From Payne's Armorial of Jersey
Maitre Wace was born in Jersey in the 12th century, and in these oft-quoted lines, gives a resume of his early days :—
"le di et dirai ke je fuis,
Vaice de l'ifle de Gerfui
Ki eft en mer vers l'Occident
Al fieu de la Normandie apent.
En 1'ifle de Gerfui fui nez
A Caen fui petit portez
Illoques fui a lettres mis.
Puis fui longues en France apres."
From what is gleaned from his works, it appears that he was a priest, and was presented by Henry II with a prebend's stall in the cathedral of Bayeux. However, even his Christian name is disputed, for Robert, which is given him generally, has no sufficient warrant, although it occurs with that of Wace, in the charters of the abbey of Plessis Grimoult; but Richard Wace, who appears in the chartulary of the Abbey of St Sauveur-le-Vicomte, has been supposed by the Abbe de la Hue to have a more probable claim to identification with the poet. He possessed considerable powers of observation and description, combined with a fidelity that is rare among more modern poets, who, in writing historically, often consider that the "rhyme" makes up for the want of "reason." Among some other works of an ephemeral character, which have not reached us, he wrote, and is chiefly known by
- "Le Brut d'Angleterre," so called from Brutus, or Brute, the first king of the Britons. A verse history of Britain.
- "The history of the irruption of the Danes into England and the northern provinces of France."
- The famous "Roman de Rou," his most celebrated and best-written work, which is a chronicle of the Norman invasion.
- The "Romance of William Longespee," son of Rollo : this, although generally considered as a separate work, is looked upon by some, and probably is, a continuation of the last.
- The "Romance of Duke Richard I, son of William Longespee."
- " A Continuation of the History of the Dukes of Normandy."
- " The Origin of the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin."
- " The Life of S. Nicholas."
- "The Romance du Chevallier au Lion."
The authorship, however, of this last is disputed. The whole of these are in verse, and do high honour to their author, filling up, as they do, what would otherwise be a vacuum in Norman history. The family, variously named Viace, Vaicce, Wace, and Wasse, existed in the island for some centuries after the poet's era. In 1454, one Guillemin Vasse, of St Clement, sold some lands that he held to the Anquetil family.
Roman de Brut (c1155) was based on the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth. It cannot be regarded as a history in any modern sense, although Wace often distinguishes between what he knows and what he does not know, or has been unable to find out. Wace narrates the founding of Britain, by Brutus of Troy], to the end of the legendary British history created by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The popularity of this work is explained by the new accessibility to a wider public of the Arthur legend in a vernacular language. In the midst of the Arthurian section of the text, Wace was the first to mention the legend of King Arthur's Round Table and the first to ascribe the name Excalibur to Arthur's sword, although he on the whole adds only minor details to Geoffrey's text. The Roman de Brut became the basis, in turn, for Layamon's Brut, an alliterative Middle English poem, and Piers Langtoft's Chronicle. Historian Matthew Bennett, in an article entitled "Wace and Warfare," has pointed out that Wace clearly had a good understanding of contemporary warfare, and that the details of military operations he invents to flesh out his accounts of pseudo-historical conflicts can therefore be of value in understanding the generalities of warfare in Wace's own time.
His later work, the Roman de Rou, was, according to Layamon, commissioned by King Henry II. A large part of the Roman de Rou is devoted to William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest. Wace's reference to oral tradition within his own family suggests that his account of the preparations for the Conquest and of the Battle of Hastings may have been reliant not only on documentary evidence but also on eyewitness testimony from close relations - though no eyewitnesses would have been still alive when he began work on the text. The Roman de Rou also includes a mention of the appearance of Halley's Comet. The relative lack of popularity of the Roman de Rou may reflect the loss of interest in the history of the Duchy of Normandy following the incorporation of continental Normandy into the kingdom of France in 1204.
The Anglo-Norman language Wace wrote in is variously regarded as a dialect of the Norman language, a dialect of Old French, or specifically the precursor of Jerriais. Writers in Jersey have looked on Wace as the founder of Jersey literature, and Jèrriais is sometimes referred to as the language of Wace although the poet himself predated the development of Jèrriais as a literary language. Wace is the earliest known Jersey writer.
Although the name Robert has been ascribed to Wace, this is a tradition resting on little evidence. It is generally believed nowadays that Wace only had one name. As a clerc lisant, he was proud of his title of Maistre (master) and is consequently sometimes referred to as Maistre Wace.
It has been claimed that Wace's descriptions of militarily strategic points on the coast of Normandy were used in the early planning stages of the Normandy Landings. There is a granite memorial stone to Wace built into the side of the States Building in the Royal Square. This includes a quote from the Roman de Rou that expresses the poet's pride in his place of birth:
- Jo di e dirai ke jo sui
- Wace de l’isle de Gersui
- Je dis et dirai que je suis
- Wace de l'île de Jersey
- I say and will say that I am
- Wace from the Island of Jersey
- Charles Foulon, "Wace" in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Roger S Loomis Clarendon Press: Oxford University. 1959. ISBN 0-19-811588-1
- WACE, Roman de Brut, édité par I. Arnold, 2 vols., Paris, 1938-1940.
- WEISS, Judith, Wace's Roman de Brut. A History of the British. Text and Translation, Exeter, 2006.
- ARNOLD, I., & PELAN, M., La partie arthurienne du Roman de Brut, Paris, 1962.
- WACE, Roman de Rou, édité par J. Holden, 3 vols. Paris, 1970-1973.