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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries

§ 5. Eadmer and Ordericus Vitalis

Neither Simeon of Durham nor Florence of Worcester can be called a historian in any high sense. Both are, at best, but conscientious annalists, making no effort either to present events in their wider relations of cause and effect, or to adorn their narrative with any studied literary graces. The earlier portions of the chronicle which bears Simeon’s name are, indeed, embellished with frequent poetical quotations, but the work, as a whole, is as barren of literary ornament as that of Florence. Literature of a somewhat richer colour, and history of a higher order, are found in the writings of two of their contemporaries, one, like them, a pure Englishman, the other a Norman born on English soil—Eadmer and Ordericus Vitalis. Eadmer, the follower and intimate friend of Anselm, wrote in six books a history of his own times down to the year 1122—Historia Novorum in Aanglia—which is full of fresh and vivid detail. In his preface Eadmer justifies the historian who confines himself to a narrative of contemporary events; the difficulty of obtaining an accurate knowledge of the past had convinced him that none deserved better of posterity than he who wrote a faithful record of the happenings of his own lifetime. His immediate purpose, he tells us, is to give an account of the relations of his master Anselm with William II and Henry I, and especially of the disputes about the investiture. But, as he anticipates, his task will oblige him to illustrate at many points the history of England before, during and after the investiture quarrel. While the main interest of Eadmer’s work is ecclesiastical, and, in the last two books, turns largely upon the affairs of the see of Canterbury, it throws much valuable light upon the general political and social conditions of the time. Written with what William of Malmesbury calls “a chastened elegance of style,” Eadmer’s History is distinguished most of all by its design and sense of proportion. Eadmer is almost modern in his deliberate limitation of himself to a period and a special subject upon which he could speak as first-hand authority. His example in this respect was not without its effect upon more than one historiographer of the next generation. Richard of Devizes and the author of the Acts of Stephen are chroniclers who make up for the brevity of their narratives by the graphic force which belongs only to a contemporary record. In addition to his History Eadmer wrote a Latin life of Anselm, and upon all that concerns the character and the work of that great prelate there is no more trustworthy authority.

Ordericus Vitalis, the son of Norman parents but born in Shropshire in 1075, was a writer of much more ambitious scope than Eadmer. His voluminous Ecclesiastical History, borrowing its title from Bede’s great work, extends from the beginning of the Christian era down to the year 1141. It is in thirteen books, and represents the labour and observation of some twenty years of the writer’s life. It is a characteristic product of the cloister. The church, and all that concerns it, are, throughout, uppermost in Orderic’s mind, and determine his standpoint and design as a historian. But he had sufficient curiosity and knowledge of the world to gather and place on record a vast amount of information about mundane affairs. Taken over to Normandy to be educated at the early age of ten, he spent his life as a monk of St. Evroul; but he was not without opportunities of travel, and he paid at least one visit to England for the express purpose of collecting material for his History. Although he is often inaccurate in his chronology, and confusing in the arrangement of his matter, Orderic is one of our standard historical authorities for the Norman period. He is especially valuable for the information he gives as to the condition of Normandy itself during the eleventh, and part of the twelfth, century, and his History deals even more with continental than with English affairs. Yet he always prides himself upon his English birth; he even called himself an Englishman, and could, in Freeman’s words, “at once admire the greatness of the Conqueror and sympathise with the wrongs of his victims.” Orderic’s very defects of arrangement and order as a chronicler were the result of a curiosity and a range of interest which add much to the value of his work as a minute and varied contemporary record. He tells us much that is not found elsewhere about the social conditions of his time, about the monastic profession and even about the occupations, tastes, pastimes and personal appearance of prominent men. His style is, in many places, highly rhetorical. Of it, as a whole, “an English reader,” writes dean Church, “may best form an idea by combining the Biblical pedantry and doggerel of a Fifth-monarchy pamphlet of the seventeenth century with the classical pedantry of the most extravagant burlesque of Dr. Johnson’s English.”