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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries

§ 6. William of Malmesbury

Contemporary with Eadmer and Orderic, William of Malmesbury is a much greater historian, and, to the literary student, a far more attractive writer, than either. Milton’s opinion, that “both for style and judgment” William is “by far the best writer of all” the twelfth century chroniclers, still holds good. William, as many incidental confessions in his History show, had high ambitions as an author, and aspired to restore to the historian’s art the dignity and the splendour with which it had been invested by the illustrious Bede. His design is to tell, artistically yet critically, all that is known about his country’s history from the first coming of the English and, especially, as he informs us in his preface, to “fill up the chasm of two hundred and twenty-three years” after Bede which Eadmer had left altogether unnoticed in his Historia Novorum. William’s chronicle is in two parts. The first, divided into five books, is called a History of the Kings of England, and extends from A.D. 449 to 1127. The second part, entitled Historia Novella or Modern History, is in three books, and brings the narrative down to the year 1142. These histories represent but a small portion of William’s entire literary work, for he was one of the most prolific writers of his time; his other productions include a history of the prelates of England, a life of St. Wulfstan, and a history of the church of Glastonbury. William of Malmesbury possessed many of the highest qualifications of a historian; he had learning, industry, judgment and a wide knowledge of the world. He was, for his day, a considerable traveller, and was, both by temperament and training, a discriminating as well as an inquisitive student of life and character. He is thus singularly free from the prejudices and the narrow standards of the cloister. Although he himself claims that his mixed blood is a guarantee of his impartiality, he has not escaped the suspicion, among modern critics, of having been something of a time-server. He had, however, a thoroughly disinterested love of history as a study and as an art; and the task of writing the history of England presented itself to him as a patriotic duty, all the more clearly incumbent upon him because of the “criminal indolence” of those who might have continued the work of Bede.

Bede, then, is William’s greatest exemplar, and the fount of his inspiration—Bede, with whom “was buried almost all knowledge of history down to our own times,” and whose praises William protests that he has “neither the abilities nor the eloquence” adequately to blazon. For materials of the earlier portions of his History William states that he searched far and wide; and, while he borrowed from nearly every known work of his time, he evidently draws upon other sources which have not been identified. But he by no means borrows indiscriminately. He sifts and selects his material, and cautions his readers against accepting the testimony of his authorities too implicitly. That he was not, however, so very much in advance of his time is shown by the fact that he, in company with more credulous chroniclers gravely records marvels and seemingly supernatural occurrences as authentic historical events. The evidence of a respectable eye-witness is, in most of these cases, sufficient warrant for unquestioning belief. Anecdotes, also, of every kind, seem to have had a peculiar charm for William, and, at the end of his third book, he quaintly excuses his fondness for including them in his History by saying that, “if I am not too partial to myself, a variety of anecdote cannot be displeasing to any one, unless he be morose enough to rival the superciliousness of Cato.” To the modern reader, who looks for literary entertainment as much as for authentic history, William’s ingenuous habits of reminiscence, of quotation, of anecdotal digression and of sententious comment add much to the personal charm and vivacity of his narrative.

He is at his best, however, when he brings all his powers of rhetoric and his faculty of pictorial writing to bear upon the description of some great event or stirring public movement. His graphic account of the first crusade, for example, has about it a spaciousness and a wealth of colour which all but rival the glowing periods of Gibbon.

  • This ardent love not only inspired the continental provinces but even all who had heard the name of Christ, whether in the most distant islands or savage countries. The Welshman left his hunting, the Scot his fellowship with vermin, the Dane his drinking-party, the Norwegian his raw fish. Lands were deserted of their husband-men; houses of their inhabitants; even whole cities migrated. There was no regard to relationship; affection to their country was held in little esteem; God alone was placed before their eyes. Whatever was stored in granaries, or hoarded in chambers, to answer the hopes of the avaricious husbandmen or the covetousness of the miser, all, all was deserted; they hungered and thirsted after Jerusalem alone.
  • Even this brief passage serves to show that William was a writer who could make the dry bones of history live, and who had an artist’s instinct for the salient and significant features of the panorama of events which the historian has to depict upon his canvas. The muse of history needs, for her highest service, the aid of the imagination; and William of Malmesbury’s pre-eminence among the twelfth century chroniclers is due to the art which enabled him to give a picturesque setting to his narrative without any sacrifice of accuracy in circumstantial detail. For he still holds his place among historians as a high authority, not quite so impartial, perhaps, as he professes to be in his judgments of individuals, but singularly clear and trustworthy in his presentment of events. William, after all, wrote under the direct patronage of a great noble, and it was only natural that he should have paid some deference to the wishes and interests of earl Robert of Gloucester. Yet, even in the Historia Novella, written at Robert’s request to describe the struggle between king Stephen and the empress Maud, in which Robert himself played a prominent part, the substantial truth of William’s narrative remains unassailed.