To mark the publication of its first paperback edition, co-editor Rodney Thomson tells us about the origins of Discovering William of Malmesbury, and something of the reaction to its original hardback.
When I began working on William of Malmesbury in 1974, I already knew that he was a great historian and formidable classicist; in the wake of our Oxford conference on him in 2015 and the subsequent publication I think him a genius, a brilliant polymath for whom historical writing was only one achievement, though doubtless his greatest.
There had never been a conference on him, and around the turn of 2013-14 I began to think of one, firstly because Michael Winterbottom and I were about to publish the last of William’s works to receive a modern edition and translation, The Miracles of the Virgin, and secondly because Michael would turn 80 in 2015. I approached the Medieval Chronicles Society, and my suggestion was passed on to their Oxford branch, who were enthusiastic. And so it happened, and what a surprise it was! First of all, with some seventy delegates, it was just about capacity, or at least as large as the organizers could reasonably handle. And then, it was on a truly international status, with delegates from Russia, Finland, Norway, Germany, Australia, the USA, Wales and England. Finally, it turned out to be a substantially young conference, many of the delegates graduate students offering their first paper in a public forum. The content of the papers was also surprising; while the majority dealt with William as a historian – but in the widest sense – there were contributions on medicine, hagiography, computus, Latin style and library history. The only notable absences were theology and biblical studies. There were so many new insights and angles that it rapidly became obvious that a publication was necessary, though we had not planned originally to have one.
And so we have Discovering William of Malmesbury, first published in 2017, and ecstatically reviewed since. Many of the reviewers, however, lamented the lack of a consolidated bibliography and timeline for William’s activities, also that the papers not arranged thematically, but listed by names of their authors, arranged alphabetically. I think that the first criticism is fair, but not the second. We did initially try to arrange the papers into theme-groups, but as it happened so many were about William the historian that the only rational possibility seemed to be one very large group and two or three tiny ones. There seemed little point.
As one reviewer pointed out, the result is not a rounded picture of the ‘whole man’, but rather a presentation of what is now known about him, with many implicit invitations to follow up or fill out the guidelines and suggestions. And there are so many possibilities. And what will emerge? Will William continue to seem an erratic, sometimes irritating genius, or something else?
This guest post was written by Rodney M. Thomson, Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Tasmania.