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  • Mira Romanorum artifitia:William of Malmesbury and the Romano-British Remains at Carlisle
  • William Kynan-Wilson

In his Gesta pontificum Anglorum (hereafter GP) the Benedictine monk and historian William of Malmesbury (c.1090—c.1142) recorded the history of English dioceses, their monuments, saints, and relics.1 Within his account of Northumbria he included a lengthy description of an ancient Roman structure at Carlisle.2 This remarkable passage has frequently been cited as evidence of the historian's empirical leanings and antiquarian tastes, as well as of broader trends in Anglo-Norman historiography.3 Indeed, William is rightly famed for his keen eye and discerning comments. For instance, he noted the emergence of new architectural styles, he recorded inscriptions, and he repeated letters as historical evidence.4 The scene at Carlisle has long been interpreted in this manner, with Antonia Gransden remarking generally of William's archaeological writings: "It is likely that most (perhaps all) of William's descriptions were based on personal observation, not hearsay."5 Yet upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that this explanation requires refinement.

The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to indicate the pervasive influence of textual sources that mediated William's description of Roman ruins. William never travelled to Rome in person, and while he may have assimilated certain oral traditions, it is apparent that he experienced Rome principally through textual sources. As Catharine Edwards notes: "literary texts were a first means of approach to the city [of Rome] for many."6 Rome was fleshed out further through William's extensive and impressive handling of ancient Roman literature and history: he read Virgil, Cicero, and Lucan as well as Suetonius, Juvenal, and Persius, amongst others. Indeed, it has been estimated that he knew over one hundred classical works.7 In the words of Rodney Thomson, he was "a classicist extraordinaire."8 Second, it will be proposed that this passage is not simply an exhibition of William's antiquarian interests, but also a carefully crafted projection of his own romanitas, or Romanness. [End Page 35]

The description of Roman Carlisle is to be found in the prologue to the third book of the GP (iii.99.3-4), which concerns northern England, and in particular the sees of York and Durham.9 William begins with a highly rhetorical laudation of York before lamenting the "ruined" state of contemporary Northumbria due to the ravages of the Danes in the ninth century, and more recently the "harrying of the north" by the Normans in the late eleventh century. The passage is worth quoting at length:

In aliquibus tamen parietum ruinis, qui semiruti remansere, uideas mira Romanorum artifitia: ut est in Lugubalia ciuitate triclinium lapideis fornicibus concameratum, quod nulla umquam tempestatum contumelia, quin etiam nec appositis ex industria lignis et succensis, ualuit labefactari.

Cumbreland uocatur regio, et Cumbri uocantur homines, scripturaque legitur in fronte triclinii "Marii uictorie." Quod quid sit hesito, nisi forte pars Cimbrorum olim his locis insederit cum fuissent a Mario Italia pulsi. Sane tota lingua Nordanhimbrorum, et maxime in Eboraco, ita inconditum stridet ut nichil nos australes intelligere possimus. Quod propter uiciniam barbararum gentium et propter remotionem regum quondam Anglorum modo Normannorum contigit, qui magis ad austrum quam ad aquilonem diuersati noscuntur.

[In some of the ruined buildings, though, whose walls were not completely destroyed, you may see remarkable Roman work: for example, at Carlisle a triclinium vaulted in stone that no violence of the elements, or even the intentional setting alight of timbers piled up against it, has succeeded in destroying.

The district is called Cumberland, and its inhabitants Cumbrians. On the front of the structure one can read the inscription "To the victory of Marius." I am doubtful what this means; it may be that some of the Cimbri settled of old in these parts after being driven from Italy by Marius. Of course, the whole language of the Northumbrians, particularly in York, is so inharmonious and uncouth that we southerners can make nothing of it. This is the result of the barbarians being so near, and the kings, once English, now Norman, so far away; for they, as is well known, spend more time in the south than in the...


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