Rollo as Literary Figure
Emily Albu

©2002 Emily Albu.

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 Rollo’s Travels, with specialized titles: Rollo in Naples, Rollo in Rome, and of course Rollo in Paris. I don’t 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 don’t 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.

You’ve 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 won’t 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 Rollo’s 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” (I’ll use Dudo’s title here)
3) on Rollo’s son, William Longsword, the peace-loving martyr, and
4) on William’s son, Richard I, the complete Norman prince, who can fight or preach, equally at home in prayer or in trickery.

If Hasting is at the very bottom of Dudo’s civilization scale, and Richard is at the top, his Rollo begins at Hasting’s level and gradually makes his way upward. He is the educable viking. The contrast with Hasting is critical. Here, for instance, are Dudo’s verses introducing the villain, Hasting:

He is accursed and fierce, too cruel and savage.
Plague-bearing, dangerous, grim, ferocious, profligate.
Plague-bearing and fickle, insolent, vain and lawless.
Deadly, pitiless, wily, everywhere insurgent.
Traitor and inciter of evil, double-dealing dissimulator.
Unscrupulous, haughty, corrupting, deceitful, and reckless,
Gallows-bait, defiled, unbridled, contentious.
Scion of plague-bearing evil, increment of guile.
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.

Dudo’s Rollo begins just like this Hasting. He has the same potential for violence, but divine forces prod him toward Christianity, toward civilization.

Early in Rollo’s adventures, soon after an evil king has killed Rollo’s 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 Rollo’s 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 Rollo’s 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 Rollo’s great-great-great grandson, William the Conqueror, would have recalled this link, but historians of William’s day, at least, do not use it to press the legality of his claims.

Eventually, Dudo’s Rollo seizes a better opportunity than marauding. He seeks real estate of his own and, perhaps more pointedly in Dudo’s account — power. He accepts Christianity in exchange for land and the French king’s daughter. But he does not suddenly transform into the French gentleman, as we are reminded by the incident when Rollo refuses to kiss the king’s 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 Rollo’s son and heir, William Longsword. Probably Dudo also had little to say about Rollo’s period of lordship over the new duchy. He does want to assure readers that William is in fact Rollo’s son, born to a much loved concubine, and Rollo’s chosen successor. He also wants to discredit Rollo’s 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 wife’s favors. Rollo is not amused. He has the Frenchmen hanged in the town square.

One last episode shows Rollo meting out rough justice in his new land. This is the now famous story of the missing plow and the peasant’s 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 Dudo’s 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 Rollo’s grandson, Richard I, as he dedicates the monastery of Fécamp at its refoundation in 990, recall Rollo’s 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 Dudo’s story of Rollo’s reform through Christianity.

A half century after Dudo, the monk William of Jumieges wrote an epitome and continuation of Dudo’s history. The reader of William’s Gesta Normannorum Ducum has to work hard to construct a pattern out of William’s version or recover any coherent portrait of Rollo. The reason for this difficulty, I think, lies in William’s 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 — Björn’s 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 Rollo’s 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 Dudo’s Rollo myth and leaves us with a Rollo whose reform is as improbable as it is abrupt. By abbreviating Rollo’s early adventures almost to the point of obliterating them, William gives up a golden opportunity to exploit Dudo’s 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 Conquest.

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 2.4(10)]

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 king’s daughter in exchange for conversion to Christianity. This Rollo consults with his men and accepts the king’s deal. William omits Dudo’s electrifying scene with King Charles and the viking compelled to kiss the king’s foot. In its place, William sets a harmonious conversion [2.13(19)]:

And 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.

William might have lingered more on Rollo now that he was a Christian ruler. Still, he dropped Dudo’s enigmatic tale of the two soldiers sent by the French king and harbored by Gisla, Rollo’s 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 Dudo’s 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 Dudo’s De moribus.

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 that’s 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 Rollo’s 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 Lord’s 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 Rollo’s body, in his new cathedral church. This epitaph summarized Rollo’s exploits as a viking and ends with his conversion (3.90, ll. 15-19):

After much carnage, looting, torching, and bloodshed,
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.
Before, 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 Rollo’s 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 Orderic’s 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 Guitmund’s indictment goes further, to assail the evil of the Conquest, the murder, exile, imprisonment, and “intolerable servitude” — all the results of the Conqueror’s ambitions.

Scripture forbids anyone’s 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.

Guitmund’s 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 from heaven.

Throughout this impassioned episode, Orderic makes Guitmund the speaker. But did the historical Guitmund really deliver this diatribe to the Conqueror? I think in Guitmund’s 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.

A 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 Rollo’s 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.

While 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 Orderic’s 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. Stephen’s held this manuscript. (4)

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.

Wace’s Rollo 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 that’s always present in Wace’s verse.

This sanitized 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.


1. Kenneth Wolf, Making History: The Normans and their Historians in Eleventh-Century Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 149.

2. On this speech and its sources, see Orderic Vitalis, 2:270-9.

3. On Wace’s 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), 3:101-68.

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, 1865).

GND: William of Jumièges.

Malaterra: Geoffrey Malaterra, De rebus gestis Rogerii Calabriae et Siciliae comitis et Roberti Guiscardi ducis fratis eius, edited by Ernesto Pontieri (Bologna: N. Zanichelli, 1928).

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).

©2002 Emily Albu. You may download and print this article for private use. You may use brief excerpts in your own work, as long as you give proper attribution. All other rights reserved.