The Song of the Battle of Hastings (Carmen de Hastingae Proelio) by Guy of Amiens, retold and illustrated by Mike Oliver

I’m on vacation, visiting family, and my Dad starts talking up a bluestreak about all things Middle Ages that he doesn’t know in an effort to sound impressive.  To know my father is to know that history for him begins in 1776, so it’s amusing and sometimes frustrating when he tries to enlighten me about things like castle sieges and armored hand-to-hand combat.  You know, because I haven’t been studying the Middle Ages for most of my life, nor have I been a practicing student of the Medieval longsword for the past eight years.  Details…  So I try to keep my calm (a feat in itself), trying to correct the (sometimes immense) oversights in his understanding.  To be fair, his area of expertise is aircraft engineering.  Most combat technology in the Middle Ages is counter-intuitive to modern perspectives until you understand why and how something works.  Even so, the discussion will eventually ramble into names and places that… well, he’s just out of his depth, but pride will not let it go.  And sometimes it works out in the end.

In this case, it did.  In an effort to steer the subject into more familiar territory, he mentioned that he recorded a three-part documentary, the incredibly ill-titled Europe’s Last Warrior Kings, on the Battle of Hastings.  He asks, would I be interested in watching it?  Why not, right?  As if I’d turn down an opportunity to dip my toes into the Middle Ages.

As is typical, there’s not much in the documentary that I hadn’t heard before, but… there’s always something.  There was one tidbit of new information, one tiny scrap that I’d not heard about before… and I had to know more.  It seems that in the first year following the battle, there was written the oldest surviving account of it, a poem known as Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, “The Song of the Battle of Hastings.”  Oh, internet, how did we survive without you?  And how did I not know this existed before now?  I need this in my life.  Right this second.  Again, Dad scoffs.  What makes me think there’s an English translation of it to be had?  *face/palm*  Because it’s a part of English history, Dad.  And besides, it’s the 21st century, and my Google Fu is strong.

As it turns out, there is an illustrated ebook available for Kindle, and it takes about two seconds to find it.  I’m curious and clearly caught up in the moment, so it’s an insta-buy.  According to the ebook, this is a simplified compilation of at least three different modern translations (which I will hunt down in turn because I’m curious).  The target audience is, by its own admission, the newer student of the Middle Ages looking to know more.  I’m not certain how a new student of the era would stumble across this by accident, but whatever.  It’s still good to have something like this out there.

Operating with this understanding that I am more advanced than the target audience would suggest, I’m willing to overlook the complete lack of poetry.  That said, it may be that there’s not any real poetry to be had in the original or in other translations either.  Even so, it feels like this is a straightforward and probably modernized-for-easier-reading rendition of the account, which is of importance to me in the moment.  I can get geeky with this later (and I will).

The illustrations are likely going to be the selling point for the non-scholarly crowd that does come across this.  There are a good number of them to be had, all of them full page so you can enjoy them on larger screens.  Don’t expect the Bayeux Tapestry here.  These are digital photomanipulations.  It’s pretty clear this is where the bulk of the effort went, and it’s equally clear the author had some fun producing them.

Some of these images are really interesting, and I do love the idea.  I also know how this will sound, but the artist / historian in me wants more — either fully painted fantasy style art or perhaps something more authentically-styled along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry itself.  There’s just something about photomanipulations that, no matter how good they look, the presentation comes across better in idea than in execution.  It’s the hybrid nature of photorealism and obvious CGI, where anything approaching “the uncanny valley” just messes with the human mind a bit by its very nature.  Mileage varies, of course.  The effect of photomanipulation is easy and fun to produce, and these are certainly some quality renderings.  It similar to the difference between a photograph and a snapshot.  That is to say, it’s mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.  The intended audience will certainly appreciate such a visualization over the harder to decipher imagery of the Tapestry.  And as I say, I really do love the idea.

Following the translated poem itself, there are maps and plenty of detailed tidbits that the beginning armchair historian will find useful.

All in all, I praise the effort.  I certainly got what I wanted out of such an introduction to the original account of the battle.  As with most things in my world, it’ll propel me to the next step in my research.


2 thoughts on “The Song of the Battle of Hastings (Carmen de Hastingae Proelio) by Guy of Amiens, retold and illustrated by Mike Oliver

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