Roman Identity in William of Malmesbury’s Historical Writings

Kynan-Wilson, William (2017). Roman Identity in William of Malmesbury’s Historical Writings. In: Thomson, R. M.; Dolmans, E. and Winkler, E. eds. Discovering William of Malmesbury. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, pp. 81–91.


William of Malmesbury was fascinated by Rome and romanitas. He wrote about the city, the Romans and their history at length, and in a variety of contexts and styles, including: a papal biography (1119), a digest of ancient Roman history (1129), a description of the city's topography (Gesta Regum 352), and a now-lost account of his abbot's journey to Rome (the Itinerarium Iohannis abbatis, c. 1140). William also exhibits a deep interest in Roman style. This is most apparent at the opening of the Gesta Regum (bk 1 prol. 4) where he describes English history as broken, barbarous and in need of seasoning with Roman salt (‘Romano sale condire’). This allusive statement can be read on several levels: it suggests judicious authorship, variety and good taste, preservation and entertainment, as well as the influence of ancient Roman literature, particularly satire. Above all, it immediately alerts the reader to two recurring and related facets of William's historical writing: first, the author's comparisons between Norman England and ancient Rome; and second, William's intention to inform his own writing style with a Roman quality.

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