Wace, Robert

, an Anglo-Norman poet, whose works are esteemed the most ancient monuments of French literature, was born in the isle of Jersey, in the early part of the twelfth century. Huet, bishop of Avranches, assures us that his Christian name was Robert, and this opinion has generally prevailed, although Ducange calls him Mathew. From the poet himself, nothing can be determined, for in none of his works does he once mention his Christian name, calling himself generally Maitre Wace, Clerc-lisant, or Clerc de Caen. Wace commenced his studies at Caen, a city which at that time had many celebrated schools, and afterwards travelled in France to complete his education, hut under what tutors, or in what places, does not appear. Whether however from being dissatisfied with his situation, or from the natural predilection of his countrymen in favour of the English government, it is certain that he returned to Caen, and there made his first essay.

It is difficult to ascertain the first specimen he exhibited of the literature of his time. We know that he had composed many works, that he translated others into the language of his country, and that he particularly applied himself to the composition of light poetry and romances, in which last he excelled. He assures us that he composed a great number of romances; and, as most of them have been preserved, it is natural to conclude that they were held in the same estimation by his contemporaries as they have been by posterity. But it is proper to remark in this place, that the word romance is not always to be understood as applicable to those chimerical tales which have no other basis than the imagination of the inventor. During the twelfth, thirteenth, and even the fourteenth centuries, every thing that was written in French or Romance, or that was translated into that language, was generally termed a romance. Philip de Than, the most ancient of the Norman poets, and William, another poet of the same country, composed in verse a work upon the natural history of animals, and each of them called his works a romance. Richard d’Annebaut, likewise a Norman poet, translated into verse | the institutes of Justinian, which he says he has romanced. Samson de Nanteuil versified the proverbs of Solomon; Helie de Winchester, Cato’s distichs; and both of them call their translations a romance.

We are not then to consider the romances of Wace as the offspring of a fertile imagination which has created events for the purpose of embellishing them with the charms of poetry; on the contrary, they are monuments of antiquity of the most respectable nature, inasmuch as they form for the most part a precious repository of the Norman and Anglo-Saxon history When this poet wrote the history of events which preceded him, he drew his materials from memoirs which then existed. He often cites the authors upon whose faith he advances his facts, and of whom many have not been preserved to us. When he wrote the history of his own times, he always relied upon the testimony of eye-witnesses, or related what he himself had seen. In general he is very candid in his narrations, and though he may sometimes appear to deal a little in the marvellous, he takes care to observe that he has found what he advances so written, and that he gives it in the same manner.

That work of Wace’s which his learned biographer places first, was composed in 1155. It is his translation in verse of the famous “Brut of England,” so called from Brutus the great grandson of Æneas, and first king of the Britons. It contains the history of the kings of Great Britain, almost from the destruction of Troy to the year 689 of the common sera. Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, had imported the original from Armoric Britain, Geoffroy of Monmouth translated it into Latin, and Wace into French verse. Several copies of this work are in the British Museum, one at Bene’t college, Cambridge, and one, at least, a very superb one, in the royal library at Paris, supposed to be coeval with the author. The verses of this poem are always masculine of eight syllables, and feminine of nine; by which circumstance the error of attributing this work, as Fauchet has done, to a Huistace, or Wistace, is detected; for, by substituting Wace, as is found in the ancient ms. the verses acquire their necessary measure. Warton has fallen into this mistake by depending upon Fauchet; and the same error is repeated by several French writers. The learned Tyrwhitt was the first person who attempted to clear up a subject which from time to time became more involved in | darkness, and to vindicate our author from the errors or injustice of modern writers. By means of sound criticism, the authority of the manuscripts in the British Museum, and the testimony of Layamon and Robert de Brunne, he proved, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that Wace was the author of the translation of the “Brut” into French verse. Lastly, Dr. Burney, in, his < c History of Music," by means of the rules of French poetry alone, demonstrated the want of fidelity in the manuscripts which had misled Fauchet and all other writers, who, as he had done, drew their materials from faulty and imperfect copies.

The second production of Wace is the history of the irruptions into England and the northern provinces of France, written in verses of eight syllables. His third work is the famous Roman du Rou, composed in 1160, in verses of twelve syllables. Raoul, or Rollo, is the hero of this poem. His fourth piece is the romance of William Longsword, the son of Rollo, written in verses of twelve syllables. It is to be found in the royal library at Paris, at the end of the Roman du Rou; and his fifth work, or the romance of Richard I. duke of Normandy, composed in the same measure, may be seen in the same repository. His sixth work contains, in 12,000 lines, the history of the Norman dukes, from the time of duke Richard I. to the sixth year of Henry I. and was composed after 1170. A copy is in the British Museum, Bib. Reg. iv. c. xi. His seventh performance is an abridged chronicle of the history of the dukes of Normandy, beginning with Henry II. and going upwards to Rollo.

The eighth is a history of the origin of the feast of the conception of the Holy Virgin. The ninth is a life of St. Nicolas, one copy of which is in the Bodleian library, and another in that of Trinity college, Cambridge. The tenth is the Roman du Chevalier an Lion. It is also probable that our poet composed several branches of the romance of Alexander; and the conjecture qf Tyrwhitt, that he is the Robert Guasco, author of the Martyrdom of St. George, mentioned by the abhe le Boeuf (Mem. de PAcad. des Inscr. xvii. p. 729.) is not without foundation. The lighter poetry of Wace has not reached the present times.

Such a multitude of works from the pen of the same author engaged the attention of Henry II. who, to reward his merit, bestowed on him a canonry in the cathedral of Bayeux. Monsieur Lancelot, in his explanation of the | tapestry of queen Matilda, preserved in the treasury of that cathedral, has contended that Wace borrowed several facts which he could not have found elsewhere from that valuable monument, but for this there seems very slight foundation. Dumoutier in his.“Nenstria pia” says that Wace was canon of Caen, but it is certain there was no chapter established in that city. That of St. Sepulchre, which still remains, was not founded till 1219. It is true, that in March 1152, Philip de Harcourt, bishop of Bayeux, founded three new canonries in his cathedral church, and to endow them, annexed the parish churches of Notre Dame, St. John, and St. Peter, belonging to the city of Caen; perhaps Wace being afterwards provided with one of these benefices, might have been called canon of Caen, because the chief place of his prebend was situated in that city; this conjecture acquires the greater probability on account of a practice still existing in Normandy of describing every canon by the name of the place appropriated to his canonry.

Huet, and almost every one of those who have spoken of our poet, have maintained that he had been clerk of the chapel to king Henry II. Wace, however, mentions nothing concerning this dignity, although he minutely describes all the favours which that monarch conferred upon him; he is even so attentive upon this subject, that he assures us the king gave him many things, but had promised him more. Besides, as the title of clerk of the King’s chapel was a very honourable one, which generally led the way to a bishopric, we may presume from his silence that he was not invested with it. Monsieur Huet has certainly been misled by the description of clerk, which Wace often assumes; but he should have remarked, that he never calls himself clerc du roi, but always clerc de Caen, or clerc lisant, a title which then signified nothing more than a learned man, and which was even given to laymen, since Henry I. was surnamed Beauclerc.

Of Wace’s personal history we have no farther account, but with regard to the advantages attending the perusal of the productions of Wace, his biographer says very truly, that “The antiquary will at first remark with astonishment, that their language (that of the Normans) has been preserved even to our own days in the countries of Lower Normandy. He will perceive their progress in the various arts; their attainments in that of war; their arms and their | military customs their method of attacking castles and strong holds the state of their marine and their commerce; the height to which they have carried architecture and other sciences, together with the monuments they have left us. The genealogist will find many curious and interesting facts relating to ancient families; he will feel himself rewarded in the perusal of the names of the knights who were present at the battle of Hastings; and of the noble actions by which each of them signalized his valour. In a word, the historian will learn with pleasure many circumstances and details which are not to be found in any other writer.1


Archaeologia, vols. XII. and XIII. by M. De la Rue.