Ming Liu, The Itinerary of William of Malmesbury

Summary of the Doctoral Thesis of Ming Liu, The Itinerary of William of Malmesbury: A Study of a Benedictine Monk’s Mobility in the Early Twelfth Century, University of Edinburgh, 13 December 2022, dir. Bill Aird.

My doctoral thesis, The Itinerary of William of Malmesbury: A Study of a Benedictine Monk’s Mobility in the Early Twelfth Century, reconstructs the itinerary of William of Malmesbury, one of the most famous English monastic historians in the early twelfth century, and uses his case to demonstrate a medieval world based on mobility and multifaceted connections. William is usually believed to have travelled widely in order to collect information and materials for his writings. Despite research focusing on his travels and works, however, surprisingly little attention has been paid to investigating the details of his itinerary and the influence of his mobility. By carefully comparing the information in his major works and their different versions and examining the evolution of these texts, this thesis rebuilds William’s itinerary throughout his life, and demonstrates how mobile he was as a Benedictine monk in the early twelfth century. It shows that although monks were usually supposed to be bound to the cloister throughout their life, there did not seem to exist an insurmountable obstacle in practice between travel and monastic rules. William’s case also suggests the importance of mobility as the basis for the circulation of knowledge, which laid the vital foundation for the form of scholarly connections and the flourishing of a group of monastic historians in the Anglo-Norman world in the early twelfth century.

            The thesis is divided into five chapters. The first chapter determines a chronology of William’s life and works. This forms the foundation of the second chapter, which uses the information in his different works and versions to find detailed evidence for his travels and to give them probable dates. The third chapter reconsiders the previous results and presents the general patterns of his itinerary. The fourth chapter analyses William’s mobility and presents the special and common factors for his travels. By showing the dialectical relationship between travel and monastic rules, it suggests that more ordinary monks were able to follow William’s steps. Finally, the fifth chapter discusses the circulation of knowledge resulting from his travels. William’s mobility helped him to make connections with both secular and ecclesiastical people, and knowledge was easy to circulate through these personal networks. The dissemination of William’s various works also reflects the combination of his personal network with a broader scholarly network, which promoted the exchange of information and ideas and the circulation of knowledge in a vast geographic space.

This detailed exploration of William’s itinerary and the analysis of his mobility not only raises new thoughts on his life and works, but also sheds new light on monastic culture in general in the Middle Ages. The case study of his itinerary helps to historicise and contextualise monastic mobility and provides a vivid investigation of travel experience of medieval monks on an individual level. In addition, his mobility promoted the circulation of books and manuscripts between different monasteries and churches, brought oral accounts and other forms of knowledge to overcome the boundary between the monastic and secular worlds, and helped him to make scholarly connections with others. In other words, it laid the important foundation for the circulation of knowledge at his time. William’s case shows vividly a more connected Benedictine world in the early twelfth century than has previously been thought. It is a demonstration of the spirit of the Global Middle Ages, which is not a still or immobile medieval society, but a mobile and connected medieval world.

Ming Liu, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh

Illustration of the title strip: incipit of  William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius C IX, fol. 18r).

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