Dudo of Saint-Quentin and the Earliest Norman Court

Recently, I’ve had cause to look at the Historia Normannorum of Dudo of Saint-Quentin again. As many of you will know, I have past form with this work, but this time I was looking at it as a source for the events of the 940s rather than the ideology of the 1000s. Now, if you’ve encountered Dudo’s work, you’ll know that that’s a rather dicey thing to do, and I really wouldn’t want to disagree with it. In fact, probably the best thing you can say about Dudo is that he’s not the most ludicrous thing you’ll encounter reading about the earliest Norman elite…

Anyway, what I was looking for was a simple question: who does Dudo say was in the following of the Norman rulers in c. 940? The short answer is not many people. Rather like his contemporary Richer of Rheims, Dudo is not a court chronicler in the strict sense. He’s not interested in nailing down who surrounds the Norman duke – the duke’s soldiers, advisors, and nobles appear as a faceless group to lend their presence to crowd scenes, but Dudo isn’t interested in them as individuals. In fact (minus speaking roles for two Breton counts which are significant for other reasons but whom I’m going to ignore now), Dudo only names four really important men other than the duke in the earliest days of Normandy: Botho of Bayeux, Bernard the Dane, Anslech, and (the legendary) Ralph Torta.

Of those four, only Ralph Torta shows up in other independent sources – specifically, a section of William of Jumièges’ Gesta Normannorum Ducum which appears to be based on oral tradition from the monastery of Jumièges.

The abbey of Jumièges as it stands today (source).

The rest are only known from Dudo’s work. So, what does he say about them? Botho is probably the most significant figure. He has two distinct personalities, one as an ‘outstanding count of the Normans’ strongly associated with Bayeux, and the others as the commander-in-chief of the Norman army. He then disappears from the work around the beginning of the reign of Richard the Fearless (c. 945). Bernard the Dane (Dacigena, ‘Dacian-born’) is described as one of William Longsword’s chief confidantes (the word used is secretarius, which as he is also called conscius secretorum – i.e. a secret keeper – can’t really be translated as ‘secretary’ or any other kind of household position), and one of the leading citizens (optimates) of Rouen. After William Longsword’s death and Botho’s disappearance, he steps into the role of ‘leader of the Norman army’ and plays a major role in keeping the young Richard the Fearless safe from the machinations of his Frankish enemies. He’s also the one whom Dudo gives us the best sense of a personality for – Bernard gets a lot of the best lines, and he comes across as a loyal but acid straight-talker not afraid to say ‘I told you so’. Notably, where Botho was called a ‘count’ Bernard is only ever called a knight (miles). In turn, he disappears from the narrative when Richard comes of age. Anslech is by far the least fleshed-out – like Bernard, he is called William Longsword’s confidante and a principal citizen of Rouen; but his role in the book is peripheral at best. Finally, Ralph Torta, who is another of the leading citizens of Rouen. In what in context is the late 940s he was able to claim the ‘entire honour of Normandy’ for himself, although Dudo doesn’t say how or on what grounds. (William of Jumièges adds that he was a royal appointee.) Dudo presents him as a tyrant whom Richard eventually overthrows, forcing Ralph to go and seek refuge with his son, the bishop of Paris. 

First question: how much of this might be true? Starting with Botho, it’s noticeable that despite Dudo’s insistence on his Norman background, he has a very Frankish name (= Bodo) with no real Old Norse equivalent. (In fact, of the four only Anslech has a visibly Old Norse name and Bernard’s name is Carolingian par excellence.) It’s also noticeable that he is called a count, since at the time Dudo was writing there wasn’t a count of Bayeux, and in fact there was never again a count of Bayeux whilst Normandy was under ducal rule. The timing of his disappearance is also noticeable, given that Botho vanishes from the text at what we know from Flodoard’s Annals was the same time that Bayeux was conquered by a Viking warlord named Harald. Bernard the Dane is more difficult – we are given few incidental details about his background, and although his personality is well-developed it’s also idealised. Vikings in Frankish sources are often presented as witty, albeit cruelly so; and Dudo’s combination of that trait with loyalty and resource is a model of the ideal Norman retainer, not a specific person. Finally, I am inclined to believe that Ralph Torta’s son was the bishop of Paris, because it’s such an odd and pointless bit of information that the most plausible reason it’s in there is that it was true. What makes this interesting is that this elite seems to have been deeply enmeshed in the Carolingian world. It’s possible that ‘Bernard’ is a baptismal name (‘William’ doesn’t seem to have been the name William Longsword was born with either), but Botho seems much more likely to have been actually Frankish, a Frankish count no less, bound to Rouen by ties of fictive kinship engendered by fostering. Similarly, Ralph Torta was able to persuade Louis IV to appoint him as ruler of Rouen in the mid-to-late 940s, and his son (probably Bishop Walter of Paris) was a major figure in the Church hierarchy outside Normandy. (In fact, given that the contemporary archbishop of Rouen, Hugh de Calvacamp, had been a monk at Saint-Denis, the rather arresting image is raised of a kind of bishop exchange programme…) Dudo, then, has taken this elite and recast it in a Norman image.

Such a recasting is unsurprising in terms of what we know about Dudo’s agenda; but can we use Dudo’s reimagining of the men to get negative information about them? I think so. Above all, I think it shows that these men had no descendants, if not biologically at least in terms of people who wanted to claim them as ancestors. In the case of Botho and Ralph Torta, this fits what we know about their careers as well. (Later genealogists have claimed a posterity for them – the house of Taisson for Botho, that of Harcourt and also Beaumont for Bernard the Dane, and Montfort for Anslech – but the earliest evidence for this comes from hundreds of years later and more contemporary sources don’t know it.*) It is of course possible that there were myths and stories circulating about these men, but if so Dudo either didn’t know them or didn’t want to use them – and his Norman patrons clearly agreed with him. This fits in with an argument I’ve made before: the tumultuous period between c. 940 and c. 960 represents a significant break with the early Rouen countship of Rollo and William Longsword, and part of that was a massive turnover amongst the elites, definitely in terms of their self-understanding and quite probably in terms of the actual people concerned. In short: the old elite were killed or forced out, and a new, heterogenous elite who owed their positions to Richard the Fearless came to the fore. This elite and their descendants, then, would be the people who built pre-Conquest Normandy.

(*If you’ve found this blog post because you’re following that particular rabbit hole, then let’s be clear: this is all nonsense, there’s no evidence for this, and ridiculous claims like Bernard the Dane being “of the blood-royal of Saxony” are bad Victorian inferences.)

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