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Gaimar, Geffreilocked

(fl. 1136–1137)
  • Ian Short

Gaimar, Geffrei (fl. 1136–1137), Anglo-Norman poet and historian, is of unknown origins, and nothing is known of his background except that he enjoyed the patronage of Constance, wife of Ralph Fitzgilbert who held lands in Lincolnshire and Hampshire, while Robert, earl of Gloucester (d. 1147), Walter Espec (d. 1153), and Walter, archdeacon of Oxford (d. 1181), are mentioned as having provided him with access to his source books, which, he specifies, were in English and French as well as Latin. Gaimar was the author of a rhymed history of Britain, L'estoire des Engleis, probably written in 1136 and 1137. Made up of 6526 rhyming octosyllables—all that survives of a much longer and more ambitious chronicle which, according to its epilogue, had originally opened with the mythical Trojan origins of British history, and which closes with the death of William Rufus in 1100—Gaimar's Estoire is the oldest surviving work of history in the French vernacular. The popularity of Wace's Roman de Brut (1155) is assumed to account for the loss of the first part of Gaimar's poem, which in its four manuscripts extant today begins in medias res with the arrival of Cerdic in Britain in 495. Up to the accession of Edgar in 959, its narrative follows the annalistic model of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which Gaimar seems to have known in its northern recension, in an archaic version which he refers to as the 'Washingborough book'. He accommodates this unpromising material to the requirements of a verse chronicle destined for a predominantly secular audience, first by consistently suppressing all reference to ecclesiastical history, and second by introducing narrative interludes from more popular sources. From the Old French epic tradition he introduces the viking Gormund in the guise of a ninth-century Danish king who invades France from England. Two more substantial interpolations are clearly selected for inclusion by virtue of their human interest: Haveloc's adventure-packed and ultimately triumphant struggle against disinheritance, and Buern Bucecarle's feud against Osberht and the vengeance exacted for the latter's rape of Buern's wife. Human interest also accounts for his extended treatment of the love affair between King Edgar and Ælfthryth.

Although he does not hesitate to take liberties with chronology, and is neither exempt from error nor averse, on occasion, to creative rewriting, Gaimar's is in general a conscientious historical narrative. Several of his descriptions of royal deaths, for example (those of Edward the Martyr, Edmund Ironside, Alfred Ætheling, and William Rufus), introduce incidental details which, even though unrecorded elsewhere, are not necessarily to be dismissed as gratuitous fiction. At the same time, his skill as a writer of literature was to accommodate his material to the tastes of his audience, and this in itself can provide valuable insights into attitudes and mentalities current in the 1130s. He restricts his account of the battle of Hastings to a literary set piece based on the heroic exploits of the jongleur Taillifer (viewed by Gaimar from the English standpoint). Hereward figures prominently in the post-conquest part of Gaimar's chronicle, where he is unambiguously portrayed as a freedom fighter against Norman oppression. Gaimar's positive portrayal of Cnut, Robert Curthose, Earl Hugh of Chester, and Rufus, and his account of courtesy and chivalry at the latter's court, all provide an alternative secular voice to those of monastic and church chroniclers of the twelfth century. Gaimar signs off his poem enigmatically by an evocation of the court of the recently deceased Henry I as a place of amorous dalliance, unending festivity, and courtly splendour. As a pioneering work of secular historical literature which 'set the pattern for popular history for something like three centuries' (Legge, 29), the Estoire des Engleis marks a significant, early stage in the dual processes of cultural symbiosis and the vernacularization of learning that so uniquely characterize twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Britain.

Sources

  • L'estoire des Engleis by Geffrei Gaimar, ed. A. Bell, Anglo-Norman Texts, 14–16 (1960)
  • A. Bell, ‘Maistre Geffrei Gaimar’, Medium Aevum, 7 (1938), 184–98
  • M. D. Legge, Anglo-Norman literature and its background (1963), 27–36
  • A. R. Press, ‘The precocious courtesy of Geoffrey Gaimar’, Court and poet: selected proceedings of the third congress of the I. C. L. S., ed. G. S. Burgess (1981), 267–76
  • I. Short, ‘Gaimar's epilogue and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Liber vetustissimus’, Speculum, 69 (1994), 323–44