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15 - Verax historicus Beda: William of Malmesbury, Bede and historia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

William of Malmesbury saw himself as a successor to Bede. He stated this in the prologue to the Gesta Regum Anglorum, acknowledging his debt to the eighth-century monk. In many respects their historical writing reflects comparable outlooks. Combining educative and moralising purposes, both Bede and William presented historical narratives that provided exemplars as mirrors and models for their readers. Yet, while it is often recognised that William used and imitated Bede's writings, few scholars have explored the relationship in detail. This paper will explore William's understanding of Bede's

This paper was based on findings from my AHRC-funded thesis, ‘Anglo-Norman Perceptions of Bede as a Historical Writer’, unpublished MA thesis, University of East Anglia (2011). Thanks must go to Dr Tom Licence, firstly for supervising the initial thesis and, secondly, for providing his thoughts on an initial draft of this paper. Valuable comments and suggestions were also made by Prof. Liesbeth van Houts, to whom I am eminently grateful, and by the speakers and those attending the ‘William of Malmesbury and his Legacy’ conference.

concept of historical writing, as set out in his Historia Gentis Anglorum Ecclesiastica, William's subsequent use of Bede's model in his own work, and how he moved beyond this model. The comparison between these two historians will centre particularly on their use of the term ‘historicus’, a word with classical origins, used by Pliny, Cicero and Augustine, amongst others. A philological analysis demonstrates that William differed from his contemporaries in the way in which he viewed and used Bede, and that this affected his self-perception of the historian's role. Although the Historia Ecclesiastica was by no means William's only model of historical writing, it was one for which he had considerable admiration. Yet the way in which he shaped this admiration in the Gesta Pontificum was not the same as in the Gesta Regum.

Working from the dual monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early eighth century, Bede completed the Historia Ecclesiastica in 731, four years before his death. In it he used the word ‘historicus’ only twice, in both instances as a noun. First, he described the fifth- or sixth-century writer Gildas, author of Bede's main source for the coming of the Saxons and the early Anglo-Saxon Church, as the historian of the Britons (‘historicus eorum Gildas’).

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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