This morning I was to be found in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The purpose was primarily to take in the exhibition ‘Il Sogno nel Rinascimento, one of three important Renaissance-related mostre presently on in the city this summer. ‘Il Sogno’ is intellectually ambitious, musing on the potential associations of dreams with art by considering how painters depicted sleep and its impact on the mind. Perhaps inevitably, the show falls short of the aspirations its originators must have had for it.
But visiting the exhibition also allowed an opportunity to re-visit the riches of the Palazzo’s permanent display. And so, walking through the elegant rooms with their oversupply of paintings, I came face to face with Justus Lipsius:
I cannot claim to have acheived neo-stoic calm in my life, or to be an aficionado of Rubens, yet the painting held my attention today, not because of the artist’s self-portrait or the bust of Seneca above Lipsius, but for the books, specifically those at the front of the table — so close to the front, indeed, that they look as if they should topple off it. That, though, was not what struck me first; rather, it was the combination of books on display. You can clearly see that the bottom one is in a white leather binding, the sort of limp cover we often find today on early modern books. The volume above it is rather different, with brown leather wrapped over thick wooden boards, with the corners finished with pieces of metal. It also has two prominent straps and, less distinctly, a lunette in which the book’s title would have been provided. Incidentally, the arrangement is curious: usually, a lunette sits at the top centre of the lower board, and the straps or clasps also attach to that, rather than the front, but the layout suggested in this picture mean that the board on view must be the upper one. Now, that is not unheard-of in this period — indeed, in Florence itself, many of the Medici volumes in the Laurenziana have such an arrangement — but it is not the norm.
Whatever the implications of that, the main point that caught my eye was the contrast between these two books. Rubens depicts this in the pages of each volume: the lower one has a uniform edge, suggesting efficient cropping, but the pages of the book above are depicted in some detail as being uneven, with some corners curling. What this all suggested to me was that Rubens may not have been portraying just two books but two volumes of markedly different age, one recently printed, the other older and probably a manuscript. If that were his intention it would fit with the composition of the piece and, indeed, enhance its message: notice how the rug placed on the table at front left creates a diagonal line: if you extrapolate that line across the canvas it moves upwards and backwards through the manuscript and on through Lipsius himself ending with the bust of Seneca that sits behind him. The three elements are united in symbolising venerable learning.
But perhaps as well as enhancing the message, it gives it in a more critical edge. I mentioned how the books sit at the very edge of the table, the lower, modern volume jutting out precariously: is the message that old learning when placed on top of new knowledge has uncertain foundations? And, if so, is the unusual arrangement of the binding’s furniture itself a verbal clue to the viewer to think more deeply about the painting’s implications? We can at least be sure that a message that is not fully spoken and which is not uncritical of modern living would not be out of place at the table with neo-stoicism’s founder.
I will not pretend to have known Malcolm Parkes well but, like so many, I owe him such a debt of gratitude that I cannot leave his passing on 10th May unremarked: he was a giant of palaeography. The breadth of his learning was always on display in his writings – indeed, he disdained those who concentrate solely on one script or one chronological period (and, so, presumably, I fail his high standards). This was a scholar who could range across the centuries, as comfortable with the Chanson de Roland as with the manuscripts of Chaucer and Gower, and who could make associations which few would have had the eye to see. What, though, I will most remember him for is his generosity of spirit.
When I began my graduate studies in Oxford, I went to two sets of palaeographical classes, one in my own Faculty of History, by Richard Sharpe, and one in English, by Malcolm Parkes; later in my doctoral work (and less formally), I was to learn much as well from Andrew Watson. Most student medievalists considered the task of palaeography as a matter of comprehension – what Richard Sharpe describes as ‘adult literacy skills’; some of us left the lectures, however, inspired by the possibilities of what palaeography in its widest sense (including codicology) can teach us about the book itself. The ability to hold a manuscript in your hands, to turn it over and to take all the elements of its construction to create a vivid history of its production, use and journey from creation to present – that is an invigorating and potent skill which Malcolm Parkes could convey with wit and clarity.
Central to learning how to do that is being able to write a technical description of a manuscript and, addition to his palaeography classes, Prof. Parkes provided instruction in that practice. Fired with interest by what I had half-learnt, I went off to describe some manuscripts and sent my rough attempts to him. I was not in his Faculty and there was no reason why he should have given me attention; all I could offer him was dinner in my student house in Jericho. But he accepted the invitation and sent me back my descriptions covered by pencil notes which I can still recollect twenty years later and which, in their wise advice, have informed how I developed my own practices of cataloguing.
I also remember him as an engaging lecturer, a master of the vignette and also of the obiter dictum. One, in particular, I recall from his Lyell lectures: ‘it is easy to imitate another’s letter-forms, it is much more difficult to imitate their spaces’. It is an insight suggestive of his own way of working, his own sense of the practicalities or technology of script that enabled him to provide such lucid analysis of (in the title of those Lectures) their hands before our eyes.
There are two other details that come to my mind. One involves an occasion early on in my graduate life when I was working in Duke Humfrey’s – so this was, perhaps, in 1992 and from my memory’s image of the light streaming into Selden End, late summer or early autumn – and Prof. Parkes walked in, cap in hand, to meet a lady sitting opposite me. They proceeded to converse without any attempt to lower their voices, so angering me that I walked out, little appreciating that, if I had had the sense to stay and listen, I would have learnt about the latest discoveries each of them had made, and not realising that the lady in question was destined eventually to be one of my doctoral examiners: the Professor of Palaeography at King’s London and former doyenne of Duke Humfrey’s, Tilly de la Mare.
I mention this tale because of the insouciance it suggests Malcolm Parkes had in the places that were his natural habitat. It extended also to dealing with manuscripts – no white-glove man, this, he would fairly plonk a volume down on its foam-rest. For those of us beginning our career and so daintly touching these half-hallowed objects, this was a liberating revelation. I rationalised his practice in my mind as a recognition that manuscripts, written on parchment and bound in leather over wooden boards, are fairly sturdy things – sturdier, it must be said, than the frail human body. And so, indeed, Professor Malcolm Beckwith Parkes has left us, but there survive many manuscripts which will outlive you or I, and which can say that they have been touched, enlightened and enlivened by him.
Last month, the Times Literary Supplement gave an uncharacteristic expanse of print space to an extended Commentary article. It was by a Russianist, Eric Naiman, whose interested had been peaked by the description of an encounter between two giants of nineteenth-century novel-writing, Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens. The description of their conversation — or, rather, a self-revealing monologue by Dickens, as recorded by Dostoevsky — has excited public attention in recent years, and Naiman began his piece by puncturing that interest, pointing out the incident’s inherent improbability. Tracing the source of the description to an article by Stephanie Harvey in The Dickensian just over a decade ago, he began to uncover a web of published authors, who are mutually supportive to the point of replicating each other’s work. So, Stephanie Harvey had previously praised a novel by Leo Bellingham, published in 1981, which was re-issued, in revised form, in 2012 as the work of A. D. Harvey. Indeed, at the centre of Naiman’s story appeared to be the protean polymath, Arnold Harvey, who, it is implied, is probably also Leo, Stephanie and a few others besides.
The article has quickly become a celebrated work in various quarters: it is certainly an engaging story well told and perhaps, more fundamently, it speaks to a fantasy many have of turning our academic training to this sort of detective work, on display in such a high-profile location. There is something fitting about Naiman, an expert on Nabakov, revealing the multiple identities of a single individual. When I first read (and was mesmerised by) Pale Fire in the Penguin edition, complete with introductory essay, I could only imagine that the Mary McCarthy who wrote that introduction and entered so fully into the spirit of the novel must be an alter ego of the author himself. But not so: that essay was by the American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. It is an example of collaboration or complicity which is perhaps also there in the career of A. D. Harvey, who has had, on occasion, co-authors who are less than imaginary friends.
What, though, struck me most in Naiman’s article was the particularly unNabakovian moment when he dips his pen deep in righteous indignation. He comments how Harvey’s mystifications ‘leave an unpleasant taste’:
It is not only that the apparent practice of submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey …, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.
Note the phrasing of the last sentences — ‘hallowed’, ‘desecration’: are academic journals, then, sites of religious devotion? And does Harvey stand charged not just of irreverence but of sacrilege? It sounds as if this is not just about ‘good faith’ but ‘faith’ itself, a belief-system which is being underminded by one of those ‘independent scholars’ whom learned editors , in their innate generosity,want to help. Earlier in the article, Naiman dissected one of Harvey’s articles to lay bare a bitterness worthy of Jude the Obscure for not being allowed within the inner sanctum of academe. The implication — and I do not suggest that Naiman was fully conscious of this — seems to be that a proper academic would not have perpetrated such impieties.
But, of course, we know that proper academics can behave badly. Leave aside the everyday instances of sloppy scholarship revealed in footnotes, with authors citing a source at second hand, clearly not having checked the original. Such poor standards slide into plagiarism, the most heinous heresy which — quite rightly — the apparatus of academia wish to root out from contemporary practice. Not, it must be said, that the structures put in place are either sturdy or consistent. In the recent case of Martin Stone, the accusations led to inquisition and condemnation, and the offending works were branded for all to see. Look at the Wiley On-line Library and you will find an example of an offending article, stamped on every page ‘This Article is Retracted’; no explanation, however, is given, leaving the unsuspecting reader no sure way of surmising the reason for this retraction, which leaves the text no less legible than did the underlining which Spanish Inquisitors sometimes used to mark prohibited passages in the sixteenth century. What is more, type in the author’s name in that same database, and the result will be this retracted article and two others which have not been subjected to the same treatment. I know from my own research that a scholar’s act of plagiarism does not mean his other works should similarly be judged unacceptable, but how is the reader to know in this case? Surely if some works by a scholar have been found guilty of plagiarism, the others by that author need to be investigated and, where appropriate, explicitly be acquitted.
I draw this separate case into this discussion for two reasons. First, because it seems to me that what I have called the academic apparatus is so incomplete because the belief-system which underpins it is itself only half formulated. That is partly because we are talking of a cluster of assumptions and shared practices that are continually in the process of being constructed but it is also because that construction remains too often uninterrogated: it creates articles of faith rather than reasoned arguments. If we compare our practices with previous patterns of behaviour we might notice what we have lost as much as what we have gained. And this is the second point. I alluded in the previous practice to the scholars I research, the humanists of the Renaissance. There is much we pride ourselves of having rejected in their habits — they sometimes plagiarised, they were often intemperate in their criticism of enemies, and partial in their praise of friends: all practices that are not allowed to happen nowadays. They also — from the future pope Pius II to Erasmus — perpetrated fakes, creating false sources for their work, much in the manner of which A. D. Harvey is accused. They did so, though, in a spirit of serio ludere, often using their misquotations or misattributions as a way of allowing those who had ears to hear the chance to recognise that a deeper irony was at work. The process, in other words, was a way of creating differentation within their audience, with those who got the joke being in the club. How different it is nowadays: in Naiman’s description of the Harvey affair, the culprit is an independent scholar who sits outside the club. But if the rules of the club do not allow a certain playfulness or a challenge to standards by testing their perceptiveness, then should we really want to be members?
My wife said to me the other evening: ‘You don’t like being in your comfort zone, do you?’ She knows me.
It is perhaps one reason why I enjoy working with manuscripts that to understand their history you have to move far, far away from any area in which you might be a specialist. And so it was with a small, slightly damaged and utterly undistinguished small codex I was looking at in Christ Church last week. As I have mentioned before, the foundation’s Library holds one of the more eclectic collections of the Oxford colleges, the gifts of grateful graduates, Students (that is, Fellows in the real world that is Oxford elsewhere) or simply friends. The manuscript I was looking at — MS. 122, a commentary on the decretals – was given in the 1640s by a Student of Christ Church, Robert Payne.
Robert Payne has a certain fame, less for the fact that he was a translator of Galileo (his rendition was never printed) than for his friendship with Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, Noel Malcolm has shown that some of the papers and works, now at Chatsworth, attributed to Hobbes should, in fact be credited to Payne. He was an undergraduate at Christ Church in the 1610s and in his time there seems to have become a protégé of Edmund Gunter, mathematician and designer of scientific instruments. Payne proved a loyal son of his alma mater, and in the 1640s made two gifts to Christ Church of books, the manuscript I was studying and, as the donation note records, ‘insuper dono suo adjecit Concavuum Marmortum & Instrumentum æneum Magstri Gunteri’. This much is well-known but what has not been done is to marry up the surviving books and artefacts with his donations.
It could well be said that the fortunes of his other gifts was of tangential interest to the manuscript he presented but I wanted to understand how it may fit into his wider act of largesse. So, I checked the catalogues for matches with the printed books he gave. In many cases, the works and even the editions matched but could not be equated with the ones he gave, presumably because his had been sold off later as a duplicate (there were several such sales in the nineteenth century). So, for instance, for one edition of Euclid given by Payne we have a copy but it cannot be his because it carries a note recording Sir Charles Scarborough’s ownership at the end of the seventeenth century — that note also draws attention to the fact that there are inserted quires of handwritten notes, in the script, it is said, of Edmund Gunter. He was perhaps remembered longer in Christ Church than was Payne.
In other cases, we can be more confident that there is a match when, for instance, a volume combines editions listed consecutively in the donation note. And we can be absolutely certain when Payne’s script is found in the book — a script which is present in several of the Savile collection in the Bodleian and which I can identify with notes in at least two Christ Church volumes. Of those, the one which will attract more interest is the edition of De systemate mundi of Galileo, the author whom Payne translated. The edition has a donation note clearly in Payne’s hand. It is now crossed out but is legible as ‘Ex dono Petri Earle’. Who Mr Earle may have been, I admit I do not yet know.
But what of the objects Payne also gave? As my hospitable host in Christ Church, Cristina Neagu, taught me, the scientific instruments held there had been sent on long-term loan to the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street. They have an excellent on-line catalogue and it did not take much searching to narrow down the possibilities for the ‘instrumentum aeneum’ to one item, a bronze sector made to Gunter’s design in the 1620s and 1630s. The term ‘concauum marmortum’ confused me more and even when I turned to those with expertise, there was further scratching of pates. It took some lateral thinking to find in the same Museum’s on-line catalogue something which could answer to a ‘marbled concave’: it is described as a ‘concave marble disc, for lens polishing?’. The interrogative suggests the cataloguer’s own uncertainty when faced with the object, as does the proposed date of ‘c. 1700?’, which, we can now know, postdates its shaping by over half a century. But that cataloguer was probably not the first to be perplexed by the object — having discovered its identity, it struck me that a similar uncertainty most likely affected the librarian who had to record it in Christ Church’s donation book and, more used to listing paper volumes by their title, could think of no better phrase for what sat on his desk before him than ‘concauum marmortum’. Even the donor’s own lifetime, part of his gift may not have been fully appreciated.
At least, for the librarian, our little manuscript had the advantage of being within his comfort zone. But where does it sit within the rationale Payne must have had for his gifts? The answer is that, in the context of works of science and of Greek and Italian texts, it does not fit. But that is not a negative answer but rather a revelation in itself: the way that a manuscript could be bought as a curiosity, rather than being central to a collection. It rather puts a palaeographer’s interests into a corner.
In short, what we have in these gifts is a tension between two concepts of the library, one which sees it primarily as a stock of books, some new, many old, while the other sees it as a repository of knowledge in all its forms, with an emphasis in novelty and innovation. The latter concept — that of Payne — did not, of course, win out, some might be pleased to remember.
It was, if my memory does not deceive me, a bright and mild December afternoon in 1997 when I entered Oxford’s Examination Schools in white bow-tie and long academic gown, walked up the stairs that rise to the right of the entrance hall, then made my way across the small balcony that looks down upon the same hall, before entering a room where two distinguished scholars awaited me. They were Prof. George Holmes and Prof. A. C. de la Mare — and let us pause to remember those the world has lost, since they have both passed away in the intervening years. At that point, though, they were very much in good health and ready to begin my doctoral viva.
I remember their kindness to me: George opened the discussion by telling me what their recommendation would be, which helped dissipate any nerves I had had (though, equally, it did little to help me focus for the next two minutes — I wanted to be able to go out, cheer, and then return for the serious work). I also remember feeling cheated at the end of the two hours: is that it? can we not stay here for longer, even if the lengthening shadows suggest it is nearly sunset? When you have lived with a subject for five years and more, it is rare that you can find anyone who is as passionate about it as you are, so to have two learned specialists before you who had read every word of the thesis (my then partner had tried, but she fell asleep, leaving my father being the only other person who had suffered it all) and who at least have to appear interested in your work provides an opportunity you do not want to end.
What I replay most in mind, however, is a question they posed that was not related to the intrinsic quality of the work. ‘And what’, George asked, ‘about publication?’ I responded without a pause: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to publish it as a book’. That, in retrospect, was The Wrong Thing To Say, a career-endangering failure to appreciate the developing dynamic — some would say the duty — to present one’s doctoral research to the world in a monograph. The worst thing is: I stand by what I said.
Appreciate the context: when I began my thesis, the usual expectation was that one would complete it and then move on, leaving the work available for consultation in the relevant university library. Only the exceptional should be put into print and, even then, some of the very best were not, as, indeed, was the case with one of my examiners — Tilly de la Mare’s tour-de-force of a doctorate, on Vespasiano da Bisticci, was never sent to a publisher and, until recently, could only be read by those who visited Senate House in London (it is now, though, available on the web at the excellent British Library ETHOS site).
I should, perhaps, have recognised the changes going on around us and that, by the late 1990s, there was already an increasing expectation that a thesis would see its way into bookshops, that more and more would follow a route once reserved for some of the exceptional, to the extent that being ‘outstanding’ now made one part of the crowd. Certainly, in the last decade, it has become a sine qua non of one’s academic credentials that one should be able to point to one’s doctoral research on the bookshelves — and so the assumption has become that, if a dissertation is not published, there must surely be something really wrong with it.
That dynamic, I would contend, is unsustainable, for two reasons. First, it has spiralled out of control: publishers have noticed the market (niche though it may be) and increased the number of theses they produce, to the extent that, now, university employers take as a sign of quality not whether your thesis is published but where it has been. These shifts have a tendency to be applied retrospectively so that a good thesis published a few years ago with a press now considered to be of dubious quality may be looked on with suspicion. Of course, the true test is not in where it is published — or, indeed, whether it is printed — but in the text itself, though that assumes people would have time to read the words before short-listing or appointing to a job. Bless.
The result of the spiral may well be that the smaller thesis-printing publishers will, over time, find their market dwindles. However, there is another factor that is making the dynamic not just unsustainable but obsolete. That is the increasing desire of institutions to host their alumni’s work on their websites. The number of theses now available through those sites and through ETHOS means that the research is already available, in the original form of the dissertation. It would take the truly obtuse not to realise that, in this new paradigm, making a thesis available in print, even in revised form, will usually amount to otiose duplication.
When that realisation has sunk in, the consequences could be to the advantage of those who have recently received their doctorate. Rather than working away further on the same subject, they can graze in new pastures, developing their knowledge and their skills further. Not that they should never return to the work which saw their first steps in academe but, rather, that they should be able to revisit it later, recast and rewrite in the mature style they have developed in subsequent years.
None of what I have said, though, is intended to assert that anybody completing their doctorate should have taken the self-denying ordinance I did. I repeat: it was, in the objective terms of the job market, probably the most foolish thing I have ever done (and I have done a fair few). But, in my case, it was also the right thing to do. I had never envisaged my thesis becoming a book and, indeed, it was designed for different ends. It was intellectually ambitious, telling two stories at the same time, as a way of attempting to demonstrate my potential range. It was also overlong: an Oxford doctoral dissertation has to be under 100,000 words (including footnotes), unless you have a dispensation for an appendix of original material. I was granted an extra 50,000 words to provide a collection of manuscript descriptions. That added to the work’s usefulness but also would have made it a much less attractive proposition to a publisher.
Those manuscript descriptions have been on-line for some time now, and I am always grateful to scholars who contact me to say they have found them of value. It is time, I have decided, that they should be accompanied by some prose that is over fifteen years old. Today, I am uploading nearly the entirety of my thesis onto this site, for those who may be by some chance interested. I am doing it because a very few people have asked to see it, and it seems to me best, as I have gone to the trouble of turning old World files into pdfs, that it should be freely available. There is a disadvantage: with the hard-copy in the Bodleian, one signs the register of readers before consulting a thesis and that is not possible on-line. What I ask is if you do look at it, send me word so I know you exist. I am doing this, then, because it seems to me that the virtual world of the web is the appropriate half-light in which a thesis should appear. I am doing this so that it never need be published in print.
To access the chapters of the thesis, go the dedicated page on this website.
Manuscripts have a tendency to creep up on you when you are looking elsewhere, tap you on the shoulder and then punch you between the eyes. That has been my experience today in the Vatican Library. I called up a manuscript because of what is known of its late fifteenth-century provenance and did not expect to find staring up at me from the lectern a codex made several decades earlier, clearly (from the illumination) in Milan and, what is more, in a script very close to that of Milanus Burrus: he was a highly accomplished scribe who developed his own response to the Florentine palaeographical reforms and created a mise-en-page that reminds us that you do not need to have illumination on the parchment to be looking at a work of art.
And when one manuscript has softened you up, another then comes in and knocks you sideways. As this is my last day of this research trip, I was attempting to tie things up neatly — whenever you do that, the books tend to have other plans for you. So, revisiting the manuscript of his Synesius translation that John Free made, with little expense spared, for Paul II, I wanted to compare the capitals and so ordered up another volume for comparison. The volume was MS. Vat. lat. 3162, a copy of Juvenal and Persius which is known to be Paduan and has interventions by Bartolomeo Sanvito, though, as Laura Nuvoloni explains in the sumptuous recent volume in ‘The Handwriting of the Italian Humanists’ series, the main scribe is a separate person, writing in a similar style. What caught me off-guard was that, looking through the codex, I came across one occasion where there is an alternative reading added into the margin by a hand which is very familiar to me — it is that of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester.
Those of you who have explored this site will already appreciate the importance of Tiptoft, whose library was perhaps second only to that of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the fifteenth century. We now have over thirty books from his collection, dispersed across Europe (his hopes of donating his books to Oxford where thwarted by his own execution). In one sense, it is perfectly understandable that this manuscript should have passed through the earl’s hands: he certainly knew its scribe, owning another volume which was produced by him (it is no. 11 in my listing). But there are two factors which are more surprising. The first of them is its location — there is, as you can see from the listing of the known Tiptoft manuscripts, no other book of his which is in the Vatican. The second relates to the contents of the codex: a few years ago I identified a copy of Juvenal and Persius from his library, written by Sanvito himself, and definitely in England in the late fifteenth century (no. 13 in the listing). Would he have had two rather similar-looking copies of the same texts? It is not impossible but surely unlikely. Perhaps, though, there is another explanation: Tiptoft is not the only annotator on the volume — the two other marginalia could well be by his secretary, who later presented his translation to Synesius to Paul II, John Free. We know that he remained in Italy when Tiptoft returned to their homeland, and it was in Rome that Free died prematurely in 1465. Now, MS. Vat. lat. 3162 did not arrive in the papal library earlier — it shows evidence of Italian ownership in the fifteenth and the sixteenth century — but we can posit a history for it: cast off by Tiptoft, who had a more elegant copy of the works it included, he passed it to Free, who took it to Rome, where, after his death, it circulated, only to end up in the Vatican some decades later.
This, I should say, is not the only discovery — and perhaps not the most important one — of the day. Having been pushed around by one manuscript, knocked about by another, I was then hit between the eyes by yet one more. So, I have been left punch-drunk and gasping for air, at the same time wishing that I could get more of the same and also knowing that I simply will, God and Mammon (aka research grants) both willing, have to return here to give the manuscripts as good as I have got from them.
Christ Church was an arriviste on the Oxford scene. The brainchild of England’s most successful butcher’s son, it was founded as Cardinal College only in 1525, when the number of colleges of the university was already in double figures. On Wolsey’s fall, his institution became, in name at least, King’s College, to wallow in neglect until Henry VIII’s attempts to appease the gods for his desacration of the established church by replacing monasteries with new bishoprics led him, at the very end of his reign, to establish in Oxford an institution that combined cathedral and college. It makes Christ Church a unique institution, adding to the roll-call of titles for Oxbridge heads of house (Master, Principal, Warden, Provost, President…) by being the only to one to be ruled by a Dean.
Christ Church might be, then, a new foundation but, like those ennobled from his mates and sidekicks by Henry VIII, it has become part of the fabric of the establishment, the Oxford institution with the closest links to royalty. Not, it must be said, that its illustrious contribution to history — boasting thirteen Prime Ministers, the founders of both Pennsylvania and New Zealand, let alone philosophers, religious reformers and poets among its alumni — is what is uppermost on many visitors’ minds nowadays; it is not even its reputation as the home of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, that attracts people; as I heard a tourist guide say to his teenage flock the other day, it is now known as ‘Harry Potter’s college’.
The late date of its creation and its distinguished connexions both have an interesting effect on its manuscript collection. Christ Church was founded when printed books were already occupying libraries to over-filling; while hand-written books still had an important cultural position and could provide texts not available in print, there was no need for a core of codices as there had been in, say, Merton, or any likelihood of a single donation formed solely of manuscripts, as there had been with the bequest of William Gray, bishop of Ely (d. 1478), to Balliol. At the same time, the young parvenu could not but expect to receive manuscripts as signs of respect from individuals who had been educated in its walls or who had passed through them. The result is a collection that is wonderfully eclectic and also well-stocked with richly decorated volumes. It is with one such manuscript, of suitably aristocratic heritage, that my recent small discovery is concerned.
The volume is a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours, which came to Christ Church as part of its most substantial donation, that of William Wake, himself an alumnus whose career culminated in his tenure of the Archbishopric of Canterbury. His early career saw him in France and it would be attractive to imagine that this Book of Hours came into possession while there. It is certainly a French production but one so rich in illumination that it may be that Wake could only afford to purchase it later in his life. The volume, called the Hours of St Denis, opens with an illumination depicting its commissioner, Guy XV, comte de Laval from 1484 to his death in 1501, a significant political figure with lands in Brittany, richly awarded for his loyalty (while others were not) to the Valois monarchy. The images that enliven every page of this manuscript have been (surely correctly) attributed to an artist known as Maître François. As Thomas Kren demonstrated in an article published in the festschrift to Margaret Manion in 2002, this illuminator was one who worked with a scribe who produced several Books of Hours and who (unusually for copyists of devotional manuscripts) identified himself in one book, the Hours of Jacques of Langeac (now Lyons: Bibliotheque muncipale, MS. 5154). The scribe’s name was Jean Dubreuil, who was active between c. 1465 and c. 1485. What has not been noticed — but what will already be obvious from the title of this post — is that a comparison of the leaves of the Christ Church manuscript with others by Dubreuil shows this book to be an unsigned manuscript by this scribe. It has all the characteristic features of his flowing lettre bâtarde, with the prominent loop on top of the d and the hair-strokes on letters including the e. What is interesting is that the Christ Church book could not have been written before 1484, late in Dubreuil’s known career. Perhaps, though, it was not produced much after that — each count of Laval not only had to take on the name ‘Guy’ but also to adopt the comital coat of arms. Perhaps, then, Guy XV had this Book of Hours produced to celebrate his recently attained status. Perhaps, also, he chose the contents of this lavish volume for private devotion to demonstrate that his own loyalty was not to Brittany but to France. It might, in other words, have been a ‘private’ book but it was one for which using accomplished craftsmen was appropriate for it provided a ‘public’ message.
The phone rings and it’s the BBC. They want to know more about Poggio Bracciolini. Our humanist friend is not having a bad year: he has already gained some celebrity for being the man who unleashed Lucretius on an unsuspecting Christian world. Now, the travelling scholar who also ‘discovered’ Quintilian and other authors, the humanist who was at the vanguard of reviving the Ciceronian dialogue form, the scribe who designed the new ‘littera antiqua’, the script of humanism which is the progenitor of the typeface you are reading — this man of many parts is to appear on BBC4.
The title of the programme in which he is to feature is revealing: ‘The World’s Oldest Joke’. He is to enter the limelight not because of any of his achievements just mentioned but because he had a fine line in blue humour, as recorded in his Facetiae, the set of jokes and other tales that originated (he reveals at the end of the work) in the bugiale – the lie-factory that was the waiting-room in the Vatican where papal secretaries like Poggio would loiter in anticipation of an audience with the Holy Father. And Poggio’s humour proved infectious, some of his facetiae reappearing in vernaculars across sixteenth-century Europe. Indeed, as I have argued recently, this collection of tales that was a work of his old age became the best-known element of his oeuvre because of the intervention of an invention with which he could have only had brief familiarity: the arrival of print could help circulate one’s works much more quickly than the scribal activities in which Poggio himself had been immersed, but it could also re-shape and contort one’s reputation. Poggio was known in his lifetime for his dialogues with their moral message and was sometimes accorded the sobriquet of ‘philosophus’; but, though those works travelled across Europe in manuscript, they were not the ones that were first to reach the printing-press: it was the Facetiae that most often was printed in the first decades of the first information technology revolution. And so, Poggio the philosopher became a dirty old man.
There is, then, an enjoyable irony that where print went, the second information technology revolution follows. Poggio is about to receive, through the television screen, a much wider audience than he can usually hope to command nowadays: a name that would usually only be heard in the sedate surroundings of Senior Common Rooms will be projected into lounges across the country, not because of his scholarly achievements but because of his ability to make people laugh.
Some might conclude that this is nothing more than is to be expected of a medium that popularizes and so has to entertain more than it educates. But I find myself not sharing those thoughts — after all, humanists like Poggio consider that you could educate through entertainment, that you could play seriously. What strikes me, instead, is that the scholarly Poggio, the scribe, the moraliser, is as partial a picture as one that concentrates solely on his joke-telling. Should we not be intergrating them together to get closer to Poggio the man?
I put that as question because the answer is by no means clear-cut: I, who am so precious about separating the different elements of my life, am the last person to suggest that you need to know the whole person, even if that were possible. Most of us live out lives knowing others in part, not wholly — others and perhaps ourselves as well. That may be our tragedy, or maybe it is our survival mechanism. Poggio himself may have been frustrated that his Facetiae should feature so large in the world’s memory of him — or, rather, Poggio aged forty may have been crestfallen to hear a prophecy that a work Poggio aged seventy would compile might become remembered as his main achievement. Perhaps he too would like to have kept his different lives separate one from another. But, equally, this was a man who berated others for not so much living as ‘doing life’, someone whose earthy experiences influence his scholarship.
The lady from the BBC was enthusiastic about Poggio and finished our conversation by saying how he deserved a biography or historical novel about his life. (It is not a challenge to which I think I could rise: ‘Poggio, when you have quite finished with your mistress, write me a letter’, ‘Yes, my lord of Winchester’). Perhaps I should have asked her ‘which life?’ And, perhaps, indeed, that would be the greatest challenge — to do justice to the many facets and the changing character of this man, without imagining he was all of them all the time. Let us hope, that, if such a work did come into being, it could let us both see his skill in writing and hear his laughter.
Wherever we step, whatever building we enter, the past is our host. We are merely the latest guests in spaces already crowded with resonances, with others’ memories. We tend to cold-shoulder these ghosts, taking possession of ‘our’ office or ‘our’ home as if the sole purpose of its existence was to serve us; life is more liveable that way. There are some places, however, where such blindness is impossible, where we can sense in the air some of the previous breaths that have preceded us. A church is that sort of place, par excellence, with its monumental witnesses to a few of the dead who form part of the continuing community.
I was recently in the English cathedral-city of Bayeux, part of the Norman lands that ensured the Lancastrian regnum of the early fifteenth century was not confined to north of the Channel. The cathedral, long before its construction had been completed, saw Thomas Becket say mass; and, more than once in later centuries, the cult of that archbishop found a home in the cathedral’s carvings and murals. My scholarly interest, however, was precisely in Bayeux’s English years, when international politics ensured the bishopric was given to a well-connected Italian, Zanone da Castiglioni, who arrived in his see with a secretary, the Milanese humanist, Rolando Talenti. For his part, Talenti’s time in Bayeux was enriched by the presence of his own brother, Antonio; they both were to be canons of the cathedral and were to die there within five years of each other in the 1470s.
So, Castiglioni would have stood at the west end of his cathedral taking in the prospect of the Romanesque nave giving way to the gothic choir. He and his secretary would have taken part in the annual display of the musty over-long strip of cloth recording events of nearly four hundred years earlier, when the Normans first became English: how would they have responded to the tapestry’s artistry? Castiglioni also chose to be buried in this building, behind the high altar – but any trace of his tomb has gone. His is a presence we may sense but cannot touch.
With Rolando Talenti it is interestingly different. On the west wall of the first chapel beyond the south transept, there is an inscription recording him and his brother, and their endowment of that particular chapel. The carving of the letters in classical style, however, should make it clear to us that this is no fifteenth-century monument. The wording of it too can hint at that: it mentions that Talenti was ‘variorum opusculorum auctor’. This is certainly true, though Talenti could hardly be described as a well-known author. His oeuvre has attracted the attention of only a few scholars: in the late twentieth century, the leading expert was Tino Foffano. He worked from the main source for Talenti’s writings, a now-mutilated manuscript which was the property of the Chapter Library which stood a few yards to the north-west of the chapel endowed by the Talenti brothers. You can study it yourself on-line (and my purpose on Bayeux was to check it in situ, in its present home of the Bibliothèque Municipale); you will see that it is not written in a humanist bookhand but in a French script. The evidence of provenance it includes also reminds us how a presence can be revived: the book was not originally part of the cathedral’s collection and only reached there at the end of the seventeenth century, the donor presumably considering the Chapter Library a fitting home for the products of one of its former canons. By that stage, it was already mutilated and may have suffered further indignities – there are signs of water damage – in the following decades. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was, as it were, reborn again. The then canon librarian, Jean Laffetay, came across it and paid to it more attention than it had received for a long time, perhaps for all its life. At the start of the volume, he writes a brief biographical note of the author whose opuscula are in the manuscript, noting that there was an inscription in the floor of the chapel west of the south transept which recorded the Talenti brothers. Laffetay expresses some wonder at the inscription’s survival into his own lifetime but it was not to last much longer: presumably with his involvement, the chapel was renovated and covered with new tiles. As an act of piety, it would seem, Laffetay encouraged there to be a replacement inscription, similar to that which had been found, but with a change to record also Talenti’s authorial activities.
In other words, the process of remembering Talenti was also a process of forgetting, of removing earlier evidence. There is a final irony. Laffetay is still remembered for his histories of Bayeux and for his study of its Tapestry; but in the cathedral where he, like Talenti and Castiglioni before, worshipped, he is now present indirectly, through the work he did in remembering others, rather than any celebration of himself. He is one of the quiet ghosts of the place we can too easily ignore.
I have been chided for not adding anything to this site recently. It is not that I have refrained from writing; simply that the well-turned phrases are composed in my mind. That, and the recent distractions of being in Rome, albeit briefly.
The Rinascimento a Roma exhibition, held in the cramped space of the Palazzo Sciarra, tells the familiar tale of exuberant creativity in the generation of Michelangelo and Raphael, followed by despair in the wake of the Sack of Rome and then the renewed religious fervour we call the Counter-Reformation. To be fair, some of the show’s display might raise questions about that well-known narrative: the desolation of 1527 did not stop Maarten van Heemskerck travelling there a few years later and painting a penitent Jerome surrounded by a capriccio of the gargantuan remains of ancient Rome; Paul III saw no conflict between austere piety and the ostentation of his family residence, the Palazzo Farnese. But the exhibition appears comfortable living in a familiar world of clichés.
A cliché about clichés is that there are oft-repeated because they have a kernel of truth. So it may be: an early section of the exhibition talks of Rome in the early sixteenth century being the centre of the world, the caput mundi. I had seen evidence to support this statement just a few days earlier. Within the embrace of the ancient circular church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, out on the Celian Hill, beyond SS Giovanni and Paolo, there is a memorial slab to a member of the curia, the Hungarian Janos Lazai, who died on 17th August 1523. The inscription beneath his feet draws attention to the fact of his foreignness and asks the viewer not to wonder how he came to be here — for Rome is the homeland of everyone.
Rome as a universal homeland — acknowledgement, surely, even in the first years of the Reformation, of its long-standing status as caput mundi. And, yet, what struck me was that the author of the lines imagined that the viewer might be surprised to see a Hungarian here, and might need to be told Romana est patria omnium. Was this particularly trite when it was written or was it expressing a truth only then becoming to be acknowledged?
Of course, Rome as the centre of the then only church had a long charisma. Even in the Avignonese years, it was still a centre for pilgrimage and it was promoted as such by the declaration of a jubilee in 1350, when travel to the relevant sites would gain the pilgrim plenary indulgence. And during the Schism, still the devout would make their way to worship at the apostolic shrines — so much so in 1400 that, in effect, an unofficial jubilee occurred.
Yet, at the same time, the papacy’s grasp on Rome was weak and liable to slip, as it did when Eugenius IV had to feel the city up the Tiber, his boat being pelted with stones. It was over a decade before he returned to his ‘capital’. His successor, Nicholas V, worked to glorify the city in architecture and ritual — he declared a jubilee for 1450 — but this did not save him from the threat of conspiracy in 1453. His courtiers celebrated Rome as the centre of the world; his successors continued his policy but one wonders how permanently a pope felt secure in his palace in a restive city, which for most of them, was alien. Perhaps, even in the early sixteenth century, the repeated statements of Rome’s pre-eminence were less an expression of an obvious truth than an aspiration, a pious desire never quite rid of doubt. Rome was as much a project as it was a place.