The Earliest History of Ducal Normandy

The Fécamp Chronicle

1. In the days of Chlothar, king of the Franks, there was an illustrious man, eminent in prudence, very conspicuous in goodness, and obedient to God, named Waning, who built many dwellings for monks on his possessions, one of which was called Fécamp, whose affairs turned out in this way. He was brought to the same place on his deathbed, seized by a terrible illness, and taken up in ecstasy, the torments of the damned and the joys of the just were shown to him, and he heard in a prophesy shown to him by divine gift that he would live for 20 more years and the holy martyr of Christ Eulalia, to whose prayers he was accustomed to sedulously commend himself, asked this from the Lord. And that martyr appeared to him and admonished him that he should build a little monastery in the aforesaid estate where he was staying, and he should commit it to none of his line to be ruled. He, having returned to the world above, called to him Audoënus, archbishop of Rouen and priest of Christ, and the man of God Wandregisl, abbot of the abbey of Fontenelle, and he told them about his vision, and at the same time received by their prayers the desired recovery from the fever which oppressed him; and he began to build the aforesaid abbey there as he had been admonished.

2. King Chlothar, son of Clovis the Younger, was at the same gathering, and was summoned by the famous and greatest marvel of that miracle which had been done for Waning: that is, that he had been restored to the gate of life from the threshold of death by the prayers of the priest and the abbot, and that on his deathbed the chaos of Hell was revealed to him through a rapture, and that through a heavenly vision, as happened to King Hezekiah, 20 years had been added to his life. Whereupon, at this heavenly spectacle, a mighty rumour gathered all the primates of the Franks and a great multitude of the people. Therefore, the work for which the pontiff and the abbot had convened was carried out, the monastery was dedicated, a number of holy virgins was gathered and a Rule for living was set out. There was at that time in the town of Bordeaux a virgin of Christ name Hildemarca, governess in a very holy monastery of nuns, to whom a certain man of God and deacon named Sindard, when he was sent to those parts on the business of the servants of God at Fontenelle, was accustomed to turn for hospitality. She told him that she had been admonished in a vision that she should go to Rouen and visit the man of the lord Wandregisl and obey the divine edicts under his rule. As is described in her deeds, she went to the servant of Christ, and he led her to the aforesaid very illustrious Waning, and the same Waning, bestowing the aforesaid abbey of Fécamp on the blessed Wandregisl through a testament, by his advice gave it to the same very religious virgin to be ruled. The little book which was written of her acts clearly tells of her biography and her laudable way of life.

3. After King Chlothar had died, Childeric received the realm of the Franks. He did not quite hold the realm for four years before he died and was succeeded by his brother Theuderic. In his time, Ebroin the mayor of the palace held St Leodegar, bishop of Auxerre, in chains. He summoned the aforesaid Waning and said ‘Take Leodegar, whom you have often seen as a proud man. It is to be the time of his final summons, when he receives what he deserves from his enemies.’ Having received him, he took him to the aforesaid abbey, in which, abiding for many days, he stayed under custody. And indeed his tongue, although it had been cut out, received its usual office, and gave unto the people the mighty seed of his doctrine, so that as many times as he went amongst the virgins, as it is said, so many times did his sweet eloquence shine, so that anyone who heard it marvelled how great a mercy of God had been worked; and having converted from their wicked works they quickly sought the fruit of penitence.

4. The same place flourished from the time of the aforesaid kings until the time of Emperor Louis, son of Charlemagne. In his time, the cruellest race of the Danes burst in on France’s shores, and brought no little slaughter to the Christian people. Whence it happened that the nuns fled the aforesaid monastery, and the same place was returned to wasteland, such that what had been an ornament for those who worship Christ became a dwelling-place for wild animals.

5. In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation eight hundred and seventy six, with King Charles governing the realm of the Franks, a certain Rollo, a Dane by nation, a pagan by rite, a knight by order, with his men, entered France by ship. After wreaking terrible havoc on the land, he received a part of it from the aforesaid king and the magnates of the realm; and having gained baptism’s grace he remained faithful for the rest of his life. As long as he lived, he ruled that land well, and he preserved for its dwellers their paternal laws and rights. In the nine hundred and seventeenth year from the Lord’s Incarnation he quit this world.

His son William succeeded to his realm, who built the palace of Fécamp with marvellous workmanship. While he dwelled there, he begat a son named Richard, a child elegant in form, whom he commanded be instructed in legal disciplines by the princes of his land. In that time, no-one yet lived in the aforesaid destroyed monastery, because a great wood had grown over the destroyed walls there. In that place, the estate’s peasants covered up, as far as they were able to at the time, an altar they had found amongst the brushwood, concerning the beginnings of which (as we have heard from the ancients) the Creator and Redeemer of the human race, foreknowing that He would be served in that place in future, deigned to reveal a great miracle in the form of a certain marvellous stag.

6. It happened that in those days, in the district of the Cotentin, on a certain island in the sea named Saint-Marcouf, there was a chapel build from well-worked wood in memory of that confessor. God, wishing to show mortals how great and good the same place would be in future, which was then little and vile to men, deigned to work a certain act. Truly, the sea, obeying the commands of its Maker, led by an angel, sent that whole building to the aforesaid place of Fécamp in the same state it had previously been in, without human help, and left it there.

7. Widespread rumour of this deed spread, and nearly from that hour it began to be venerated by the nearby inhabitants, and when it came to pass that they wanted to celebrate the divine office there, not at that time knowing in whose honour the place should be venerated, there suddenly appeared to them a man elegantly fit out in venerable white, who entered the oratory in the sight of everyone and placed on the altar a dagger on whose hilt was written in letters of gold: ‘in honour of the Holy Trinity’. When he had placed this on the altar, he prayed, and saying nothing to anyone he left the oratory and then was not visible, from which he was shown to be indubitably an angel of God. The dagger is kept to this day in that church as a great gift, in testimony of this miracle.

8. In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation nine hundred and forty three, Duke William was killed by a trick by Count Arnulf. The youthful Richard, of pious memory, succeeded to his realm. He, because of God’s will and his birth, loved the aforesaid place. One day, standing at the entrance to his house, he noticed that the house itself was taller and more capacious than the basilica dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity. He summoned a stonemason who was skilled in the art of architecture and said to him: ‘It is right and fitting that the house of God and of prayer should be roofed superlatively well, with particular beauty and appropriate height, to be supereminent over all the buildings of this city; because the Shaper and Redeemer of mankind assigned it to himself by his generous indulgence, to be the mother of wonderful regeneration through the bath of symbolic washing, and in this building we ought to hear the words of divine wisdom and weep for our sins. For this hall is named the gate of Heaven, and it is where they dwell and over which heaven’s dwellers preside. This house is, as the Psalmist says, ‘the hill of God, the fat hill, the hill in which God is pleased to dwell’, ‘for the Lord will dwell in it to the end’. For this is the hill on which my grandfather Rollo saw himself standing, through the salutary mystery of the holy vision, and washing himself in the fount of salvation; and in a dream beheld himself purified from the leprosy of the vices by which he was infected. Therefore, as it is fitting that the house of God should excel our house, with a loftier design and a bigger roof, try and find if you can any building stone in the gullies and heights of the nearby hills, with which you might be able to construct a temple of God taller than the house we live in’.   

And the man grasped a mattock forthwith, and went first to the cliffs along the hills, and picked away at their base with digging tools, and not finding any stony materials hard enough for his wall, he went to the slopes of the hills lying between two little streams near Fécamp and there he found a mass of gypsum. And he cut out one stone of gypsum in the shape of a cube and brought it before Duke Richard. Then said the great duke Richard: ‘Can you find enough such stone?’ He replied ‘Enough, my lord’. And Richard: ‘Put this stone in a safe place, and send many workmen to quarry the rocks, and make up a good many kilns of quicklime; because, when all the things that are necessary have been prepared, this is what I will lay down first, as the initial foundation, as notice of the raising of a house of God.’

Eventually, when the lime was prepared and the stones quarried and piled up and the tiles artfully manufactured, the most celebrated margrave constructed a shrine in honour of the Holy Trinity which was wonderful to speak of and to see. It was formed on an admirable plan, being girded with towers here, there, and on every side, and was amazingly double-arched and roofed with tiles artfully fitted together. Then he whitewashed it on the outside; but the inside he painted with historical scenes and decorated the altars with gold and jewels acquired at great cost; and he made crosses of admirable largeness from the purest gold, and he added chalices of great weight and cost in gold, and he set up golden candelabra before the sanctuary that were much taller than the figure of a man, and he assigned incense-burners of unheard-of bigness and value, made of gold, and vestments embellished by the Phrygian loom and dyed more than once in Tyrian reds. To which he applied panels with coarser gold and emerald greens, and white and purple linens embroidered with gold, and to the embroidery he devoted full silk of admirable workmanship. And he caused a numerous throng of clergy to serve Christ and labour under the discipline of the practical life and receive a day’s allowance every day.

9. In those days there was a certain priest named Isaac, a man of good life, who frequently celebrated solemn masses at the altar of the holy bishop and confessor Macutus not far from Fécamp, two miles away. One day, in his usual way, he was doing this after the Sunday prayer and he found the host turned into flesh and the wine similarly to blood. And thus, after he had completed the mysteries and dismissed the faithful who were in the church, he went to Prince Richard and told him what had happened to them. The joyful duke gave thanks to God, Who deigned to reveal such a mystery to mortals, lest anyone thereafter should doubt it to be the body and blood of God. Therefore, having gathered a multitude of clerics, they brought the true body into the church at Fécamp and placed it on the altar of the Holy Trinity. With everything which was necessary for the dedicated prepared, the aforesaid duke gathered fourteen bishops, and with great joy, in the year of the Lord’s Incarnation nine hundred and ninety, on the 17th kalends of July [15th June], they happily dedicated the church. On that day, Duke Richard gave as a gift to that church… Argences and Mondeville with everything which pertained to them…

[Underlined sections very lightly adapted from the translation by Eric Christiansen]

fecamp_abbey_chevet10
The abbey of Fécamp today (source)

The other major event in the West Frankish kingdom in 911 was of course* the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, granting Rouen and the adjoining districts to the Viking leader Rollo and laying the foundations for the duchy of Normandy. I didn’t want to let this pass unnoticed, but I’ve already said much of what I wanted to say under the Charter A Week for 905, and much of the rest will come in the equivalent for 918. So, with that in mind, I have translated for you possibly the earliest history of Normandy from within the duchy itself.

This text, known as the Fécamp Chronicle, comes, unsurprisingly, from the abbey of Fécamp. It can be dated quite precisely: it was written after the death of Duke Richard I in 996 (note that he shows us as ‘of pious memory’) but before the replacement of the canons of Fécamp by Benedictine monks in 1001, a year that the Benedictine community regarded as its real foundation date. This, incidentally, provides important evidence about the dating of Dudo’s Historia Normannorum, because the underlined section was taken from there wholesale by the Fécamp Chronicle’s author (who appears not to have been Dudo, because he uses a completely different set of hagiographical sources). This means that parts at least of Dudo’s work were both extant and circulating as early as 1000.

That is in and of itself significant. Cross has recently argued that one of the reasons we think of Normandy as, well, ‘Normandy’, is that the dukes were willing and able to throw vast amounts of patronage at literary production. The value of the word ‘propaganda’ has been questioned in this context, but I think it’s apt enough. This text is a good example of that. The work is not really about how great the Norman dukes are, it’s about how great the abbey of Fécamp is, and about showing continuity in its holiness between the year 1000 and its far-flung Merovingian past. Yet when they need to draw on a Norman past, it is the ducal version (and Dudo’s specifically) which they draw on. Fécamp was very close to the dukes, but we can see similar phenomena in other Norman abbeys as the eleventh century progresses.

One can even see it outside of Normandy by a later period – when versions of Norman history show up in twelfth-century French works, from my admittedly-limited experience, they tend to be based on Dudo. This is particularly interesting, because what you don’t find are the versions of the story found in, say, the histories of Adhemar of Chabannes or Richer of Rheims. Neither of these specific works circulated terribly widely, but the stories they are telling may have done. Especially in the former case, some bits of the Fécamp Chronicle look like they’re addressing specific charges made against Rollo. For instance, Adhemar describes how Rollo continued with pagan practice after his baptism, including sacrificing prisoners to the Norse gods; by contrast, the Fécamp Chronicle insists that he remained faithful until his dying breath. It therefore looks like the dukes were using their resources to flood the market with their own version of the story – and that it worked.

*I say ‘of course’; our evidence for the date of the foundation of Normandy comes from Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s Historia Normannorum and is… a bit tenuous, let’s say.

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