William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury c. 1090-95-c. 1140-43
English historian and biographer.
William of Malmesbury is regarded as one of the foremost historians of twelfth-century England because of his work in chronicling the events and conflicts that shaped English history and his colorful depictions of historic personalities. Combining classical historiography with contemporary records, firsthand accounts, and his own constructions, William documented such decisive historical events as the Anglo-Norman Battle of Hastings in 1066, in which William, the Norman conqueror, defeated the English army of King Harold. Much of William's reputation rests on his ability to combine historical overview with highly detailed descriptions and complex portraits of human character.
William was born in England between 1090 and 1095 into a family of mixed Norman and English stock. As a boy he was admitted to Malmesbury Abbey, where he became a Benedictine monk and librarian of the monastery. As librarian, he collected, compiled, and copied—sometimes in his own hand—a number of documents. Among other valuable records, he preserved a Roman law-book called the Breviary of King Alaric of Spain. Compiled in 506, this work relates the story of the Trojan War and is connected to Dares's History of the World and Eutropius's Roman History and other obscure works. William's transcriptions served as the basis for future copies that are now housed in the Bodleian Library and Balliol College in England. His work as a librarian gave him a solid foundation in history, scholarship, and rhetoric, informing his own work as a writer of history. William also spent a considerable period of time at the monastery in Glastonbury examining deeds and property documents. He died between 1140 and 1143, before completing his Historiae Novellae (The Modern History).
The first of William's major works, the De Gesta Regum Anglorum (The History of the Kings of England, c. 1125) is a compendium of English history in five books. Derived from sources featuring well-told anecdotes and placing special emphasis on the reigns and characters of the Anglo-Norman kings, it is considered the finest historical work of twelfth-century England. In 1126 William completed the De Gestis Pontificum (The History of the Prelates of England), a compilation of the lives and deeds of English bishops. He also wrote De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae (The History of Glastonbury, 1129), as well as four biographies: De Vita Aldhelmi (The Life of St. Aldhelm, 1125), De Vita S. Dunstani (The Life of St. Dunstan, 1125), Vita S. Patricii (The Life of St. Patrick, 1125), and the Vita S. Wulstani Episcopi Wigorniensis (The Life of Saint Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, 1130). In his last work, The Modern History, William expands upon The History of the Kings of England and recorded the civil war between King Stephen and the house of Anjou in England, as the events were unfolding.
M. R. James, writing in 1931, argued that “William was the most enlightened of our historians since [the English historian and theologian, 673-735, the Venerable] Bede, [and] was not only the most enlightened, but in some ways the most entertaining.” In addition to such critics as Rodney M. Thomson and John Gillingham, who have explored William's historical methodology, Monika Otter has written about William as a biographer, and Robert Bartlett has discussed William's use of language in his works. William's work has not only provided historians with accounts of events preceding and including his time, but has served as a model for future historians, especially Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain (1138) contains material based upon portions of William's histories. Several works of literature, including works by Robert Southey and William Morris, have incorporated William's personal anecdotes about historical personages.
De Gesta Regum Anglorum [The History of the Kings of England] (history) c. 1125
De Vita Aldhelmi [The Life of St. Aldhelm] (biography) c. 1125
De Vita S. Dunstani [The Life of St. Dunstan] (biography) c. 1125
Vita S. Patricii [The Life of St. Patrick] (biography) c. 1125
De Gestis Pontificum [The History of the Prelates of England] (history) c. 1126
De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae [The History of Glastonbury] (history) c. 1129
Vita S. Wulstani Episcopi Wigorniensis [The Life of St. Wulstan, Bishop of Worcester] (biography) c. 1130
Historiae Novellae [The Modern History] (history) c. 1140-43
William of Malmesbury's “Chronicle of the Kings of England” (translated by J. A. Giles) 1847
Gesta Regum Anglorum [Deeds of the Kings of the English] (edited and translated by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom) 1998
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SOURCE: Giles, J. A. “The Translator's Preface.” In William of Malmesbury's “Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen,” pp. vi-xv. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1968.
[In the following excerpt, first published in 1847, Giles presents a positive appraisal of William's character and briefly comments on his work.]
The author whose work is here presented to the public in an English dress, has, unfortunately, left few facts of a personal nature to be recorded of him; and even these can only be casually gleaned from his own writings. It is indeed much to be regretted that he who wrote so well on such a variety of topics, should have told so little to gratify the curiosity of his readers with respect to himself. Every notice of such an ardent lover of literature as Malmesbury, must have been interesting to posterity, as a desire to be acquainted with the history of those who have contributed to our instruction or amusement seems natural to civilized man. With the exception indeed of the incidental references made by successive chroniclers, who borrowed from his history, there is nothing to be learned of him from extrinsic sources till the time of Leland, who indignantly observes, that even at Malmesbury, in his own monastery, they had nearly lost all remembrance of their brightest ornament.
To himself then we are indebted for the knowledge...
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SOURCE: Gerould, Gordon Hall. “King Arthur and Politics.” Speculum: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 11, no. 1 (1927): 33-51.
[In the following essay, Gerould contrasts William's Deeds of the English Kings, Henry Huntingdon's History of the English, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain in an effort to understand the political significance of the appearance of the Arthurian legend in the twelfth century.]
There is nothing new in the statement that Geoffrey of Monmouth was inspired to write his great Historia Regum Britanniae by other considerations than a passion for historical truth; nor is there any doubt in the minds of scholars that it was owing to the influence of this book, direct and indirect, that the Arthurian stories leapt into general literary popularity just at this time.1 In all the writing about these matters, however, I cannot find that anyone has ever suggested a line of inquiry that seems to me very helpful to an understanding of why and how the Arthurian romances came into being.
There has been a great deal of discussion, some of it fruitful and some of it barren, about the genetics of these works, as well as a considerable amount of sheer quarrelling about the relative contributions of Wales and Armorica to the stories upon which they were based; but there has been too little effort to study their...
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SOURCE: Slover, Clark Harris. “William of Malmesbury and the Irish.” Speculum: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 11, no. 3 (1927): 268-83.
[In the following essay, Slover argues that William brought elements of Irish literature, which are the basis of Arthurian romance, into several of his works.]
In the imaginative literature of mediaeval England, especially in the material dealing with King Arthur and his knights, there are numerous stories and motifs which find close parallels in the Celtic literature of Wales and Ireland. How far we are justified in accepting such parallels as evidence of Celtic origin, however, is a matter of controversy. As the controversy proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that the attempt to make a just estimate of the influence of Celtic literature on the literature of mediaeval England is seriously hampered by lack of information about the channels available for the transmission of Celtic culture to English literary consciousness. Celtic ideas, to be sure, could have been communicated by the Welsh to their Norman conquerors, but, unfortunately, the scantiness of early Welsh imaginative literature makes it difficult to find out just what literary ideas the Welsh had to communicate. As we turn hopefully to the generous supply of Celtic literary material represented by the literature of early Ireland, we are confronted by the question, what channels were available for the...
(The entire section is 6293 words.)
SOURCE: James, M. R. Two Ancient English Scholars: St. Aldhelm and William of Malmesbury, pp. 7-33. Glasgow: Jackson, Wylie and Co., 1931.
[In the following excerpt, James describes William's work in collecting, preserving, and commenting on classical manuscripts.]
It is a truism to which I hardly like to give utterance that the monasteries of Europe were the principal agents in preserving the literature of ancient times. Has any Latin classic survived except through the medium of some monastic or cathedral library? None, I believe—apart from a few broken relics from Herculaneum or Egypt.
This familiar proposition is in some sort the text of my lecture: but, stated as I have stated it, it is far too vague and general to be interesting. If it is to have any actuality we must be told what part such places as Bobbio, Verona, Corbie, Fulda, Canterbury played in the story. We must take each centre separately and estimate its contribution: and to do that we must find out what ancient books it owned, either by studying the catalogue of its library or by ferreting out the existing remains of that library, or by noting what authors were read by those who lived there. A great deal of research has been carried out along these several paths, but a great deal remains to be done. I have interested myself in the history and contents of English monastic libraries more than a little: and to-day I want...
(The entire section is 7320 words.)
SOURCE: Grandsen, Antonia. “Realistic Observation in Twelfth-Century England.” Speculum: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 47, no. 1 (January 1972): 29-51.
[In the following essay, Grandsen examines examples of realistic descriptions of people, places, and things in twelfth-century English writing, paying particular attention to the work of William of Malmesbury.]
T. D. Kendrick has already commented on “nascent medieval topography” (which he describes as “rather casual”) in England, and cites examples of topographical descriptions from chronicles.1 It is proposed here to examine in more detail the ability of medieval writers in twelfth-century England to see and describe the world around them. Besides topographical observation, I shall include observation of small objects (such as goldsmiths' work and books), of mankind itself (people's physical appearance, character and behaviour both individually and corporately as social beings), and of animals and birds.
Writers had various motives for descriptive writing. Admiration of the beautiful and wonder at the extraordinary were constant motives throughout history. Moreover, a writer often had a commemorative intention: he might, for example, want to preserve for posterity the appearance of a great man, or of a work of art in order to commemorate the artist.2 But to some extent visual sense is an individual...
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SOURCE: Thomson, Rodney M. “William of Malmesbury and Some Other Western Writers on Islam.” Medievalia et Humanistica: Studies in Medieval & Renaissance Culture n.s. 6 (1975): 179-87.
[In the following essay, Thomson examines William's accounts of and interest in the Islamic religion, contending that these passages illustrate the intensity of Malmesbury's interest in the subject, as well as illuminating new sources for the material.]
In his book Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, R. W. Southern distinguished between an “Age of Ignorance,” extending to the early twelfth century, and the “Century of Reason and Hope” which succeeded it.1 Typical of views popularly current in the earlier period are those expressed in the Song of Roland, in which the Saracens are polytheists and idolaters, Mohammed being one of their several gods.2 However, from c. 1120, notable advances were made in western knowledge of the Islamic religion and of its prophet-founder. Among several reasons for this, the Crusades and travels associated with or made possible by them may be singled out as especially important. So also were the increasing and amicable contacts between Eastern and European scholars in frontier-areas such as Spain and Sicily.
And yet the Westerner who, according to Southern, first presented a reasonably accurate account of Islam and...
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SOURCE: Thomson, Rodney M. “William of Malmesbury's Carolingian Sources.” Journal of Medieval History 7, no. 4 (December 1981): 321-36.
[In the following essay, Thomson examines William's historical methods through an examination of one of his sources, also commenting in general on twelfth-century historiography.]
William of Malmesbury's Gesta regum, completed in 1125, is of course primarily a history of England; primarily, but not solely, and certainly not in any narrow sense.1 On the contrary, William felt it necessary to at least summarize, in a series of digressions, the history of those people who, by invasion, intermarriage or diplomatic intercourse, became part of England's history. So, he dealt with the continental Saxons and Scandinavians briefly, the Frankish, German and French royal families and the Normans in greater detail.2 The excursuses became more frequent as, on nearing his own time, his vision grew even more pan-European, encompassing the First Crusade, the later stages of the Investiture Controversy and the appearance of new monastic Orders.3 More frequent also become the notorious and baffling fables and folk-tales, apparently (but only apparently?) introduced as light relief.4 William justified these excursuses in various ways. Only one of them claims our attention here, and that is his prolonged treatment of the revived Empire...
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SOURCE: Otter, Monika. “1066: The Moment of Transition in Two Narratives of the Norman Conquest.” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 74, no. 3 (July 1999): 565-86.
[In the following essay, Otter examines William's Life of Wulfstan, focusing on his treatment of the Norman conquest and comparing it with the treatment of the conquest in the anonymous Life of King Edmund.]
The year 1066, touted in the British humor classic 1066 and All That as one of only two truly “historical” dates (i.e., dates that anyone can remember), has assumed for us the character of a watershed in English history, a crucial moment of change and transformation. Indeed, the date is so memorable that the number 1066 itself can stand on its own, metonymically implying the Battle of Hastings, the accession of William to the English throne, the Norman Conquest, the end of Anglo-Saxon culture, the realignment of England in the geopolitical and cultural map of Europe from “Scandinavian” to “French,” and the linguistic transition from “Old” to “Middle” English.
It can be shown that 1066 assumed a similar special status not so long after its occurrence—sometime in the twelfth century.1 But it is the more immediate reactions to the event, insofar as they are recoverable, that interest me here. It has been noted that there is surprisingly little contemporary...
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SOURCE: Bartlett, Robert. “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31, no. 1 (winter 2001): 39-46.
[In the following excerpt, Bartlett examines William's use of language to describe and differentiate people by race, nationality, and ethnicity.]
Historians working in the present day, just like their medieval and early modern predecessors, are confronted with difficult choices when they write of human population groups.1 When, if at all, is it reasonable to employ the word race, the word nation, the word tribe? What collective term best describes, say, the Goths, the English, the Jews? What meaning does the concept “ethnic identity” have? It is hard to do without some collective terms, but neither the medieval nor the modern terminology of race and ethnicity is simple or uncomplicated. Even the distinction between those two central terms, race and ethnicity, is drawn in different ways by different people. In the United States both popular and official usage tends to associate race with the troubled history of white and black, while the term ethnicity summons up Italians, Irish, or Greeks, for example. Hence the former term suggests a distinction based on an inherited biological feature, skin color, while the latter points to cultural differences between groups. Recent large-scale...
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SOURCE: Gillingham, John. ”Civilizing the English? The English Histories of William of Malmesbury and David Hume.” Historical Research 74, no. 183 (February 2001): 17-43.
[In the following essay, Gillingham compares the histories of England composed by William and Hume, noting that the idea of using histories as an aid to refining the temperament of the Englishman was as popular in the twelfth century as it was during the eighteenth, the time of Hume's writings.]
According to Gervase of Canterbury, writing early in the thirteenth century, ‘William the Bastard brought into England a new form of living and speaking’ (‘novam vivendi formam et loquendi’).1 By a new form of speaking he presumably meant French.2 But what did he mean by a new form of living? Gervase—who explicitly described himself as a simple chronicler and not anything as sophisticated as a historian—does not tell us. But we do at least know the very sophisticated history that Gervase had been reading and was deeply influenced by. This was William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the Kings of the English.3 William, recently described as ‘one of England's greatest historians’4—a judgement with which I entirely concur—was a monk, and some of his other works were to be major contributions to strictly ecclesiastical history.5 But this history, the Deeds of the...
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Crawford, Deborah. “St. Joseph in Britain: Reconsidering the Legends, Part I.” Folklore 104, nos. 1-2 (1993): 86-98.
Traces the development of the legend of Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail, first recounted by William in De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie..
Haahr, Joan Gluckauf. “The Concept of Kingship in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum and Historia Novella.” Medieval Studies 38 (1976): 351-71.
Explores William's attitude toward kingship and power.
Patterson, Robert B. “Stephen's Shaftesbury Charter: Another Case against William of Malmesbury.” Speculum: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 43, no. 3 (July 1968): 487-92.
Challenges the reliability of William's Historia Novella.
Thomson, Rodney M. “William of Malmesbury and the Letters of Alcuin.” Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 6 (1975): 147-61.
Examines William's use of the letters of Alcuin, an eighth-century theologian who was an adviser to Charlemagne.
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