I have commented before on the excitement of previously little-known manuscripts coming up for sale. Lord knows that there is enough in our public repositories that has not been properly investigated and waiting to be discovered. But there is an extra frisson when an unique volume, from private hands, appears on the stage at an auction. This is the case with lot 45 of the Sotheby’s sale in London on 6th December: a manuscript that has been unknown to scholars because it has been in private hands since the Reformation and has never before appeared for sale. One of its selling points is that it adds to our knowledge of John Shirwood, described with little hyperbole in the sale catalogue as ‘one of the earliest English humanists’.
I have been long acquainted with Shirwood who, in his lifetime, became bishop of Durham and whose collection of manuscripts and incunables, via the successor to his see, Richard Fox, reached the latter’s new foundation in Oxford of Corpus Christi College. I have become used to seeing his ungainly large annotations and rapidly drawn manicula in his books. I remember seeing him get rather over-excited in the margins of one printed volume at a sententia of Cicero’s, saying that it was worth noting 10,000 times. Then, when preparing the appendix to the fourth edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England, I looked more closely at his one known work, De ludo arithmomachiae, a description of a chess-like mathematical game that, in a touching preface in attractive humanist Latin, he says he taught to his now-dead patron, George Neville, archbishop of York, then in exile in Calais for his disloyalty to the Yorkist regime that his family had helped make and had tried to break.
The manuscript now on sale takes us to an earlier stage of Shirwood’s career, before Neville was archbishop and was merely bishop of Exeter. The volume itself has the hallmarks, in its script and illumination, of being a product of the university town of Oxford in the early 1460s. The main part of it is occupied by works of Walter Hilton in Latin, followed by some prose and verse texts in English. They are followed by an epitaph, introduced by an image of a corpse, which, the title tells us was written by John Shirwood, chancellor of the cathedral of Exeter, in memory of John Southwell, seneschal to Neville. This information allows us to date the composition of the epitaph (but not necessarily, of course, the copying) to 1460 – 65. That Shirwood wrote verse as well as prose is itself a revelation. One might hope that he wrote in a Latin that demonstrated he had already mastered humanist Latin — but, actually, the manuscript is more interesting than that. The poem does have some classical references, but none of them highly unusual or outside the range of reference available before the feted ‘re-discovery’ of further texts in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The structure of the epitaph with each couplet opening and closing with the words ‘munde vale’ shows Shirwood working within a more established tradition of composition. In short, what we have here is Shirwood in ante-humanist mode.
This sheds interesting light on the development of the humanist learning of Shirwood and, indeed, of Neville himself, who was to become known as a friend of the Greek cardinal, Bessarion, and who employed Greek scribes in his household. Did the elevation of Neville to York open new vistas for him and his protege? Either certainly could have read humanist works earlier in Oxford, as some were available there, in large part thanks to the generosity of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. But that they were there did not mean they must have read them (or, it should be added, that the university town was the only place where they could have found that inspiration). Oxford’s mid-century intellectual interests were not, of course, confined to the humanist — and, indeed, I think this manuscript is a useful example of that. The sale catalogue strains to associate the manuscript closely with Shirwood himself, because of the presence of this previously unknown epitaph of his. But there is no sign of his script in the codex, and the inclusion of his verses — probably as an afterthought — may better reflect his master’s standing in Oxford: Neville was long-term chancellor to the University. It would be little surprise if the literary activities within his household were quickly available to the clerks of Oxenford; those clerks, for their part, showed themselves keen (here as elsewhere) to add to their reading with some small sign of their interest in the recent or what they might have seen as the up-to-date.
What I am hoping to emphasise is the obvious truth that, while Oxford may have been important to English humanism (and this is often overstated), humanism was not of overwhelming significance in Oxford. This is reflected in this manuscript: for those few of us interested in the development of English humanism, this codex is of significant importance, but we should appreciate that in the context of the manuscript itself, English humanism is at best a minor element — a future perfect, as it were. The manuscript has interest enough beyond the couple of folios at the end where Shirwood’s poem is included. In fact, the main part of the book provides a striking example of a scribe regularly engaging with what he is copying: he regularly adds notes in the margin, cross-referring from Hilton to other authors, like Bonaventure and Bede. And, with my interests in maniculae, I cannot leave unmentioned his pointing hand, that curves out from the text and arches back towards it — a style that, in my experience, is not typical of fifteenth-century readers. It is, instead, old-fashioned or perhaps I should say archaising. Perhaps here, in this detail, rather than in Shirwood’s verse, there is sign of a desire to resurrect the scholarly style of long-lost generations — a parallel to (conscious or not), but not an imitation of, the humanist agenda.
This is a cautionary tale. It concerns the difficulty of assigning modern nationalities to Renaissance characters. It results from my following up two references in one footnote. I should explain: I have become interested in the practical issues created by the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman curia in the years after the end of the Schism. One article — I won’t mention author or location – makes interesting reference to the critical comment sometimes passed on the accents of foreign preachers or orators in Rome.
The footnote cites two references, the first to Jacopo Gherardi’s Diarium romanum, in which it is said that, in 1481, Guilelmus de Quercu, ‘natione Britannus et principis sui orator ad pontificem, ex Carmelitarum ordine’ gave a good sermon ‘quamvis ab externo barbare pronuntiata’. The article, following the editor of Gherardi’s diary, identifies the preacher as an ‘English Carmelite’, which set me scratching my head as I had not heard of this English representative in Rome. After some searching, the fog of confusion lifted: the reference is actually to Guilelmus de Domo Quercu, then in Rome as the representative of his prince, the duke of Britanny. In fact, his sermon was printed soon after it was given and, indeed, its elegant humanist Latin is available for you to see on-line.
This is not the only occasion of which I am aware where ‘Britannus’ does not refer to Great Britain but to its little relative, the duchy in the geographical area of France. If this raises concerns over how to identify a character, the second reference exacerbates those issues. The article also cites the papal master of ceremonies, Johann Burchard (with a lapsus calami mistaking the page reference). Burchard noted that an English orator’s speech in December 1492 was well composed but not well received ‘propter inexpeditam expressivam’. As that phrase suggests, Burchard was in no position to judge the quality of others’ Latin. That is by the bye, as is the fact that the orator in question was John Shirwood, a collector of humanist manuscripts and printed books, and accomplished author. It should be added that Shirwood died in Rome less than a month after he gave that oration so his ‘inexpeditam’ expression might well have more to do with his age and health than his foreign nature. If this was the last occasion on which Shirwood spoke before a pope, it was not the first — he was in fact a long-term resident in Rome, closely associated with the English Hospice, where he was to be buried. Burchard mentions him several times and — finally I reach the point of this description — on one occasion includes him in a list of significant clerics present in Rome at the time of the election of Innocent VIII. Burchard organises his list by nation; the entry for Shirwood reads: ‘Ex Germanis: episcopus Dunelmensis, orator regis Anglie’.
Now, the term ‘German’ had a wide reference, encompassing much of the Holy Roman Empire north of the Alps. Those from the Low Countries would often identify themselves by their town or diocese and then add that they were of the ‘German nation’. But could the term be used even more loosely? Burchard, of course, was in a position to know better: was his phrasing a reflection of local Italian usage with a designation as ‘German’ being at times equivalent to saying ‘ultramontane’? There may be other explanations for the phrase but it should, at least, give pause for thought before too ready an acceptance or interpretation of fifteenth-century phrasing as mapping onto modern usage.
There is the moral of my tale. That — and perhaps this: scholarship would be so much easier if one did not check others’ footnotes and took what they said on trust. But, then, no self-respecting academic would dream of doing that. Would they?
I received the other day an off-print of what deserves to be recognised as an important article. And, as articles are supposed to be at a disadvantage to books in that they are not reviewed (a bitter-sweet blessing at best), let me draw attention to it for any internet explorers who, in their travel, stumble across this site.
The distinguished Italian journal, Italia medioevale e umanistica, was founded by ‘il grande’ Guido Billanovich and published by Antenore, the Paduan publishing house which, after Billanovich’s death, was bought by Salerno Editrice in Rome. It is pleasing to see that the journal which has been so important to humanist studies has returned to its highest standards with, in its latest volume (xlviii, carrying the year 2007), an article on ‘The Reception of the Italian Renaissance in fifteenth-century Oxford’ by Prof. Rod Thomson.
Rod Thomson is probably equally well-known for his work on William of Malmesbury and for his manuscript catalogues. An interest in humanism might seem a new departure, but it seems a more natural development from several projects he is working on or bringing to conclusion, in particular his volume in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (under the general editorship of Richard Sharpe) which will publish the book-lists of the University and Colleges of Oxford. At the same time, he has been completing a catalogue of the manuscripts of Merton College (where a famous book once owned by one English collector, John Tiptoft, now resides) and starting one of the manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, which owns many of the books of John Shirwood and John Claymond, both of whom had humanist interests.
The article shows how scholarship has not yet drunk to the full from the book-lists of collectors like Humfrey, duke of Gloucester: there are more vivifying drops that can be squeezed out of the pithy records, in particular by a study of their verba probatoria ( the first words of the second folio of text, originally intended to identify the unique volume being cited but also allowing us on occasion to clarify the contents of a now-lost manuscript). Rod Thomson also provides helpful listings of known manuscripts owned by a range of English ‘humanist’ collectors, in the first place the duke of Gloucester, but also William Gray, Robert Flemyng and John Tiptoft (there kindly acknowledging the information which I could provide and which I present elsewhere on this website).
How I would put the central lesson of this article is that, when studying the arrival of humanist texts in England, what is notable is not so much the number of volumes reaching Britannos toto penitus orbe divisos, as the speed with which they travelled north: several works, especially in the collection of Gray, arrived in England in the mid-1450s only a couple of years after they had been composed. In the case of Gray, who became bishop of Ely, it should be remembered that his books reached Oxford, only by bequest; he died in 1478. While this new article concentrates on is Oxford, certainly the capital of humanist interest in fifteenth-century Britain, it has wider relevance beyond the colleges and halls of that university town.
Rod Thomson shows that there is more to be said in this area — a delight, as you might expect, for me to hear. In his first paragraph, he chides ‘notorious non-publishers.’ I am hoping to prove not to be eligible for that designation, as I finish off my book on England and the Identity of Renaissance Humanism, c. 1400 – 1460. When I have finished that I plan, time and funding permitting, to turn to a project which, as this article mentions, was once mooted by Richard Hunt and Tilly de la Mare: a study of English humanist hands. Already, I have much of the information gathered together, though more and more comes to light – only this last week, in Rome, I found another script which demands inclusion. But more of that another time.