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2 - Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: History or Hagiography?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

The modern distinction between the genres of history and hagiography is not easily applied to written narratives in the medieval West. Chroniclers frequently inserted hagiographical material and supernatural elements into their historical accounts, and saints’ Lives and miracle stories often contained historical matter. Medieval writers happily mixed and matched what we would consider factual history and semi-fictional hagiography to the extent that some modern commentators have included saints’ Lives under the rubric of ‘history’.

While problematising the slippery boundaries of genre draws attention to the fluid nature of medieval historiography, it does not fully account for the fact that medieval historians consciously wrote in different narrative styles. These ‘genres’ were signalled by informative titles labelling their work so that the reader would, at a glance, understand that the chronica, historia or gesta, for example, would be different in form, content and purpose from the vita or miracula. Since medieval writers evidently had little compunction about including hagiographical elements in texts principally conceived as works of history, exploring the use of hagiographical themes in these narratives offers insight into how the past was conceptualised in the Middle Ages. Such an investigation also tells us much about the aims and function of medieval historical writing.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the relationship between history and hagiography in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Pontificum Anglorum. William was one of a handful of twelfth-century English writers who turned his hand to both history (in the form of the chronica or gesta) and hagiography (in the form of the vita), although he is best known today as an historian, as he was in the Middle Ages. William began the Gesta Pontificum, the second of his two great English chronicles, in the 1120s soon after completing the Gesta Regum Anglorum. Although he envisaged the Gesta Regum and Gesta Pontificum as works of history, both volumes included details borrowed and adapted from saints’ Lives, and William freely peppered his biographical vignettes of royal and episcopal celebrities with hagiographical motifs and miraculous anecdotes.

The convergence of history and hagiography is a feature of all William's work. However, this aspect of William's writing is particularly evident in the Gesta Pontificum, which charts the ecclesiastical history of England from the time of Augustine's mission to William's day in five books organised around different bishoprics.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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