BMCR 2010.09.22

The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis

, The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. xxiii, 272. ISBN 9780268030865. $40.00 (pb).

The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis (1075-c. 1143) is a major source for the history of the Norman realms at the beginning of the twelfth century and has been mined accordingly by medievalists for various pieces of information on the period. Analyses of Orderic as an author and of his work as a whole, on the other hand, have been few and far between. Amanda Hingst’s book, a much-revised version of her doctoral dissertation, is in fact the first major study of Orderic since Marjorie Chibnall’s World of Orderic Vitalis, published almost thirty years ago.1 Hingst offers a challenging and stimulating study of Orderic’s representation of geographical space and landscapes, one that should be of interest not only to medievalists but also to classicists interested in literary geography. This work is indeed much influenced by recent scholarship on classical and late antique geography, from Katherine Clarke’s seminal study of Strabo to Natalia Lozovsky’s and Andrew Merrills’ work on late antique geographical texts, and in return it has in return much to contribute to the reading of medieval and classical historians.2

The geographical focus of this study illuminates the heart of Orderic’s historical project, namely to account for “the temporal experience of humanity with God as enacted in the landscape of Christendom” (xvi). Hingst explores this vast topic through a series of related observations on Orderic’s landscapes rather than a sustained and unified argument. The order of chapters parallels Orderic’s evolving plan for the Ecclesiastical History, originally a history of his monastery of Ouche but later expanded to encompass the entire Norman world. Chapter 1, “Ouche: The History of a Place,” accordingly traces Orderic’s first attempts at creating a landscape through stories and history associated with the place he knew the most intimately. Despite its very limited geographical scope, his account of Ouche blends local history with a universal perspective, linking the coming of its patron St Evroul to Antony’s retreat to the Egyptian desert, and using the story of the theft and return of St Evroul’s relics to situate the monastery within the network of saints’ cults covering Christendom. In Orderic’s retelling, however, Ouche was rather unique among holy places for being defined by the memory of St Evroul rather than his physical remains. This emphasis on stories to define a place, Hingst argues, foreshadows later geographical explorations in the Ecclesiastical History.

Chapter 2, “Classical Geography and the Gens Normanorum,” is the most ambitious and deals with Orderic’s reception of classical geography as well as his intellectual creation of Normandy as a focus of identity for the Norman people. Hingst argues that Orderic, who did not preface the Ecclesiastical History with a geographical introduction in the manner of Orosius or Bede, rejected the common late antique and early medieval practice of representing migrating people as newcomers on a timeless, classical world map. This historiographic tradition could not make sense of the constantly evolving and fragmented world of the Normans. Orderic showed the Norman’s impact on European geography by retelling and adapting their migration stories. More importantly, he was able to create new relationships between places remote from each other, e.g. Normandy, Sicily and Antioch, unrelated in Orosius’ geography but socially and historically linked by Orderic. A central element of Orderic’s fragmented Norman geography was his assertion that Normans retained their national character no matter where they lived, a stark departure from classical and late antique ethnography, which held that migrating people were influenced by their new surroundings. Hingst forcefully makes her case for Orderic’s originality, while acknowledging that some of his geographical ideas were foreshadowed by previous writers, e.g. Bede who had decentered classical geography by focusing on peripheral Britain. I would go one step further and situate Orderic within an old tradition of challenges and adaptations of classical geography, recently studied by Hervé Inglebert and Andrew Merrills, among others.3

This chapter is complemented by a short “entr’acte”, on the importance of the sea in Orderic’s narrative, another transformation of the the land-bound late antique historiography. Hingst briefly examines Orderic’s conceit that sea-crossing was a defining characteristic of Anglo-Norman rule, as well as his innovative account of Scandinavia free from classicizing elements and informed by Norman maritime connections (HE 10.6). These tantalizing few pages deserve a broader treatment, and there is not enough here to satisfy the claim that Orderic “revolutionized the geography of the northern world” (50), especially considering his limited readership.4

Chapter 3, “Albion: Conquest, Hegemony, and the English Past,” may be the most successful. By drawing parallels between the Ecclesiastical History and the geographical language of royal charters, Hingst shows that Orderic’s unusual use of Albion to designate the island of Britain is politically motivated. Whereas the Bedan tradition inherited by Orderic and the late medieval tradition descending from Geoffrey of Monmouth hold Albion to be the name of the island before the coming of the Britons, Orderic and the royal charters use the term atemporally to designate the territory on which Saxon, Danish, Scottish, Welsh and Norman kingdoms exist in succession. Orderic and forged charters postdating 1066 picked up this practice from Anglo-Saxon charters in order to present the Normans as inheriting not only the English kingdom but also dominion over the whole of Albion. Nowhere does Orderic define the term, leaving it open-ended, as Norman power was at this time. This chapter is literary geography done right: discarding the poetic use of Albion in recent centuries, Hingst fully reveals the meaning and political ramifications of the term in Orderic’s writings. There is much here to inspire scholars to do likewise for other seemingly innocent geographical terms in other contexts.

Chapter 4, “Jerusalem and the Ends of the Earth” is another worthwhile exploration of the Ecclesiastical History‘s geography in the light of Orderic’s readings, this time the computus compendium compiled at Thorney in 1110 (MS Oxford St John’s College 17), which he is known to have consulted. Hingst outlines three instances where the geography of the Thorney compendium and the Ecclesiastical History intersect. First, a speech of Helias, the count of Maine, proclaiming that he took up the cross to protect not Jerusalem but his own lands (HE 10.8), is paired up with the compendium’s world map displaying a cross not only in Jerusalem but also in Europe. Then, the second book of the Ecclesiastical History details the travels of the apostles, which define the contours of the inhabited world, as do the apostles named on the Thorney mappa mundi. Finally, both Byrhtferth’s diagram in the collection and Orderic’s description of the abbey of Ouche are geometrical reflections of Christian space. These parallels are sometimes more evocative than firm, but they illustrate vividly the intellectual roots of Orderic’s geographic ideas.

The next chapter, “Haunted Landscapes,” addresses the geography of death sketched by the Ecclesiastical History by focusing once more on Ouche and its environs. Hingst uses both the famous episode of the dead walking with Hellequin’s Hunt near the town of Bonneval (HE 8.17) and descriptions of sepulchers at Ouche to show that for Orderic the realm of the dead was both local and intertwined with the living. This is in line with other Benedictine writers of the age such as Raoul Glaber and Peter the Venerable, who did not relegate the dead to some otherworld but rather told monastic ghost stories revealing an invisible world just beyond ordinary senses. However, Orderic is unique in indicating that this otherworld can be encountered outside of consecrated places. Hingst’s treatment of Orderic’s geography of death is compelling but may come as something of an anticlimax after the broad scope of the preceding chapters. The Ecclesiastical History contains many other episodes of localized death, and interesting connections can be drawn with, say, the wreck of the White Ship (HE 12.26).

Orderic wrote the Ecclesiastical History as salvation history, a fact signaled by the inclusion of a life of Christ at the very beginning of the work instead of a geographical introduction. In her last chapter Hingst examines how the body of Christ gives meaning to Orderic’s geography. Once again, this aspect of the Ecclesiastical History must be read within the intellectual context of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, particularly as a reaction to Berengar of Tours, Peter of Bruis and others who had downplayed the importance of the material world in humanity’s salvation and denied the presence of Christ at the ritual of the Eucharist. By writing a history framed by Christ’s incarnation, Orderic (and others) not only restated the importance of the physical world, but also asserted that Christ was continually present whenever and wherever the Eucharist was performed. Hingst suggests this Eucharistic thread linked Jerusalem, altars and locales throughout Christendom, and it allowed Orderic to account for changing geographical and historical realities while the substance of the created world remained unchanged.

Although ostensibly about Orderic, this book discusses several other historians, theologians and documentary sources, both past and contemporary. Indeed, Hingst occasionally pays far less attention to Orderic than to his context and peers. This tends to restrict her coverage of the Ecclesiastical History‘s geographical content, but at the same time enhances the appeal and applicability of her argument. Chapter 3, for example, can be read as a study of Anglo-Norman geographical discourse. Much of The Written World can in fact be read as a contribution to Reception Studies, especially chapter 2 which illuminates the reception of late antique geographical thinkers in the twelfth century.

Hingst’s analysis is likewise informed by an impressive array of interdisciplinary scholarship, drawing on literary, historical, geographical and theological studies. The reader, however, will only find scholarship brought up and discussed in the copious endnotes rather than in the text itself, except for the theoretical geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who manages to escape the endnotes for a quick citation in the prologue (xxii). Even periodically glancing at the notes will yield a wealth of scholarship, often discussed at length. While Hingst’s use of the modern literature is top-notch, her argument at time rests on thin associations and probabilities. For example, her claim that Orderic’s daily service at Ouche “undoubtedly influenced his decision to begin the Historia Ecclesiastica with the temporal life of Jesus” (112), although seductive, is not wholly convincing. In the end, her general arguments and methodology are often more convincing than the minute details of her analysis.

This book on geography offers surprisingly little in the way of maps, besides one of dubious quality on the region of Ouche and reproductions of diagrams from the Thorney manuscript. A map of the Norman community—so central to Orderic’s concerns—would have been welcome, and possibly a map of Orderic’s Scandinavia. The index is also somewhat disappointing since it does not cover the eighty pages of endnotes where Hingst relegates many worthwhile discussions.

These minor criticisms aside, The Written World is a worthwhile contribution not only to Norman historiography but also to the study of postclassical geography. It is well written and a great pleasure to read. Hingst does full justice to the richness of Orderic’s landscapes and his unique transformation of classical and late antique geographical models.


1. M. Chibnall, The World of Orderic Vitalis (Oxford, 1984). Also important is the general introduction to Chibnall’s edition of the Ecclesiastical History (Oxford, 1980), vol. 1, pp. 1-128, and more recently E. Albu, The Normans and their Histories: Propaganda, Myth, and Subversion (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 180-214.

2. K. Clarke, Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World (Oxford, 1999); N. Lozovsky, “The Earth Is Our Book”: Geographical Knowledge in the Latin West ca. 400-1000 (Ann Arbor, 2000); A. Merrills, History and Geography in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2005).

3. H. Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana (Paris, 2001) explores the transformation of classical geography and ethnography by late Roman authors; Merrills studies more closely Orosius, Jornades, Isidore and Bede.

4. Following the minimalist view of Orderic’s readership set forward by Roger Ray, “Orderic Vitalis and his Readers,” Studia Monastica 14 (1972): 17-33, absent from Hingst’s bibliography.