The model of the Conquest of 1066 bringing England into Europe still prevails in literary history. This framework positions England as influenced by the Continent, usually a shorthand for France, rather than being integral to a more broadly conceived Europe which is not the same without it. This chapter uses a discussion of the Vita Ædwardi Regis, a text written at the behest of Queen Edith, wife then widow of Edward the Confessor, to challenge this narrative. The Vita Ædwardi is a key example of the intellectually demanding, innovative and politically weighty texts commissioned by royal women of both the West Saxon and Norman dynasties. Its timing, begun on the cusp of the Norman Conquest and completed in its wake, sharply illustrates that the international horizons of English literary culture predate 1066 and that women, in particular, determined those horizons.
Many factors have come together to occlude what is in fact a surprisingly obvious story, about the international dimensions of the development in eleventh-century England of a model of queenship to which literary patronage was central. These occluding factors include nationalizing literary history, disciplinarity, periodization, established models of lay learning, and our still gendered assumptions about Latin literary culture, despite many years of groundbreaking feminist scholarship. This story of the consequences of royal female patronage is exciting precisely because it evades so many of our modern paradigms for understanding high medieval literary culture, within which we do not normally situate pre-Conquest England. Thus, it requires that we rethink accepted narratives not just of literature in England from Alfred to 1066 but also of medieval European literature more broadly. From this perspective, the Vita Ædwardi, and other texts from eleventh- and early twelfth-century England, reveal how attending to women in literary history does not simply provide a missing piece or two, but crucially demands a more fundamental remapping. The need for this remapping is well known, but the determining role of women's literary patronage risks being missed when we look at the study of the literary culture of eleventh-century England, since national literary history, periodization and disciplinarity need to be rethought at the same time as gender. The innovations of the Vita Ædwardi, which form the subject of this chapter, offer us an especially acute instance of the transforming role of women in literary history and the part conquest played in this.