Robert Wace Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Robert Wace c. 1090-1110-c. 1175

French poet and chronicler.

Wace's verse chronicle, Le Roman de Brut (1155), based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1138), provides an account of both actual and legendary English history. It is the first fully developed text in a vernacular language of the story of King Arthur, and the first work to mention the Round Table and the legend of Arthur's possible immortality. Wace's narrative skill, talent for expressing the feelings and thoughts of his characters, and vivid descriptions of their dramatic interactions contributed to the flourishing not only of historiography, but also of the romance genre in Europe.

Biographical Information

The exact year of Wace's birth is not known, although scholars surmise it was between 1090 and 1110. He was born into a family of German ancestry on Jersey, the largest of the English Channel islands, then under the control of the Norman French. Scholars conjecture that his father was a shipbuilder who may have helped build the fleet for the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. Wace was first educated in Caen and later in Paris. King Henry II of England appointed Wace canon at Bayeux and also his chronicler of British and Norman history. After finishing the Roman de Brut in 1155, which he dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry's Queen), Wace began Le Roman de Rou, a chronicle of the Dukes of Normandy commissioned by King Henry. This work is of particular interest to scholars for the few autobiographical details it contains. Wace abandoned writing the Roman de Rou in 1174, and he is believed to have died around 1175.

Major Works

All of Wace's works were written in the Old North French language. His earliest writings focused on religious subjects: La Conception Nostre Dame (1130-40) is an account of the birth of the Virgin Mary, and La Vie de Sainte Margarite (1135) and La Vie de San Nicholas (1150) are traditional lives of the saints, characterized by Wace's lifelong interest in philosophy and symbolic order. Le Roman de Brut provides a history of the kings of England, but in it Wace also reshapes Geoffrey's earlier chronicle, adding greater emphasis on philosophical ideas and further developing the legend of King Arthur and his court. Some major differences between Wace's treatment of Arthur and that of Geoffrey include Wace's refusal to translate Merlin's prophecies about the eventual return of Arthur after his death, his symbolic treatment of the Round Table, and his remaking of Arthur into a more courteous and humane leader. King Henry II explicitly commissioned Wace to write Le Roman de Rou to justify Norman rule in England, but he withdrew his financial support in 1174—presumably because he felt that Wace's text was not sufficiently sympathetic to the Norman cause—and Wace never finished the work.

Critical Reception

Wace's Roman de Brut is by far his best-known work; it enjoyed popularity in its own time, exerted much influence on other writers, and was widely imitated through the fourteenth century. Modern scholars such as Frances Lytle Gillespy, Margaret Houck, and P. B. Grout, among others, have concentrated on comparisons between Wace's work and Geoffrey's history, as well as with other versions of the subject such as Layamon's Brut, the Munich Brut, and the works of Chretien de Troyes. Jeff Rider and other critics have also explored Wace's presentation of history, his treatment of the figures of King Arthur and Merlin, and his figuration of women in the text. In the late twentieth century such scholars as Leger Brosnahan and Gerald F. Carr have paid increasing attention to Wace's style in the Le Roman de Brut, heeding Houck's caveat that Wace is “first of all a story teller.” Sara Sturm-Maddox, among other critics, has analyzed the influence of Wace's works on later writers, particularly on Chretien de Troyes. In addition, Wace and his works are highly valued by social historians and linguists for what they reveal about he interplay between French and English language and culture in the twelfth century.