Now there’s a title liable to cause a spike in viewing figures. But, for those of you in search of some visual titillation straight from the flowering of Italian culture, you will be disappointed. There is not even a reproduction from I Modi to provide momentary stimulation. You will have to be more committed an onanist that Martin Amis’s Mr. Self to find appropriate inspiration here.
Instead, this post is a belated celebration — belated because its subject has been on the market for several months now. Wrapped in the pale blue uniform of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, the object in question is the parallel text of Panormita’s Hermaphroditus. Now, alongside the Platonist reveries of Ficino or the advice on education of Pier Paolo Vergerio and others, can rest on the bookshelves a collection of neo-latin poems so scurrilous, so devoted to all sorts of sex that, as its editor and translator, Holt Parker announces in his introduction, it is blessed with a loathsome reputation. For those who prefer their humanists pure, single-minded scholars avant la lettre, this is a volume best kept out of sight, but if we want to develop a fuller understanding of these authors and their milieu, it is precisely by not flinching to watch them when they spit venom or tell dirty jokes or wallow in sexual licence that we are going to create a more rounded analysis of those we often see as our intellectual forefathers.
One aspect that interests me is how this is a work that generations have wanted to burn. I have, as more attentive readers have may have noted, been working on a small piece concerning William Shepherd, early-nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, advanced Liberal, friend of William Roscoe and biographer of Poggio Bracciolini. In his Life of Poggio, he mentions the Hermaphroditus, because Shepherd’s ‘hero’ — himself no stranger to sex or to lewd humour — had censured Panormita (Poggio’s letter appears in the useful appendix to the I Tatti volume). Shepherd goes on to mention how, at the Council of Ferrara in 1438, ‘the cause of decency and morality was vindicated by the passing of a solemn censure upon [the] Hermaphroditus, which was ignominiously consigned to the flames in the most public part of the city’. Even for such a Liberal, an opponent of arbitrary rule and of the censorship that comes with it, the destruction of books has its place in civilised society.
With the horror of Kristallnacht engrained in our psyche, the burning of books — be they rude poetry or someone else’s holy book — holds a greater ability to shock than the book itself. But this should not let us complacently imagine that we have become a model of tolerance: Panormita still has such an ability to offend it can be censored. I can prove this with a more recent anecdote, that comes from the time a decade ago when I was editing the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I asked a colleague to write an essay on homosexuality, and she, understandably, quoted the Hermaphroditus in it, ending her contribution with one of its epigrams (in the edition as poem XII). I found myself called in to the publishers to talk to their editor who insisted that the words could not be used — it would offend the audience and she, the editor, had to defend Hutchinson’s good name. I remonstrated and asked what else she might decided to cut. I pointed out that there was an entry on Matteo Colombo and a mention of his famous ‘discovery’, the clitoris — ‘do you’, I asked, ‘have anything against the clitoris?’. ‘No, I have nothing against the clitoris’.
Reader, she had her way: the published volume did not quote Panormita’s words, but rather delicately paraphrased them. Now that Panormita has achieved the respectability of being in the I Tatti series — a respectability he himself might have loathed — perhaps such periphrasis will no longer be necessary. Somehow, though, I doubt that.
I have been proof-reading a chapter that is about to appear in a volume on the production of books in late medieval England, edited by those fine young scholars (young in comparison to me), Alex Gillespie and Dan Wakelin. The publishers, CUP, in their wisdom have decided in one case to move the shelfmark of a manuscript I mention from the footnote into the text itself. Apparently, their house style tends to place shelfmarks in the body of a work — something I strive to avoid. This has set me thinking about the most appropriate way to cite manuscripts or specific copies of printed works.
Let me start by saying that there are some cases when I would certainly provide a shelfmark in the text itself: you only need to look at the manuscript descriptions I have put on-line to find instances of that. When I do that, I like to mark out the shelfmark typographical, my preference being for small caps. There is a difference, though, between a description or a catalogue, and continuous prose forming an article or chapter. Even in this latter case, I could see an argument for citing shelfmarks within a sentence, if you were having to publish with endnotes rather than footnotes. Then again, it would be better to avoid being published in such a format – but that is a debate for another time.
Considering why my strong preference is for avoiding shelfmarks in the text and having them cited at the bottom of the page, in the footnote, it seems to me that there are two reasons. The first could be dismissed as stylistic — but style is central (or should be central) to our practice as authors. The presence of a shelfmark, with or without the library abbreviated, is an intervention in the flow of the prose, a distraction from the words and their argument. If the manuscript needs to be identified in the text, much better to think of a verbal designation rather than a formula of words and number. Those who favour shelfmarks in the text would probably argue that it aids precision — but what I think they mean is that it looks more ‘scientific’. And that, indeed, is probably the nub of this issue: as authors, we are not scientists who cite equations or formulae, and we should not pretend we are by adopting a pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Placing shelfmarks in the text may exude an aura of forensic scholarship, but all it actually does is make the text less readable than it really should be.
The second point is equally important and also defines more tightly the alternatives for citing a manuscript in continuous prose. Reference to a shelfmark in text does not only distract, it can also mislead: it necessarily associates the book in the reader’s mind with its present location rather than its earlier history. This is a problem, obviously, also with talking a manuscript by a loconym based on its present home, like ‘the Madrid Hours’. That manuscript was of Low Countries manufacture (illuminated by the ‘Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy’) and was owned by an Englishman. It might be said that there is no harm to this practice, as the loconym so obviously does not relate to its origin, and that would, of course, be the case for an American or antipodean repository. But in other cases it is positively dangerous because there is still a tendency to assume present location may relate to origin, when usually the history is more complex. Let me give a specific example: it relates to a manuscript made by Thomas Chaundler, now Oxford: New College, MS. 288 (a description of it is available on-line). Chaundler was Warden of New College and so it might seem logical to assume that the volume was always in Oxford. But that is demonstrably not the case: he had it made for Thomas Bekynton, bishop of Bath and Wells, and it was in Wells that it lived, certainly into the 1530s when it was seen by John Leland. Its eventual arrival at New College presumably reflects a later appreciation of the author’s association with that Wykhamist foundation and so tells us more about the subsequent history of the construction of the College’s identity, rather than its earlier history.
In short, let us keep shelfmarks in their rightful place: they are welcome on the page, as long as they confine themselves to the footnotes and avoid distracting or misleading readers by inserting themselves in the text. Shelfmarks are, I suppose, a little like Victorian children: they should be seen but not have erred into the flow of one’s prose.