detailed in what was a fractured Duchy. The local Norman lords constantly waging private wars contrasts with the relatively stable Anglo-Saxon Kingdom across the Channel. The domestic turbulence forced Duke William to confront and subdue his nobility, sometimes by co-operation than coertion; for example, despite revolting against Duke William, the Gesta Guillemi states that Guy of Burgundy was allowed to remain in his court.[9] William of Poitiers shows that the Norman castle was an important element of society. An effective Duke could use them as strategic power bases, stamping their authority on the rural Duchy; however, a castle could also be a rallying point for rebellious nobles. William of Poitiers reports many a ducal siege as a result.[10]

Medieval Literary Tradition As a eulogising text, William of Poitiers’s history constantly highlights William’s admirable qualities, for example that the Duke ‘excelled in intelligence, assiduity, and strength'.[11] For William of Poitiers, Duke William embodies the perfect ideals of knighthood, as illustrated by improbable stories scattered through his history; for example he states that William, with 50 of his knights, fought and bested a force of 1000.[12] This represents a clear exaggeration. William of Poitiers also relates Duke William’s exploits to those of the Greek and Roman world. For example, there is a lengthy comparison between William and Caesar’s conquest of Britain.[13] Not only was this done to flatter Duke William but also shows William of Poitiers' own knowledge.

The Battle of Hastings The Gesta Guillelmi provides the traditional narrative of the Battle of Hastings. William of Poitiers gives detailed descriptions of the composition of both the Norman and Anglo Saxon armies. Furthermore, he describes the famous 'feigned flight' manoeuvre.

References[edit]

  1. ^ R.H.C. Davis, ‘William of Poitiers and his history of William the Conqueror’, in Davis, R.H.C. and Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. (eds.) The Writing of history in the Middle Ages: essays presented to Richard William Southern (Oxford, 1981) p.85.
  2. ^ R.H.C. Davis, ‘William of Poitiers and his history of William the Conqueror’, in Davis, R.H.C. and Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. (eds.) The Writing of history in the Middle Ages: essays presented to Richard William Southern (Oxford, 1981) p.92.
  3. ^ R.H.C. Davis, ‘William of Poitiers and his history of William the Conqueror’, in Davis, R.H.C. and Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. (eds.) The Writing of history in the Middle Ages: essays presented to Richard William Southern (Oxford, 1981) p.93.
  4. ^ R. Allen Brown, Anglo-Norman Studies III: Proceedings of the Battle Conference (1980)
  5. ^ Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England c.550 to c.1307 (London, 1974) p.102
  6. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) i. 2
  7. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) II.4
  8. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) ii.16
  9. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) i.9
  10. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) i.9
  11. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) i.12
  12. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) i.17
  13. ^ The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, edited and translated by R.H.C Davis and Majorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998) ii. 39–40

Primary sources[edit]

  • William of Poitiers, Gesta Guillelmi, ed. and tr. R. H. C. Davis and Marjorie Chibnall (1998). The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers. OMT. Oxford and New York: Clarendon. ISBN 0-19-820553-8.  Modern edition, with English translation and commentary. Earlier editions include:
    • Foreville, R., ed. (1952). Guillaume de Poitiers: Histoire de Guillaume le Conquérant. Les Classiques de l'histoire de France au Moyen Age 23. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.  Edition, with modern French translation.
    • Migne, J.-P., ed. (1882). "Willelmi Conquestoris gesta a Willelmo Pictauensi Lexouiorum archidiacono contemporaneo scripta". Patrologia Latina 149. Paris. col. 1217–1270. 
    • Giles, J. A., ed. (1845). "Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum". Scriptores Rerum Gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris. London: Caxton Society. pp. 77–159. 
  • Orderic Vitalis, Historia ecclesiastica, ed. and tr. Marjorie Chibnall (1968–1980). The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis. 6 vols. OMT. Oxford: OUP.