William of Malmesbury Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.