In search of Orderic Vitalis

Originally published in September 2008 on ‘On boundaries’ (now defunct). Reivers is still my partner in all things, but now keeps his own blog under his real name somewhere on GitHub.

I haven’t mentioned Orderic Vitalis for at least a couple of months, so it is about time he had another post. Reivers and I have recently been on holiday in Normandy, causing one colleague to ask if I’d had a productive time in the archives as he couldn’t understand why I went on holiday to an area I research. I didn’t spend any time in archives, but I did visit, with Reivers in tow, many sites and museums. One of those was St-Evroult, home of Orderic.

As I’ve been considering Orderic’s writing about the monastic landscape in conjunction with refoundations and reform, I was anxious to see if I could locate some of the sites he refers to in the Ecclesiastical History, particularly St-Evroult’s hermitage and the chapel where Ralph the ill-tonsured and, later, the sisters of Robert of Grandmesnil sheltered. After much turning the maps round, squinting at trees and a very decent lunch, we did manage to find some of these places with the help of an Orne tourist leaflet!

I have to say, it was quite a beautiful journey from the Seine valley (just north of Duclair) to the southern edge of what was medieval Normandy involving a ferry across the Seine (subsidised by the departement an thus free) and some hairy moments in Bernay, but we arrived eventually at St-Evroult-Notre-Dame-du-Bois, located on the edge of the forest of Ouche. Not much survives of this monastery other than the remains of the thirteenth-century church and some of the monastic buildings which have since been converted to farm and community use. Most of the village seemed to be at lunch, so we had the place to ourselves. Given what we know of the comings and goings of lay society through the cloister of St-Evroult, I suspect it was quieter on a lazy Thursday in September than it was in Orderic’s day.

st-evroul-from-the-eastChurch of Saint-Evroult looking west

Outside the gates of the monastery, there is a monument in memory of Orderic and his work, erected by the members of various learned societies with inscriptions in French, English and Latin, appropriate for someone who was born in Shropshire, spent most of his life in Normandy and conversed, wrote and possibly thought in Latin. It was wonderful to see that the man who produced such an informative source for the Anglo-Norman world was remembered in this way. More wonderful was the fact that in practically every monastery or museum book shop we found copies of the French edition of the Ecclesiastical History. Now, I know the OMT 6 volume version is out of most people’s range, including my own, but part of me wishes we could have Penguin Classics Orderic available to inspire and enthuse more people.

orderics-monumentOrderic’s monument

Getting slightly lost, or at least confused, we did manage to find the source of the Charentonne (site of the chapel) and the site of St Evroult’s hermitage at St-Evroult de Montfort. Both of these sites are classic hermit sites. The site of the chapel is deep in the forest with abundant water close by. The hermitage is on a slope, surrounded by woodland and the sound of many springs, not unlike the description on Orderic’s work. At both sites there are now rather ugly late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century chapels and regular pilgrimages are made from the cathedral at Séez.

source-of-the-charentooneSource of the Charentonne, looking from the chapel

site-of-the-hermitageSite of Evroult’s hermitage

From the point of view of my work, it was very helpful to see the landscape, perhaps little altered in terms of appearance since the middle ages, though differing considerably in terms of fauna (we didn’t see any wild board or wolves) and the manner of exploitation. I suspect the forest may have been denser in places, but in terms of the monastery, land would have been cleared to build it and also for the village that grew up around it. Although Orderic was a choir monk and cloistered from the age of 10, he did travel. Perhaps he and his brothers also made pilgrimages to the sites that had strong oral traditions associated with them. This is speculation and we will never know, but Orderic’s accounts of monastic refoundation and reform in the eleventh century are more than just topoi.


Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

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