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7 - Roman Identity in William of Malmesbury's Historical Writings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

William of Malmesbury was fascinated by Rome and romanitas. He wrote about the city, the Romans and their history at length, and in a variety of contexts and styles, including: a papal biography (1119), a digest of ancient Roman history (1129), a description of the city's topography (Gesta Regum 352), and a now-lost account of his abbot's journey to Rome (the Itinerarium Iohannis abbatis, c. 1140). William also exhibits a deep interest in Roman style. This is most apparent at the opening of the Gesta Regum (bk 1 prol. 4) where he describes English history as broken, barbarous and in need of seasoning with Roman salt (‘Romano sale condire’). This allusive statement can be read on several levels: it suggests judicious authorship, variety and good taste, preservation and entertainment, as well as the influence of ancient Roman literature, particularly satire. Above all, it immediately alerts the reader to two recurring and related facets of William's historical writing: first, the author's comparisons between Norman England and ancient Rome; and second, William's intention to inform his own writing style with a Roman quality.

In part, William lends his writings a Roman polish through his extraordinary handling of classical texts. It has been estimated that he knew over one hundred classical works. A constituent element of William's classicism is the manner in which he attributes Roman qualities to important characters in his histories. This chapter examines how and why William crafts and appropriates Roman identity; it focuses on his descriptions of British figures in Rome and how, through dexterous displays of classical learning, eloquence and rhetoric, these characters perform in a Roman manner.

Two extended scenes merit particular attention: first, William's retelling of the martyrdom of St Kenelm; and second, a debate between cardinals and the sons of Norman aristocrats. A close reading of these passages demonstrates the specular quality that Rome assumes in William's writing: when recounting the Roman identity of others, William writes with an acute awareness of his own romanitas. The Roman flavouring was meant to elevate both William's status as a writer and the prestige of English history.

William's conception of romanitas

Despite his interest in things Roman, William neither visited the city nor ventured to the Italian peninsula in person. His knowledge of Rome was mediated almost exclusively via textual sources.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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