How do you solve a problem like Rollo?

For this post I thought I would do something a little different: examine just a few of the issues surrounding three of the sources you will come across if you do any amount of digging into the Norman past, and why despite the prolific amount written about him, we can say nearly nothing about Rollo with much certainty at all. This is taken from some earlier academic work I’ve done, and is sort of intended to give you an overview of the sources and their authors ahead of what will hopefully be a less dry post on the man himself!

First of all, what can we actually say about Rollo? Well we know he was given Rouen on the Seine river, and it’s surrounding land, to hold “for the protection of the kingdom” in 911. The reason we can be so sure of this is thanks to a surviving charter from the reign of Charles III dated 14 March 918, and the only primary reference outside of chronicles, to the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte: the charter granted the Abbey de la Croix-Saint-Ouen in the Oise to the monks at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, while specifically NOT including the lands granted to Rollo and his followers. We also know that Rollo died sometime between his final mention by Flodoard of Reims in 928 and 933, when a third grant of land (possibly the Avranchin and Cotentin) were made to his son William Longsword.

But that is it. This is all we can say much certainty outside of contemporary and near-contemporary chroniclers and authors.

But in terms of the actual chroniclers, it makes sense to start with the father of Norman history, Dudo of St. Quentin and his History of the Normans. Originally commissioned to begin work on the ‘customs, deeds and rights’ in Normandy by duke Richard I prior to his death in 996, he was then convinced to begin, or continue, writing by Richard II and his uncle Rolf I d’Ivry, and Dudo himself would eventually be Richard II’s chaplain. This would have placed him firmly in the heart of the ducal court and given him access to oral information passed on from, possibly, the grandchildren of some Rollo’s band of Northmen. But for the past thirty odd years there has been much debate regarding Dudo’s trustworthiness and, as such, his place within academic work. Eric Christiansen and David Bates viewed his work as ‘a thoroughly untrustworthy document, a bombastic and rhetorical text, embroidering a long and frequently tedious discourse around a very small number of facts’. Ouch. On the other hand there are the likes of Elisabeth van Houts, Emily Albu and Eleanor Searle who have made great steps in rehabilitating Dudo, not because he is an utterly trustworthy historian, but because ‘he tells us great truths about how the Norse in Upper Normandy saw the pattern of their present polity and of their destiny’.Before 1984 David Bates wrote that modern studies had ‘consigned Dudo’s opinions to an oblivion from which they will never surely return’. For Bates the problem with Dudo was not just the way he wrote, but that nearly all his information for the first parts of his work, especially regarding Rollo, simply cannot be corroborated. If you were to ignore his work entirely, the amount of non-archaeological evidence for the period in question is sparse at best. No charters were made during the reigns of Rollo and William Longsword; the government of the Norman rulers was illiterate for nearly the first century of its existence. Eric Christiansen’s opinion of Dudo can be briefly described by a single quote: ‘Dudo is not a reliable source for the early history of the Normans; nor did he know of any; nor do we’. Christiansen pointed out that while we are only offered four dates throughout the History, the first two of Rollo’s arrival in 876 and his baptism in 912 are ‘more or less imaginary’ and the passage of time is structured by episodes and ‘job-lots’. More so, he saw most of the episodes as wholly fictitious, or at the very least falsified in the telling and even where it is unable to prove this to be the case, the style and method simply invite disbelief. But Dudo was not patronised to write a critical, accurate history of the Normans, he was hired to tell the story of Richard I and Richard II’s people and ancestors. Dudo was the solution to the question of how should the dukes portray their past? In what way should they describe where they had come from and who they had become? Most important of all, how should they defend the legitimacy of their claim as the rightful rulers of Normandy? Considering this, we should not be looking at Dudo as a historian, rather as one of the ‘most talented spin doctors of the Middle Ages’. Searle identified that criticism aimed at Dudo by historians such as Christiansen and Bates was often accompanied by a general irritation at the stories he does tell, his Latin style, the alternation of verse and prose and the very fact his work is a panegyric. It is folly to approach the History of the Normans expecting it to have been written with the aim of creating an objective history; the praise of those he was writing about would have been expected and no doubt encouraged by Dudo’s patrons. Not only was Dudo writing for the dukes, but he had access to Richard I’s maternal half-brother and most loyal supporter Count Rolf and Richard’s widow Gunnor; this means he was writing in Rouen for the innermost circle of the ruling house, perhaps with Rolf and Gunnor at the his elbow. Dudo crafts a line of descent from Antenor and makes his Rollo an Aeneas of the Vikings: he is not a founder, but instead a rebuilder who sets about putting together what his predecessors had destroyed. Finally, Shopkow too addresses that Dudo’s work, while not a work of total fact, was pinned down by two undisputable facts: that the Normans were pagan when they arrived and Christian when Dudo was writing, whilst also being French-speaking but with distinct regional character. Dudo was the one chosen to craft the stories to explain this transition. In the end, Dudo is a vitally important source of information as he tells us what the Normans wanted us to be told; problematic yes, but a much needed example of it. His work is one shaped by the need to please his patrons and by his ability to borrow from classical writing that is not just in the form of the Aeneid: Rollo’s endowing of the churches of Normandy is an imitation of Constantine’s granting of gifts to churches in the Donation of Constantine.

The second chronicle is a revision of Dudo’s History. His work was taken up in the 1050’s by William of Jumièges, a monk from the abbey of the same name, who revised, abbreviated and updated Dudo’s original work and added an account of the reigns of Richard II (996-1026), Richard III (1026-7), Robert I (1027-35) and William II (1035-1087). Given the title of Gesta Normannorum Ducum (‘Deeds of the Norman Dukes’, or GND), it originally ended before 1060, but was extended with an account of the conquest of England up to c. 1070 most likely at the request of the newly crowned William the Conqueror. Dudo was William’s main historical source and literary model: he took the idea of structuring his chronicle in separate books that were dedicated to one duke each, but to imagine William as a mimic would be to do him a disservice, as he drastically abbreviated Dudo’s original piece, rewrote the text and inserted his own information. One of the most striking differences between William and his source material is before we are introduced to Rollo. According to William, following the battle of Fontenoy in 841, Francia was left prey to Viking incursions from Norse and Danish lands led by Björn Ironside as well as Hasting. Both attribute these migrations to polygamous overpopulation, but William adds that Björn’s father, King Lothbroc, had to expel all but one of his sons. In regards to the invasion and settlement of Normandy, William’s hero is not Hasting like Dudo’s, but Björn instead, with Hasting being relegated to the role of evil instigator of his pupil’s deeds. Unlike Dudo, William also gives an explanation for Hasting’s appearance in France, as he arrived there following the attack on Luni (Luna) which they mistook for Rome. It is important to note that both Dudo and William were hired by the descendants of Rollo and their works were effectively attempts at showing the lineage of the Norman ducal line while at the same time almost legitimising their position as dukes. William did this by not including Dudo’s stories about the heathen Rollo and he explains why in the introductory letter to the King. As van Houts pointed out, William was ‘more interested in Rollo as a Christian prince than in his deeds while he was still a heathen.’ As such, many of the deeds which Dudo attributed to Rollo are instead attributed to Vikings in general by William.

Finally, the third major work is the most different structurally to those previously mentioned. The Roman de Rou by Wace is a chronicle, but in long verse and narrates the history of the first dukes to rule over Normandy and while the first Norman kings of England are present, Normandy itself is the focus of Wace’s work. Starting with Hasting and Rollo (Rou), it finishes in 1106 with Henry I’s victory over his brother Robert Curthose at the battle of Tinchebray. Wace was most likely born between 1090 and 1110, writing himself that he was born on Jersey. At some stage in his youth he was sent to Caen where he was ‘put to letters’ before heading from the educational town of Caen to Paris: there he qualified as a magister and gained the right to teach others. Subsequently he returned to Caen where he stayed until roughly the 1160’s when Henry II awarded him a prebend in Bayeux. The Roman de Rou was seemingly commissioned, or at the very least encouraged, by Henry II who wanted Wace to create a similar work to his earlier vernacular history of the British – the Roman de Brut – which seems to have been a great success. The Rou was intended to be read out loud at Henry II’s court. It also provides a eulogy of both Henry and his dynasty, simultaneously explaining how the Normans came to be on the throne of England and crucially justifying it. Wace’s work fundamentally Anglo-Norman propaganda, showing not just Henry’s lineage, but his wife Eleanor’s too, as while Henry could trace his lineage back to William Longsword, Eleanor was descended from Rollo’s only daughter, Gerloc. The most likely reason for Henry desiring such a work is that it was probably intended to show those lords who had flourished under the troubled reign of King Stephen that a strong and legitimate king was once again on the throne. Indeed, A. J. Holden argued that the Roman de Brut and Roman de Rou together provided the Plantagenet dynasty with a place and justification in history; his purpose was to make accessible to a secular audience works of an improving and instructive nature.  Wace’s main source of inspiration and information used by Wace was Orderic Vitalis’ version of the GND, with some material from the anonymous B redaction. Sadly though, the Rou was never finished by Wace: he stopped writing sometime in the 1170’s, citing a rival work commissioned by Henry II as the cause.

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918 charter by Charles III of Frankia granting land to settle for Rollo
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