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Historian and Ecclesiast
Born c1085 died 1143

His Life

William of Malmesbury was born in Wiltshire; various dates are suggested for his birth ranging between 1080 and 1095 (which means no one really knows) but it is known that his father was a Norman whereas his mother came from England.

He entered the Benedictine monastery at Malmesbury Abbey as a boy, where he naturally received his education and developed an interest in both history and ancient manuscripts and eventually spent his time establishing and expanding a library on behalf of the abbot Godfrey1. He seems to have specialised in collecting the histories of foreign countries and formed the idea of writing a history of England, modelled on the work of the Venerable Bede.

As a result around 1120 he wrote what was to prove to be the first edition of the Gesta Regum Anglorum or 'The Deeds of the Kings of England', a history of England from 449 to 1120; which was soon followed by the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum or 'The Deeds of the Bishops of England' which was an ecclesiastical history of England from 597 to 1125.2

He spent the next few years building a collection of historical and legal manuscripts relating to English history3, issuing a second edition of the Gesta Regum(in 1127 which he dedicated to Robert of Gloucester) and writing a history of Glastonbury Abbey and its saints, De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae or 'The Antiquities of the Church of Glastonbury' as well as the Vita Dunstani a life of St. Dunstan.

About 1140 he produced revisions of his two previous works Gesta Regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum and began writing the Historia novella or the 'New History' which was intended to be a continuation of the Gesta Regum Anglorum, an account of contemporary events since 1125. He seems to have completed the first draft and reached the year 1142 but was prevented from completing it by his death in 1143.

His Work

"Thence it came that not being satisfied
with the writing of old I began to write myself
"

William was and is best known for his Gesta Regum Anglorum which is mostly derivative for the years before 1066 and relies heavily on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Venerable Bede, but after that becomes largely original. Together with his Historia novella (despite its unfinished state), his work remains one of the prime sources for the history of the Norman kings and particularly for events during the reign of Stephen.

William is widely regarded as the best and most conscientious English historian of his time, and has a much higher reputation as a historian than his contemporary Henry of Huntingdon. Much of this is down to his appreciation of the importance of primary sources and his willingness to examine them critically. He was for example, one of the first people to dismiss the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth with the words;

"This is that Arthur of whom the trifling of the Britons talks so much nonsense today; a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in idle fictions, but to be proclaimed in authentic history"

To William Arthur was a battle leader who helped Ambrosius Aurelianus win the battle of Mons Badonicus and not some quasi-mythical super-king, although he did make his own little contribution my noting that the tomb of Arthur remained undiscovered and noted that the "ancient ballads fable that he is still to come"; the first written reference to the notion that Arthur would 'rise again'.

The Gesta Pontificum Anglorum although a highly influential work on the history of the English church is much less well known if only for the reason that it has only very recently been translated into English.

There are unfortumately no surviving copies of William of Malmesbury's original De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae although much of much of the text was believed to have been transcribed into the Gesta Regum Anglorum. It was however used as the basis for a much more fanciful work in the thirteenth century by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey.


NOTES

1 Geoffrey was abbot between 1081-1105)

2 The secular history began in 449, the date of the arrival of the Saxons as given by the Venerable Bede; the religous history began in 597 the date on which Christianity first arrived amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons

3 Most of which has now found its way to the Bodleian Library


SOURCES

The Catholic Encyclopedia at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15633d.htm
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica at http://44.1911encyclopedia.org/W/WI/WILLIAM_GERMAN_KING.htm

as well as articles on William of Malmesbury found at
http://www.csun.edu/~sk36711/WWW2/engl443/malmesbury.html
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/NORmalmesbury.htm

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