Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ordericus Vitalis

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ORDERICUS VITALIS or ORDERIC VITAL (1076–1143?), historian, was son of Odelerius, the son of Constantius of Orleans. Odelerius was the confessor and trusted adviser of Roger of Montgomery [see Roger, d. 1094], whom he accompanied to England and from whom he received a church at the East Gate of Shrewsbury. Though a priest, Odelerius married an English wife, by whom he had three sons — Orderic, Everard, and Benedict. In fulfilment of a vow made at Rome in 1082, Odelerius commenced to replace his wooden church at Shrewsbury by a stone building, which, at his instigation, Earl Roger made the home of his abbey of SS. Peter and Paul. Odelerius endowed the abbey with half of his possessions, and, together with his son Benedict, became a monk in the new foundation. He is no doubt the 'Oilerius Sacerdos' mentioned in the charters of Shrewsbury Abbey (Dugdale, Monast. Angl. iii. 518, 520). He died at Shrewsbury, apparently on 3 June 1110.

Orderic was born on 16 Feb. 1075, and baptised at Atcham, near Shrewsbury, on 11 April, by his godfather Orderic, the priest. When five years old, he was put in charge of Siward, a priest at Shrewsbury, who taught him letters. In 1080 his father sent him, with thirty marks of silver, to become a monk at St. Evroult in Normandy. On 21 Sept. 1085 Orderic received the tonsure from Mainier, abbot of St. Evroult, and was given the Norman name of Vitalis. He was ordained sub-deacon on 15 March 1091 by Gilbert, bishop of Lisieux; deacon on 26 March 1093 by Serlo, bishop of Seez; and priest at Rouen by William the archbishop on 21 Dec. 1107. Orderic passed his whole life as a monk of St. Evroult. But in 1105 he paid a visit to France, and about 1116 spent five weeks at Croyland Abbey, which was then under the rule of Geoffrey, a former monk of St. Evroult. On another occasion he visited Worcester, where he saw a copy of the chronicle of Marianus Scotus, continued by Florence of Worcester; he also mentions that he had once seen a copy of the chronicle of Sigebert of Gombloux at Cambrai. He was possibly present at the council of Rheims in Oct. 1119, and on 20 March 1132 was present at a great assembly of Cluniac monks at Cluny. He records that on 9 Aug. 1134 on the occasion of a great storm he was at Merlerault, about twelve miles from St. Evroult. Orderic closed his history in 1141, and perhaps did not long survive that year. He may be the 'Vitalis monk of St. Evroul,' whose name is recorded on 3 Feb. in an obituary of that monastery (Notice sur Orderic Vital, p. xxxv). Orderic, who relates that, when he came to Normandy, he could not understand the language he heard spoken, never lost his affection for his native land, and, with manifest pride, describes himself as 'Vitalis Angligena' (ii. 289, 438, iii. 45, 287).

It was by the advice of Roger du Sap (d. 1123) and Guérin des Essarts (d. 1137), who were successively abbots of St. Evroul, that Orderic began to write history. His first intention was to compose the annals of St. Evroul or Ouche, but gradually his work expanded into a general history, beginning with the preaching of the gospel, and reaching down to 1141. The whole work is styled 'Historia Ecclesiastica,' and is divided into thirteen books, which were not, however, composed in the order in which they now stand. The third and fourth books were the first written, probably in 1123 and 1125, and the fifth was completed about the end of 1127 (Hist. Eccles. ii. 301. 303, 375). The next seven books followed at intervals down to 1130, when the first two books were added, and the thirteenth book was completed in 1141, at which time the whole underwent some revision. Owing, perhaps, to the manner of its composition, Orderic's work is 'clumsy, disorderly, and full of digressions' (Church). His chronology is inaccurate, and he often repeats himself, while his style is generally turgid and marred by pedantry; he is fond of applying classical titles, like 'consul,' 'tribune,' 'centurion,' to the persons of his narrative, and of displaying his acquaintance with a few Greek words. But his defects are more than redeemed by that spirit in which he wrote: 'he had a keen eye, and an interest for details and points of character … from him we get the most lively image of what real life seemed to the dweller in a Norman monastery' (Church). His aim was to give the truth without flattery, 'seeking no reward from conquerors or conquered' (Hist. Eccles. ii. 161). His strong sense of justice encourages him to blame freely where blame is deserved, and his lively imagination makes his narrative vivid, if sometimes inaccurate. Nothing comes amiss to him; details of war, of customs and social life, of the monastic profession, personal characteristics, local legends, and natural phenomena, are alike recorded. The 'Historia Ecclesiastica' begins to be of value soon after the Norman Conquest. Though Orderic did not write from his own knowledge till much later, his use of other authorities is marked by discrimination. For the earlier years of William I, he mainly follows William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges; for the career of the Normans in Sicily, he had recourse to the chronicle of Geoffrey Mala-Terra; and for the first crusade, to the works of Fulcher of Chartres and Baldric of Bourgueil, with the latter of whom he was personally acquainted. Orderic also made use, among other writers, of the poem of Guy of Amiens, and of Eadmer's 'Life of St. Anselm;' while his visit to Croyland in 1115 supplied him with some special information.

Orderic was deeply read in such literature as was available, in theology, the fathers, and the Latin classics. He also shows a taste for lighter literature in his knowledge of various chansons, and of much of the ephemeral Latin verse of his time. He himself enjoyed some reputation as a poet, and has inserted in his history a number of epitaphs which he had composed on persons of distinction, together with some other pieces of occasional verse. Some verses which are found in a manuscript that was formerly at St. Evroul, and are in the same handwriting as the original manuscript of the 'Historia Ecclesiastica,' M. Leopold Delisle thinks may be by Orderic; he has edited them in the 'Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de France' i. ii. 1-13, 1863. This same handwriting can be traced in other manuscripts.

The original and possibly autograph manuscript of the 'Historia Ecclesiastica' is now in the 'Bibliotheque Nationale;' none of the other copies have any independent value (Delisle, § vii.; Hardy, ii. 217). The 'Historia Ecclesiastica' was first published in Duchesne's 'Historiæ Normannorum Scriptores' in 1619; the greater part of it is given in the 'Recueil des Historiens de la France,' vols, ix.-xii.; the whole work was re-edited by M. Le Prévost for the 'Société de l'Histoire de France,' 5 vols. 1838-55; Duchesne's text is reproduced in Migne's 'Patrologia,' clxxxviii. A French translation was published by M. Louis Dubois in Guizot's 'Collection des Mémoires relatifs à 'Histoire de France,' in 1825, and an English translation in four volumes, by Mr. T. Forester, in Bohn's 'Antiquarian Library,' 1853-5.

[The facts of Orderic's life are found in the Historia Ecclesiastica, which is here cited from Le Prevost's edition (see especially ii. 300–2, 416–22, and v. 133–6); reference may also be made to M. Leopold Delisle's Notice sur Orderic Vital, prefixed to the fifth volume of Le Prévost's edition; Church's Life of St. Anselm, chap, vi.; Freeman's Norman Conquest, especially iv. 495–500; Hardy's Descriptive Catalogue of British History, ii. 211–23; Bibliothèque de l'École des Chartes, xxxvii. 491-4.]

C. L. K.