as Literary Figure©2002
I like to think that Dudo of St-Quentin would be as amused
as I was to find the titles that appeared when I did a library search for holdings
with Rollo in the title. First came Rollo at Play, then Rollo
at Work (subtitled the way for a boy to learn to be industrious),
followed by Rollo in Society. Next a whole series on Rollos
Travels, with specialized titles: Rollo in Naples, Rollo in
Rome, and of course Rollo in Paris. I dont usually burst out
laughing in libraries, but I startled a row of silent, serious folks when I finally
hit upon The Rollo Code of Morals. I had stumbled upon the Rollo Series,
a popular collection of edifying tales written by one Jacob Abbott (1803-1879)
for nineteenth-century New England schoolboys.
I dont think that
Rollo was a name randomly chosen. Its selection suggests some memory of the barbarian
who, despite his nasty manners, has the capacity for good behavior and finally
does in fact become civilized, albeit after considerable moral training, and enter
into proper society. Little Rollo of the nineteenth century, in other words, recalls
the mythic reconstruction of the viking Rollo of the ninth century.
heard from Rob what we can ascertain about the historical Rollo. We can know much
more, of course, about the mythic Rollo, and that knowledge reveals a great deal
about the Normans themselves, the myth-makers who kept redesigning that Rollo,
and about the construction of Norman identity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
So I wont really deal with the Rolf of the Old Norse Rolfssaga, but only
of his Norman incarnations in historians from Dudo to Wace.
Dudo, of course,
is the Norman myth-maker par excellence. Probably everybody here knows
his De moribus written for Rollos great-grandson, the Norman Duke
Richard II. This work fashions a compelling story of the progressive civilizing
of the Northmen / Normans, a story organized into four books, each devoted to
its own hero:
1) on Hasting, the archetypal viking,
savage and unredeemable
2) on Rollo, the viking who converts to Christianity
and becomes the first Norman duke (Ill use Dudos title
3) on Rollos son, William Longsword, the peace-loving martyr, and
on Williams son, Richard I, the complete Norman prince, who can fight or
preach, equally at home in prayer or in trickery.
is at the very bottom of Dudos civilization scale, and Richard is at the
top, his Rollo begins at Hastings level and gradually makes his way upward.
He is the educable viking. The contrast with Hasting is critical. Here, for instance,
are Dudos verses introducing the villain, Hasting:
is accursed and fierce, too cruel and savage.
Plague-bearing, dangerous, grim,
Plague-bearing and fickle, insolent, vain and lawless.
pitiless, wily, everywhere insurgent.
Traitor and inciter of evil, double-dealing
Unscrupulous, haughty, corrupting, deceitful, and reckless,
defiled, unbridled, contentious.
Scion of plague-bearing evil, increment of
Not to be censured with ink but with charcoal.
And towering above
all others in crime by so much
As the distance up to starry Olympus.
Rollo begins just like this Hasting. He has the same potential for violence, but
divine forces prod him toward Christianity, toward civilization.
in Rollos adventures, soon after an evil king has killed Rollos brother
and driven Rollo himself from his Scandinavian homeland, Dudo has him hear the
divine voice that will eventually guide him to salvation. Having made his escape
from the murderous king, Rollo tarries on the island called Scanza. Physically
and emotionally exhausted, he falls into an anxious sleep, when he hears a vox
divina saying, Rollo, quickly get up! Hurry! Sail across the sea! Go
ad Anglos, where you will hear how you will return, saved, to your country
and enjoy perpetual peace there without any harm (2.5). A Christian sage
counsels him that this means he must accept baptism and join the Angeli
(angels). But Rollo prefers to attack the Angles.
Still, the visions persist.
In England Rollo has a second dream (2.6), the now well-known vision of the birds
flocking around a spring. A Christian captive interprets this to foretell Rollos
power atop a multi-ethnic hierarchy, a possibility offered by conversion to Christianity.
Rollo begins to take notice. Soon he makes an alliance with a Christian English
king, one Athelstane. Back in France, Rollo abandons a siege of Paris
to return to England and protect this ally (2.17-20). In the De moribus
this episode establishes Rollos increasing Christian sympathies and concern
for human obligations. Dudo even has Athelstane belittle the rebellious English,
who are unworthy to rule their own land, and offer Rollo half his kingdom. It
is startling to see how little the Normans exploited this part of the Rollo myth.
I would expect if it were taken at all seriously that Rollos
great-great-great grandson, William the Conqueror, would have recalled this link,
but historians of Williams day, at least, do not use it to press the legality
of his claims.
Eventually, Dudos Rollo seizes a better opportunity
than marauding. He seeks real estate of his own and, perhaps more pointedly in
Dudos account power. He accepts Christianity in exchange for land
and the French kings daughter. But he does not suddenly transform into the
French gentleman, as we are reminded by the incident when Rollo refuses to kiss
the kings foot in homage. Nor do his vikings reform, as we see when the
designated foot-kisser upends the king. Rollo and his newly minted Normans will
surely spell trouble for the French.
Once Rollo holds Normandy, Dudo is
eager to move on to Rollos son and heir, William Longsword. Probably Dudo
also had little to say about Rollos period of lordship over the new duchy.
He does want to assure readers that William is in fact Rollos son, born
to a much loved concubine, and Rollos chosen successor. He also wants to
discredit Rollos Frankish wife, which he does by telling the story of her
harboring French spies. Here we see Rollo as the discomfited husband, and Dudo
has obvious fun with this tale when he has disgruntled Northmen embarrass their
duke by insinuating that these Frenchmen are enjoying his wifes favors.
Rollo is not amused. He has the Frenchmen hanged in the town square.
last episode shows Rollo meting out rough justice in his new land. This is the
now famous story of the missing plow and the peasants wife who tried to
bamboozle Rollo into reimbursing her husband for the plow she herself had stolen
(2.31-32). Rollo had them hanged, too both the thief and her husband.
In Dudos pages, the Rollo myth is a coherent story of progress from barbarous
marauder to dispenser of rough justice in a new land which he then transmits to
a fully Scandinavian son by a Scandinavian concubine. But Dudo also remembers
the early Rollo, moved toward this destiny by divine visions. So at the end of
his history he has Rollos grandson, Richard I, as he dedicates the monastery
of Fécamp at its refoundation in 990, recall Rollos vision of that
very spot (4.126): For this is the mount on which my grandfather saw himself
standing and washed in the salvific font, according to the salvific mystery of
the divine vision, and in a dream saw himself being purified of the leprosy of
vices that afflicted him. It is a noble view, linking Richard to Rollo in
salvation and destiny, and it appends a fine coda to Dudos story of Rollos
reform through Christianity.
A half century after Dudo, the monk William
of Jumieges wrote an epitome and continuation of Dudos history. The reader
of Williams Gesta Normannorum Ducum has to work hard to construct
a pattern out of Williams version or recover any coherent portrait of Rollo.
The reason for this difficulty, I think, lies in Williams desire to distance
the Norman dukes from their pagan ancestors. Though he betrays considerable interest
in the Scandinavians in and around his Norman world, still he works to separate
his duke from his viking past.
So he makes Rollo a less dominant
figure, in the process de-romanticizing the swashbuckling pagan. He essentially
replaced him with another viking, the Anglo-Scandinavian Björn Ironside,
a supposed protégé of Hasting. Even as William de-emphasized the
pagan ancestors of William the Conqueror, he glamorized Björn by conceding
to him magic protection against foes, a common characteristic of heroes in Scandinavian
sagas Björns mother had given him very strong magic potions
that protected him from harm in battle. Rollo, on the other hand, is at first
invisible in his own book two, until he surfaces only at the end of the third
chapter, when he is chosen by lot to lead his viking band.
In the introductory
letter to his epitome, William explains his most self-conscious deletion, that
of Rollos adventures before his baptism:
Of course, I
have excluded from my historical survey the genealogy of the pagan-born Rollo
and many of his deeds in his pagan youth, before he was finally reborn to holy
infancy at the font that brings salvation, and also his dream and many things
of this sort, since I consider them completely fawning and presenting no pretext
of anything honorable or edifying.
But excising the dreams
removes the powerful core of Dudos Rollo myth and leaves us with a Rollo
whose reform is as improbable as it is abrupt. By abbreviating Rollos early
adventures almost to the point of obliterating them, William gives up a golden
opportunity to exploit Dudos story of an early promise of England by an
English king to the first duke of Normandy, progenitor of the Conqueror. Imagine
how grateful William the Conqueror might have been, had William of Jumieges slipped
this into his final version of his own Dudo epitome, produced in the wake of the
William of Jumieges does present Rollo as pagan marauder, vividly
if quite succinctly:
And so Rollo, appointed as leader, plotted
with his men to demolish Paris, scheming in his sly heart and thirsting with a
pagan instinct for the blood of Christians the way a wolf does. [GND
But after Rollo breaks a truce to ravage the French
countryside one last time with his usual madness (solita rabie),
he morphs from pirate to lawful prince when the French king offers him land and
the kings daughter in exchange for conversion to Christianity. This Rollo
consults with his men and accepts the kings deal. William omits Dudos
electrifying scene with King Charles and the viking compelled to kiss the kings
foot. In its place, William sets a harmonious conversion [2.13(19)]:
when the pagans see that their leader is a Christian, they set aside their idols
and with one mind adopt the name of Christ, flocking to baptism.
might have lingered more on Rollo now that he was a Christian ruler. Still, he
dropped Dudos enigmatic tale of the two soldiers sent by the French king
and harbored by Gisla, Rollos Frankish bride. Did he find this tale improbably
or simply expendable as he abbreviated a long work? If did he remove it with more
conscious thought, because he wanted to delete Dudos hints at continuing
Franco-Norman hostilities? In any case, Robert of Torigni put the episode back
in his copy of the GND [2,(21)], just as he also retrieved many of the
other excluded adventures from Dudo and restored them to his text. [E.g. in 2.7(13)
and 8(14)] So these Rollo stories traveled with some of the Gesta Normannorum
Ducum texts just as they did with the circulating copies of Dudos De
The three Italo-Norman histories (Amatus, William of Apulia,
and Malaterra) have very little concern with the stories of viking ancestors or
early Normans. Indeed, they waste little time in getting their own heroes to Italy,
devoting little attention to the old country. Of the three, only Malaterra recalls
Rollo (Rodlo, dux fortissimus ... ex Noveja) with his pirate crew, pillaging
his way along the western shores until he came to the mouth of the Seine (1.1):
Along this river, penetrating the deep interior of France with his huge fleet,
he observed the charm of these places compared with all the other lands that he
had passed through, and he decided to choose this one for himself and embrace
it with his love.
Other readers of this passage have noted
its aggressive eroticism. (1) Rollo
desires the land for the fertility of its streams and fields, and he leaps ashore,
at once beginning to subjugate its people to his command (incolas illius regionis
suo imperio subjugare coeperunt), until some French king (I think it
was Louis II, writes Malaterra, vaguely) proposes the pact that cedes the
land to Rollo by right (1.2). And from this land and this people come the Normans,
whose name Malaterra, like William of Apulia, derives from the Germanic word for
the north wind. And thats it, for Rollo vaguely romanticized and
no longer an object of terror.
We have to return to the Anglo-Norman historical
tradition to find a subtler continuing link with the Rollo myth. Like Robert of
Torigni, his contemporary Orderic Vitalis made a manuscript copy of William of
Jumieges Gesta Normannorum Ducum. And like Robert, he recovered
material that William had omitted from Dudo, reinserting it into the narrative.
Orderic seems more concerned to correct the record about William the Conqueror
than about Rollo, but he did make a few additions into the early books and re-emphasized
Rollos Scandinavian connection, which William of Jumieges had obscured.
This exercise became practice for writing his own masterwork, the Ecclesiastical
History. In this work of his maturity, Orderic shows himself to be of two
minds about Rollo. On the one hand, Rollo did a good thing in converting to Christianity.
So Orderic writes of the pagan Rollo and his Danes, who ravaged nearly all
the island of Britain and destroyed sacred buildings, mangling and scattering
the Lords sheep, like wolves (1.154; cf. 2.244, 6). Orderic seems
to agree with the epitaph inscribed in golden letters on the new tomb to which
Archbishop Gerbert of Rouen placed Rollos body, in his new cathedral church.
This epitaph summarized Rollos exploits as a viking and ends with his conversion
(3.90, ll. 15-19):
After much carnage, looting, torching, and
he made a profitable compact with the eager Franks.
As a suppliant
he gained baptism from Franco,
and so every sin of his former existence perished.
he was a wolf to the meek, but then becomes a lamb,
May peace caress him, so
changed, before God.
Orderic, the Christian monk, would have
to profess Rollos redemption through baptism. On the other hand, I think
he speaks his heart through the words of Guitmund, a venerable monk of the
abbey which is called the Cross of Helton. In the wake of the Conquest,
King William the Conqueror pressed Guitmund to take high office. But the monk
refused, in a speech that remains one of Orderics finest creations.
(2) Here Orderic has Guitmund tell
William that the king cannot simply appoint whomever he wishes. Only a proper
canonical election can decide such matter. But Guitmunds indictment goes
further, to assail the evil of the Conquest, the murder, exile, imprisonment,
and intolerable servitude all the results of the Conquerors
Scripture forbids anyones
advancement under these circumstances, but it especially condemns the circumstances
themselves, that is, the plundering of England by the Normans. At this point the
holy man reminds his king that all kingdoms inevitably collapse. The Babylonians,
Medes, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans all have fallen in their time.
Here Orderic remembers Antenor and the line from Troy to Dacia / Denmark, from
which Rollo traced his lineage.
long speech begins to attract millennial implications, as he reckons the years
in each cycle of rule from the Babylonians to the Romans, who destroyed
the temple of Jerusalem. Now, after 600 years of rule, the Anglo-Saxons have succumbed
to the Normans. All these peoples, says Guitmund, swollen with
pride in their conquests, in just a little while succumbed to wretched death;
and now tormented by the same agonies that afflict their victims, they groan without
hope of respite in the sewers of Hell.
The very next words (after gemunt in
cloacis Erebi) are Normanni sub
Rollone duce Neustriam Karolo Simplici subtraxerunt. The damned despots of
ages past, writhing now in Hell, lead Orderic directly to the Northmen under
Rollo their leader and to the period of Norman hegemony: The Northmen
under their leader Rollo wrested Neustria from Charles the Simple, and now have
held it for a hundred and ninety years while the Gauls contested their claims
and often challenged them in an outbreak of war. The fulfillment of all
these cycles leads to one conclusion: These signs, therefore, portend the
end of the world, with attendant earthquakes, famines, plagues and signs
Throughout this impassioned
episode, Orderic makes Guitmund the speaker. But did the historical Guitmund really
deliver this diatribe to the Conqueror? I think in Guitmunds words we hear
the feelings of Orderic himself. These juxtapositions of fallen empires and conquerors
groaning in Hell suggest that, in his heart, Orderic believed that Rollo and his
kin were writhing in Hell with their fellow world conquerors.
generation later, Wace put Norman history into romance in his Roman
de Rou. Following the model of his own successful Roman de Brut
(on the history of the Britons, from their supposed progenitor, Brutus), Wace
named his Norman romance from Rollo, whom he featured in an early section in experimental
Alexandrine laisses (stanzas of unequal length, each of which keeps one
rhyme throughout). These 4,425 lines describe Rollos foundation of the duchy
and the history of the dukes until 965. At this point, Wace interrupted his task
to write a new prologue in Alexandrine laisses, summarizing the subject
matter of his entire poem in inverse order from Henry II to Rollo.
Wace never names his sources for the Rou, it is clear that he used Dudo
of Saint-Quentin, William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers, William of
Malmesbury, and Robert of Torigny. (3)
Perhaps he also knew the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio. Though Orderics
Ecclesiastical History did not circulate far, Wace found the only copy
of Books Seven and Eight that has survived to the present day. At Caen where he
was living and writing, St. Stephens held this manuscript.
Wace took the stories from the Norman historical tradition
and invested them with the attributes of romance, with its series of incidents
or adventures strung loosely together, its idealized portraits of chivalric knights.
Some of his predecessors among the Norman historians had homogenized the dukes
so that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. But no one had yet
made Rollo as generous as any idealized knight (2.1190-2) and a peace-loving saint:
Pais ama et pais quist e pais fist establir ...
Peace he loved, and peace
he sought, and peace he had established.
harbors in his heart the Christian interpretation of his prophetic dreams until
he embraces Christianity and becomes a truly civilized prince, realizing the chivalric
potential thats always present in Waces verse.
view of Rollo brings us back to little Rollo of the nineteenth century
who wants to do the right thing and so earnestly seeks out proper manners and
moral training that will make him a good boy. Here is the Rollo we have inherited
the ill-mannered gem in the rough who works toward, and ultimately achieves,
the status of a Frenchified gentleman.
Wolf, Making History: The Normans and their Historians in Eleventh-Century
Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 149.
On this speech and its sources, see Orderic Vitalis, 2:270-9.
On Waces Latin sources, see Holden in Wace, Roman de Rou et des ducs
de Normandie, 3 volumes, edited by A. J. Holden (Paris: Picard, 1970-1973),
4. Chibnall, in Orderic Vitalis, 1:xxi-xxii;
114; and 4:xxi-xxii.
Dudo: Dudo of Saint-Quentin, De
moribus et actis primorum Normanniæ ducum, edited by Jules Lair, Mémoires
de la Société des Antiquaires de Normandie 23 (Caen: F. Le Blanc-Hardel,
GND: William of Jumièges.
Malaterra, De rebus gestis Rogerii Calabriae et Siciliae comitis et Roberti
Guiscardi ducis fratis eius, edited by Ernesto Pontieri (Bologna: N. Zanichelli,
Orderic Vitalis: Orderic Vitalis, The Eccelesiastical History,
6 volumes, edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1969-1980).
William of Jumièges: William of Jumièges,
Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, The Gesta Normannorum Ducum, 2
volumes, edited and translated by Elisabeth M. C. van Houts, Oxford Medieval Texts
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992-1995).
Emily Albu. You may download and print this article for private use. You may use
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