Piece of English Renaissance history going for a song
A song might be pushing it: a whole opera or monumental mass. It is on sale at Christie’s at an asking price of £25,000 – £35,000. But, in comparison with other lots, that is a small change. And, like Henry IV’s Paris, it is certainly worth a mass.
I have Peter Kidd to thank for bringing my attention to the manuscript in question. It is a codex signed by a scribe whose character was as colourful as his books: Pieter Meghen, from the Low Countries, who worked for Erasmus, both in making books and in transporting letters, and whose calligraphical skill was not hindered — perhaps, indeed, it was assisted — by the fact that he was one-eyed (as he calls himself in this book: ‘monoculus’). Nor did his heavy-drinking stop him producing an attractive littera antiqua much in demand in Erasmus’s circle and particularly in England. One of Meghen’s earliest patrons was the Englishman Christopher Urswick, almoner to Henry VII and Dean of Windsor. The manuscript now up for sale in London on 2nd June appears to be the earliest dated manuscript made by Meghen for Urswick — and it is previously unnoticed.
That it seems to have hidden away from scholars is all the more remarkable as Meghen is by no means a forgotten figure and his association with Urswick specifically has been studied by no less a scholar than the late Joe Trapp of the Warburg. The texts that it presents in some elements confirm very comfortably with what we know already about Urswick and his collecting: it includes, for instance, a fourteenth-century text, the Speculum Edwardi III attributed to Simon Islip and now thought to be by William de Pagula (though there is reason to doubt that — but that is another story), which had some vogue for early Tudor ecclesiastics like Urswick. And, as in other Tudor manuscripts, it is coupled with other patristic and humanist works. Here, though, the humanist represented is one not otherwise known in either Urswick’s library or in Meghen’s oeuvre but who did enjoy a small popularity in England: Niccolò Perotti. Another author included is Baldwin of Canterbury who, again, is not an author Meghen transcribed elsewhere but who makes an interesting link back to an early generation of humanist book-production in England as a copy of works by him, now in Brussels, was made by Meghen’s countryman, Theoderic Werken, in 1453 for William Gray. Gray, bishop of Ely, boasted, with some stretching of the truth, of royal blood and for part of his career attempted to live up to his claim by his ostentatious lifestyle which included collecting manuscripts.
The book on sale at Christie’s, to judge by the images (for, as readers will know, I am exiled to Florence for a month — I can not complain), shows Meghen at his most accomplished, providing a very regular upright bookhand which would look starched if it were not for the playful majuscules and descenders that Meghen could not, on occasion, resist including. With all this, it also has a set of miniatures. A fine manuscript and one that adds to our knowledge of both the scribe’s career and the milieu of English Renaissance activities at the very start of the sixteenth century, while Thomas More was still mastering Greek. The asking price is not unreasonable, especially when compared to other items in the sale — I think in particular of a manuscript of Mandeville’s Travels, 64 folios without significant illumination, which surely can only justify its putative cost of £150,000 – £200,000 because vernacular texts have a certain cachet among manuscript collectors. There is a premium on early examples of the English language, which means that the history of our nation’s more learned culture is relatively bon-marché. Rush, while stocks last.