Biography of Wace
Maistre Wace, 12th Century author of Roman de Rou. The enigmatic Jersey-born poet, who also created the legend of King Arthur's Round Table with his rhyming version of the Brut, was the central figure in the post-Conquest English 'Renaissance' but his first name is unknown.
His major work was forgotten in Britain until a copy was brought here 200 years ago by refugees from the French Revolution. It has never been translated in full. Ironically it turned out to be a goldmine for historians and geneologists - Wace was the only writer of his time to name more than a hundred of the Conqueror's warriors and, significantly, he immortalised the soldier-minstrel Taillefer. Many academics still dispute his value as an authority on Anglo-Norman social history.
Friendly rivalry between writers on both sides of the Channel led to a wealth of stories being circulated and adapted according to local politics. They borrowed freely from Old English, Norse and Latin sagas and chronicles.
Wace shot to prominence in 1155 with his Brut, which became the most popular and influential work in Europe. Based in Bayeux, he disappeared from local records after 1174, and 19th Century historians in Normandy assumed that he died in England.
Wace is to be found within his poems. The preceding excerpt from the Roman de Rou, representing almost all the biographical details available, was written near the close of his career when he may have wished to leave behind more than a record of only other people's lives. Wace wove his own life into the poem, unfortunately omitting his birthdate, which, scholars speculate, falls between 1090 and 1110, with 1100 being the date commonly accepted.
The name "Wace" or "Guace" possibly comes from the Teutonic Wazo, an older form of the modern French Gace or Gasse, or as some would have it, the vernacular form of Eustache. Wace appears to have had no other name, single names being a not-uncommon occurrence in the twelfth century; before the reign of Henry II, surnames were rare though not unknown. There have been persistent attempts to tack on a Christian name, whether Robert, Richard, or Matthieu. As a name, "Wace" is recorded as being in use in Jersey until the end of the 16th Century.
Wace's ancestry may or may not have been humble: some sources think he was of "noble race," his mother the daughter of Toustein, chamberlain to Robert I of Normandy. Or Wace may have been the son of a carpenter who helped to construct the fleet for the Norman Conquest, or who knew those who had participated and passed on their recollections to his son. From his boyhood on an island, Wace gained first-hand knowledge of the sea and sea-going craft, which he put to good use later in detailed maritime descriptions.
The firmest evidence for upper class lineage lies with the fact of his being sent away to be educated: as a child, Wace was sent to Caen in Normandy to learn Latin ("a letres mis"). The farmers and fishermen who composed the population of Jersey could not have aspired to higher education except by seeking to enter the priesthood. If Wace had come from a seigneurial family, there would be reason to expect some record of that fact, and the threat of poverty that hung over his head throughout his lifetime would have been diminished. A background as a member of the petty nobility, with a respect for education and the need to make a living, might best describe his circumstances.
Around 1130 Wace returned to Caen and became clerc lisant, an ecclesiatical position with unspecified duties generally thought to have included writing, composing, and reading aloud. "To read" in the Middle Ages meant to teach publicly; a maistre lisant would indicate an authoritative teacher. In the Latin of the charters, teachers were indicated as "magister" or "magister scholarum". Wace, it may be supposed, was a clerc lisant who became a maistre lisant, the Maistre Wace who names himself fifteen times in his writings, proudly using the designation "maistre" ten times to indicate that he was a professional man, proud of his occupation and of his standing within it. In fact, he was a man of many overlapping professions: teacher, translator, historian, poet, canon - evidently winning the respect of his peers in each of these fields.
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Prologue du Roman de Rou
Pour remembrer des ancessours
Les faiz et les diz et les mours,
Doit l'on les livres et les gestes
Et les estoires lire as festes,
Les felonies des felons
Et les barnages des barons.
Pour ce firent bien et savoir
Et grant pris durent cil avoir
Qui escristrent premierement,