The Medieval Review 17.12.27

Thomson, Rodney, M., Emily Dolmans, and Emily A. Winkler, eds. Discovering William of Malmesbury. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2017. pp. xii, 232. £70.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9-7817-8327-1368 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Ben Pohl
University of Bristol

The volume under review here contains a collection of seventeen studies dedicated to the life, works and cultural contexts of one of England's most prolific and well-known twelfth-century writers of history (and other subjects), William of Malmesbury. Some of these are based on papers delivered at the University of Oxford in the summer of 2015 during a three-day conference entitled "William of Malmesbury and his Legacy," whereas others were commissioned especially for the printed book. Even before opening the book and delving into its contents, one cannot help but notice how firmly it is rooted in international scholarship. As is proclaimed by the blurb printed on the back cover, the volume succeeds in bringing together academics not just from the UK, the US and Continental Europe, but also from Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and Australia, thereby facilitating a truly international dialogue that promises to set the study of William and his works on a new footing. What is more, the three editors have done a commendable job in reserving a good proportion of the book for studies written by early-career scholars, thus creating a platform for presenting research currently in the making and offering a forum that allows for cross-generational conversation and knowledge exchange. Anyone who has edited a collected volume themselves will appreciate that this is not an easy balance to achieve, especially when publishing on a topic, or person, that has attracted as much attention as has the subject of this book. The first impression the volume creates, therefore, is an extremely positive one.

This positive impression is sustained and cemented further in the introductory chapter co-authored by two of the book's editors. Following a concise summary of the current state of scholarship on William and his writings (1-5), which also serves to familiarise the reader with the major critical editions and translations of his oeuvre--completed through the recent publication of William's Miracles of the Virgin Mary (written c.1135) edited and translated by Rodney Thomson and Michael Winterbottom--, the introduction swiftly turns to disclosing the two main themes of the volume, "Discovering William the man" (5-7) and "Discovering William's works" (8-11). Such a two-pronged approach is, if not entirely innovative, certainly a suitable choice for a volume dedicated to a highly literate monk with skills and interests as varied and wide-ranging as William's. Indeed, similar approaches were chosen by the editors of academic volumes dedicated to some of William's twelfth-century contemporaries and fellow monk-writers, most notably David Rollason's classic collection of articles on Symeon of Durham: Historian of Durham and the North (1998) and, more recently, the collected studies on Orderic Vitalis: Life, Works and Interpretations (2016) edited by Charles Rozier, Daniel Roach, Giles Gasper and Elisabeth van Houts--though it should be said that neither of these books addresses its conceptual design as explicitly as does the volume reviewed here. The rationale for the present book's dual focus as set out in some detail by Emily Dolmans and Emily Winkler is conveyed clearly to the reader by pointing out how each chapter aims to discover one or more facet(s) of William's complex personality (including his character or "mentality") and/or his major literary works, and how these various spotlights, when taken together, combine into a colourful and multifaceted panorama.

I feel that this promising proposal of a gradual and collaborative discovery process could have been developed more fully, and perhaps more consistently, if the sequence of chapters had been arranged in such a way as to reflect better the narrative laid out so eloquently in the introduction. For example, these could have been grouped into different (sub)sections that address a specific aspect of either William's person or his literary activity--even though it is sometimes difficult, and not always sensible, to distinguish categorically between the two, as the editors themselves point out. As it stands, however, the organisation of chapters does not follow any discernible narrative, but seems to have been arranged strictly alphabetically based on the authors' surnames. This is an unfortunate editorial choice, which fails to provide the volume as a whole with the necessary structural coherence and integrity. As a result, the individual chapters remain precisely individual, rather than being linked more effectively with the studies by which they are preceded/succeeded. Having said this, there is a fair amount of cross-referencing between the different studies, particularly in the footnotes, but this does cannot compensate entirely for the lack of a corresponding semantic superstructure.

It might have been preferable, in this regard, to create thematic clusters around related studies, such as in the case of the chapters by John Gillingham (chapter 4), Ryan Kemp (chapter 6) and Alheydis Plassmann (chapter 12), all three of which deal specifically with William's views on kingship (or rulership more generally) and the ways in which these wider expectations and discourses coloured the treatment of specific kings, emperors and prelates in William's works. Similarly, it is unfortunate to see Stanislav Mereminskiy's study on William's contribution to the circulation of historical knowledge in early twelfth-century England (chapter 9) being isolated from both Anne Bailey's highly-relevant opening discussion on the relationship between historiography and hagiography (chapter 2) and, situated nearer the end of the book, Rodney Thomson's pertinent analysis of William's historical vision (chapter 14) and Emily Ward's study of the ways in which William conformed (or not) to the Venerable Bede's "true law of history" (vera lex historiae) (chapter 15). In short, the book's chapters have been organised according to a system which, by definition, seems likely to disrupt rather than facilitate semantic unity.

Moving on from the book's structural presentation and turning to its contents, the reader quickly finds him/herself immersed in a broad portfolio of thoroughly researched and well-presented scholarship. Whilst it is not possible to discuss all seventeen chapters in the scope of this review, I will focus on a handful of highlights selected for their particularly innovative approaches and methodologies (for the sake of convenience, these are discussed here in the order in which they appear in the book).

I begin with a chapter already mentioned above, namely Bailey's study of William's "Deeds of the English Bishops" (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum) in the light of modern notions pertaining to medieval textual "genres" (13-26). Building on existing scholarship such as Felice Lifshitz's seminal article "Beyond Positivism and Genre," [1] Bailey offers a nuanced reassessment of the text, its sources and audiences, which pays attention to the various purpose(s) and function(s) of miracles in historical narratives. She argues compellingly that William, in composing his Gesta Pontificum, operated competently and confidently across different "modes" of writing--a hagiographical and a historiographical mode--, regularly switching back and forth between the two and skilfully combining them into a single organic working method. The relevance of Bailey's arguments extends beyond the Gesta Pontificum and generates important insights for the study of not only William's oeuvre, but historical and hagiographical writing in the twelfth century more generally.

Equally important is Mereminskiy's study of William's relationship with Durham and what it can tell us about the circulation of knowledge in England during the twelfth century (107-116). Reviewing a wide range of historical and documentary evidence, including a sizeable corpus of manuscripts, Mereminskiy makes a convincing case that suggests close contacts between William and the Durham monks, possibly including his personal acquaintance with fellow monk-historian and historian of the North, Symeon of Durham. Whether or not William ever visited Durham is left for the reader to decide, whilst the evidence presented in this chapter leaves little doubt that he had access, and made an important contribution, to a large corpus of writings that circulated widely between the great centres of historical and literary production of twelfth-century England, including not only Malmesbury and Durham, but also Canterbury, Worcester and Bury St Edmunds.

How the organisation of knowledge in twelfth-century England (and beyond) might have worked in practice is the subject of Samu Niskanen's excellent study of William's autograph manuscripts and his activities as a monastic librarian and keeper of books (117-127). In what is definitely one of the volume's strongest contributions, Niskanen is able to shed light not only on William's own scribal habits and working methods, but also, and importantly, on his interaction with other scribes from Malmesbury's scriptorium, several of whom he seems to have supervised personally. Niskanen then uses these important insights to provide a more comprehensive analytical sketch of the monastery's book collection, and even explains why Malmesbury's twelfth-century library, unlike those of other contemporary abbeys in England and across the Channel, appears not to have had a strong focus on patristic theology. Finally, Niskanen carefully teases out William's personal and professional attitude towards the mechanics of textual transmission from his surviving autographs and working copies, thereby providing not only a complementary view to Thomson's study on "William of Malmesbury's Historical Vision" (165-173), but also a response to Richard Sharpe's classical study on Anselm of Canterbury. [2]

Given that both Mereminskiy and Niskanen, and some of the book's other contributors, too, work closely from the evidence of the original manuscripts, it would have been beneficial for a full catalogue and timeline of William's autographs/working copies to have been included in the volume--something which has been done to great effect in, for example, the recent edited volume on Orderic Vitalis referred to above. Similarly, the reader of the present book will search in vain for a handlist of the most influential studies on William of Malmesbury and/or the standard editions/translations of his major works, as there are neither chapter-specific bibliographies nor a collective bibliography at the end of the volume.

Another chapter that deserves special mention is Alheydis Plassmann's comparative study on the depiction of exemplary rulership in the works of William and his fellow German chronicler, Otto of Freising (139-152). Based on a systematic analysis of ruler portraits ranging from Charlemagne to Henry IV, Plassmann shows that William and Otto used different, yet comparable, strategies in creating archetypal historical narratives around conceptual notions of rise and fall and/or success and failure. She concludes by observing that Otto's outlook on history and its exemplary functions was generally more cyclical in nature than William's, and that the latter had an exceptionally strong penchant for analogy and narrative symmetry. We can find similar moments of comparison in Ward's study on the medieval topos of the verax historicus (175-187), in which Ward considers not only William and his major "role model," the Venerable Bede, but also other writers such as Henry of Huntingdon and Orderic. These are important comparative perspectives that some readers might feel could have been developed more widely and consistently throughout the book, particularly as they serve to contextualise William and his works within the wider cultural and intellectual landscape of twelfth-century Europe. The chapters by Plassmann and Ward thus showcase the volume's relevance to scholars and students with an interest, not necessarily in William personally, but in the broader developments and discourses of the period.

The last chapter I would like to highlight in this review is that by Sigbjørn Sønnesyn, which is dedicated to the treatment of friendship as exemplified in William's works (153-163). Once more, Sønnesyn shows himself as a true master of his craft by interpreting the textual and historical evidence in such a way as to extract key pieces of information and extrapolate ideas whose currency extends far beyond the remit of his chapter. As he argues convincingly, William in writing his works was working under a specific, inclusive definition of friendship which included not only himself and his monastic community, but also his other audiences, both present and future. These findings chime extremely well with Sønnesyn's monograph William of Malmesbury and the Ethics of History, and they flesh out yet another important facet of William's mentality as a key author and thinker of the period.

In summary, this is an instrumental and compelling collection of studies with many positive qualities. These include not only the impressive scope of the international scholarship brought together by the editors and contributors, including both junior and senior scholars, but also the wide range of topics treated across the book's seventeen chapters, several of which are discussed here for the first time. The book is more than "just" a companion, then, as it reflects the scholarly status quo at the same time as presenting new discoveries--thus doing justice to its title--and even identifying potential areas of interest for future research. Readers interested in meeting William of Malmesbury for the first time will find in it an accessible introduction and study guide, whilst those already familiar with William and his works will be intrigued and inspired by the many new perspectives that it offers. The fact that this significant achievement--that is, its provision of the building blocks for a multifaceted panorama of the life and works of its twelfth-century protagonist--is not reflected more clearly in the book's chapter structure is unfortunate, not least because it means that the volume in its present form resembles a quarry, rather than a guided tour. The onus is thus put on the reader to find his/her own path through the volume's dense panorama of scholarship, which likely entails jumping back and forth between chapters and reading them in a sequence other than that suggested by the alphabetical table of contents. As a structural unit, therefore, the book ends up somewhat weaker than the sum of its many excellent parts. This should not deter people from purchasing the book, however. Indeed, I myself have already set it as an essential reading for one of my undergraduate units this academic year, and I strongly encourage other colleagues to do the same.

-------- Notes:

1. Felice Lifshitz, "Beyond Positivism and Genre: 'Hagiographical' Texts as Historical Narrative," Viator 25 (1994): 95-114.

2. Richard Sharpe, "Anselm as Author: Publishing in the Late Eleventh Century," The Journal of Medieval Latin 19 (2009): 1-87.

Copyright (c) 2018 Ben Pohl

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