bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Up for auction: new light on John Shirwood and English humanism

Posted in Auctions, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 27 November, 2011

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.


2 Responses

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  1. Daniel Wakelin said, on 27 November, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    David: thank-you for this useful report on the MS, which is intriguing. And thank-you too for this reminder that humanist studies were just one among the many other studies and activities undertaken by their adherents. This seems especially and vividly true when we encounter their religious lives.

  2. […] earlier compatriot of his, Petrus Lomer. The following year Sotheby’s revealed to the world a volume associated with the English humanist, John Shirwood, protégé of George Neville, bishop of Exeter and subsequently archbishop of York. The latest […]

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