Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 August 2018
Describing William of Malmesbury, scholars have often found it appropriate to draw upon superlatives: he was one of medieval England's finest men of letters, among the most learned historians of twelfth-century Europe, and, some would argue, the greatest historian of England since Bede. In examining William's own words, however, it becomes clear that he was not a man of extremes; careful, measured, considered and erudite, William's life was devoted to grappling with the complexities of history, and reconciling his own interests and personal relationships with his quest for truth and objectivity, both historical and religious. The present volume is a celebration of his achievements, and an attempt to become acquainted with the man and his works that allows us to enjoy a glimpse into the multifaceted world of twelfth-century England. It is, however, also a celebration of a more immediate achievement: it marks the release of the edition of The Miracles of the Virgin by Rodney Thomson and Michael Winterbottom, the last of William's works to be edited and translated into modern English.
William's humble biography belies his cultural importance and the scholarly ambitions that underpinned his career. What little precise information we have has been gleaned from his own writings. Born in Somerset or Wiltshire in the last decade of the eleventh century, William was well educated and entered the Benedictine abbey of Malmesbury as a youth. At the time, Malmesbury was under the abbacy of Godfrey of Jumieges, a man committed to the education of his monks, and who established Malmesbury as a centre of learning. From around 1120, William was precentor, or cantor, of the abbey, a role which involved acting as librarian as well as the director of the liturgy; during this time, William undertook an expansion of Malmesbury's library, partially achieved through contributions of his own works. These texts ranged from the popular and ambitious Gesta Regum Anglorum, written for Queen Matilda, which details the history of England from the time of Bede to the twelfth century, and the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, which reflected on the history of the English Church, to local histories of Glastonbury and Lives of local saints. He also produced remarkable works of religious reflection and accounts of miracles.