Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 August 2018
For William of Malmesbury, the writing of history was a serious moral enterprise. In the most important study of William's work to have been published in recent years, Sigbjorn Sonnesyn has shown that William's historical writing must be seen in the context of wider schemes of monastic education, in particular moral education. Many contemporary authors acknowledged the need to write for the purposes of moral improvement, but William's approach was planned with unique skill: he sought to show that English history moved according to a centuries-long teleological development ordained by God, in which the English advanced towards greater political and moral union as a nation, as well as spiritual union with the Divinity. In short, William wrote national history both about and to encourage the development of virtue. Within the nation, however, was an array of smaller distinct communities – the village, the town, the county etc. It is the contention of this paper that William considered these smaller communities to be essentially moral in character too. In consequence, the ways in which he wrote about them were related to his wider arguments about the virtues and vices of the English. In William's view, virtue and vice (and therefore Englishness) were not evenly distributed throughout the land. Some men were more English than others.
Urban communities in William's writings are one obvious candidate for investigation. Indeed, the link between moral development and political cohesion is illustrated most sharply by William's remark in his Commentary on Lamentations drawing particular attention to the need for good government in cities:
What solitude is more wretched than the medley of vices that throngs about the soul when virtues are overthrown? A city is not embellished by the din and ignorance of the commons, but by a court where a few good men take counsel. It does not profit a city to have many inhabitants: they must be good. And the soul is rightly likened to a city, for God has fortified her with natural passions and virtues and, into the bargain has redeemed her at the price of His blood and clothed her in the likeness of his countenance.
William wrote a great deal about towns and cities. His Gesta Pontificum Anglorum in particular, which arranges the history of the English Church geographically, provides us with a series of short but vivid pen-portraits of English settlements in the early twelfth century.