Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY VIII.: ON THE CONQUEST OF ENGLAND BY THE NORMANS, A PROPOS OF THE NOVEL OF IVANHOE. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
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ESSAY VIII.: ON THE CONQUEST OF ENGLAND BY THE NORMANS, A PROPOS OF THE NOVEL OF IVANHOE. - Augustin Thierry, The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era 
The Historical Essays, published under the Title of “Dix Ans d’Études historiques,” and Narratives of the Merovingian Era; or, Scenes of the Sixth Century, with an Autobiographical Preface (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845).
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ON THE CONQUEST OF ENGLAND BY THE NORMANS, A PROPOS OF THE NOVEL OF IVANHOE.
On the day that William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, favoured by an east wind, entered the Bay of Hastings, with 700 ships and 60,000 soldiers, to invade the country of the Anglo-Saxons, a death-struggle commenced between the natives and invaders. Property, independence, life, were at stake, the contest would naturally be a long one; it was so: but vainly should we seek a faithful account of it in the modern historians of England. These historians represent, once for all, the Saxons at war with the Normans; they detail one combat, and after that, neither Normans nor Saxons, conquerors nor conquered, re-appear in their pages. Without troubling themselves about ulterior contests, nor the various destinies of the bodies of men who fought to dispute the country with one another, they pass, with admirable calmness, to the narration of the life and death of William, first of that name, King of England, successor of Harold, last King of the Anglo-Saxons. Thus the consequences of the invasion seem to confine themselves for the conquered nation to a mere change of dynasty. The subjection of the natives of England; the confiscation of their property, and its division among the foreign invaders; all these acts of conquest, and not of government, lose their true character, and assume improperly an administrative colouring.
A man of genius, Walter Scott, has presented a real view of these events, which have been so disfigured by modern phraseology; and, what is singular, but will not surprise those who have read his preceding works, it is in a novel that he has undertaken to clear up this great point of history, and to represent alive, and without ornament, that Norman conquest, which the philosophic narrators of the last century, less truthful than the illiterate chroniclers of the middle ages, have elegantly buried under the common formulas of succession, government, state measures, suppressed conspiracies, power, and social submission.
The novel of Ivanhoe places us four generations after the invasion of the Normans, in the reign of Richard, son of Henry Plantagenet, sixth king since the conqueror. At this period, at which the historian Hume can only represent to us a king and England, without telling us what a king is, nor what he means by England, Walter Scott, entering profoundly into the examination of events, shows us classes of men, distinct interests and conditions, two nations, a double language, customs which repel and combat each other; on one side tyranny and insolence, on the other misery and hatred, real developments of the drama of the conquest, of which the battle of Hastings had been only the prologue. At this period, many of the vanquished have perished, many yielded to the yoke, but many still protest against it. The Saxon slave has not forgotten the liberty of his fathers, and found repose in slavery. His masters are still foreign usurpers to him: he feels his dependence, and does not believe it to be a social necessity: he knows what were his rights to the inheritance which he no longer possesses. The conqueror, on his side, does not yet disguise his domination under a vain and false appearance of political aristocracy; he calls himself Norman, not gentleman; it is as a Norman soldier that he reigns, commands, and disposes of the existence of those who yielded to the swords of his ancestors. Such is the real and perfectly historical theatre on which is placed the fable of Ivanhoe, of which the fictitious personages serve to render still more striking the great politieal scene in which the author makes them figure.
Cedric of Rotherwood, an old Saxon chief, whose father was a witness of the invasion, a man brave, and moreover proud to excess, has been enabled to preserve his inheritance by making himself feared by the conquerors. Cedric, free, and a proprietor in the midst of his subjugated and landless nation, believes himself under the obligation to free his countrymen; he has cherished all his life the vain dream of independence. After a thousand various projects, and a thousand fruitless attempts, his mind, weary of following this high flight, has become fixed on one last plan, and one last very feeble and uncertain hope. He is the guardian of a young maiden named Rowena, who is descended from the race of Alfred; and he is persuaded that the marriage of his ward with Athelstan of Coningsberg, the last descendant of Edward the Confessor, by uniting in the eyes of the Saxon people the blood of two of its ancient chiefs, will present to the people a rallying point for a decisive insurrection. This idea, in which all Cedric’s activity is absorbed, occupies and ferments in him incessantly; he has disinherited his own son, Wilfred, who has dared to cross his projects by loving Rowena, and succeeding in pleasing her. Wilfred, more amorous than patriotic, has, in his despair, deserted the house of his ancestors for the palace of the Norman king; he has received from Richard Cœur de Lion, dignities, favours, and the title of Knight of Ivanhoe. The incidents which arise from his return, and the return of Richard to England, fill the body of the novel. Every thing ends favourably for Wilfred of Ivanhoe: he is united to Rowena; and old Cedric sees without indignation the daughter of Alfred follow Wilfred to the court of the chief of the conquerors. This conclusion satisfies the human heart; it is sad for the patriotic one. But the author could not falsify history; it is too true that the Saxons did not find the way to free themselves from their yoke.
This Cedric, the last representative of Saxon liberty, is described as a man of kind disposition, but inflexible in his aversion to the foreign usurpers. He makes an immense display of his ancient name of Saxon in the midst of people who disown him from cowardice: he has a proud and jealous mien, the sign of a life passed in defending daily, rights daily encroached on. Weary of the present, he constantly looks back beyond that fatal day at Hastings which opened England to the Normans and to slavery. He detests the language of the conquerors, their customs, their diversions, their arms, every thing which was not on the English territory when the English people were free. By his side are two of his serfs, the sons of the serfs of his ancestors. These men wear the badge of slavery, on which is inscribed the name of their master; yet they love this master, because he is surrounded by enemies who are also their enemies, because the insolence of strangers, which weighs over him and them, creates a resemblance between his destiny and theirs, and in some sort confounds, in one common cause, two formerly clashing interests. Bands of outlaws without asylum, obliged to inhabit the forests and become brigands to earn a livelihood, point out the remains of the ravages of the conquest, and paint the fate of those whom the prohibition of hunting arms, ordered by a suspicious conqueror, compelled to choose between hunger and crime. But the gloomiest and most energetic picture of the consequences of the invasion, is that of a Saxon woman, who, after seeing her father and seven brothers killed while defending their inheritance, alone remained to minister ignominiously to the pleasures of the murderer of her family. Bringing into her master’s bed an implacable hatred and an ardent thirst for revenge, she has used the seductions of her beauty to arm the son against the father, and stain with a parricide the banqueting hall of the conquerors. Grown old in her servitude, she has by degrees lost her empire, and contempt has become her portion; but in the midst of opprobrium and insults, she has not forgotten revenge. Cedric, a prisoner in the castle of the Norman, meets her, and learns her history. “My life has been base and atrocious.” she says; “I will expate it by serving you.” At the moment when the friends of the Saxon attack the castle, when the men-at-arms are on the walls, and the master of the castle, who has been wounded in the combat, is laid on his bed, far from the ramparts and the combatants, the old Saxon woman accomplishes her last and terrible project: she sets fire to the wood heaped up under the building; then rushing to the room in which her enemy is stretched out deprived of strength, but full of life, she ironically reminds him of his father’s last repast; she makes him aware of the smoke of the fire which burns beneath the apartment; she sneers at the impotence of his efforts, and shrieks; she gives him a foretaste of death; and when the conflagration bursts forth, she gains the summit of the highest tower, stands there with dishevelled hair, singing in a loud voice one of those war hymns which the heathen Saxons used in the field of battle.
Such are the personages who represent to us the vanquished. As to the conquerors, as to the sons of the adventurers who followed the fortunes of the bastard, they are portrayed in Reginald Front-de-Bœuf, Philip-de-Malvoison, Hugh-de-Bracy, and Prince John Plantagenet. We find in them the vain and distrustful conqueror, attributing the origin of his fortune to the superiority of his nature, believing himself of a better race and purer blood; qualifying his race with the title of noble; employing on the contrary the name of Saxon as an injurious epithet; saying that he kills a Saxon without scruple, and ennobles a Saxon woman by disposing of her against her will! pretending that his Saxon subjects possess nothing which is not his, and threatening, if they become rebellious, to scalp them.
Besides these characters, which proceed from the political state of the country, the author of Ivanhoe has not failed to introduce others which proceed from the opinions of the period. He paints the free-thinking templar, full of ambition and projects, despising the cross whose soldier he is, killing Saracens as a means of making his fortune; and as a contrast to this, the fanatical templar, the passive slave of his rules and faith; the hypocritical and sensual priest; the humble, submissive, and patient Jew, surrounded with contempt and perils, obliged to deceive to defend himself, and an adroit rogue, because the powerful ones of the world may be so to him openly and with impunity. But there is one personage who throws all others into the shade, and to whom the mind of the reader attaches itself by an irresistible attraction; it is that of Rebecca, the daughter of the Jew Isaac of York. Rebecca is the type of that moral grandeur, which develops itself in the soul of the weak and oppressed in this world, when they feel themselves superior to their fortune, superior to the prosperous who triumph over them. All the calm dignity that ever possessed the soul of a Cato, or a Sydney, is united in her with a simple modesty, an uncomplaining patience, and that touching endurance of suffering, which is the attribute of women. This character, so much elevated beyond our nature, is made natural by the author with such perfect art, he introduces it so naturally into the scenes in which it is developed, that however ideal it may be, we are seduced into believing it, and feel ourselves the better for doing so. One admirable scene, of which we should vainly attempt to give the effect, is that in which Rebecca, a prisoner of the templar Brian-de-Boisguilbert, is visited by him in the tower in which she is confined. Alone, in presence of this man, violent in his passions, and unconquerably wilful, who openly declares that she is his prisoner by the sword, and that he will make use of his strength, she is able to inspire him with a respect for her person, and to throw down before her, like an arrow which has missed its aim, all the vehemence of that ungoverned soldier, who, in battle, mowed down whole ranks of men, and in the intercourse of life, bent them before him like reeds before the wind.
There are in this novel many other things of which we give no account. There are scenes of such simplicity, of such living truth, to be found in it, that notwithstanding the distance of the period in which the author places himself, they can be realized without effort. It is because in the midst of the world which no longer exists, Walter Scott always places the world which does and always will exist, that is to say, human nature, of which he knows all the secrets. Every thing peculiar to the time and place, the exterior of men, and aspect of the country and of the habitations, costumes, and manners, are described with the most minute truthfulness; and yet the immense erudition which has furnished so many details is nowhere to be perceived. Walter Scott seems to have for the past that second sight, which, in times of ignorance, certain men attributed to themselves for the future. To say that there is more real history in his novels on Scotland and England than in the philosophically false compilations which still possess that great name, is not advancing any thing strange in the eyes of those who have read and understood “Old Mortality,” “Waverley,” “Rob Roy,” the “Fortunes of Nigel,” and the “Heart of Mid Lothian.”