Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/William of Malmesbury

WILLIAM of Malmesbury (d. 1143?), historian, was born between 1090 and 1096; a treatise ascribed to him contains the statement that its author was born on 30 Nov. ‘The blood of two races’—Norman and English—was mingled in William. He calls himself a ‘compatriot’ of St. Dunstan [q. v.], which may mean that he was born in Somerset; that his home was in the south or west of England is implied in the fact that he was brought up from childhood in Malmesbury Abbey. He was already there in the time of Abbot Godfrey, i.e. before 1105; he even speaks of himself as having witnessed there an event, of which other evidence shows that the date cannot have been later than 1096. Elsewhere he uses expressions from which it has been inferred that he assisted Godfrey in the formation of the monastic library; but though this is not absolutely impossible—supposing the assistance limited to such small matters as a clever and studious boy of nine or ten might well be capable of—it is more probable that the passage refers to his labours in after years for the increase and improvement of the work which Godfrey had begun. Strongly urged on by his father, William became a diligent student. He heard lectures on logic, he studied medicine, and ‘searched deeply’ into ethics; but his chief bent was towards history. At his own or his father's expense he procured ‘some histories of foreign nations;’ then he ‘set about to inquire whether anything worthy of the remembrance of posterity could be found among our own people.’ ‘Thence it came,’ he says, ‘that, not satisfied with the writings of old, I began to write myself.’ His ‘Gesta Regum’ and ‘Gesta Pontificum Anglorum’ were both finished in 1125. By that time he had secured the patronage of Robert, earl of Gloucester [q. v.] William was now, and apparently had been already for some years, librarian of his monastery. Between 1126 and 1137 he compiled a large collection, still extant in a volume believed to be written by his own hand, of materials for historical and legal study, comprising excerpts from and abridgments of various old writers, and a transcript of the Roman law-book known as ‘Breviarium Alarici,’ with notes and additions from other sources. Between 1129 and 1139 at latest, probably not later than 1135, he wrote a treatise on the history of Glastonbury, and the lives of four saints connected with that house. In one of these lives he speaks of Glastonbury as the minster ‘wherein I am a professed soldier of heaven,’ and, addressing its monks, he calls himself ‘your servant by devotion, your brother in the fellowship of God's soldiery, your son by affection.’ This may mean that he had letters of confraternity with the Glastonbury monks; or, possibly, that he was for a time a resident member of their community. In the prologue to a commentary on the ‘Lamentations of Jeremiah,’ written when he was, he says, ‘forty years old,’ he speaks of having ‘amused himself with history in his younger days,’ and feeling that ‘more advanced age and less prosperous fortune now call’ him to more solemn subjects. It is possible that this ‘less prosperous fortune’ may have involved a temporary exile from Malmesbury, during which he found shelter at Glastonbury, and that it may have been caused by some difficulty with Roger of Salisbury [q. v.], who held Malmesbury Abbey as an appendage to his bishopric for at least fourteen years before his death in December 1139. In June 1139, however, William was on one occasion in Roger's company.

William seems to have been present at the council held by the legate Henry [see Henry of Blois] at Winchester on 29 Aug.–1 Sept. 1139. After Roger's death the monks of Malmesbury obtained (1140) leave from the king to elect an abbot. They chose a monk named John, who died within a year, and was succeeded by one Peter. It seems that at each of these elections William might have become abbot, had he desired it. Peter accompanied John on a ‘laborious journey towards Rome,’ of which William wrote an ‘Itinerary’ from Peter's report. In a fragment of this ‘Itinerary,’ preserved by Leland, William says, ‘Unless self-love deceives me, I have proved myself a man of ingenuous mind, in that I gave place to a comrade in the matter of the abbot's office, which I might easily have obtained for myself, more than once.’ He may have accepted the precentorship instead; for in later times there was a tradition at Malmesbury that he had been precentor as well as librarian. Meanwhile, he had gone back to the favourite pursuit of his youth. Between 1135 and 1140 he had made two recensions of the ‘Gesta Regum.’ In 1140 he was at work upon a new book, the ‘Historia Novella,’ and upon a revision of the ‘Gesta Pontificum.’ He was present at the council at Winchester (7–10 April 1141), in which the Empress Matilda (1102–1167) [q. v.] was acknowledged as ‘Lady’ of England. Matilda's escape from Oxford in December 1142 is the latest event which he mentions; probably therefore he died in 1143.

William was ‘a man of great reading, unbounded industry, very forward scholarship, and of thoughtful research in many regions of learning’ (Stubbs's pref. to Gesta Regum, vol. i. p. x). If he was exceptionally qualified, he was also exceptionally circumstanced for the pursuit to which he chiefly devoted his powers. The two great abbeys with which he was so closely connected were treasure-houses of material of all kinds, documentary and traditional, for the early history of England; and from the number of authors with whom he shows himself acquainted, even in his early works, it is evident that, what with the libraries of these two houses and his private means of procuring books, he had, while still a very young man, access to a much wider field of reading than was open to most of his contemporaries. His social advantages were equally great. Notwithstanding his monastic education and profession, he had seen more of the world than many laymen of his time. His sketches of town and country in the ‘Gesta Pontificum’ show that he had travelled not only over a considerable part of the south and west of England, but as far north as Carlisle and Yorkshire, and as far east as St. Ives and, probably, Bury St. Edmunds. His facilities for acquiring information, both orally and by reading, were enhanced by the fact that his mixed origin gave him the command of two languages besides the Latin in which he wrote. He was, moreover, especially fortunate in three of his acquaintances; the political history of the reigns of Henry I and Stephen came to him at first hand from three of the foremost actors in it—Roger of Salisbury, Henry of Winchester, and Robert of Gloucester.

William's most important work is the ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum,’ with its sequel, the ‘Historia Novella.’ The ‘Gesta Regum’ begins at the beginning of English history, and was originally intended to end at the year 1120; but the author carried on his work for five more years before he brought it to a conclusion, and in his two later recensions he fixed its termination at 1127–8. These later recensions contain no additions of any great importance, except a dedication to Earl Robert of Gloucester, and a series of notices derived from the history and charters of Glastonbury, and they differ from each other chiefly in the position given to the dedication, and the number and extent of these Glastonbury insertions. Both differ from the first version mainly in this, that the strong language used by the author in his youth concerning the great personages of the past—especially the recent past—is considerably modified by the greater caution, maturer judgment, or deeper charity of his more advanced age. To our real knowledge of the period comprised in the first two books of the ‘Gesta’ (a. d. 449–1066), ‘his independent contributions are,’ Bishop Stubbs says, ‘infinitesimal.’ Of the third book (1066–87) the same authority observes: ‘Considering that he must have been acquainted with many to whom the main events of the conquest were matters of personal recollection, we might expect much more than we find of original information,’ although there is enough of this to entitle him to ‘the distinguished place of a primary and honest, if not always absolutely trustworthy, authority for the period;’ while some details of foreign affairs, such as the succession of the Scandinavian kings at this time, and, more especially, the account of the early Angevins, are of considerable interest and importance, and have not been traced to any extant source. For the reign of William Rufus and the early years of Henry I, contained in book iv., William is practically a contemporary authority, and from the opening of book v. he is strictly a contemporary writer. Yet throughout these two books his narrative is curiously incomplete and ill-arranged. The chief value of this part of his work lies in the illustrations of character and of the foreign relations of the Norman kings with which the narrative is interspersed. Much of the interest and importance which attaches to the ‘Gesta Regum’ as a whole is literary rather than historical. In the earlier books, especially the second, William makes considerable use of the older ballad literature of England, which in its original shape is entirely lost. In the same portion of his work more particularly, but to some extent also throughout its whole course, he frequently breaks the sequence of events to entertain his readers with a string of miscellaneous tales, some utterly frivolous, some curious as illustrations of mediæval manners and habits of thought, many of a character which has justly brought upon their narrator the reproach of being ‘a greedy swallower of every wonder that he could rake up from every quarter,’ most of them totally irrelevant to his main subject, but all of them related with the facility of a master of the art of story-telling. These stories doubtless helped in no small degree to win for the ‘Gesta Regum’ the place which it held, from its first appearance down to the close of the middle ages, as ‘a popular and standard history’ which other writers used as a foundation for their work, as William had used Beda for the same purpose. But the ‘Gesta Regum’ is entitled to its fame upon higher grounds. In it William ‘deliberately set himself forward as the successor of the venerable Bede; and it is seldom that an aspirant of the sort comes so near as he did to the realisation of his pretensions.’ ‘We may fairly claim for him the credit of being the first writer after Bede who attempted to give to his details of dates and events such a systematic connection, in the way of cause and consequence, as entitles them to the name of history.’ Whatever be the worth of the ‘Gesta Regum’ as original material, ‘as a step in the working out of historiography it has a monumental value’ (Stubbs, l. c. pp. ix, x).

In the ‘Historia Novella,’ which takes up the thread of the narrative where it was dropped at the conclusion of the ‘Gesta Regum,’ the last ten years of Henry's reign are rapidly run over, and the period from December 1135 to December 1142 is dealt with at greater length, but in a desultory way which shows that the book is little more than a collection of notes, or first draft, which the author did not live to put into shape. Imperfect as it is, however, it holds a foremost place among our materials for the history of Stephen's reign. The printed editions of the ‘Gesta Regum’ and ‘Historia Novella’ are by Savile (Scriptores post Bedam, London, 1596, Frankfort, 1601) Hardy (Engl. Hist. Soc. 1840; reprinted in Migne's Patrologia, vol. clxxix.), and Stubbs (Rolls Ser. 1887–9).

William's other extant works, original and compiled, are: 1. ‘Gesta Pontificum Anglorum’ (see above), ‘the foundation of the early ecclesiastical history of England on which all writers have chiefly built’ (Hamilton, pref. p. x). The first four books are printed in Savile's ‘Scriptores post Bedam,’ the fifth book (‘Vita S. Aldhelmi’) in Gale's ‘Scriptores Rerum Anglicarum,’ vol. iii., and Wharton's ‘Anglia Sacra,’ vol. ii.; all five books are reprinted in Migne, vol. clxxix., and the complete work has been edited from William's autograph manuscript by Mr. N. E. S. A. Hamilton (Rolls Ser. 1870). 2. ‘Vita S. Dunstani,’ printed in Stubbs's ‘Memorials of St. Dunstan’ (Rolls Ser. 1874). 3. ‘Vita S. Wulfstani;’ Wharton, vol. ii.; Migne, vol. clxxix. 4. ‘De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiæ;’ Gale, vol. iii.; Wharton, vol. ii.; Hearne's ‘Adam of Domerham,’ vol. i. 5. ‘Fragment of a Letter on John Scotus;’ Gale's preface to ‘Scotus de Divisione Naturæ’ (1681); Migne, vol. cxxii.; Stubbs's preface to ‘Gesta Regum,’ vol. i. 6. ‘Abbreviatio Librorum Amalarii de Ecclesiasticis Officiis;’ Lambeth MS. 380; All Souls College MS. 28; prologue and epilogue printed in P. Allix's edition of the ‘Determinatio Joannis Parisiensis de Corpore Christi’ (1686); Migne, vol. clxxix.; and Stubbs's preface to ‘Gesta Regum,’ vol. i. 7. ‘Liber de Miraculis S. Mariæ;’ Cotton MS. Cleopatra C. 10; extracts in Stubbs's preface to ‘Gesta Regum,’ vol. i. 8. ‘Explanatio Lamentationum Hieremiæ;’ Cotton MS. Tiberius A. xii.; Bodleian MS. 868; extracts in Birch's ‘Life and Writings of William of Malmesbury,’ and Stubbs, as above. 9. The great historical and legal collection already mentioned; Bodleian MS. Selden B. 16. 10. A similar collection of small treatises on various subjects, Harleian MS. 3969.

The following are also ascribed to William: 11. ‘Liber de Miraculis Beati Andreæ;’ Cotton MS. Nero E. 1, Arundel 222, Harleian 2; extracts in Birch and Stubbs, as above. 12. ‘Passio S. Indracti;’ Bodleian MS. Digby 112; extracts in Stubbs as above. 13. A collection, made on the same principles as 9 and 10, of small theological treatises: Balliol College MS. 79.

William's lost works included: 14. A ‘Life of St. Patrick.’ 15. A ‘Life of St. Benignus.’ 16. A chronicle of part of the reign of Henry I, referred to by William himself as ‘tres libelluli quibus Chronica dedi vocabulum.’ 17. ‘Itinerarium Johannis Abbatis’ (see above). 18 (according to Leland) a poem in fifteen books, ‘de serie quatuor evangelistarum.’

A copy of the letters and treatises of St. Anselm, in William's handwriting, is in Lambeth Palace Library MS. 224.

[William of Malmesbury is the sole original authority for his own biography. The history of his life and works has been investigated by the Rev. John Sharpe in the preface to his translation of the Gesta Regum (London, 1815), by Mr. W. de Gray Birch, in his Life and Writings of William of Malmesbury (Transactions of the Royal Soc. of Literature, vol. x. new ser.), and by Mr. Hamilton, in his edition of the Gesta Pontificum. It has been worked out in full and minute detail by Bishop Stubbs, in the prefaces to his edition of the Gesta Regum, on which this article is based.]

K. N.