Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 July 2018
English historical writing flourished in the twelfth century as it never had before. From William of Malmesbury to William of Newburgh, English writers wrote histories that have proved enduringly useful, and that broke new ground. It is to these writers that we owe much of our knowledge and image of the medieval English past. Nor was this achievement limited to a few decades; it lasted through the whole century, apart from a brief hiatus in the early years of Henry II's reign. That said, there is also quite a degree of difference between historical writing at the start of the century and at the end. The example of Symeon of Durham may find echoes in Roger of Howden's adhesion to the northern chronicle tradition, and Eadmer of Canterbury is self-consciously followed by some of Thomas Becket's biographers and by Gervase of Canterbury, but despite the popularity of his work, Geoffrey of Monmouth had no late twelfth century successor in Latin, and there is no writer quite like Gerald of Wales or Richard of Devizes in the first half of the century. Henry of Huntingdon and Aelred of Rievaulx remained relevant in King Richard's reign, but the concerns of new writers of history appeared to have moved on from theirs.
There are a number of ways in which the similarities and differences between English historiography in the first half of the twelfth century and its successors at the end of the century might be explored. One might focus on literary form, exploring the persistence of the chronicle, the continuing development of the monograph, and the new experiments in verse historiography. One might examine specific developments, such as the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of historical writing, or the role of biography. Here I will address a fundamental question that is sometimes asked but not always adequately answered: Why did twelfth-century English historians write history? And I will point it in a more specific direction to ask a question that has not been addressed, despite the great volume and quality of work on the subject: Did the purpose of history in England change over the course of the century? I will focus here on literature in Latin, although the period also produced historical writing in the vernacular by authors including Wace, Gaimar and Jordan Fantosme.