bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Humanism in fifteenth-century Oxford

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 8 February, 2009

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.

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