Dr. Paul Hayward

title.none: Thomson, and Winterbottom, William of Malmesbury Saints' Lives (Dr. Paul Hayward)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.012 04.01.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Paul Hayward, University of Otago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: William of Malmesbury. Winterbottom, M., and R. M. Thomson, eds. William of Malmesbury Saints' Lives. Series: Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002. Pp. xxxviii, 396. $99.00 0-19-820709-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.12

William of Malmesbury. Winterbottom, M., and R. M. Thomson, eds. William of Malmesbury Saints' Lives. Series: Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002. Pp. xxxviii, 396. $99.00 0-19-820709-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Paul Hayward
University of Otago

This volume brings together the saints' lives that William of Malmesbury (c.1090-c.1143) wrote for Worcester and Glastonbury. That is, it edits and translates William's Life of St Wulfstan (hereafter VW), which he wrote for the monks of Worcester, and what remains of the various Lives he wrote for the monks of Glastonbury: his Life of St Dunstan (hereafter VD), which may or may not survive as he left it, and those of Patrick, Benignus and Indract, which survive only in fragments. The major texts, VW and VD, have been edited before, the former in the Camden series, the latter in the Rolls Series, and VW has been translated twice. However, the present editorial team bring to bear the knowledge they have gained from editing and translating William's Gestae of the Kings and Bishops of the English, allowing them to provide new insights that bring us significantly closer to William's original intentions. When Gesta pontificum Anglorum appears, they will have made the greater part of William's historical works available in genuine critical editions and with concise modern translations based on a complete picture of his works and of their manuscript traditions.

There is little evidence that the present texts were much read outside the communities for whom they were produced. Though some five abridgements also exist, VW survives as composed by William in only a single late twelfth-century manuscript (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius A.V, fols. 160v-99v). VD is also known from a single, late medieval, copy (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D.263) and from various fragments incorporated into other works. Here, furthermore, there is the possibility that a third book comprising Dunstan's posthumous miracles (mentioned at VD, ii.34.4) may have been lost; but, as the editors argue, it seems more likely that William never got around to adding this book. The Lives of Patrick, Benignus and Indract are known, moreover, from the fragments that were recycled by later authors such as the historian John of Glastonbury and the sixteenth-century antiquarian John Leland. But even if Malmesbury's saints' lives were not widely read in the Middle Ages, VW and VD are works that provide many important insights into his world, not least because of the sophisticated ways in which they respond to the problems that caused them to be written.

Wulfstan II, bishop of Worcester (1062-95), was the sole remaining bishop of English descent at the time of his death. He is a rather ambiguous figure who can be seen, on the one hand, as a collaborator who helped the Normans to consolidate the Conquest, but also as someone who managed to salvage the best of the pre-Conquest church -- at Worcester if not elsewhere. He was probably an easy target for criticism from Normans and English alike, and it is against this background that VW may be understood. William declares that his narrative is closely based on that of an Old English Life composed by Coleman, Wulfstan's pupil and chaplain (Ep. 3). The loss of this earlier work is most unfortunate, but it is still possible to find areas where a political point was being made. William organizes his material into three parts: the first traces Wulfstan's life from his birth down to 1066; the second, beginning with a very selective narrative of his career after the Conquest, is mostly a survey of miracle stories that attest the bishop's sanctity; the third, offers an analysis of Wulstan's "inner life and character," before recounting his death at some length. William (or Coleman) appears to suppress mention of Wulfstan's role in the defense of the Conqueror's regime during the rebellions of 1075 and 1088 [[1]]. VW is, moreover, sometimes overtly defensive: in one episode, for example, a "foreign" monk feels the force of divine vengeance when he openly questions Wulfstan's participation in pastoral work as a monk (i.8.2-6). Curiously, Wulfstan is also presented as an advocate and exponent of ideas and trends that seem somewhat ahead of the time in which he lived. He is presented, for example, as a reformer whose ideals were similar to those later associated with the "New Monasticism," scrupulous in the usual liturgical observances but also practicing a contemplative form of monasticism and lending support to several local hermits and their communities (esp. i.5-6, 10; ii.2; iii.5, 27). In the pastoral sphere he is shown promoting infant baptism, cutting the long hair of English nobles, supporting the establishment of parish churches, and implementing clerical celibacy in his diocese (e.g. i.15, 16.3- 4; ii.17, iii.9, 10, 12).

All of this raises interesting questions. To what extent, for example, was Wulfstan actually an exponent of these fashions? Has William (or Coleman) "modernized" Wulfstan in the process of defending him? William (or Coleman) surely exaggerates Wulfstan's achievement in suppressing clerical marriage, for the issue continued to dog his successors long after his death. But, on the other hand, Wulfstan's long survival may well be explained by his actual success in projecting an image of manifest holiness and Gregorian rectitude, not least because it denied the Norman elite the pretext which they needed to depose him if they were to preserve the legitimacy of their actions. To what extent, moreover, is William's (or Coleman's) presentation of Wulfstan's sanctity part of an effort to defend the practices of the English Church in general? The vindication of the English church was certainly an aim of William's Gesta regum and Gesta pontificum, and the charge that monks were too heavily involved in pastoral work was a criticism which could easily have been leveled against the pre- Conquest Church as a whole.

The Glastonbury texts raise a somewhat different set of questions. Whereas VW was written against background of ethnic tension, these texts are the product of the many conflicts over ecclesiastical status that erupted in the Conquest's wake. They defend Glastonbury's many dubious claims to the possession of the relics of some of Britain's leading saints, most notably its claim to the relics of Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, and to those of Dunstan, the monastic reformer and archbishop of Canterbury (959-88). With regard to VD the present editors' commentary holds important new insights. As the editors explain, the defense of Glastonbury's claim to Dunstan's relics placed William in an invidious position, because it put him in conflict with Christ Church and especially his friend Eadmer. In the late 1120s when William was working Eadmer had recently written in defense of Canterbury's claim to possession of Dunstan's body, and William will have discovered that his arguments were far stronger than those of Glastonbury. It is this dilemma which seems to explain VD's exaggerated emphasis on the flaws in the earlier Life of Dunstan by Osbern of Canterbury, and also why William failed to complete the project. William had to find fault with the Canterbury version of events, but in an attempt to protect his relationship with Eadmer he opted to feign ignorance of his contributions to the debate even though his Life of Dunstan represented the current version of Canterbury's position. Instead, he took over Eadmer's own critique of Osbern and attempted to re-direct it to Glastonbury's advantage; but having brought his narrative down to the saints' death in 988, he abandoned the project rather than embroil himself in Glastonbury's dubious story about how it acquired the saint's body amid the chaos caused by the Danish conquest of England.

Aside from their significance as propaganda, these vitae also have much to say about a wide range of historical issues. VW has, for example, precious details bearing on the derivation of personal names among the Anglo-Saxons (i.1.2), on the use of deluxe manuscripts as gifts among kings (i.9), on the efforts of the church to moderate the blood feud (ii.15- 16), on attitudes to the natural environment (ii.17), on the Bristol slave trade (ii.20), and on the use of corporal punishment within households and religious communities (esp. iii.3, 21). For its part, VD has details as to medieval ideas of immanent justice (i.15), to the role of lay advocates in English monasticism (i.20), to the itineration of the royal court (i.21), and so on. For historians of tenth-century England VD is a late source, but they will have to take its details more seriously now that the editors have argued that William relied heavily on a lost Old English Life of Dunstan that dates from before 1066.

However, the editors also venture some rather problematic comments about William's approach to hagiography, suggesting that these texts are unusual for their historical qualities: in VD, they argue, his "experience and interests as a historian" come to the fore, as he provides "extra detail and context from a variety of writings other than the earlier writers of Lives of Dunstan" (xxiii). "The result is the most clearly-delineated picture of Dunstan, and the best integrated into a broad historical context" (xxix). In VW the availability of eye-witness informants "allied to William's historian's instincts, means that Wulfstan emerges as a real personality, not just a hagiographical exemplar" (xxvii). Thus, William is to be seen as "a historian's hagiographer, with an eye to what was unique, personal and particular, and to the specifics of period and context, rather than to that which was held to be timeless and generally exemplary" (xxxviii). There is no denying the force of William's scholarship, but put this way these observations are misleading because they involve the projection of modern values onto William's work when a careful reading shows that he has an altogether different concept of how "history" and "hagiography" relate to one another.

William's comments in VW imply a view of hagiography as a genre that inverts modern expectations: "the deeds of the saints ought not." he writes, "to be retold except with the utmost faithfulness" (non nisi exacta fide deberent nisi recitari gesta sanctorum) (Ep.3). He declares that in his desire to avoid corrupting the truth he has adhered to the order of events as found in his source and that he has set aside only the invented speeches that Coleman inserted into his narrative (Ep.4; cf. i.16.5). He writes, moreover, that it would be inappropriate to be inventively rhetorical "here [in this saint's life] where faith incites one to belief and the material invites reading" (i.prol.4). William is here invoking a well-established literary tradition which held that the production of a sacred text demanded a conservative approach to the handing of sources, to the organization of material, and to the choice of words and figures -- that is, the tradition of sermo humilis. In VD he invokes this concept of hagiographical propriety to great effect in his polemic against Osbern of Canterbury who is being condemned, not for his failings as an "historian," but for his failings as a "hagiographer" -- a far more telling point! The implication, moreover, is that for William hagiography was a less rhetorical and more factual form of historical writing than the kind of monographic history for which he is better known -- miracles being constructed as factual events in both genres. In holding this view he is not unique but typical of his time [[2]]. It follows that the restraint and attention to historical detail and context found in his saints' lives are part of their very rhetorical fabric. These qualities are better seen, not as evidence of a remarkable transfer of standards and skills from 'history' to 'hagiography', but as bearing witness -- alongside William's deployment of the rhetorical structures of res gestae in his histories [[3]]-- to his superb command of the various literary forms that were practiced in his time. This quibble aside, the publication of this volume is to be welcomed as a major advance in the study of one of the most significant of medieval authors.


[[1]] See E. Mason, St Wulfstan of Worcester, c. 1008- 1095. (Oxford, 1990), p. 293.

[[2]] Cf. F. Lifshitz, "Beyond Positivism and Genre: 'Hagiographical' Texts as Historical Narrative", Viator 25 (1994): 95-113.

[[3]] On the rhetorical qualities of the Gesta regum, see J. O. Ward, "Classical Rhetoric and the Writing of History in Medieval and Renaissance Culture," in F. McGregor and N. Wright (ed.), European History and Its Historians (Adelaide, 1977), pp. 1-10; idem, "Some Principles of Rhetorical Historiography in the Twelfth Century," in E. Breisach (ed.), Classical Rhetoric and Medieval Historiography, Studies in Medieval Culture 19 (Kalamazoo, 1985), pp. 103-65.