Histoire ancienne: introduction

The textual tradition known in modern scholarship as the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, or the Estoires Rogier, is generally believed to have been composed between 1208 and 1213 for Roger, Castelan of Lille, who is named as patron in the verse prologue (present in only two MSS, Paris BnF f.fr. 20125 and Vienna ONB 2576, but thought to have been part of the original composition). Roger de Lille did not reach his majority until 1208 and died in 1230. The pro-Flemish sentiments expressed in the verse prologue suggest that much of the text predates the sack of Lille by Philippe Auguste during the winter of 1213, though there are some indications towards the very end of the text that the last section may have been finished after the battle of Bouvines in 1214. 

Stylistic and thematic considerations have led a variety of scholars from Meyer (1885) onwards to suggest an attribution of the Histoire ancienne to Wauchier de Denain, otherwise known as the writer responsible for the compilation known as the Vie des pères, the Dialogues sur saint MartinLa Vie de sainte Marthe, and possibly even the Second Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Le Conte du Graal (where attribution is again argued on stylistic grounds and also shared linguistic features). Among his patrons were members of the Flemish comital family, such as Philippe de Namur (1175-1212), regent of Flanders and Hainaut, and the latter's niece, countess Jeanne de Constantinople (1194-1244). Wauchier de Denain seems to have been active from c.1208 to 1230, which - together with the aforementioned patronage in Flemish courtly circles - makes him a plausible candidate. Nevertheless, the attribution of the Histoire ancienne to him must remain conjectural.  

London, British Library, MS Egerton 912 (courtesy of BL.uk, public domain)

Both modern titles have some basis in medieval rubrication. Paris BnF f.fr. 20125, for example, refers to the text as the Estories Rogier on f.1, while London BL Royal 16 G VII calls it Les Ansiennes Hystoires Rommaines (cf. also London BL Additional 15268). However, the text is given a wide variety of titles in initial rubrics and explicits: La Bible en fransois (BNF f.fr. 9685), La bible qui paroule dou viex testament (Carpentras BI 1260), Le livre d'Orose (London BL Egerton 912), Histoire universelle (New York Pierpont Morgan M516), La Fleur des hystoires (Paris BnF f.fr. 301), Li livres dou commencement dou monde (Paris BnF f.fr. 168), Le tresor des hystoires (London BL Additional 19669), and so on. This variety does not only suggest that the text did not have a standard title in the Middle Ages, it may also hint at the importance awarded to different thematic concerns of the text by commissioning patrons and/or book professionals (biblical vs. historical, if this difference is at all productive in the field of medieval historiography). 

The Histoire ancienne is typical of much medieval textual production in that it is less an original composition than a collection of disparate adaptations and translations of material from different sources. These include Genesis and medieval Latin or Old French accounts of the stories of Thebes, Troy, Aeneas, Alexander the Great and Rome. It is also noteworthy that it is the first extant example of a 'universal history' in the French vernacular. The aim of such universal histories is to trace the origins of present-day European civilisation back to Biblical times through a continuous narrative that passes through some of the main legendary stories and histories of classical times, most notably Troy. Interestingly, the text speculates on a number of occasions on the origins of 'France' and the 'French', but its accounts contradict each other. The verse prologue suggests that the original intention was to bring the text's account of history up to the present day, but for reasons unknown the Histoire ancienne stops with Julius Caesar. It has been argued that the author may have stopped writing when he became aware of the existence of Li Faits des Romains (composed before July 1214), which picks up on Roman history approximately where the Histoire ancienne breaks off and which is associated with it in some manuscripts, but again this must remain conjectural. 

The earliest version of the Histoire ancienne is conventionally divided into 11 sections in modern scholarship, though manuscripts often divide this material into fewer or more sections. Some MSS have as few as 9 main sections; others subdivide the later and far longer sections on Rome.  

As already noted, two MSS have a verse prologue; these same two MSS also have a series of verse moralisations scattered throughout the text, though not present in all sections, that are also thought to have been part of the original composition. It was previously believed that these verse moralisations were quickly eliminated, though our research shows that their preservation (often copied as prose or prosified) is more widespread than previously thought. Indeed, remnants of the verse sections are to be found in all parts of the tradition.  

The Histoire ancienne has not been the object of a great deal of scholarship in the modern period, though it has started to attract more attention recently, mainly because its importance in the Middle Ages was so considerable, in terms of the number of surviving manuscripts as well as because of its wide geographic dissemination. It is undoubtedly one of the main vernacular vehicles for the dissemination of the Trojan myth in Europe. 

To: Manuscripts.