William of Malmesbury

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J. A. Giles (essay date 1847)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 80,949 words.)