Friday, October 5, 2012

William of Malmesbury

In the 12th century in England, the practice of writing histories was becoming relatively common. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the Chronicle of Melrose were ongoing, and Orderic Vitalis and the prolific Eadmer were writing their histories. Since I cast doubt on William of Malmesbury (1095-c.1143) in yesterday's post, however, I thought he deserved some attention.

William of Malmesbury's aim was not simply to write a history, but to produce a great literary work that was worthy of the greatest historian England had yet known. His Preface begins:
The history of the English, from their arrival in Britain to his own times, has been written by Bede, a man of singular learning and modesty, in a clear and captivating style. After him you will not, in my opinion, easily find any person who has attempted to compose in Latin the history of this people. Let others declare whether their researches in this respect have been, or are likely to be, more fortunate; my own labor, though diligent in the extreme, has, down to this period, been without its reward.
Bede (673-735) was universally respected, so much so that it was rare to see his name without the modifier "Venerable" before it. After praising Bede's singular position in English literature, William attempts to produce a work that equals or surpasses it. The result was the Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of the English).

And according to many scholars, he succeeded. In the opinion of Milton, William was "both for style and judgment by far the best writer of all." He included anecdotes and detailed descriptions of important figures—far more historically valuable information than the often terse Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Like Bede, and unlike other historians, he showed the cause and the effect of historical events and the actions of kings. His account of the First Crusade is detailed and colorful.

He followed this work with Gesta Pontificum (Deeds of Pontiffs), a history of abbeys and monasteries in England. About the year 1140, he revised both works, updating them, and began an addendum to the first, his Historia novella (History of new[er] things). His patron in all this was Robert, Earl of Gloucester. As a son of King Henry, Robert was fairly powerful; it is thought that Robert would have made William the abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, but William preferred to concentrate on his learning instead of administrative duties.

That learning certainly contributed to his writing. It is believed that some of his information, such as what he has to say about Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester, comes from the account by Wulfstan's contemporary, Coleman. But that is how medieval scholars managed: they took from available works, and providing attribution was not as important as making your own work as complete as possible. William's works remain the best accounts we have of life in England in the first few generations after the Norman Conquest.

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