Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Deeds of Robert Guiscard

The work of William of Apulia is in the form of a long epic poem of 2832 verses in five books.[1] It begins with the arrival of the first Normans in Italy around 1015 and ends with the death of Robert Guiscard in 1085. While Guiscard figures prominently in Amatus of Montecassino’s Historia Normannorum, it is really Richard of Capua (as protector of Montecassino from 1058 until his death in 1078) who served as the focal point of his work. Similarly, though Robert is a major player in Malaterra’s De rebus gestis Rogerii et Roberti, the main protagonist is his younger brother Roger. William of Apulia is the only one of the first generation of historians of the Normans in Italy to give Guiscard his full attention. In his Gesta Roberti Wiscardi, William imitated the poets of classical Antiquity and his intention in the poem was twofold. First, he praised the Hauteville family and celebrated the exploits of Robert Guiscard, the most illustrious of the children of Tancred de Hauteville. Secondly, he demonstrated that the power of the Normans, acquired by force was legitimate and that the replacement of the Greeks by the Normans at least in southern Italy conformed to the plans of divine Providence.

The writing of the ‘deeds’ of particular individuals was an important feature of the historiography of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.[2] These works focus on the reporting of deeds rather than providing detailed biographical information. Essentially they tell the ‘heroic’ story and Cusimano and Moorhead suggest that they are linked ‘perhaps’ to the old French chanson de geste. [3] More to the point, I think it is the continued importance of orality in a period when literacy was the preserve of the few. The problem with using the term ‘gesta’ is that it lacks the distinguishing features of chronicles of this genre: a commitment to chronological progression through a reign or life; clear thematic development usually grounded in ethical precepts defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kingship; and a degree of historical completeness. Perhaps it is better to look at the gesta as a piece of ‘selective’ or episodic biography.[4]

When was it written?

This poem, one of our main contemporary sources for the Norman Conquest of Italy, was composed between 1096 and 1099. The dedication in the prologue to Urban II gives a terminus ante quem, for the pope died on 29th July 1099 and a reference, in Book III, to ‘the Gallic race [who] wanted to open the roads to the Holy Sepulchre’ suggests that William was writing after the beginning of the First Crusade, called by Urban II in November 1095 at Clermont. The influence of Roger Borsa (1085-1111) to whom the poem is also dedicated is evident in those passages where William of Apulia established the legitimacy of this prince especially his conflict with his half-brother Bohemond following the death of their father in mid-1085. William declared that the power of Robert Guiscard was founded on his military ability but had been legitimated by his marriage to Sichelgaita of the ruling Lombard dynasty of Salerno and the papal investiture at Melfi in 1059. The ‘selective’ nature of Guiscard’s biography can be seen as a legitimating document for the Hauteville family in Apulia and Calabria.


[1] This translation is a combination of a version that I initially made in 1971-1972 and revised in 2003 and 2008.  I have checked it against a newer version by Graham Loud.

[2] Examples of this genre include: Wipo’s The Deeds of the Emperor Conrad, William of Poitiers’ The Deeds of William the Conqueror, the anonymous Deeds of Stephen and Otto of Freising’s The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa.

[3] For example, links have been made between Abbot Suger’s writings and the crusading works with ‘gesta’ in their title especially the anonymous Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum and Fulcher of Chartres Gesta Francorum Iherusalem peregrinantium and Suger twice stated that his book was an account of the ‘gesta Francorum’ in chapters 1 and 10. On this see Hunt, Tony, ‘L’inspiration ideologique du Charroi de Nîmes’, Revue belge de philology et d’histoire, vol. lxvi, (1978), pp. 580-606 and my Louis VI, Suger and History: preliminary papers, 2003, revised 2008.

[4] The notion of ‘selective’ biography is not a type of historical writing exclusive to the medieval period. In the nineteenth century for example, politicians were especially prone to getting their biographies published so that they could tell their sides of the story and were often extremely ‘selective’ with the ‘facts’. We still have ‘official’ biographies today written by historians often with access to family papers unavailable to other scholars. The idea that biography should narrate an individual’s life ‘warts and all’ is a quite recent phenomenon and authors today are often at pains to emphasise that their conclusions have not been influenced by surviving family members.

No comments: