Perhaps one of the more controversial claims in my thesis concerned Pietro del Monte, about whom I have published on several occasions. Del Monte, a Venetian lawyer with a humanist training, was papal collector in England from 1435 to 1440. In 1438, he dedicated to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester a dialogue which he entitled De Vitiorum inter se Differentia et Comparatione. The work has been credited with being the first humanist dialogue written in England. It was my discovery that the work is, in large part, lifted from an earlier text, Poggio Bracciolini’s dialogue, De Avaritia. I did not baulk, in my thesis and elsewhere, at calling this an act of plagiarism. I also argued that the fact that del Monte got away with this ‘borrowing’ might give us insight into how closely the duke himself (who most likely owned a copy of Poggio’s tract) paid attention to the works which were presented to him.
It is fair to say that not everyone has been convinced by either argument. For some, the concept of ‘plagiarism’ is itself anachronistic, despite the fact that the term, in this meaning, was re-introduced into Latin by Lorenzo Valla in this very period. I would stand by my belief that, in a culture where imitation was central, there was also a sense of its limitations, beyond which one should not roam. At the same time, my most recent work would place such acts of plagiarism — and it is certainly not alone — within a spectrum of unoriginality. We mistake humanist culture when we emphasise ‘originality’ and ‘genius’ in manners which were alien to them. An unoriginal, even a plagiarised, text was not valueless.
This brings me to the second matter of contention: the patron’s role in the texts with which he is being presented. De Vitiorum Differentia could have uses to both its author and its dedicatee, even if it was not original and even if its recipient did not peruse it closely. There is a tendency to want to find a prince directing ‘his’ scholars and, in some way, moulding their work. When modern scholars subscribe to that analysis, they are at least on a wavelength with some of those who dedicated works to Humfrey, for they used the same motif. But that does not make it true. Directive patrons did exist, but it seems to me that there is a range of evidence to suggest that Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, was not one of them. This is not to say that he did not read at all; I can prove categorically that he did. Rather, it is to suggest that it is more fruitful to ask both how he (and those around him) read and what other uses beyond reading there might be to books.
This is all by way of introduction to an extract from my thesis, which I provide here as a pdf [DGR188193]. It is the excursus which followed the fifth chapter of the thesis, in which the evidence to demonstrate del Monte’s copying from Poggio is presented.