- The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis
Using the twelfth-century chronicle of the Anglo-Norman monk, Orderic Vitalis, as her base, Amanda Hingst has constructed an elegantly written, engaging text that explores medieval understandings of place and time. This ambitious work takes the unusual approach of grounding the historian's understanding of his wider world by locating him within his physical environment. As those who study Britain and France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries would be well aware, Orderic Vitalis was an important observer of his society whose world chronicle is now available in excellent modern editions. This makes him an ideal subject for such a study. [End Page 218]
The book is divided into six chapters that each act as a case study that explores different aspects of the physical world addressed in the chronicle. The first locates the site of authorship within the region of the Pay d'Ouche in Normandy where the monastery that Orderic Vitalis entered at the age of 10 was situated. Here, Hingst recounts the history of the monastery, a community established on the site of a previous foundation founded by St Evroul some four centuries before. This allows Hingst to discuss the relic-cult of St Evroul, including the theft and recovery of the saint's relics, and the significance of locality for such cults. It also provides her with an opportunity to briefly explore the legacy of the desert and the eremetical life in monastic intellectual culture.
In her next three chapters Hingst discusses the broader geopolitical landscape, beginning with her second chapter, 'Classical geography and the Gens Normannorum', where she examines not only Orderic's sources and his knowledge of models such as Bede's Historia Anglorum, which he had personally copied, but also their impact on the shaping of his history. Ironically, given the focus of this book, Orderic had rejected the geographical introduction, so much a feature of these histories. Instead his world is one 'driven by change', with less focus on a static physical world such descriptions provided. Orderic's world is one reflecting the complicated concept of the gens Normannorum, a group defined less by ethnicity than by ethos, by their conquest of a new homeland, an identity that was not diminished as their territorial control extended into Apulia and Britain.
In the third chapter Hingst argues that the Norman concept of the world differed from earlier western imaginings because of the importance of the sea. For example, Britain, which for the Mediterranean Isidore of Seville was an island cut off from the world by the ocean, becomes for the Normans united with the mainland in a community where the sea is at the centre, ringed by land. While this is an engaging insight, one of my frustrations with this chapter is the lack of evidence drawn from Orderic Vitalis's own writings. More detail is needed to explore this idea further and to examine whether this was an attitude associated specifically with him or one generally held by Norman writers.
At the heart of this understanding of the world was the conquest of Britain. In her chapter on Britain, Hingst takes up Orderic's use of the noun 'Albion' to present a unification of both pre and post-Conquest British history as well as a conceptualization of the British Isles as a single geographical and, [End Page 219] potentially, political unit, that includes Scots, Irish, English, Welsh, Danes and Normans. This chapter rounds out and completes the ideas embodied in gens Normannorum.
The final three chapters concern, to a certain extent, a more spiritual landscape, although they lack the coherence of the preceding three. In the first, Hingst examines the idea of Jerusalem, not just geographically, but also metaphorically, finding a new Jerusalem in the altar of Orderic's own monastic church, as well as temporally. She also discusses the diagrammatic construction of the world as found in...