Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wace
WACE (fl. 1170), chronicler, was born in Jersey, probably about 1100. His parents' names are unknown; his mother was a daughter of Toustein, chamberlain to Robert I, duke of Normandy (Romania, ix. 526). When a child, Wace was ‘put to letters’ at Caen; later he ‘studied long in France;’ before 1136 he was settled at Caen as a ‘clerc lisant’ and a man of letters. Of his ‘many romances’ (narrative poems in the Romance tongue, i.e. old French) only five remain. His ‘Life of S. Nicolas’ has been edited by Monmerqué (Mélanges publiés par la Société des Bibliophiles Français, vol. vii.) and by Delius (Bonn, 1850); his poem on the ‘Conception of the Virgin’ by Mancel and Trébutien (Caen, 1842), and by Luzarche (Tours, 1859); the fragments of his ‘Life of St. Margaret’ by Joly (Paris, 1879); and his ‘Brut’ by Le Roux de Lincy (Rouen, 1836–8). The last-named, interesting chiefly as having served as the basis of Layamon's, was ‘made’ in 1155, and presented, according to Layamon [q. v.], to Eleanor of Aquitaine [q. v.] In 1160 Wace ‘set to work on the history of Rou (Hrolf) and his race’ for Henry II. In March 1162 he was with the court at Fécamp, and in or before 1169 the king gave him a prebend at Bayeux. If we may identify him with the ‘Wascius’ mentioned in a Bayeux charter of 1174 (Du Méril, p. 221), he was still living in that year.
Wace's reputation rests mainly on the ‘Roman de Rou.’ This work, as reconstituted by modern French criticism, begins with an introduction (the so-called ‘Chronique Ascendante’) in Alexandrine verse, in which the poet summarises in inverse order, from Henry II back to Rou, the history of the Norman dukes, which he then relates more fully in his main poem. The first part of this (= ‘second part,’ Andresen's edition), in the same metre, contains the history from Rou to Richard the Fearless. Both these sections were written in or soon after 1160; a few lines in the introduction must have been inserted, either by Wace himself or by another writer, after July 1174. The second part (= ‘third part,’ Andresen), in octosyllabic couplets, opens with a second prologue, and carries on the narrative down to 1107; here Wace broke off on learning that Henry had commissioned another poet to write on the same subject. This second part was not finished in its present form till 1170. The octosyllabic prologue occurs also, prefixed to a history of the pirate Hasting, in a fragment which has been called ‘The First Part of the “Roman de Rou;”’ this fragment is either Wace's original draft of a first part for which he substituted the two dodecasyllabic sections, or it is an abortive attempt which he made to write a new first part in octosyllables when he wearied of the longer lines. Pluquet printed the ‘Chronique Ascendante’ in ‘Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires de Normandie,’ vol. i. pt. ii. (Caen, 1825), and the rest of the ‘Roman de Rou,’ very imperfectly, as a separate work (Rouen, 1827). The only complete edition—pronounced ‘very bad’ by M. Paul Meyer—is by Andresen (Heilbronn, 1877–1879).
The written sources of the ‘Roman de Rou’ are Dudo of St. Quentin and William of Jumièges; possibly also, but not probably, Orderic and William of Malmesbury [q. v.] As literature, the second part is Wace's finest work; and the finest portion of this is his detailed account of the Norman invasion of England and the battle of Senlac. Much of this is obviously, some of it avowedly, derived from oral information. Scholars therefore necessarily differ in their estimates of its historical value, according as they differ in their estimates of the historical value of tradition in general. Wace's traditions of the Conquest, though not put into writing till after the middle of the twelfth century, practically date from its early years, the years of his boyhood at Caen. Wace is no ‘romance-writer’ in the modern sense. He indulges in no rhetorical embellishments; in the historical parts of his greatest work he refuses to set down anything for which he has not authority; and when his authorities differ, he frequently gives two alternative versions. He is less credulous than many of his contemporaries, and he is transparently honest. In intention, as well as in fact, he is always an historian first and a poet afterwards.[The best account of Wace and his work is by M, Gaston Paris in Romania, 1880, ix. 594 et seq. The sole original authorities are Wace himself and four charters cited by Du Méril, Essais sur quelques points d'Archéolgie, pp. 220, 221. See also Körtubg's essay, Ueber die Quellen des Roman de Rou (Leipzig, 1867); Mr. J. H. Round's article on Wace and his Authorities, in Engl. Hist. Rev. October 1893 (reprinted in Feudal England, pp. 409–18); and pp. 31–37 of Mr. T. A. Archer's article on the Battle of Hastings, in Engl. Hist. Rev. January 1894.]