Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries > William of Newburgh
  Geoffrey of Monmouth Benedict of Peterborough  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries.

§ 10. William of Newburgh.


It is otherwise with William of Newburgh. He regarded Geoffrey as one who had deliberately and fragantly profaned the sacred functions of the historian, and devotes the entire preface of his chronicle to a vehement denunciation of Geoffrey’s motives and to an exposure of his fabrications.   21
  This severe preface has contributed as much as anything to the high repute in which William of Newburgh is held as a critical historian. Freeman’s description of him as “the father of historical criticism” 17  has often been repeated, but scarcely seems deserved when we compare his actual achievement with that of his greater namesake of Malmesbury. For William of Newburgh belongs to that group of modest chroniclers who are content with treating a limited period, and describe, mainly, the events of their own lifetime. His History extends from the Conquest to the year 1198; but the narrative down to the time of Stephen is so compressed as to make the work, in effect, an account of the reigns of Stephen and Henry II. For the latter reign there are few better authorities. His work, as a whole, forms the best single commentary upon the history of the twelfth century left us by any writer of his day. For William’s chronicle is no mere bare record of events, but an ordered and critical presentment of the affairs of his time, with due regard to their cause and effect. His remoteness from the court and the metropolis doubtless enabled William of Newburgh to maintain an attitude of impartiality impossible to chroniclers thrown into close contact with the greater actors in the drama of contemporary events. At any rate, the work of no twelfth-century chronicler is marked by a more transparent honesty of purpose, by greater independence of judgement, or by more acute estimates of men and their motives. William writes in a clear, straightforward style; less studious of artistic effect and literary ornament than his namesake of Malmesbury, he is inspired by a similar, if not a greater, desire for accuracy. Like his predecessor, he venerates the memory and the example of Bede, “whose wisdom and integrity none can doubt”; and, following that historian’s pious motives, he hopes that his own labours will form some “contribution, however scanty, to the treasure-house of the Lord.”   22
  William of Newburgh was a contemporary of the brilliant galaxy of scholars who flourished in the full light of the encouragement given to learning and letters at the court of Henry II. But, living in the comparative seclusion of his monastery, he is not quite of them, and may be regarded rather as a continuator of the honourable traditions of the historical school of the north. In particular, he is one of the most trustworthy authorities for a period of some twenty years, after the turn of the twelfth century, of which we have scarcely any contemporary record. 18  For the English history of the years 1153—4, and especially for the foreign policy of the early years of Henry II’s reign, our best contemporary authority is a chronicler who lived and wrote in Normandy, Robert de Monte or, as he calls himself, Robert of Torigni. He compiled a comprehensive record of events from the close of the first Christian century down to 1186, and is indebted for much of his account of purely English affairs to Eadmer and Henry of Huntingdon. The troubles of King Stephen’s reign appear to have had a paralysing effect upon the chroniclers in England; and it is not until the height of Henry II’s power that they begin once more to give us a full and vivid account of contemporary affairs. The historian’s art flourished a new in the warmth of the general enthusiasm for learning which made the England of Henry’s time the paradise of scholars. In palace and abbey, in the full glare and bustle of the court no less than in the bookish atmosphere of the monastic cell, men were infected by a common ardour of intellectual enterprise and literary achievement. In close touch with the court were men like Gilbert Foliot and Richard Fitz-Neale; Ralph of Diceto, who was dean of St. Paul’s during Fitz-Neale’s episcopate, and Ranulf de Glanville, whose name is associated with one of the earliest and most valuable treatises on the laws and customs of England, though the real author of it was, more probably, his nephew, Hubert Walter; Giraldus Cambrensis and Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury and Peter of Blois. In remoter haunts, though having frequent opportunities of intercourse with men of action and affairs, were Gervase of Canterbury and Nigel Wireker, John of Salisbury and Richard of Devizes, Benedict of Peterborough and William of Newburgh and Roger of Hoveden. Altogether, there was in the country, as Stubbs says, “such supply of writers and readers as would be found nowhere else in Europe, except in the University of Paris itself.”   23

Note 17Contemporary Review, vol. XXXIII (1878), p. 216. [ back ]
Note 18. See Stubbs, Preface to Roger of Hoveden, RollsSeries,p.xI. [ back ]

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  Geoffrey of Monmouth Benedict of Peterborough  
 
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