In Praise of the Simple: an open letter of C. S. L. Davies
To review a review article might seem to be like being the flea on the back of the insect on the back of the lumbering mammal, but it is what I am about to do. I have just read your piece in the latest English Historical Review on Kevin Sharpe’s Selling the Tudor Monarchy. It is a sign of how stimulating I found it that I can not resist writing to you about my immediate reaction.
I particularly enjoyed seeing you develop further your Tudor-sceptic line, first outlined in the Times Literary Supplement. It is a salutary reminder that descent but not dynasty mattered, that what concerned these monarchs was precisely not the accident of a surname they did not use. You neatly respond to the mental shrug of shoulders that some might have when realising the sixteenth-century English vocabulary is poorer, in effect, by one word. But, I must say, I think you still sell it short, so to speak: that the Tudors did not see themselves as Tudor, that 1485 was neither presented or remembered as a change of dynasty, should make us stop and think about our concepts of periodisation. Bosworth, which can be claimed to have seen the death of a tyrant, is itself a tyranny, dividing ‘medieval’ from ‘early modern’, with the following 118 years perceived as having some sort of internal coherence. We might need periods as a heuristic tool, and as a way of sorting out office space in university corridors, but we rarely stop at that: we begin to believe they reflect some deeper reality, and so slide back into Hegelian notions of the ‘age’ and its geist. Personally, I would prefer that we emphasised that change is a piecemeal process, that even if a paradigm shifts, life tout court does not — that there are no absolute dividing lines. But if we must order ourselves into chronological segments, at least it helps if we change their shapes as deftly as clouds change theirs. Your debunking of what we will have to call the ‘Tudor myth’ helps us to think again about what we would see as significant ‘turning-points’ — the equivalents (to echo your use of modern parallels) of 1989 or 11/9 — in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. If we take 1485 as a moment of relatively minor dislocation, with the fortuitous settling of a rekindled family squabble, we can look elsewhere for key moments when the pace of political and cultural (note that combination — to which I will return) change quickened, when innovation and concomitant destruction went hand in hand. At the latter end, we would have what you have dubbed the ‘Eltonian decade’, the 1530s; but, at the other end, how far would we retreat — to 1422 and the reality of a minority which challenged the nature of the political order, to 1399 and another non-change of non-dynasty? I would put down a marker for the 1460s, when I sense the language of English politics begins to alter in a way soon catalysed by the importing of print in the same era. But wherever we place the goal-posts, we must remember that it is a game, not a fixture.
I like even more than your de-Tudoring of the subject the line of thinking to which that led you in your piece. If not a dynasty, what was there to sell? The individual monarchs, of course, though there was, I would stress, little about this process that was ‘individual’. You pick up on the talk of ‘negotiation’ between sovereign and people, and highlight the importance of ‘reception’, particularly in its resistant or unintended modes. I am hugely sympathetic to this: we need to seek out, as it were, the graffiti artists defacing the official image — if, that is, the ‘official’ has meaning for this era. Image-making was, both of necessity and of choice, so often out-sourced, so remote from the individual it supposedly ‘projected’, that there was no officium masterminding representations. The displays at royal entries, for instance, were obviously not designed to a palace blueprint, even though the guilds and other organisers were attempting to depict what they thought would be appropriate — that, in other words, there was a straining to identify and to reinforce a shared language. This was surely less about projection than ‘imposition’, the dressing up of the monarch in garb chosen for him or her by those around and beyond, as in the image of the undressed and dressed Louis XIV discussed by Peter Burke. Image, I am arguing, was so susceptible to intervention, to redirection, as well as to misunderstanding and hostility, that it was very rarely under control. The messages that can be conveyed with any success are, in the first place, as you mention, ones that are repeated time and again, in coins, in services, in what you, and John Cooper, term the banal. But I would add the most subtle of activities can provide a message that is all headline and no fine print and this brings me to something about which I know a little: princely libraries.
Once again, I was delighted to see your brief reference to royal libraries and quite agree with your scepticism: they were not built up with an eagle eye on direct and specific political advantage that could be gained from them and their contents. I don’t deny that some princes read some of the time, but the collecting of a library was not a private pursuit. You say that we do not know much about who had access to the books; in some cases, we certainly do, and can see those around the prince actively intervening in ‘his’ books. I think, in particular, of the collection of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester but what I say for the early fifteenth century also works for at least some of the period you are discussing. But what is as interesting as the use in the library itself is how the books got there in the first place: in a phrase from a thesis you may remember reading back in 1997, book ownership for a prince was an occupational hazard. They might — on the advice of their secretaries and other members of the household — buy books, but a large number were also presented to them. It is often imagined that if a presentation occurred, the prince presumably wanted to accept the book. I do know of a few cases where a presentation failed to happen, but more often, I suspect, the prince felt the need to accept a gift, created and provided unsolicited, for otherwise the accusation of lack of magnanimity would hang around him or her. In other words, authors were rarely commissioned; they produced works which they might think would suit a prince they may have known only through repute, and thus add to the image in partial ignorance. Any recompense to the author was usually only received after the presentation occurred, making the production, particularly of a manuscript, a ‘loss-leader’, intended to recoup costs after the event. But, what matters more in the context of what you were saying, is that the importance for the prince lay less in the book itself but in the act of presentation — a moment identifying the prince as worthy of the respect of the person kneeling before him. In that sense, the books themselves are a recollection of previous events, witnesses to that respect and to an affinity that has existed, however temporarily. The books, in their chests, had only latent power: it was, as you mention, only when they are taken out of the hiding-places, put on display, or on loan, that they made real that potency. Or, I should add, when they were given away — as, for instance, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester did when he had carried away from his palace hundreds of his books as donations to the University of Oxford. It was an outsize action with an outsize message of his generosity and his respect for learning.
And this is the explanation, as I would see it, for the existence of those libraries: they were not necessarily repositories of wisdom to inform policy decisions, but they provided a simple and helpfully vague message about a prince being associated with learning. To try to identify a more precise or nuanced ‘image’ being ‘projected’ is to fall into one of the two traps you describe in your article. A prince could hardly avoid owning a collection and, as you point out, if a prince was bookless, they would be open to the imputation — from the relatively few — of a lack of necessary virtue. I say the relatively few but this particular audience, of peers (in every sense), of ‘opinion-formers’ domestic and foreign, mattered for a prince’s political reputation. In saying this I come to my last point: I do not see the separation you make between ‘political’ and ‘cultural’. I can not envisage a sphere — beyond perhaps the privy, but even there David Starkey would disagree — when the prince or monarch is not on display, in action, and thus political. A culture of politics suffused their existence, where even past-times were not simply play. This is not to deny the main points that you make, but rather to rephrase it: shrewd calculation of specific political benefits played no role in allowing a room in one’s palace to be given over to the books one came to own, but a library, like the palaces themselves, or the menageries and other exotica that cluttered them, was an element in the cultural impedimenta that were unavoidably part of the prince’s political existence. That owning a book collection had its use — simple, unsubtle, even banal — was an old reality of political life.
My thanks for having set me thinking and distracting me so usefully from the work I should have been doing these last hours!
Best wishes, as always,