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?
Xenophon’s Hiero is a small work with a large Renaissance reputation. Translated at the beginning of the quattrocento by Leonardo Bruni, it was one of the first pagan Greek texts to receive a rendering into humanist Latin; it circulated widely across Europe, becoming the standard version until Erasmus’ re-translation. Bruni’s text now survives in nearly two hundred manuscripts, as the estimable David Marsh has shown [Catalogus Translationum, vii (1992)]. It also has a significant place within the humanist’s oeuvre: it is one of what I would call Bruni’s manifestoes – four remarkably assured works produced in a remarkably fruitful period of his early thirties, presenting his agenda for study and for action. The manifestoes include two original compositions: the Laudatio Florentinae urbis, a celebration of republican Florence; and the Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, heralding a reform of literary scholarship, in which Bruni’s mentor, Coluccio Salutati, is presented as both the arbiter and the previous generation, while Niccolò Niccoli is given the role of radical firebrand. Alongside them are two translations, each dedicated to one of the figures in the Dialogi: to Salutati is sent a translation of St Basil on the use of reading the pagans – a highly appropriate tract considering the immediately contemporary attacks on Salutati for his ‘unchristian’ studies. To Niccoli Bruni thought it suitable to send Xenophon’s short dialogue on tyranny, the Hiero – but why? In what way is that apt? That is the question at issue.
In latter-day scholarship on Bruni’s ‘manifestoes’, interest has characteristically been concentrated on the original works. The significance of the translations produced alongside them has only recently begun to be explored. The Hiero is presently the subject of what we can be sure will be a stimulating doctoral thesis, and it is also central to a piece by Brian Jeffrey Maxson in the most recent issue of Renaissance Studies. It is an article which has left me waking up early in the morning pondering the question with which I opened. You see, Maxson describes the Hiero, without reservation, as ‘pro-monarchical’, while I have always taken the work to be subtly critical of one-man rule. My understanding perhaps owes something to Leo Strauss’s suspicious reading of the text; Strauss’s analysis, in turn, has been dismissed as being ‘as perverse as one can be’ by one classicist who would see the dialogue as an endorsement of rule over willing subjects, as is developed more fully in the Cyropaedia [V. J. Gray in Classical Quarterly, new series, xxxvi (1986)]. But, more recently, other classicists have wondered whether the Cyropaedia is as straightforwardly positive as has usually been thought [eg Y. L. Too in Pedagogy and Power (Cambridge, 1998)]; if that work can be read with suspicion, it leads us back to wondering about the Hiero. How can such a small text be subject to such diverse views?
The dialogue is deceptively simple. In a moment of leisure, the tyrant Hieron sits down with the poet Simonides, who asks his interlocutor to teach him from his experience who is happier, the tyrant or the private man. Hieron responds bemoaning his lot, enumerating how at every point his pleasure is thwarted by his status. This takes up the main part of the work. When he has finished, Simonides offers him advice on how to improve his situation and make his subjects be willing to be ruled by him – he should treat his country as his fatherland, and surpass all others in generosity and in kindness. If he does that, he will be happy and no one will be jealous of his happiness. The End. The dialogue stops there, with Hieron given no chance to respond or to thank the poet. It stops but does not conclude: this is a work which is artfully open-ended.
Xenophon’s refusal to close off the work, to declare a ‘victor’ in the debate (if it can be called that) allows and perhaps encourages the multiple meanings that have been given to the work. We could, then, simply finish here and get up from the table: the point of it is that its point is hard to define. But that still leaves two questions: why Xenophon should have wanted his work to be so open to interpretation? And if there are several ways of reading the work, what was Bruni’s? Let me focus on that second question.
The humanist dedication is itself a work of art which can often frame the text that follows and establish its relationship with the dedicatee. Leonardo Bruni does that in the preface to his translation of St Basil or in his later Plutarch dedications. In the contexts of those, the preface to the Hiero might seem odd: it has hardly anything to say about the work. Instead, it provides a brief biography of its author, praising Xenophon for his mastery of both arms and letters, describing how, after a successful military career, he was forced into exile by envious citizens and then turned his hand to philosophy. Niccoli could not but want, Bruni says, to embrace Xenophon. There is no mention in this preface of the subject-matter of the Hiero or of its characters. They are presented without introduction, as it were – except that the dialogue has been placed in a context in which what matters is the relationship between philosophy and political fortunes. In other words, Bruni does not hint at a particular political reading – either pro-monarchical or pro-republican – but does imply that reading is about politics.
It may be more usual to have a more forceful direction provided by a preface, rather than the gentle steering that Bruni masters here. But this is not unique in his literary career: take, for instance, his wonderful jeu d’ésprit, the Oratio Heliogabali, a speech placed into the mouth of a fictitious Roman emperor, exhorting the prostitutes of Rome to lasciviousness. That travelled without a preface – to the perplexity of some readers, it must said. On occasion, you will find copies with an added scribal note, explaining to the reader that this is to be read ironically and that Bruni was not, in fact, promoting vice. In contrast, it must be said, you would very rarely find such guidance notes in a copy of the Hiero – readers may not have had the same difficulty in understanding the purpose of that dialogue.
We have still not pinned down a particular meaning, a specific reading, to Bruni’s Xenophon – and that, I would suggest, is how Bruni would want it to be. He had, I suspect, no intention of closing down the open-ended nature of the dialogue. That said, he does re-weight the text somewhat by a simple act of translation. I am not thinking of his ‘straightening out’ of the text – at the point when Simonides teases Hieron about his catamite, in the Latin the young lover becomes a girl – but rather his emphasis on the word ‘tyrant’. Latin is notoriously a less supple language than Greek: the word ‘tyrannos’ could have connotations of rule that was either despotic or something less negative – the Latin ‘tyrannus’ has no such ambivalence. Perhaps a translator should consider using a different term to render ‘tyrannos’; Bruni did not. And what is more, he changes the title of the work so that it circulated not, primarily, as Hiero but more often as Tyrannus.
Bruni’s translation, then, comes in three parts: the short work itself, preceded by the shorter preface, itself preceded by the shortest, laconic (I nearly said Tacitean) part, the title. That title announces the dialogue to be about the tyrant, the evil monarch – an implicit contrast with the good citizen, Xenophon, who was its author. And yet this still does not tell us how to understand the dialogue; it does not reveal a straightforward message. But, then, how could it: if one were truly sitting in front of a tyrant, as Simonides was and as we might see ourselves as his successors, can we trust a word our interlocutor says? And can we, in turn, trust ourselves to be honest in his presence? Would we leave our conversation open-ended because we could not be open?
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.
If bonæ litteræ seems a curious title for this blog, think how much more curious it would seem if it read bone littere.
Bonæ litteræ - literally, ‘good letters’ – is well-known in humanist circles as the term favoured by Erasmus to describe polished literature. It was one of a chain of fashionable slogans used by devotees of the humanist enterprise. The earliest, and most enduring, was studia humanitatis, a phrase signifying ‘the studies of what it is to be human’ or, perhaps better, ‘the understanding about how to become truly human.’ The exact meaning matters less than its resonance: this was a phrase in a re-found oration of Cicero’s which could succinctly signify the commitment of a coterie of early quattrocento Florentines to rediscover and revive classical learning. Later in the century – and this is what the textbooks emphasise – studia humanitatis became to signify a defined educational curriculum. At that point, the phrase lost its innovative glow, and other slogans took its place.
The early humanists – men like Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini – not only wanted to write afresh, they wanted their texts to look fresh. And so, there was a reform both of handwriting and of the presentation of the book, with a large display script of separated letters – the origin, when manuscripts turned into printed books, of Roman type – and an insistence that margins should not be stuffed with commentary in a tiny hand but should stand wide and white, so as not to detract from the classical or classicising text in front of the reader. As one small but significant part of this agenda, there was a reform of spelling. In Latin, there are several words which have two vowels together which make one sound, what is called a diphthong. If one of those vowels is missed out, it can transform the word into a completely different one: so, for example, aequus means ‘fair’ or ‘right’, but equus means ‘horse.’ In medieval script, the two words had become indistinguishable as marking the diphthong had fallen into disuse. So, ‘bone littere’ would be a thoroughly medieval name for this blog. The early humanists insisted on returning to the full spelling and writing both vowels, which would give us bonae litterae. But the humanist also tended to elide together the two vowels to signify they should be pronounced as one sound, and the most usual form became that which you see in this title.
In short, it may be that de minimis curat non lex: the law may not be concerned with the tiniest matters - but a scholar certainly should be.