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14 - William of Malmesbury's Historical Vision

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

On 31 December 1974 Richard Southern wrote to Roger Mynors, after receiving a typescript copy of Mynors's translation of William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum:

I've read … the whole … with immense interest, excitement sometimes, growing respect mostly – and with a daunting sense of how much needs to be done to annotate [William] in a way that will do justice to the complexity of his historical vision, the variety of his sources and the way in which he uses them, the nature of his personal interjections, the intensity of his antiquarian imagination, not to speak of the poor old facts. I feel quite shaken by the experience.

What Southern meant by ‘historical vision’ one can only conjecture, but I imagine that he meant history seen as having a pattern and perhaps a purpose, and its recording as reflecting and emphasising those features, possibly with a view to the moral improvement of the reader. William certainly thought all these things, but it is not easy to be confident about describing his thoughts precisely or in detail: he is not often overt about them, and his rare expressions of them are scattered about his works; he could be ambivalent, even contradictory, and he changed his mind over time. Southern was right to use the word ‘complexity’. I shall nonetheless attempt to describe William's ‘vision’ under three heads which seem to me to bring into focus what was most important for him: God, Empire, and the kingdom or nation of England. Hopefully, I will not be thought to be merely ‘yoking disparate ideas by violence together’.

God

As one would expect, William wrote providential history of a kind. It is in the main conventionally orthodox, with one exception: it is noticeably not apocalyptic. God intervenes in and regulates the course of history, but there is no mention of the Last Days or Last Judgement in William's historical writings, or of the Seven Ages (all of these do feature in his Commentary on Lamentations), no sense of history moving towards a denouement or even that the dark days of William's time – which he thought darker as he grew older – might herald the Last Judgement.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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