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
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 of his being descended from both English and Norman parents; his father having probably come hither at the conquest. The exact time of his birth cannot be ascertained; though perhaps an approximation to it may be made. In the “Commentary on Jeremiah,”1 Malmesbury observes, that he “had long since, in his youthful days, amused himself with writing history, that he was now forty years of age;” and, in another place, he mentions a circumstance which occurred “in the time of king Henry;”2 apparently implying that Henry was then dead. Now, admitting the expression of “long since” to denote a period of ten years, this, as his Histories of the Kings and [History] of the Prelates were completed in the year 1125, must have been written about 1135, the time of Henry's death, and would of course place his own birth about 1095 or 1096.3
The next circumstance to be noticed is, that when a boy, he was placed in the monastery whence he derived his name, where in due time he became librarian, and, according to Leland, precentor; and ultimately refused the dignity of abbat. His death is generally supposed to have taken place about 1143; though it is probable that he survived this period some time: for his Modern History terminates at the end of the year 1142; and it will appear, from a manuscript hereafter to be described, that he lived at least long enough after its publication to make many corrections, alterations, and insertions, in that work as well in the other portions of his History.
With these facts, meagre as they are, the personal account of him must close. But with regard to his literary bent and attainments there is ample store of information in his writings. From his earliest youth he gave his soul to study, and to the collecting of books;4 and he visited many of the most celebrated monasteries in the kingdom, apparently in prosecution of this darling propensity. The ardour of his curiosity, and the unceasing diligence of his researches, in this respect, have perhaps been seldom surpassed. He seems to have procured every volume within his reach; and to have carefully examined and digested its contents, whether divinity, history, biography, poetry, or classical literature. Of his acquirements as a scholar it is indeed difficult to speak in terms of sufficient commendation. That he had accurately studied nearly all the Roman authors, will be readily allowed by the classical reader of his works. From these he either quotes or inserts so appositely, as to show how thoroughly he had imbibed their sense and spirit. His adaptations are ever ready and appropriate; they incorporate with his narrative with such exactness that they appear only to occupy their legitimate place. His knowledge of Greek is not equally apparent; at least his references to the writers of Greece are not so frequent, and even these might probably be obtained from translations: from this, however, no conclusion can be drawn that he did not understand the language. With respect to writers subsequent to those deemed classics, his range was so extensive that it is no easy matter to point out many books which he had not seen, and certainly he had perused several which we do not now possess.
Malmesbury's love of learning was constitutional: he declares in one of his prefaces, that had he turned to any other than literary pursuits, he should have deemed it not only disgraceful, but even detrimental to his better interest. Again, his commendations of Bede show how much he venerated a man of congenial inclinations and studies; and how anxious he was to form himself on the same model of accurate investigation and laborious research, and to snatch every possible interval from the performance of his monastic duties, for the purposes of information and improvement.
His industry and application were truly extraordinary. Even to the moment when we reluctantly lose sight of him, he is discovered unceasingly occupied in the correction of his works.5 In the MSS. of the History of the Kings may be found traces of at least four several editions; and the History of the Prelates supplies nearly as many varieties. And though it may reasonably be imagined that a great portion of the alterations are merely verbal, and of course imperceptible in a translation, yet they contribute in an extraordinary degree to the polish and elegance of his style.6 Another excellent feature of Malmesbury's literary character is, his love of truth. He repeatedly declares that, in the remoter periods of his work, he had observed the most guarded caution in throwing all responsibility, for the facts he mentions, on the authors from whom he derived them; and in his own times he avers, that he has recorded nothing that he had not either personally witnessed, or learned from the most credible authority. Adhering closely to this principle, he seems to have been fully impressed with the difficulty of relating the transactions of the princes, his contemporaries, and on this account he repeatedly apologizes for his omissions. But here is seen his dexterous management in maintaining an equipoise between their virtues and vices; for he spares neither William the First, nor his sons who succeeded him: indeed several of his strictures in the earlier editions of this work, are so severe, that he afterwards found it necessary to modify and soften them.
His character and attainments had early acquired a high degree of reputation among his contemporaries. He was entreated by the monks of various monasteries to write either the history of their foundations, or the lives of their patron saints. He associated with persons of the highest consequence and authority; and in one instance, at least, he took a share in the important political transactions of his own times. Robert earl of Gloucester, the natural son of Henry the First, was the acknowledged friend and patron of Malmesbury. This distinguished nobleman, who was himself a profound scholar, seems to have been the chief promoter of learning at that period. Several portions of our author's work are dedicated to him, not merely through motives of personal regard, but from the conviction that his attainments as a scholar would lead him to appreciate its value as a composition, and the part which he bore in the transactions of his day, enable him to decide on the veracity of its relation.
Having thus stated the leading features of Malmesbury's life, his avocations and attainments, it may not be irrelevant to consider the form and manner which he has adopted in the history before us. A desire to be acquainted with the transactions of their ancestors seems natural to men in every stage of society, however rude or barbarous. The northern nations, more especially, had their historical traditions, and the songs of their bards, from the remotest times. Influenced by this feeling, the Anglo-Saxons turned their attention to the composition of annals very early after their settlement in Britain; and hence originated that invaluable register the Saxon Chronicle,7 in which facts are briefly related as they arose;—in chronological order, indeed, but without comment or observation. After the Norman conquest, among other objects of studious reserach in England, history attracted considerable attention, and the form, as well as the matter, of the Saxon Chronicle, became the prevailing standard. It might readily be supposed that Malmesbury's genius and attainments would with difficulty submit to the shackles of a mere chronological series, which afforded no field for the exercise of genius or judgment. Accordingly, following the bent of his inclination, he struck into a different and freer path; and to a judicious selection of facts gave the added charm of wisdom and experience. It may therefore be useful to advert to the exemplification of this principle in the scope and design of the work immediately before us. His first book comprises the exploits of the Anglo-Saxons, from the period of their arrival till the consolidation of the...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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,...
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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...
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