Orderic was born in 1075 in Atcham, Shropshire. His father came to England during the Conquest with Roger of Montgomery, the first Earl of Shrewsbury. As a reward Odelerius was given a church – remember there were different degrees of holy orders. Odelerius appears to have been a clerk in holy orders – part of the secular clergy before becoming a priest and then a monk. But in any event he had a family as well as being a priest. Priestly marriages were banned in 1123 by the First Lateran Council- so Orderic was born at a time when there was greater flexibility in the arrangement but wrote at a time when such liaisons were prohibited. Orderic’s mother appears to have been English.
At the age of ten he became an oblate at Saint-Evroul. He tells his readers this in his writings – so not only does he provide us with history but we also have a biography.
As an oblate Orderic was not a professed monk but his life was dedicated to God at this point and his parents paid for the privilege. Not only that but they had given the Church their most precious treasure. (Van Hout suggests that Orderic’s mother may have died soon after the birth of her third child which would explain why Orderic was sent to be educated with monks at the age of five.) It should also be remembered that the Earl of Shrewsbury was the patron of Orderic’s father and at this point he was seeking the favour of Saint-Evroul with many gifts. Orderic did not speak French when his father handed him over to a monk named Reginald. Orderic writes his his father weeping as he delivered him to Reginald and Orderic himself also crying. Odelerius never saw his son again.
In part Odelerius gave his sons to the Church as a penance. He had come to regard himself as deeply sinful. He gave money for the building of St Peter’s Abbey around the church that the Earl of Shrewsbury had given him. He became a monk and his sons Orderic and Benedict were given to the Church only his youngest son remained to the wider world. Van Houts (Rozier: p24) suggests two possible reasons for giving two sons to the Church: i) penance for being a married priest and therefore living in sin (and Orderic’s writing reflects the shame of being the son of such a union.) ii) penance for his part in the Norman Conquest.
By 1107 Orderic was an ordained priest and had been given the name Vitalis by the Benedictine monks who struggled with the Anglo-Saxon name Orderic. Orderic knew the scriptorium well and seems to have been an excellent copyist as more than twenty works have been assigned to his hand including Bede’s.
Orderic’s career as a chronicler began with a copy of the Gesta Normannorum ducum by Guillaume de Jumièges which he extended.
Orderic travelled but returned to his monastery which was thriving. It was also increasingly wealthy. Not only were men like the Earl of Shrewsbury giving it gifts but men who had spent their lives at war were returning to Normandy to find sanctuary in monastic houses in their later years. No doubt they shared stories as well as paying their way. The house was also a hub for the monastic houses that were being set up in England.
The abbot of Saint Evroul wanted a history of the abbey and so Orderic began to write – what turned out to be a general history. The Historia Ecclesiastica grew out of the information that Orderic heard and unlike other chroniclers of the period Orderic allows the voices of the contributors to be heard – and not always sorted into the right order. William wrote about the Norman Conquest and William the Conqueror as his history progressed from the creation of the world into what were then current affairs. This period is covered in books three to five of his history. Not only does he write about the Norman Conquest of England but the foundation of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. He wasn’t shy about criticising everybody – the Normand for being over greedy and the English for being below par when it came to resisting the Normans.
Orderic finished this history which ran to thirteen books because he said that he was getting old – book six covered the abbey which was the original purpose of his writing. He probably died in 1142 having written a chronicle that covered political history, descriptions of people, customs, traditions and fashion as well as his own story amongst other things.
(eds) Charles C. Rozier, Daniel Roach, Giles Edward Murray Gasper, Elizabeth van Hout (2016) Orderic Vitalis: Life, Works and Interpretations. Martlesham : The Boydell Press