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13 - Lector amice: Reading as Friendship in William of Malmesbury

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

Anselm, priest of Canterbury, argues;

William, monk of Malmesbury, writes;

May you, reader and friend, embrace both in gratitude.

These lines, in William of Malmesbury's own Leonine verse, head the list of contents of his collection of the works of Anselm of Canterbury in London, Lambeth Palace Library 224. For many readers of William of Malmesbury the direct address to the reader, from the writer's own hand, is arresting, even poignant. Are these lines addressed to a specific reader at a given time, or to any reader at any time? Did William take into account the extreme durability of parchment and ink when he wrote these lines? Are we, as his presentday readers, included in the prospective audience he addresses? We will never know, but it is clear from the editorial verse heading his computistical collection in Bodl. Libr. Auct. F. 3. 14, that he saw himself as writing for an audience beyond his own lifetime: ‘Let this book of many subjects and belonging to the Church, as a field full of varied delights, make William's name famous after his burial.’ So we may assume that he is addressing posterity as well – including ourselves.

Moreover, we are not only addressed as readers, but as friends. In our present linguistic framework, moral language has become emotive: friendship might be seen as a passive emotional state; reading, on the contrary, as an active intellectual endeavour. But we should be wary of seeing William's formulation ‘reader and friend’ as a mere figure of speech, or of postulating that William is bestowing his friendship as a reward for our labour in reading the texts that Anselm composed and that he himself copied. Such instrumental pledges of friendship might be revoked with the same ease with which they are given. Furthermore, some scholars have recently suggested that the monastic language of friendship in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries – particularly that of Anselm of Canterbury himself – was a literary artifice constructing an ideal spiritual friendship through the act of writing itself, but shut off from genuinely interpersonal relationships of the extra-textual world. According to this view, William's address tells us more about the literary devices he seeks to employ than about his desire to form bonds with his reader.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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