bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Thomas Hearne and Nicholas Cantilupe’s fantastic history of the University of Cambridge

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 June, 2012

Before the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge was a clash of blades on the Thames or won and lost on the playing field of Twickenham, it was fought out through recourse to history. In the fifteenth – and on into the sixteenth – century, the universities debated their origins. Oxford claimed Alfred as their kind father, a ludicrous pedigree still remembered in the coat-of-arms of Univ. But at least Alfred existed: Cambridge sought to stretch the time-frame (and credulity) further by declaring King Arthur their founder. A foundation text for this foundation myth was the mid-century Historiola by Nicholas Cantilupe. It is a work which has received some recent scholarly attention in an article by Ad Putter that appeared in Medium Ævum, but there has been no edition of the work since the early eighteenth century when it was printed by the indefatigable Thomas Hearne.

Hearne, attentive readers may recall, was also the editor of the two Lives of Henry V which I discussed in an English Historical Review article of 2008; he was a giant among English antiquaries, even if his politics and character made him as many enemies as friends. His work on Cantilupe did not necessarily raise his stock among his contemporaries – it was a Cambridge man, Thomas Baker, who commented that the Historiola was ‘one entire Fable, & the fruitfull Invention of a teeming Monkish Brain, & you do it too much honor, in giving it an Edition’. But that did not stop Hearne working on it. What we do not know – or, as we shall see, did not know until now – is on which of the ten or more manuscripts he based his edition.

I happened the other day to be looking at some manuscripts in my alma mater of Christ Church, including their copy of Cantilupe, MS. 138, which – from its fifteenth century folio numbering – is clearly an excerpt from a much larger volume. Turning its leaves, I was struck that the antiquarian note recording details of the author of the Historiola was in a familiar hand: that of Hearne himself. I went to check the edition and noted that his transcription exactly matches that of the manuscript. The question then became how Hearne came by this slim fascicule – a question to which the answer, as so often with Hearne, lies in his diaries, edited a century ago by the Oxford Historical Society.

In his entry for 9th March 1712, he mentions that some manuscripts he had perused ‘In the Dean of Xt Church’s Study amongst Dr Aldrich’s Books (all which I have examin’d lately)’ and he goes on to say ‘I … saw there Cantilupes Historiola Cantabrigiensis, & I am promis’d the loan of it’. In other words, he was checking the collection of the recently departed Henry Aldrich, once himself Dean of Christ Church, and found there a copy of Cantilupe. Aldrich’s ownership of a manuscript comprising Cantilupe (and little else) can fortunately be corroborated, as Christ Church also holds his library catalogue in its archives and there, at fol. 9v.

Hearne, then, did indeed gain the promised loan and, clearly, returned it to its home at which point, presumably, it entered into the collection of the foundation over which Aldrich had once presided. Indeed, what is interesting is that this new nugget of information also allows us to identify other manuscripts – Greek, Hebrew and early-modern – as having reached the institutional library from the same individual source. In short, one brief note at the top of a folio can (as so often) open a window onto a world previously thought lost.


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  1. […] refer to your discussion of Nicholas Cantilupe’s Historiola of the University of Cambridge and the manuscript of it now in Christ Church, Oxford, their MS 138. […]

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