William of Malmesbury

‘The pleasure of books possessed me from childhood’ wrote this twelfth-century historian. Among other work, William of Malmesbury, writes J.J.N. McGurk, produced an Historia Novella, extending until 1142.

The monastery of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, founded by the Irish monk, Meildub or Maelduin, teacher of St Aldhelm, became noteworthy among the Benedictine houses of England in the first half of the twelfth century when William its historian resided there, writing history of a nature and scope that justified his claim to be true successor of Bede, and that, too, in the critical eyes of later historiographers.

Unfortunately for the biographer, William of Malmesbury left few facts of his personal life and even these have to be gleaned from his casual comments throughout his many books and pieced together with the few incidental references made to him by those who borrowed from his histories later in the twelfth century. Leland, the sixteenth-century antiquary, who did so much to save the medieval history of England for the modern age bewailed the fact that, even at Malmesbury, they had almost lost all remembrance of their illustrious writer.

There is no reliable evidence on either the place or date of his birth; that he was known to contemporaries and to posterity by the name of the monastery in which he was educated and professed proves nothing as to the place of his birth; conjectures include Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, and 1095/6 as the approximate year of his birth. He does tell us that he was of mixed parentage; probably his father was Norman.

Was not William the most obviously popular name to give a son? One of the first historical mentions of William is that he aided the Abbot Godfrey in the library at Malmesbury; and in due time he held the office of librarian which nurtured his constitutional love of learning.

‘The pleasures of books possessed me from childhood’, William records,

‘Indeed, I was so instructed by my father that had I turned to other pursuits I should have considered it as jeopardy to my soul and discredit to my character’.

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