A surge in Surigone studies
There are some humanists who we can know were significant in their own day but who are little more than a name to us. Such is the case with Stefano Surigone, who was from Milan but who spent much of his career in northern Europe. He is sometimes mentioned by English scholars for the verses he wrote in praise of Geoffrey Chaucer which were printed by William Caxton. That moment in his career tends to be noted with little further interest in him or his other works. There are a few worthy souls who are exceptions — he is mentioned by David Carlson in English Humanist Books, Dan Wakelin has perceptive comments to make on him in an excellent essay in a volume which (ahem) I edited, Rod Thomson a few years ago found a letter mentioning him which suggests the status he held in English literary circles. And now Surigone has been given further attention in an article on the lively England’s Immigrants site, run by the University of York, by Holly James-Maddocks, who is doing exciting work on fifteenth-century English illumination.
What Holly’s article demonstrates is a feature of the book-producing community which provided one of the themes of my lectures last term: its cosmopolitanism. Surigone, the immigrant at work in Oxford in the 1450s could turn to a local illuminator, John Bray, to beautify the admittedly rather unprepossessing small volume he wanted to turn into a presentation manuscript. It might be added that Surigone’s career reflects another element of this cosmopolitanism: the movability of humans. In a society where the vast majority would never in their life travel more than a few miles from their place of birth, a few exhibited a Wanderlust which saw them criss-cross Europe. So, Surigone did not stay in England from the 1450s until his dealings with Caxton a few decades later: in the meantime, he had been to continental university towns including Cologne.
In his absence, though, or after his final departure, he was certainly remembered by some Englishmen with admiration. This is what is revealed by the letter found by Rod Thomson, in Oxford’s Corpus Christi College. It is by the College’s first President, John Claymond, and speaks of Surigone’s teaching. That leaves us with a possible explanation for why he is little-known to us. There survives the manuscript discussed by Holly James-Maddocks, and another of his poems, but beyond that there are few witnesses to Surigone’s literary output. Was it that his interest was more in educating the next generation than in providing posterity with evidence of his genius? And is it the lot of the inspiring teacher to be remembered only for a short while, and then forgotten?