The Date of Birth of William of Malmesbury: A Hypothesis

by Liu Ming

Liu Ming is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh (MA and BA at Nanjing University, China) whose thesis project is called ‘The Itinerary of William of Malmesbury: a study of a Benedictine monk’s mobility in the early 12th century’.

William of Malmesbury is a famous monk historian in twelfth-century England. He is most well-known for his historical works Gesta Regum Anglorum (The History of the English Kings, below = GR) and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (The History of the English Bishops, below = GP), but he also wrote many hagiographies and religious texts. Despite  his high productivity in writing, he mentioned little of himself, and scholars can only use the fragmentary information spread throughout  his writings to deduce his life details. His date of birth is one of such issues, which has sparked  much debate in the scholarship .

There is only one place where Malmesbury talked about his age directly, that is the prologue of his Commentary on Lamentations (below = Comm. Lam.): ‘I am forty (quadragenarius) today; I have come to the middle point of the course that the divine psalmist appoints for the life of man, when he says: “The days of our life are in seventy years. But if there are eighty years for the strong, there are even more labour and sorrow for them.”’1

Based on the interpretation of this paragraph, there are mainly two opinions on Malmesbury’s date of birth. The first is that Malmesbury was born precisely before forty years of his writing of the Comm. Lam. Since in one section  of the Comm. Lam. , Malmesbury seemed to refer to King Henry I (d. 1135) as dead by using the phrase – ‘tempore regis Henrici’ (in the time of King Henry), and Robert of Cricklade, a canon of Cirencester, praised this work shortly after March 1137, the Comm. Lam. appears to be written between 1135 and 1136.2 Thus, Malmesbury was born in 1095 or 1096.

Other scholars argued that Malmesbury was likely to use ‘tempre regis Henrici’ to refer to King Henry in the past tense for the sake of future readers, which also appeared in his GR, hence suggesting early 1130s as the writing time of the Comm. Lam.3 Moreover, it is believed that the word ‘quadragenarius’ should be translated as ‘in my forties’ rather than ‘forty’, which finally moved Malmesbury’s birth date back to before 1090.4

The suggestion that the Comm. Lam. was written in the early 1130s is reasonable, but the interpretation of ‘quadragenarius’ as ‘in my forties’ seems to have gone too far. If we carefully consider Malmesbury’s citation of the Psalms which follows ‘quadragenarius’ in the same sentence – ‘The days of our life are in seventy years. But if there are eighty years for the strong, there are even more labour and sorrow for them.’ – it is clear that the Bible assumed the mortals’ life-span as normally between seventy and eighty years, so ‘the middle point of the course’ could never mean to be over forty. In addition, in the GR, Malmesbury once used ‘maior quadragenario’ (being over forty years old) to describe William Rufus’s age of death.5 It is obvious that the ‘quadragenario’ here is precisely meaning ‘forty years old’, so it is very likely that Malmesbury was also using the same meaning in the Comm. Lam.

If ‘quadragenarius’ should mean ‘forty’ precisely, then this means that Malmesbury was born in the early 1090s. In fact, 1091 is the most possible date, because late 1131 is a very likely time for the writing of his Comm. Lam. In its prologue, Malmesbury wrote: ‘For in the past, when I amused myself with histories, the charm of the subject suited my greener years and happy lot. Now advancing age and worsening circumstances demand a different kind of work.’6 As Rodney Thomson argued, the ‘worsening circumstances’ may refer to the ‘contemporary ills’, probably related to the occupation of the abbacy of Malmesbury’s monastery by Roger bishop of Salisbury (d. 1139) since 1118, though Thomson did not push forward this hypothesis.7 In my opinion, Malmesbury was highly likely to use this phrase to refer to King Henry’s confirmation of Bishop Roger’s control over the abbey on 8 September 1131.8 The monks at the abbey of Malmesbury had long been concerned about their free election of abbot, hence the confirmation by King Henry was definitely a disaster for the monks, which brought an end to the dispute between them and Bishop Roger at least during King Henry’s reign. This was probably one important reason for Malmesbury’s pessimism and his writing of the Comm. Lam. – lamenting the expected gloomy destiny of his monastery. If my supposition is right, then we can assume that Malmesbury was probably born in late 1091.

Nevertheless, the suggestion of late 1131 as the writing time of the Comm. Lam. may cause two problems from its prologue. The first is that there seemed to be a long period of ‘sloth’ that Malmesbury did not write anything, or ‘at any rate nothing worthy’, before that book.9 Secondly, as we have mentioned above, Malmesbury said that he would like to turn away from ‘pure’ histories to write a different kind of work as a result of his growing age and ‘worsening circumstances’. Yet Malmesbury’s hagiographies, especially those related to Glastonbury, are usually assumed to be written between 1126 and 1130, which seem to contradict the period of ‘sloth’ and ‘pure’ histories before the Comm. Lam. It is very likely, however, that Malmesbury was exaggerating in the prologue.

Malmesbury’s Glastonbury hagiographies and the main text of De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie (The Early History of Glastonbury, below = AG) were all probably finished before Henry of Blois’s consecration as bishop of Winchester in November 1129, while only the prologue of the latter was likely to be written shortly after that, probably at the end of 1129 or in early 1130, as a gift presented to Bishop Henry, who retained the abbacy of Glastonbury until his death in 1171. It is noteworthy how productive Malmesbury was before 1130, from his Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Popes) finished in or soon after 1119 to his GR and GP in 1125, then to his hagiographies and main text of the AG before 1130. If he wrote the Comm. Lam. in late 1131, he might have enjoyed an over-one-year or even two-year ‘holiday’ during which he did not write one major book. It is probable that the ‘long period’ was only Malmesbury’s exaggeration, and the ‘sloth’ was just a word that he used for self-mockery since he was not so productive as he had been before 1130.

Moreover, Malmesbury’s turn-away from histories is even a more obvious overstatement. Both Malmesbury’s Comm. Lam. and Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary (below = MBVM), another religious work in the 1130s, showed his great interest in history, and he even finished a much more historical work, the Historia Novella (The Contemporary History, below = HN), in the early 1140s. He had also written three books of Chronicles, which are now lost, before he completed the HN, and he probably continued these annals until his death. Nor did he stop editing his two major histories, GR and GP, throughout the 1130s. In fact, in many of his works, we can often see a  heavy convergence of history and hagiography. However, we should be cautious with applying a  modern distinction between these two genres into the Middle Ages. Is there a real difference between Malmesbury’s GP, Saints’ Lives, and the local history AG? Can the fifth book of the GP, which focused on St Aldhelm’s deeds and miracles, be counted as another truly hagiographical work, the ‘Life of St Aldhelm’? If we really have to make a distinction between Malmesbury’s works, I believe that the Comm. Lam. and MBVM are much more different from his historical and hagiographical productions. Therefore, I suggest that we do not need to take Malmesbury’s ‘turn-away from history’ too seriously. Even if he were really making a claim here, the hagiographical works in our eyes were very probably historical in his mind.

In summary, it is very likely that William of Malmesbury was born in late 1091, and his Comm. Lam. was probably written in late 1131. Based on this hypothesis, we may be able to build the entire chronology of his main works in the future to see his academic progress at different life stages. It would also be interesting to think about his ages at different stages of his monastic career, such as, when he entered the monastery, when he became the librarian, and when he occupied the position of cantor in his abbey. 

1 M. Winterbottom, R. M. Thomson, and Sønnesyn Sigbjørn, eds., Willelmi Meldvnensis Monachi Liber Svper Explanationem Lamentationvm Ieremiae Prophetae (Turnhout, 2011), I. 13-17, p. 3; M. Winterbottom, trans., William of Malmesbury on Lamentations (Turnhout, 2013), p. 35. I have modified part of Winterbottom’s translation here.

2 Comm. Lam., IV. 171-173, p. 276; R. W. Hunt, ‘English Learning in the Late Twelfth Century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 19 (1936), pp. 31-32.

3  R. M. Thomson, William of Malmesbury (Woodbridge, 2003 [1987]), p. 200.

4 Thomson, William of Malmesbury, p. 201.

5 R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, eds. and trans., William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum. The History of the English Kings (New York, 1998), vol. I, iv. 333. 7, p. 576.

6 Comm. Lam., I. 7-9, p. 3.

7 Comm. Lam., p. xi.

8 For Henry’s charter of this confirmation, see W. H. R. Jones and W. D. Macray, eds., Charters and Documents Illustrating the History of the Cathedral, City, and Diocese of Salisbury, in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (New York, 2012 [1891]), n. 6, pp. 6-7; C. Johnson and H. A. Cronne, eds., Regesta Regum Anglo-Normanorum, 1066-1154, vol. II (Oxford, 1956), n. 1715, p. 253.

9 Comm. Lam., p. xi.

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