1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William of Malmesbury

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16241291911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28 — William of MalmesburyHenry William Carless Davis

WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY (c. 1080–c. 1143), English historian of the 12th century, was born about the year 1080, in the south country. He had French as well as English blood in his veins, but he appears to have spent his whole life in England, and the best years of it as a monk at Malmesbury. His tastes were literary, and the earliest fact which he records of his career is that he assisted Abbot Godfrey (1081–1105) in collecting a library for the use of the community. The education which he received at Malmesbury included a smattering of logic and physics; but moral philosophy and history, especially the latter, were the subjects to which he devoted most attention. Later he made for himself a collection of the histories of foreign countries, from reading which he conceived an ambition to produce a popular account of English history, modelled on the great work of Bede. In fulfilment of this idea, William produced about 1120 the first edition of his Gesta regum, which at once gave him a reputation. It was followed by the first edition of the Gesta pontificum (1125). Subsequently the author turned aside to write on theological subjects. A second edition of the Gesta regum (1127) was dedicated to Earl Robert of Gloucester, whose literary tastes made him an appreciative patron. William also formed an acquaintance with Bishop Roger of Salisbury, who had a castle at Malmesbury. It may have been due to these friends that he was offered the abbacy of Malmesbury in 1140. But he preferred to remain a simple bibliothecarius. His one public appearance was made at the council of Winchester (1141), in which the clergy declared for the empress Matilda. About this date he undertook to write the Historia novella, giving an account of events since 1125. This work breaks off abruptly at the end of 1142, with an unfulfilled promise that it will be continued. Presumably William died before he could redeem his pledge.

He is the best English historian of his time. The master of a good Latin style, he shows literary instincts which are, for his time, remarkably sound. But his contempt for the annalistic form makes him at times careless in his chronology and arbitrary in his method of arranging his material; he not infrequently flies off at a tangent to relate stories which have little or no connexion with the main narrative; his critical faculty is too often allowed to lie dormant. His researches were by no means profound; he gives us less of the history of his own time than we have a right to expect—far less, for example, than Orderic. He is, however, an authority of considerable value from 1066 onwards; many telling anecdotes, many shrewd judgments on persons and events, can be gleaned from his pages.

Printed Works.—The Gesta regum covers, in its final form, the years 449-1127. But the later recensions add little, beyond fulsome dedications to Earl Robert, to the edition of 1120. The sources used are not always easy to trace. But for the pre-Conquest period William had at his disposal the works of Bede, Ado of Vienne and William of Jumièges; one or more English chronicles similar to the extant “Worcester” and “Peterborough” texts; Asser's life of Alfred, and a metrical biography of Æthelstan; the chronicles of S. Riquier and Fontanelle; a collection of tales relating to the reign of the emperor Henry III.; and the lives of various saints. For the life of William I. he draws on William of Poitiers; for the first crusade he mainly follows Fulcher of Chartres; his knowledge of Anselm's primacy comes mainly from Eadmer; and at least up to 1100, he makes use of an English chronicle. The fifth and last book, dealing with the reign of Henry I., is chiefly remarkable for its desultoriness and an obvious desire to make the best case for that monarch, whose treatment of Anselm he prudently ascribes to Robert of Meulan (d. 1118). Both in this work and in the Gesta pontificum the later recensions are remarkable for the omission of certain passages which might give offence to those in high places. The deleted sentences usually relate to eminent persons; they sometimes repeat scandal, sometimes give the author's own opinion. The Gesta pontificum gives accounts of the several English sees and their bishops, from the beginning to about 1120; the later recensions continue the work, in part, to 1140. Many saints of the south and midlands are also noticed. This work, like the Gesta regum, contains five books; the fifth relates the life and miracles of St Aldhelm of Malmesbury, and is based upon the biography by Abbot Faricius; it is less useful than books i.-iv., which are of the greatest value to the ecclesiastical historian. The Historia novella is annalistic in form. It was projected soon after the battle of Lincoln, as an apology for the supporters of the empress. The author embarks on special pleading in favour of Earl Robert and Bishop Roger of Salisbury, but shows a certain liking for the personal character of Stephen, whose case he states with studious fairness.

The historical works of William of Malmesbury were edited by Savile in his Scriptores post Bedam (London, 1536); but the text of that edition is full of errors. Sir T. D. Hardy edited the Gesta regum and Historia novella for the English Historical Society in 1840, and put the criticism of the manuscripts on a sound basis. But the standard edition of these works is that of W. Stubbs in the “Rolls” series (1 vol., in 2, 1887–1889); the second part of this edition contains a valuable introduction on the sources and value of the chronicler. The Gesta pontificum has been edited for the “Rolls” series by N. G. S. A. Hamilton (London, 1870) from a manuscript which he was the first to identify as the archetype. Another work, De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (A.D. 63–1126), is printed in Gale's Scriptores XV. (Oxford, 1691). Wharton in the second volume of his Anglia sacra (London, 1691) gives considerable portions of a life of Wulfstan which is an amplified translation of an Anglo-Saxon biography. Finally Stubbs in his Memorials of St Dunstan (“Rolls” series, London, 1874) prints a Vita S. Dunstani which was written about 1126.

Unprinted Extant Works.—Among these are Miracles of the Virgin; Liber super explanationem lamentationum Yeremiae prophetae; an abridgment of Amalarius' De divinis officiis; De dictis et factis memorabilibus philosophorum; an epitome of the Historia of Haymo of Fleury and some other works, historical and legal (autograph in the Bodleian); Lives of the English Saints. The MSS. of these works are to be found partly in the British Museum, partly in the Bodleian.

Lost Works.—A Vita Sancti Patricii and Miracle Sancti Benigni are mentioned in the prologue to the book on Glastonbury; a metrical life of St Ælfgyfu is quoted in the Gesta pontificum; Chronica tribus libellis are mentioned in the prologue to the Historia novella, and a fragment of them is apparently preserved in the Brit. Mus. Lansdowne MS. 436. Leland gives extracts from an Itinerarium Johannis abbatis, describing the journey of Abbot John to Rome in 1140 (Leland, Collectanea, iii. 272).  (H. W. C. D.)