Textual Contact in Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis

Hannah Weaver
Columbia University

The difficult question of how best to transmit information about the British past to new, primarily Francophone audiences became a topical one in the late twelfth century, as Wace and Benoît de Ste-Maure undertook their widely studied translations of Latin regnal and ducal histories in the ambit of the Angevin court. Less often considered is their peculiar precursor Geoffroi Gaimar, who wrote his Estoire des Engleistwo generations earlier (likely 1136–1137). Primarily translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), an annalistic document in Old English, Gaimar added a number of narrative interpolations to his source. The herky-jerky rhythm of the resulting narrative transmits the decisions with which the historiographer grappled when converting the English past into something palatable for his aristocratic patrons. Gaimar’s interpolative process shines a light on a network of possible histories – English, Danish, and French – and one historian’s attempt to reconcile them into something resembling a linear narrative for a particular audience.

This paper takes seriously the key terms “contact” and “border” in a textual context by tracing the frontiers between languages, sources, and narrative styles in the Estoire des Engleis. Gaimar’s amalgamated history tacitly makes an argument about interpolation that runs counter to the common medieval conception of interpolation as essentially harmful to the original text. (See, e.g., Du Cange’s collection of early medieval opinions on the matter in his Glossarium.) Instead, the Lincolnshire historian uses interpolation as a productive narrative technique. With embedded narratives, he shifts between the paratactic style of annals and the more fulsome storytelling often associated with romance; the resulting text straddles the two genres. Using the famous interpolation of the Haveloc story as a case study, this paper looks at the moments when annalistic frame gives way to embedded narrative and argues that the nested structure holds important information about the development of twelfth-century vernacular historiography and the desires of its audience. Indeed, Gaimar’s history provides a particularly useful data point since his epilogue reveals that he was writing for a Norman aristocratic household in Lincolnshire, a part of the country with vivid memories of the Danelaw in the early twelfth century. The interpolated narratives in Estoire des Engleis thus instantiate post-Conquest cultural contact and foreground the issue of borders and borderlessness within a single text.