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William of Malmesbury, the Gesta Stephani, and the Idea of Successful and Good Rule in the Twelfth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2023

Stephen D. Church
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
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Summary

Medieval historians who wrote about their own time faced a task that was considerably more difficult than those who sought to explore the more distant past. With the benefit of hindsight, it was relatively easy to write a coherent tale framed by the conditions that, to the medieval mind, drove historical events. Writing about events closer to one's own time was not only dangerous, because important contemporaries might be offended, but it was also more hazardous to one's reputation, since an analysis of the order and causality of events had to be provided before the outcome was entirely clear. Yet in the 1140s, two contemporary commentators did attempt to make sense of the events that they themselves witnessed and did so in real time. It is with these two commentators, William of Malmesbury and the anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani, that this article is concerned, as they discussed the ups and downs of the civil war between two pretenders for the throne, King Stephen and Empress Matilda. Both authors wrestled with the problems inherent in composing a contemporary account that they nevertheless wished to turn into a cohesive and persuasive narrative. William of Malmesbury wrote his Historia Novella at the end of a long life of literary output and seems to have been inspired to write his last work by witnessing the extraordinary events which were unfolding before his eyes. The anonymous writer of the Gesta Stephani was also inspired by contemporary events to set down his account of matters. He seems to have been close to Stephen, possibly a member of his inner circle, perhaps even a Londoner; while William of Malmesbury was a supporter of the other side in the civil war, that of the Angevin party led by Empress Matilda and her half-brother Robert earl of Gloucester.

I will proceed in the following way. Firstly, I want to begin by giving a rough outline of William of Malmesbury's ideas of good and successful rule as they are expressed in the most famous of his earlier works, the Gesta Regum Anglorum, completed about fifteen years before he picked up his pen again to write the Historia Novella.

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Anglo-Norman Studies XLV
Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2022
, pp. 1 - 18
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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