I have been asked, by some much younger than myself, to provide a brief narrative of my personal discovery of William of Malmesbury and of how Michael Winterbottom and I came to collaborate in editing and translating his works. This is not a review of William of Malmesbury scholarship over the last forty years; that is for another to undertake. But, in concentrating on myself and Michael, I do not mean to imply that we two have been solely responsible for the increased interest in, and discoveries about, William in recent years.
The beginning of the story is told in the Introduction to my book William of Malmesbury. My postgraduate work, at Melbourne and Sydney Universities, and my earliest publications, focused on books and learning at the great East Anglian abbey of Bury St Edmunds. In 1973–4, while ‘treading water’ between academic jobs – yes, they were hard to get then too – I began to think of studying an individual person rather than the culture of a religious institution. I envisaged such a person as a Benedictine monk of the twelfth century, a scholar and writer, perhaps a historian, certainly someone learned in the literature and ideas of the Ancient World – in other words, a William of Malmesbury-shaped individual. William was certainly a name to me, but I knew of him only as a historian. Then I found M. R. James's Murray Lecture, Two Ancient English Scholars, in which he discussed the books and authors read by Aldhelm and William, and the possible connections between them. In a few pages James pulls from the pie plums such as William's great collection of Cicero's works, including the passage in which the monk defends his love of pagan literature, and the Polyhistor, which gathers together extracts from this literature, telling of ancient peoples and places, and much more. Here was the man I was looking for. An anxious search for more recent scholarship building on James's revelations revealed mercifully little, with the important exception of Leighton Reynolds's monograph on the medieval tradition of Seneca's letters. Reynolds had shown that Seneca's correspondence circulated in two parts from late antiquity until the early twelfth century, when someone in south-western England, very probably William, united them. What was beyond doubt was that William knew both parts of the tradition – the first writer to do so since antiquity.