Leah Shopkow

title.none: Thomson, William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, Vol II (Shopkow)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.006 99.06.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Leah Shopkow,, Indiana University, Bloomington

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Thomson, R.M. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, Vol II: General Introduction and Commentary. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Pp. xlvii, 496. $115.00. ISBN: 0-198-20682-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.06

Thomson, R.M. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, Vol II: General Introduction and Commentary. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Pp. xlvii, 496. $115.00. ISBN: 0-198-20682-8.

Reviewed by:

Leah Shopkow
Indiana University, Bloomington

William of Malmesbury, the sly rhetorician, is a medieval historian to love. He's a good-tempered writer, but not above regaling us with maliciously amusing stories, which he quickly assures us he won't vouch for because they're just rumors. He pays abundant lip-service to the notion of objectivity and truth in historical writing, claiming with endearing duplicity, as a half-Norman, half-Saxon, to be impartial, while seldom omitting to mention English barbarism and calling the Normans "naturally kindly" (254). He has the gift of opulence so prized by the rhetoricians, as his narrative weaves its way through a labyrinth of digressions and the odd poetic passage. He is as close as a medieval monastic writer could come to being professional historian, scurrying from one writing gig to another, now writing for Glastonbury, now for his own house of Malmesbury, a widely read man, who cites Virgil and Lucan as much as the Bible (even the speech he composes for Urban II at Clermont makes abundant classical references, while his account of people packing up to go on crusade includes a quotation in which they load up the penates). And if he tells some wild tales, such as that Pope Victor III (the former Desiderius, abbot of Monte Cassino) dropped dead celebrating his first papal mass (266) or pauses lovingly over yarns of Gerbert of Aurillac's necromancy (167 ff) or regales us with the story of the witch of Berkeley (204) or describes a man who was eaten by mice (290) or reports an improbable number of convenient (or inconvenient) deaths as poisonings, that's what many of us love about medieval historians -- they are, as Nancy Partner says, "'wonderful' in the Jamesian tone of combines respect and amusement" ("The New Cornificius," in Classical Rhetoric & Medieval Historiography, 43).

Quite apart from the interest of William's work, the publication of this new edition (with facing translation) of one of his great histories, the Gesta regum Anglorum ( Deeds of the Kings of England -- hereafter the GR), long available only in nineteenth-century editions and translations, albeit excellent ones for their times, is particularly a reason for rejoicing because it is the work of a trio of distinguished scholars; it was begun by R.A.B Mynors some forty years ago, and then passed in the 1980s to R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, who have now completed it. It is an event, albeit at the $185 listed in Books in Print, a mighty expensive one, this being only the first volume. This volume contains a brief discussion of the textual transmission of the GR and the text itself. The true introduction to William's text will come in the second volume.

The manuscript tradition of the GR is complicated and these complications were not fully taken account of in the previous editions, although the editors praise their predecessors highly. William of Malmesbury himself created four different versions, two before 1126 (T and A) and two more by 1135 (C and B), suggesting that his request to his readers that they supply him with information he lacked so he might correct his work (p. 153) was not merely pro forma. There is an abundance of manuscripts, nineteen of which were used in this edition. Furthermore, the different versions show considerable evidence of contamination, as well as the work of various correctors, no doubt including William himself. This edition is based on the B and C versions, although the apparatus contains references to the T and A versions. As the editor-translators comment, the result is a text that does not conform to any surviving witness nor to any single version of the text issuing forth from William's pen. The editors warn the reader, among other things, to "keep a constant eye on the apparatus, paying particular attention to the T variants, which may represent William's first thoughts, and to B variants, which may represent his last thoughts" (xxiv). Some variants appear in the body of the text with translation, as well as in the apparatus. An appendix contains the additions to the B and C groups, with a facing translation, while the additions to the A group are contained in a second appendix, with a translation of most of the material at the bottom of the page. Because of the complexity of the tradition, the editors have also decided to leave out corrections in a single witness to one version that do not also appear in other witnesses to that version and further advise that "no deductions should be drawn from silence as to the reading of any individual witness" (xxvi). This is no edition for beginners!

It is not a text for beginners in other ways as well, although some of the points about which I complain may well be addressed in the second and introductory volume. (One of the hobgoblins of my mind is nattering that it would have been nice if the volume with the introduction were volume 1 instead of volume 2.) The editors have said that there will be a discussion of the textual tradition of the History, the differences between the four authorial versions of the text, and a chapter by chapter commentary (p. vi). I hope this will include a summation of the scholarship to date on this work and this historian, along the lines of the excellent study by Elizabeth van Houts that accompanies her edition of the Gesta Normanorum ducum in the same series.

As matters stand, there are very few historical notes in the text (I have to confess a mad passion for notes). A reader with little background in English history from the Saxon Conquest to the 1120s will go mad (the first book, which deals with the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before their unification under Wessex, is particularly dense going): no one is identified, and dates for individuals are given only with the index entry for the individual. This is in contrast to J.A. Giles's translation (based on the earlier work of John Sharpe), still available in a reprint edition, which offers some notes, although not always extensive nor in line with modern scholarship. Having such notes to hand, however, can be extremely useful to the reader, particularly those which advise of some errors of fact in William's text (for example, the conflation of Hugh the Great, duke of France, with his son Hugh Capet, or the identification of Gerbert of Aurillac with John XV, something which previous editors have corrected and commented on). The absence of this kind of note in this edition, I suspect, was necessitated by the length of this volume, already some 900 pages. The only notes are those which identify sources that William explicitly cites (which includes citations such as "someone has said"). The editors have promised discussion of William's uncited sources and their use (xxvi) in the second volume.

The editors do a number of things their own way in this edition and translation. They have divided some of the chapters into numbered subsections, which allows more precise citation (the index entries direct the reader to the chapter and subsection, not to the page number, getting around the problem of differing pages for the Latin and English; in this review, I have followed this practice). The orthography in the Latin is normalized to William's own orthography in the Gesta Pontificum, which has survived in autograph, rather than to some classicizing standard. English names are given in their Anglo-Saxon spellings in the translation, rather than in a version of the Latin form or in the modern form, and Celtic names are given in the standard form (for example, Muirchertach for William's Murcardus, 409). Many other names are given in the form William uses in the Latin, such as Corbaguath for Kerbogha, although the standard forms are given in the index. The principle seems to be that where William might have had reason to know the correct vernacular form of a name, that form will be given. This reasoning seems to give rise to the use of the word "paynim" to translate "perfidus" (384.5), "paganus" (376.7) or "barbarus" (371.1), an otherwise archaic term, oddly used in a text that generally avoids archaism. (I noted a few other archaisms, as when Bohemund is said to offer "as a guerdon to St. Leonard the gyves that had been such a burden to him," the Latin reading " offerens catenas sancti Leonardi honori, quae sibi fuerant oneri" [387.5], but not many.)

A nice addition to this text are two letters from the monastic community of Malmesbury to King David of Scotland and the "Empress" Matilda, which accompanied presentation copies of the book to these individuals, as well as the dedicatory letter by William to Robert of Gloucester that has appeared in earlier editions. These letters make it clear the ways in which a whole community invested in the work of its writers and (if these writers were lucky) promoted their works. Securing patronage took a lot of effort and it was a reciprocal arrangement; the letter to Matilda makes clear the support of Malmesbury, at least before the death of Henry I, for her claim to the English throne.

The English text itself is quite clean (I won't pretend to have gone through the Latin for errors), although I noticed the word "losmbbbbt" on p. 149, chapter 105, clearly an error for "lost some." A small quibble -- the editors make reference to the decease of R.A. B. Mynors, and the copyright is to his estate, but his obit is not listed in the bibliographic information on the copyright page.

I want to end with the translation, because most people (including more scholars than would willingly admit it) depend on translations, when available, rather than Latin originals. Here readers are well served. Although the surviving editors remark that they have made the first version, the work of the late R.A.B. Mynors, more literal (v-vi), this is not a slavish translation, but one set in good modern prose, an improvement, at least for modern readers, over the nineteenth-century versions. To give a sense of the differences, I will give one example, a passage concerning the murder of King Edmund from Giles's translation and from the book under review (the English followed by the Latin):

By chance too, he [the murderer, a robber previously banished] was placed near a nobleman whom the king had condescended to make his guest. This, while the others were eagerly carousing, was perceived by the king alone; when, hurried with indignation and impelled by fate, he [the king] leaped from the table, caught the robber by the hair, and dragged him to the floor; but he [the murderer] drawing a dagger from its sheath plunged it with all his force into the breast of the king as he lay upon him. Dying of the wound, he [the king] gave rise over the whole kingdom to many fictions concerning his decease. The robber was shortly torn limb from limb by the attendants who rushed in, though he wounded some of them ere they could accomplish their purpose. St. Dunstan, at that time abbat [sic] of Glastonbury, had foreseen his ignoble end, being fully persuaded of it from the gesticulations and insolent mockery of a devil dancing before him. Wherefore, hastening to court at full speed, he received intelligence of the transactions on the road.

( Chronicle of the Kings of England, J. A. Giles trans. [1847. Reprint ed. New York: AMS, 1968], 143)

As it happened, he [the murderer] was sitting next to the thegn whom the king himself had condescended to make his guest at the dinner. The king alone noticed this, for all the rest were aflame with wine; and in sudden anger, carried away by fate, he leapt up from the table, seized him by the hair, and flung him to the ground. The man drew a dagger in stealth from its sheath, and as the king lay on him plunged it with all his force into his chest. The wound was fatal, and gave an opening for rumours about his death that spread all over England. The robber too, as the servants soon came running up, was torn limb from limb, although not before he had wounded several of them. St. Dunstan, then abbot of Glastonbury, had had a previous vision of this inglorious ending, when he was warned by the gestures and the loud jeers of a devil dancing before him. This made him spur his horse [quocirca equo concito] and hasten to the court, and when halfway there he heard news of what had happened.

Forte iuxta ducem recumbebat quem rex ipse partibus de cena dignatus fuerat. Id ab eo solo animaduersum, ceteris in uina spumantibus; itaque bili concitata et, ut eum fata agebant, e mensa prosiliens predoni in capillos inuolat et ad terram elidit. Ille latenter sicam de uagina eductam in pectus regis superiacentis quanto potest conatu infigit; quo uulnere exanimatus, fabulae ianuam in omnem Angliam de interitu suo patefecit. Latro quoque mox concurrentibus satellitibus membratim dissectus prius nonnullos sautiauit. Preuiderat tam infamem finem beatus Dunstanus tunc Glastoniensis abbas, demonis ante se saltantis gesticulationibus et plausibus edoctus scurrilibus, quocirca equo concito curiam properans in medio itinere gestae rei nuntium accepit.

( Gesta Regum Anglorum, 145.2-3)

In this new translation we can see some of the greater literalism the editors have referred to (Dunstan's horse reemerges in the translation, for example, although I wonder whether translating ducem as "thegn" isn't being more precise than William means to be here), but mostly what comes through is clear prose, freed from excessive imitation of Latin usage (for example, the actors are more clearly identified); the text reads easily and fluently. In the translation some of William's verse passages are rendered in prose (see 210-13), which avoids the contortions necessary to work with a rhyme scheme, and although some passages are translated into verse (see 612-15), the decision to use near-rhymes as well as full-rhymes eases some of the difficulties. The variation is pleasing, particularly in the translation of an author unafraid to declare that "no one will object to some variety in my narrative, unless he is so clouded in mind that he imitates the critical disdain of a Cato" (304).

I won't say that I agree with every word in this translation and there is a cost to the smoothness of the prose. William's rhetorical effects disappear when, for example, "Quis enim nesciat" is translated as "Everyone knows," rather than as a rhetorical question, "Who does not know?" (640-1). However, this kind of thing is one of the trade-offs of the translation business, and the editors amply warn the reader about "the difficulties presented by the GR, and of the pitfalls its smooth surface conceals." They have done an excellent job of leading the reader around those pitfalls. Thus, for the reader who is willing to look up unfamiliar individuals and who is willing to read William of Malmesbury's text on its own terms, this edition is an approachable place to start to read William's wonderful, ironic work of history.