Volume 12, Issue 2: Historia
Historian of the Millennium
Today we live in an unusually round-numbered year. As the new millennium dawns, we watch reflectively as time's odometer turns over. A television documentary identifies the 100 most influential people of the millennium, another counts down the 100 best songs. Writers argued over "the book of the millennium" in the Times Literary Supplement, an argument that spilled over to the faculty of New St. Andrews College, preoccupying us for weeks. Of course, it requires historical perspective to get anywhere in these discussions, a perspective that was conspicuously absent in the television countdowns. In fact, many of our society's problems can be traced, in part, to a prevailing we're-the-only-generation-that-matters outlook. Many of us are unable to face up to the fact that Bach was more significant to music than Kurt Cobain. (Johann Sebastian who?)
Without historical perspective, what's left of Western civilization will collapse. What's worse, we will find ourselves unarmed in these "best of the millennium" debates. What we need is a role model of historical perspective. To fill this need, we will identify for our readers the historian of the millennium. Over the past thousand years, many have studied history as a vocation. Some have influenced many others, some have made important discoveries, some have written great works, and some have approached the past with brilliant insight and wisdom. In a few rare instances, these factors converge on a single individual. And one of them stands above the others. He is William of Malmesbury (c. 1095-1143), the historian of the millennium.
William of Malmesbury holds a significant place in what medievalists today call "the twelfth century renaissance," a great period of literary, artistic, and scientific productivity in Europe. His three most important historical works should hold a respected place in any well-stocked library, and ought to be read not just by specialists, but by every serious student of the liberal arts. They are the Gesta Regum Anglorum1 and its continuation, the Historia Novella, and also his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (respectively, Deeds of the English Kings, Contemporary History, and Deeds of the English Prelates). William of Malmesbury stands above others for the care he took in getting at historical truth, for the clarity and eloquence with which he expressed it, and for his sound understanding of history's purpose.
The formal education William received was rather unremarkable, and Malmesbury Abbey was nothing special when he arrived. But William rose above his surroundings and became the towering figure in what would become an age of giants. Beyond his normal training, he was an autodidact. By 1125, the date of the first edition of the Gesta Regum Anglorum, he had traveled the length and breadth of England, visiting most of its cathedrals and abbeys, going wherever there was a library. His Gesta Regum was likely the main object and beneficiary of these studious travels. Later, he would travel widely on the continent "getting together a library of foreign historians" (GR II.pr). Unlike most scholars of his day-who, like William, were usually monks--William of Malmesbury sought access to far more than just one or two libraries. Most historians of his day were not much more than editors who collated and arranged the stories they came across in manuscripts: from one manuscript came the account of Ethelred the Unready; from another, Edward the Confessor; from yet another, St. Dunstan, and so forth. William was different. He sought out all the sources possible for every event he recorded. In many cases, this forced him to choose between variants. He based his choices on how well one manuscript's story was collaborated by others, whether the same manuscript was reliable in its other accounts, how close the manuscript was to its source, on the proximity of this source to the event itself, and finally, on the source's orthodoxy and reputation among good men. William of Malmesbury was discovering and honing what we would call the science of textual criticism. We find specific instances when William consulted his sources' sources, and he even deems two works attributed to Pope Leo as spurious on the grounds that they are inconsistent with Leo's style (a judgment agreed upon by scholars ever since). Truly, William of Malmesbury is an exemplar of judicious care for the truth.
William was keenly aware of the problems that a historian faces. For instance, he knew the pitfalls of writing about recent events, for "in works of this character truth is often disastrous and falsehood profitable, for in writing of contemporaries it is dangerous to criticize, while praise is sure of a welcome." So he proceeds "in such a way as to be found neither mendacious nor unpopular. I will so summarize doings, both good and bad, that as my ship speeds unhurt between Scylla and Charybdis, my information may perhaps be found wanting, but not my judgment" (GR IV.pr.). Oh, that such an attitude would prevail in this age of political correctness! Another pitfall he took care to avoid is also epidemic in today's academy: ugly writing. William was a careful stylist who told stories remarkably well, and he turned his phrases with elegance. He openly criticized annalists for being bland, for he knew what should be obvious to anyone: that information conveyed in a dull way is less informative. William wrote to be read, so that people would know their past and be instructed by it, for history "adds flavour to moral instruction by imparting a pleasurable knowledge of past events, spurring the reader by the accumulation of examples to follow the good and shun the bad" (GR II.pr.). What a delightful distance William stands from today's scholars. They give lip-service to egalitarianism and the rights of the underprivileged, and yet write so as to be understood only by those initiated into their own ranks.
The works of this Historian of the Millennium are becoming available once again in fantastic editions by Oxford University Press. These are heirloom editions well worth the investment.