William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum

In the prologue to book two of his Gesta regum Anglorum, ‘The Deeds of the Kings of the English’, William of Malmesbury (c. 1090–after 1142) gives an autobiographical account of how he became an historian which suggests that he was inspired by history itself. The habit of reading, he tells us,

has been a source of pleasure to me ever since I was a boy, and its charm grew as I grew. Indeed, I had been brought up by my father to regard it as damaging to my soul and my good repute if I turned my attention in any other direction... In particular I studied History, which adds flavour to moral instruction by imparting a pleasurable knowledge of past events, spurring the reader by the accummulation of examples to follow the good and shun the bad. So after I had spent a good deal of my own money on getting together a library of foreign historians, I proceeded in my leisure moments to inquire if anything could be discovered concerning England worth the attention of posterity. Not content with ancient works, I began to get the itch to write myself, not to show off my more or less non-existent erudition but in order to bring forcibly into the light things lost in the rubbish-heap of the past.

firebeastThe impression given here is that William was writing, not in the service of his religious house or of some other interest group, but out of his own private enthusiasm for history, and especially the history of his native land. But he is being disingenuous. For one thing, the dedicatory epistles claim that the work was written at the request of Henry I’s queen, Matilda. William claims that she visited Malmesbury before her death on 1 May 1118 and had asked for a written account explaining the connection between the English royal family and the abbey’s founder St Aldhelm (d. 709/10). Writing to her brother, David I, king of Scotland (1124–53), he asks him ‘to imitate her goodwill... not just in other matters, but more particularly in your love for the monastery of St Aldhelm your kinsman’. Aldhelm was founder and patron of Malmesbury, and this suggests that this work was first conceived as an attempt to raise the abbey’s profile in the eyes of the political establishment. It is not irrelevant that the work was composed at a time when, to its monks’ great distress, Malmesbury’s status and prosperity had been undermined by the actions of its diocesan, Roger of Salisbury (1102–39). He had annexed the abbey, diverting much of its income to support his cathedral at Old Sarum.

Begun before Matilda’s death in 1118, the first version of the work was completed in about 1125/6, but William continued to revise it until at least 1134. Many of the revisions suggest a concern to improve the style of the prose, and some show the benefit of the researches among the archives of Glastonbury Abbey undertaken whilst he was writing his De antiquitate Glastonie ecclesie; but other changes suggest a concern to moderate the opinions and interpretations offered in the first version. This process is also much in evidence, and indeed, better attested for the Gesta regum’s companion work, the Gesta pontificum Anglorum, ‘The Deeds of the Bishops of the English’. This work was begun around 1120, originally as an appendix to Gesta regum Anglorum, but it was later reconceived as a separate history. The first draft of this work, in its reconceived form, was completed at the same time as the Gesta regum, in about 1125.

Evidence for its revision at intervals over the next decade is provided by the survival of a partial autograph—Oxford, Magdalen College, MS lat. 172 (known as ‘A’)—together with some nineteen other medieval manuscripts. Written in the author’s own hand, Magdalen 172 contains much evidence of erasures and revision. Entire leaves have even been inserted to accommodate alterations to the text, but because copies were made before and during the two decades when this work was taking place it is possible to reconstruct the process of revision in some detail. Four manuscripts are especially important for the clarifying the chronology of these revisions:

  • B    London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius A.V (s.xiimed, Belvoir Priory)
  • C    London, British Library, MS Harley 3641 (s.xiiex, Byland Abbey)
  • E    Oxford, All Souls College, MS 34 (s.xiimed)
  • G    London, British Library, MS Arundel 222 (s.xii2)

Through careful scrutiny of the variants among these copies, Michael Winterbottom has shown that it is possible to distinguish at least four stages in the revision of the text. B and C derive from a common ancestor (β) which was copied from the holograph before William carried out an extensive purge of many passages that were too explicit. Among the most sensational passages excised was a savage attack on the probity of Lanfranc of Bec, the first post-Conquest archbishop of Canterbury (1070–89) (§§ 42.6–7). B and C are both incomplete, but they allow us recover much of what was removed at this stage. Having purged the text, William continued to correct and enlarge it, inserting the fruits, for example, of further research about the earlier archbishops of Canterbury (at §§ 4, 7.1–2, 20.1–3, and so on) and about the introduction of monks at Winchester (§ 75.38). Being derived from A as it existed at some point between 1129 and 1140, the main text of E (excluding the corrections which were later made to this MS), bears witness to an advanced stage in this process. Changes made after this point, many of them intended to erase signs that book one was first written as a continuation to Gesta regum, figure in G. Close analysis of these revisions offers precious insights into William’s priorities as an historian.

Manuscript: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 43 (Q). A medium format book measuring 340 × 210 mm, Corpus 43 houses the following items:

  1. William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum, books I–IV (fols. 1r–63v). This text is the work of a single scribe writing in a good, fourteenth-century, English bookhand, in double columns of 46 lines. He ends at the foot of fol. 63v, a few lines into the final chapter of book iv. Fol. 64r is a supply leaf copied in sixteenth-century hand, evidently introduced to make good some fault at the end of book four. This copy of Gesta pontificum (as far as fol. 63v) derives indirectly from the Oxford, All Souls College, MS 34—in its corrected form. As had already been mentioned, All Souls 34 is an important early manuscript which bears witness to the evolution of William’s text. It was corrected extensively in 1158 × 1160, with reference back to A in its more advanced form, and Corpus 43 belongs to a cluster of descendants made after these corrections were made. These descendants derive from intervening copy and were produced in the eastern parts of England. (For its coverage of Lanfranc of Bec, see esp. fols. 13r–v.)
  2. William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum, books V (fols. 69r–112r). Book five, William's life of Malmesbury’s patron, St Aldhelm, has been supplied by one of Archbishop Matthew Parker’s secretaries. Written on paper in a mid-sixteenth-century hand, it is followed by eight blank leaves.
  3. Adam of Eynsham, Visio Eadmundi monachi de Egnesham (fols. 120r–141v). The hand and layout are very similar to that of item one.
  4. Extracts from William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, book I (fols. 142r–142v). These extracts begin imperfectly and are written in an informal, early sixteenth-century, hand in double columns.

Provenance: Marginal annotations to the text of Gesta pontificum suggest an interest in East Anglian matters (e.g. fol. 62r), and M. R. James thought that the appearance of the book, the style of its script and ornament were keeping with manuscripts associated with Norwich Cathedral.

Other Images: For a reproduction from the holograph Oxford, Magdalen College, MS lat. 172, fol. 99r, see N. Morgan and R. Thomson (eds), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 2, 1100–1400 (Cambridge, 2008), pl. 6.3. ZC3ea.C.

Text and Translation: William of Malmesbury, Gesta pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trs. R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford Medieval Texts, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2007). MVB.K. Vol. 2 comprises an introduction and commentary.


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