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William of Malmesbury

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 Abbey.

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 anglorum (Deeds of the English kings), which at once gave him a reputation. It was followed by the first edition of the Gesta pontificum anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops) (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 (New History), 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 Vitalis. 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.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.