The last conversation I had with Marjorie Chibnall left me unsettled. We were talking, of course, about Orderic Vitalis, and she was questioning the conclusions in my book on Norman historians. There I had written that Orderic's ‘experiences as a resident in what was essentially a Norman war zone on the duchy's southern frontier, and as an acute student of the Normans’ – a treacherous people prone to violence against friends and family – ‘left him especially world-weary.’ Orderic's Historia ecclesiastica seemed to show persistent signs of the author's fatigue, pessimism, and depression. Not that anyone could blame him for that, given the world in which he lived. But Chibnall thought me mistaken. Orderic's faith and the satisfying rhythms of his monastic devotion, she suggested, guided him to a mature and balanced sensibility.
Chibnall knew Orderic and his Historia ecclesiastica better than any other reader of our age. Had I misinterpreted his work and done a disservice to its author? The Durham conference and this collection of essays have offered the welcome opportunity to reread the history with a fresh mind and make a fresh judgement, asking finally what difference tone makes in our understanding of the historian and the history he was recording and interpreting.
Orderic's earliest forays into historical writing offer tantalising signs of the direction he would take. Perhaps as early as 1095, when he was barely twenty years old, Orderic began his redaction of William of Jumièges’ Gesta Normannorum ducum, completing most of the manuscript by 1109 and adding his final interpolation in (or after) 1113. This task, along with compiling the Annals of Saint-Évroul and copying Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, trained Orderic to write history. By 1114, he was at work on his own Historia ecclesiastica.
Even as he copied William of Jumièges’ Gesta, Orderic altered the tenor of that history by adding details that darkened its tone. Some are quite brief, like the three words asserting that the French king Louis IV died ‘after many sufferings’ (‘post multos merores’). Such a slight insertion might barely register on the reader's consciousness. Yet as these bleak notices accumulate, they make their mark. Consider, for instance, Orderic's new chapters on the turmoil caused by criminals who appropriated the church of St Gervais as a storehouse for their loot.