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Knowing Medieval Authors: William of Malmesbury

Copy of William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius A V c.1175
Copy of William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum
London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius A V
c.1175

Interpreting our historical past through the lens of medieval historical writers such as William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Orderic Vitalis provides both fascinating insight and complex problems. This is certainly the case with the writer William of Malmesbury, who was recently the subject of a recent three-day conference (William of Malmesbury and his Legacy, University of Oxford, 3-5 July 2015).

Author of the Deeds of the Kings of England (Gesta regum Anglorum) and the Deeds of the Bishops of England (Gesta pontificum Anglorum), William of Malmesbury was a prolific writer in the first half of the twelfth century. Writing from a monastic perspective, his historical writing sought to explore history which was both of and for the development of virtue:

‘In particular I studied History, which adds flavour to moral instruction by imparting a pleasurable knowledge of past events, spurring the reader by the accumulation of examples to follow the good and shun the bad’.

His writings reveal a deep interest and debt to classical writing, but also an incredibly erudite and scholarly man interested in history, literature, rhetoric, and medicine – a true ‘Renaissance’ man of the twelfth century. However, without the work of two diligent editors and translations, recent scholarship on this monumental medieval writer would not be as comprehensive and wide-ranging as it is today.

One would hope that William of Malmesbury would admire the dedication of Michael Winterbottom and Rodney Thomson, two scholars who have dedicated a substantial part of their academic career to the work of this single author. Through scholarly editions of both William of Malmesbury’s Gesta (Oxford Medieval Texts Series), and the forthcoming Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Boydell Medieval Texts Series), they have disseminated William’s work to a new generation of scholars and enthusiasts. So it was an immense privilege to hear from both editors on their experience of working on a single author, especially with the keynote from Rod Thomson discussing whether we can ‘know’ William of Malmesbury, let alone any medieval author.

Indeed, we may know historical details about a medieval person such as where they were born, where they died, where they were educated, etc. However, Thomson raised the question of whether we can have intimate knowledge of a medieval personage; can we have a complete understanding of a medieval figure’s personality?

Copy of William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum London, British Library, MS Arundel 35 Mid-Late Twelfth Century
Copy of William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum
London, British Library, MS Arundel 35
Mid-Late Twelfth Century

Our knowledge of kings and bishops is a construct of the historical writer who writes within the bounds of convention. Furthermore, public behaviour of such figures demands a carefully constructed display of personality such that we cannot know the inner workings of their minds. Potential candidates for ‘intimate knowledge’ included Anselm of Canterbury and Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds. Indeed, William of Malmesbury should not be a candidate for intimate knowledge as we know so little about his life, but the editors’ intimate knowledge of his writings have afforded them such proximity to the author that they can discern facts about his personality which would otherwise go unnoticed. For example, they can discern his curiosity for collecting an immense breadth of knowledge; his immense debt to classical authors; his humour which can be both amusing and scathing; and that he is changeable in his opinion.

We are privileged that the writings of William of Malmesbury have come down through the ages, but perhaps we should also acknowledge the debt modern scholars of the twelfth century owe to the dedication, erudition, and perseverance of editors and translators of the calibre of Winterbottom and Thomson.

And lest we think that there is a gulf between the medieval and modern historian, William too faced the age-old problem of spending too much money on too many books: ‘I had spent a good deal of my own money on getting together a library of foreign historians’. Plus ça change….

About Fiona Whelan

Fiona Whelan
Fiona recently completed her doctorate in History at the University of Oxford. Her focus of research is on social and cultural history of the medieval period, especially in relation to the construction of behaviour and manners in twelfth-century England. Originally from Ireland, with a B.A. in Art History from Trinity College Dublin, her interests are interdisciplinary merging art history, archaeology, anthropology and sociology to interpret the medieval period.

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