Robert Helmerichs

Assassination of William Longsword
(BNF, FR 2813)
fol. 169
Grandes Chroniques de France
France, Paris, 14th Century.
(60 x 65 mm)

Introduction:  Problems with medieval sources

When reading a collection of medieval sources, it is easy to be seduced by the crisp, clear translations and the confident presentation, and to forget what every historian who has dealt first-hand with medieval documents knows.  Often, modern editions and translations are based not upon original documents, but on later copies which may have been deliberately altered or inadvertently corrupted.  When the text is dubious or, sometimes, incomprehensible, modern versions try to make sense of it, and thus gloss over the difficulties.  Sometimes, multiple copies exist, which differ in detail or even in broad strokes; these differences are usually smoothed over in modern translations or editions, where the variants are relegated to footnotes.

It seems to me that it might be useful to examine a test case that exemplifies these difficulties, and I have found one that fits the bill perfectly.  The Planctus for William Longsword survives in two copies, both incomplete and both somewhat corrupt, but still preserving the general sense of the original.  It has been edited four times by three different scholars, each of whom has had to make decisions about the problem areas.  And, thanks to the blessed diligence of one of these editors, Jules Lair, full-size facsimiles of both manuscripts have been published, although in a book that is not widely available.  Thus, I have assembled this web site as a laboratory in medieval philology; here will be found scans of both manuscripts, transcriptions of them, and the texts of three editions (the first of the two Lair editions, cited below, was based only upon the first manuscript before the second was discovered).  Thus, in these pages interested parties can examine the manuscripts, and see what different scholars have made of them.  I have also provided Becker's German translation, and added an English translation of my own (any suggestions for improving the latter would be appreciated).  Perhaps someday, if there is enough interest, I will add commentaries on this text both by scholars of the past and by people inspired by these pages to investigate this most interesting case.

The Planctus

William Longsword was the son of Rollo, founder of the Rollonid dynasty that would become dukes of Normandy and after 1066, kings of England. In William's day, however, the Rollonid principality was still a fragile entity centered around Rouen and, in terms of Realpolitik, not extending far west of the Seine.  Most of William's career was spent in relative obscurity, but in the late 930s he suddenly emerged onto the stage of Frankish royal politics, first because of his war with Arnulf of Flanders, and then because of his support for King Louis IV (d'Outremer) at a time when Louis' star seemed to be fading.  In December 942, at the peak of his good relations with Louis, Arnulf called for a peace conference with William; there, William was murdered (traditionally, Arnulf is said to have arranged the murder; some day I will argue that he did not).  A Planctus (mourning poem) was composed probably shortly after; Jules Lair suggests plausibly if not definitively that it was in 943.  (Catalog references:  Chevalier 10576; Walther 10205; Schaller & Ewald Könsgen 8813; Yearley L81.) This poem, although it survives only in corrupt and incomplete versions and is largely hagiographic in content, nevertheless is a critical source for early Norman history.  It is by far the earliest work written about the Normans from a Norman point of view, and some historical nuggets can be gleaned from it.

The manuscripts

Two manuscripts of the planctus survive, both dating from the early 11th century.  Neither is very good, and both are apparently derived from an earlier version that does not survive.

Bibliothèque de Clermont-Ferrand, MS 240, folio 45.
Cited in these pages as Clermont-Ferrand.  Lair's description (p. 61, note 1):  "Ce manuscrit peut être daté du Xe-XIe siècle.  Il est composé de 253 feuillets à 3 colonnes, et mesure 560 sur 360 millimètres.  Sa reliure en bois et peau est en mauvais état.  Il contient un exemplaire, incomplete du commencement et de la fin, du Glossaire attribué à Ansileubus; premiers mots:  [A] bellane, penestrine, nuces virides stringunt...; derniers mots:  sic namque et beatissimus Augustinus, in libris Confessionum suarum.  C'est sur une page laissée d'abord en blanc que la Complainte a été transcrite." The planctus begins near the bottom of the middle column of folio 45 (at the L), and continues almost to the bottom of the third column (to the A).  It contains 12 verses in a somewhat corrupt Latin, and until Delisle found a second manuscript in Florence Libri it was our only witness to the text.

Bibliotheca Mediceo-Laurenziana of Florence, MS Libri 30 (83. 33) [formerly anc. Ashburnham, Libri 83], folios 21v-22v.
Cited in these pages as Florence Libri.  A full description of MS Libri 30 is given by de Poerck; the portion concerning the Planctus is reproduced here. Lair's description (p. 63, note 1):  "Ce manuscrit se compose de 68 feuillets de petit format (195 millimètres sur 140), qui ont fait partie d'un volume plus considérable, dont ils formaient les cahiers signés II-VIIII, plus le commencement du dixième cahier.  Le titre: De conflictu viciorum et virtutum, inscrit en caractères du XIIe siècle au bout de la première page, prouve que la perte du premier cahier est ancienne.  M. Léopold Delisle fait remonter l'écriture de cette copie de la Complainte au moins au commencement du XIe siècle."  The De conflictu that is the primary component of the book is limited to a fairly small block of text in the center of the pages; the planctus has been added in the ample margins.  In the illustration below, the planctus is the slightly smaller handwriting surrounding the central blocks.

This version added to our knowledge of the planctus, since it contains 17 verses, or five more than Clermont-Ferrand.  The verses are in a somewhat different order than Clermont-Ferrand, and the text is again not very good.  Lair theorized that some of the "new" verses in Florence Libri are fragments of multiple verses that have collapsed, and that there were perhaps originally 20 verses.  But even with the new verses and some alternate readings, the planctus remains a very problematical text, as demonstrated by several attempts to establish a "true" edition.

The editions

“Complainte sur l’assassinat de Guillaume Longue-épée, duc de Normandie,” edited by Jules Lair, Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes 31 (1870): 389-406.  This edition was based only on Clermont-Ferrand, and was superseded by Lair's second edition below; thus it is not used in these pages.

Jules Lair, Étude sur la vie et la mort de Guillaume Longue-épée, duc de Normandie (Paris: Picard, 1893), 61-70.  Cited in these pages as Lair, it contains a revised edition taking Florence Libri into account.  This book also contains very good facsimiles of both manuscripts, from which the scans on these pages were taken.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that, due to a happy quirk of the electrons, the scans were actually clearer and more colorful than the plates in the Étude.  Most of Lair's study is interesting only in historiographical terms; he is far too trusting of Dudo for his discussions of William's career to hold much weight.  But by presenting facsimiles, transcriptions, and an edition of the planctus all under one cover, he provided an invaluable service to scholarship; it is the relative inaccessibility of this book (at least on these shores) that has inspired me to create this web site as a latter-day successor to Lair.

Wilhelm Meyer, Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur mittellateinischen Rythmik (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1905), 1:218-219. This is not a true edition, but rather a series of emendations to Lair's second edition.  I have recreated Meyer's version only for those verses in which he has a unique reading.  The entire text of his discussion (which is primarily a metrical analysis) can be found here.

“Complainte sur la mort de Guillaume Longue-épée,” in Philippe Lauer, Le règne de Louis IV, Bibliothèque de l’École des hautes études 127 (Paris: Émile Bouillon, 1900), 319-23.  Cited in these pages as Lauer.  Here, the planctus is one of the pièces justificatives, and is accompanied (at pp. 276-83) by an appendix on the death of William.  This appendix, however, does not treat the event itself as much as give a useful (if brief) overview of subsequent historiography, from Flodoard through William of Malmesbury and beyond.

“Der planctus auf den Normannenherzog Wilhelm Langschwert (942),” editor Phillipp August Becker, Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 63 (1939): 190-97.  Cited in these pages as Becker.  Contains a very brief historical introduction, an edition of the text, and a translation into German, with a few end notes on the text.

The translations

“Der planctus auf den Normannenherzog Wilhelm Langschwert (942),” editor Phillipp August Becker, Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 63 (1939): 190-97.  Translation into German prose of the entire Planctus. Cited in these pages as Becker.

“Sørgekvadet i Anledning af Vilhelm I' Død,” translated by Erling Albrectsen, in Flodoards annaler (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1987), 124-38. Contains the Latin text of Lauer alongside a translation into Danish. Cited in these pages as Albrectsen.

Felice Lifshitz, The Norman Conquest of Pious Neustria: Historiographic Discourse and Saintly Relics, 684–1090, Studies and Texts 122 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1995), 174. Contains translations into English of verses 2 and 3. Cited in these pages as Lifshitz.

“The Plaintsong of William Longsword,” in The Normans in Europe, edited by Elisabeth M. C. van Houts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 41.  Cited in these pages as Van Houts.  Contains translations into English of verses 2, 3, 15, 16, and 17.

And a new translation for these pages by Robert Helmerichs, cited as Helmerichs.

Description of the pages in this site

One page contains links to commentaries on the Planctus by various scholars, and other materials relating to it, including a bibliography. Two pages contain transcriptions of both manuscripts, taken from Lair but modified slightly after consultation with the plates. Each individual verse page contains one verse of the Planctus, with scans from the manuscripts, transcriptions of the manuscripts, and the text of the three main editions. 

The order of the verses is that of the editions, all of which agree; the manuscripts have different orders from each other and from the editions.  Each section is headed by the rubric for the source and the verse number in that source (the manuscripts are not divided into verses, but the numbers refer to the order in which they appear in the text).  This is followed by Becker's German translation and my own English translation, with Van Houts’ translation of five of the verses and Lifshitz’ for two.  Finally, where commentary on the text of a verse exists in Lair or Becker, it appears at the end of each page.

This 13th-century bust is, according to tradition, that of William Longsword. It is found in the Musée de l’Abbaye, logis abbatiale de Jumièges; image scanned from Trésors des abbayes normandes (Rouen: Musée des Antiquités/Caen: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1979), p. 178, no. 218.

Tomb effigy of William Longsword in the cathedral of Rouen, dating to the 14th century. Image from cathedral promotional material.

Possible coin of William Longsword, presently in the Musée des Antiquités de Rouen. †VVILELMVS, †ROTOMAGVS. Click on pictures for larger images. Scanned from Jean Renaud, Les Vikings et la Normandie (Rennes: Ouest-France, 1989), plates between pp. 64-65.


Thanks to Christopher Crocket, who pointed out some typos; Ryan Patrick Crisp, who helped me work through the translation of the especially difficult Verse 12; and Emily Albu, who tried to impose some grace on my translations of several verses. Thanks also to Anders Leegaard Knudsen, who directed my attention to the Albrectsen translation.

Download this site

This link will enable you to download all the files on this site for use on your home computer. Simply create a new directory, left-click on the link, and choose “Save target as” (Explorer) or “Save link as” (Navigator). Save the file in your Planctus directory, and use your favorite un-zipping sofware to un-zip it. (If you don’t have any un-zipping software, try Tucows; search for pkzip and scroll down the screen; you’ll find some free stuff.) Then, point your browser to Index.html in your Planctus directory, bookmark it, and you’re set! If the site is updated, you may want to download the new versions.
Planctus version 1.4


Site history May 1999  Established at Jul 1999  Moved to Carrie Oct 1999  Added translations Apr 2000  Added graphical buttons and mastheads Oct 2000  Designated Haskins Society Approved Site May 2001  Added domain; implemented CSS; added Longsword images; added Sources pageJune 2001 Added Albrectsen translations; added photos of Lair and Clermont to main page; added low-bandwidth edition April 2002  Recoded so all pages will display properly in Netscape