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 on William of Malmesbury

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 Biography Sources

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