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William of Malmesbury and the Ethics of History

William of Malmesbury and the Ethics of History

Olsen Sønnesyn Sigbjørn
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 304
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    William of Malmesbury and the Ethics of History
    Book Description:

    "An intelligent, well-informed and important piece of work... Well-articulated and clearly and fluently written... a particularly worthy addition to the growing literature on William and on twelfth-century historiography." Rod Thomson, Professor of Medieval History and Senior Research Fellow, School of History & Classics, University of Tasmania. William of Malmesbury, arguably the greatest English historian of the twelfth century, repeatedly emphasises that the primary purpose of all literary and intellectual activities is to provide moral instruction for the reader, the most famous of his statements to this effect being found in his monumental work Gesta Regum Anglorum, where he categorises history as a sub-discipline of ethics. However, modern studies have chosen to focus on other aspects of William's oeuvre and tended to dismiss such claims as perfunctory nods to a pious commonplace. This book differs from recent orthodoxy by being based on the proposition that medieval professions of the moral aims of historiography are in fact genuine. It seeks to read William's celebrated historical works in the light of his devotional and didactic texts, and in the context of the religous, intellectual and literary traditions to which he expressed his allegiance. He also demonstrates how William's conception of ethics forms a constitutive element of his historical output. The resulting image of William shows a committed monk and man of his time, placing his extraordinary learning at the service of his culture, his society and his faith. Sigbjorn Olsen Sonnesyn is post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Bergen, Norway, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-864-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. 1 History and Ethics: The Framework of an Enquiry
    (pp. 1-20)

    With these deprecating words, the ageing Benedictine monk William of Malmesbury (1085/90–1143) described his past activities as a historian. The quotation is found in the preface of William’s Commentary on Lamentations, his only foray into the field of biblical commentary, probably written between 1130 and 1135.² His labelling of his earlier work as ‘historias ludere’ is, in a quantitative sense, an extreme understatement: at the time of writing this prologue, William could look back at an impressive historical production. About a decade earlier, he had put the finishing touches to his monumental twins the Gesta Regum Anglorum and the...

  6. 2 Ethics: From Classical Philosophy to Monastic Practice
    (pp. 21-41)

    ‘[Ethicae] maiestati assurgo’: how are we to understand William’s seemingly earnest declaration that he bows to the majesty of ethics? In order to fulfil the function I have sketched out in the preceding chapter – that is, to make the writing of history meaningful within a coherent system of learning as well as within a monastic way of life – ethics as defined by William must be capable of accomplishing at least three tasks. Firstly, it must provide a unifying principle for the different branches of learning; secondly it must provide a kind of unity acceptable and even desirable within...

  7. 3 Ethical Thought in the Works of William of Malmesbury
    (pp. 42-69)

    The ethical thought of William of Malmesbury has received only cursory treatment in modern scholarly literature. So far, I have tried to show that the moral language and the moral thought that constituted William’s intellectual context was immensely rich and multifaceted, and yet from a certain point of view homogeneous and coherent. In the rest of this chapter, I will look closely at three of William’s lesser-known works, where William’s moral outlook is expressed most explicitly. While William’s great historical works have been subject to close scrutiny, his theology has received comparatively little attention. It is my firm conviction that...

  8. 4 The Reading of Ethics and the Ethics of Reading: History as a Vehicle for Moral Education
    (pp. 70-95)

    If my argument so far is tenable, we have good reasons, independently of William’s historical works, for claiming that the central ethical conceptual schemes of William’s literary inheritance play a constitutive role in at least some of his texts. However, in order to see the extent to which history could serve a moral purpose within the moral paradigms available to William we need to investigate more closely how ethics was taught and learned, how reading could be used in this context, and how the genre of history could play its part within such a learned culture.

    ‘Learning by doing’ has...

  9. 5 The Gesta Regum Anglorum, Books I and II
    (pp. 96-186)

    As we have seen, William looked back on his youthful, energetic literary activities as ‘playing around with history’. This can safely be regarded as something of an understatement, as if one were to suggest that Tolstoy’s War and Peace was a result of the author’s toying with literature. By 1126, at which time William hardly can have been older than his mid-thirties, he had completed the first version of his account of the deeds of the kings of the English, and his companion volume on the great ecclesiastical figures of the English people – an impressive lifetime’s work, and even...

  10. 6 The Norman Kings
    (pp. 187-258)

    In the same way that he treated the Angli as a single, unitary group from the first Jute-led landing in Britannia, William prepares the reader for the Norman invasion some time before the actual invasion narrative. In William’s account, the Normanni have some aspects in common with the Angli; William knew that both people had stemmed from Germanic roots.¹ Moreover, the characteristics of the Northmanni – eventually given Normandy in exchange for a cessation of their ravaging – resemble to some extent the corresponding characteristics of the first Anglian settlers in Britannia: they were audacious and indomitable, but of less...

  11. 7 History, Ethics – and Truth?
    (pp. 259-272)

    Why did William of Malmesbury spend so much energy on writing, copying, and collecting books? From one perspective, perhaps not even William himself would have been able to give the full range of reasons behind his literary activities; the inspiration behind a life’s work must of necessity be complex and composite. Still, William’s large corpus of writings arguably provides some grounds for formulating hypotheses as to how he would have characterized his activities. One overarching aim for reading and writing recurs in his self-reflections and descriptions of the texts he produced: literature, to William, had its primary raison d’être in...

    (pp. 273-286)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 287-292)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-293)