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William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury (ca. 1090-ca. 1142) was the foremost English historian of his day and a leading representative of 12th-century clerical humanism.

Of mixed Norman and English descent, William of Malmesbury was born in England between 1090 and 1095. At an early age he was admitted to Malmesbury (Benedictine) Abbey, where he became a monk and, later, librarian of the monastery. His earliest major work was Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) a compendium of English history in five books, first published in 1125 and later revised. Gesta regum is the finest historical work of 12th-century England, although it is less the product of original research than a skillful combination of sources featuring colorful anecdotes and placing special emphasis on the reigns and characters of the Anglo-Norman kings.

William wrote history for moral and didactic purposes, both pious and patriotic (the latter imitative of classical Roman historiography). He reveals his hybrid attitude in this passage from the Historia novella: "What gives more aid to virtue, what is more conducive to justice, than to learn of God's indulgence toward good men and vengeance on traitors? What, moreover, is more pleasant than to record in literary writings the deeds of brave men, by whose example others may abandon cowardice and be armed to defend the fatherland?" In William's description of the Norman conquest, both these assumptions are at work. The victory belongs to the godly Normans, the defeat results from English sinfulness; yet there are also laments, couched in classical rhetoric, for England's loss of liberty under the Norman yoke.

The year after he finished the Gesta regum, William completed the Gesta pontificum (1126; Deeds of the Bishops), a compilation of the lives and deeds of English bishops. During the next few years he wrote the Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan) and De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (1129-1135; Concerning the Antiquity of Glastonbury), a history of that ancient and celebrated abbey. William's last work, and the most valuable to modern historians, is the Historia novella (New History) a continuation to 1142 of the Gesta regum in three books, which includes eyewitness, though not impartial, testimony to the progress of the civil war in England between King Stephen and the house of Anjou. The comparative roughness of the style and the absence of a promised fourth book indicate that the Historia novella was unfinished, William apparently having died soon after he finished book 3 in 1142. He owes his considerable reputation today to his feeling for the sweep of history, the complexities of human character, and the rhetorical possibilities of Latin narration.

Further Reading

Biographical and critical material on William of Malmesbury appears in Reginald R. Darlington, Anglo-Norman Historians (1947), and in the introduction to K. R. Potter, ed. and trans., The Historia Novella (1955). See also the chapter on historical writing in Charles H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927; repr. 1952).

Additional Sources

Thomson, Rodney M., William of Malmesbury, Woodbridge, Suffolk; Wolfeboro, N.H., USA: Boydell Press, 1987. □

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William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury (1095–c.1143) was a monk, born of Anglo-Norman parentage, who set out to write the history of the English in two books, the Gesta Regum Anglorum (‘The Deeds of the Kings of the English’) and the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (‘The Deeds of the Bishops of the English’). Both were completed before 1125 and are important commentaries not just on the English past, but on the Anglo-Norman present and the traumas of the Norman Conquest. Malmesbury was exceptionally learned and widely read. He produced many other works and at the end of his life was writing a contemporary history, the Historia Novella, dedicated to Robert, earl of Gloucester. He is admired as a historian because he travelled to undertake research, because he criticized and evaluated his sources, and because he wrote in a good, classically based, Latin style.

David Richard Bates

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"William of Malmesbury." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"William of Malmesbury." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-malmesbury

"William of Malmesbury." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-malmesbury

William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury (mämz´bərē), c.1096–1143, English writer, monk of Malmesbury. His most important work is the Gesta regum Anglorum, a history of the kings of England from 449 to 1127, with its continuation, Historia novella (ed. by William Stubbs, 1887–89). Book V is contemporary history, especially valuable for the reigns of Henry I and Stephen. The work appeared in English as The Chronicle of the Kings of England (see ed. by J. A. Giles, 1847, repr. 1968). He also wrote Gesta pontificum Anglorum, a source for early ecclesiastical history and for several saints' lives.

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"William of Malmesbury." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"William of Malmesbury." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-malmesbury