Another manuscript from the circle of John Tiptoft
This website has been feeling neglected. I see that it is over two months since I posted here and those who read the last message might imagine that I was stung into silence by the lashes I had to bear from my severest critic. Far from it: I am not scared of him. I have not been idle – or, rather, I was wonderfully, blissfully idle all too briefly when in vacanze beneath the deep blue sky of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. My silence has been occasioned by the opposite of idleness: I have been working hard on several projects which have provided new nuggets of information that I have honestly been intending to share with you, if only there were a spare moment. The findings could provide a set of pithy interventions for Notes & Queries — indeed, it seems to me that the internet, properly organised, can provide a space probably more appropriate now for that sort of learned comment or minor revelation than old-style paper periodicals could. Imagine: an on-line journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.
The first of these little discoveries I will mention is also the most recent. Yesterday, following up a lead from the major on-going publication of the catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in Cambridge college collections, I entered the cyber-world of Corpus Christi’s Parker Library. I have already commented on how rich a resource this is – and I do so in full consciousness of the criticisms some have levelled at it, not all of them unjustly: it is expensive, it does need more updating than it presently receives, but it does provide such a wealth of primary material, making it possible to engage with a manuscript and coax it to offer up some of its secrets without even holding it in your hand.
One of the manuscripts which I viewed was MS. 409, a mid-fifteenth-century Italian humanist copy of Cicero’s De finibus. As I ‘turned’ the pages (perhaps that noun too needs inverted commas), I had a growing sense of a familiar presence lurking in the margins. One of the drawbacks of the on-line – or, at least, of my habits of use – is that I find it encourages one to progress through the volume, rather than as one would when picking up the book, begin by looking at the first and then the final folios (which are usually richest in provenance information) before turning over every leaf. So, it was only when I reached the last three or four images that my suspicion proved well founded. For, following the main text, in another hand which M. R. James describes charitably as ‘italic’, there is a short collection of epitaphs. I felt certain they are written by John Free, a Bristolian, the Wunderkind of English humanism, educated in the school of Guarino da Verona and then resident in Rome — it is said he was on the verge of being made a bishop when he died all too young in 1464. Some alleged foul play.
John Free was also, for a while at the turn of the 1450s to 1460s, the secretary of John Tiptoft, and I have sometimes seen them in company, with both annotating the same manuscript. As is apparent from other pages on this website, I have an ongoing interest in the library of Tiptoft, earl of Worcester and self-appointed heir to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in his book-collecting and promised patronage of the University of Oxford. So, you will appreciate that it mattered to me to confirm or refute my impression that Free was at work in this manuscript. It did not take long to corroborate my first thought, but here is a salutary warning to us Google scholars: if I had confined my checking to on-line resources, it would have been difficult to find the evidence to clinch the case. There are few specimens of John Free available – the most accessible and extensive being the two pages of a manuscript he wrote for Tiptoft, now in the British Library as MS. Harl. 2639. While there are general similarities and some shared idiosyncracies between the bookhand there and the script in the Parker’s MS. 409, the latter is too cursive to make a firm identification with confidence. There is in Oxford’s Balliol collection a manuscript that includes Free’s own rapidly-written transcription of a Poggio translation; it is MS. 124 but that is not yet been photographed and uploaded by the college’s energetic archivist to her excellent flickr account. So, it is only by using hard copy reproductions that I could find a match so close to make the identification irrefutable. In other words, however tiresome we may find it, we always have to move away from our screen to make the most of what we find on it.
So, this manuscript shows that it passed through the hands of John Free. It also has other annotations which link it to the circle of John Tiptoft and we may, indeed, be able to associate it also with their friend in Ferrara, Ludovico Carbone — but I say that only tenatively until I have had chance to see the manuscript truly in the flesh. What my page-turning did reveal is that this manuscript does not contain any of the tell-tale evidence of the earl’s own handwriting, but, even without that, I suspect there is justification to suppose that it was in his collection. The main text ends with an added note in an English gothic script (fol. 81v) and it would be reasonable to assume that the volume was in England from the late fifteenth century and stayed here to reach, in the mid-sixteenth century, its donor to Corpus, Archbishop Parker. As we have seen, however, Free never returned to England and there is little sign that the books he himself owned did reach his homeland. On the other hand, we know that a large part of his former employer’s collection did come to England — not all, it must be said, and hardly any reached the institution to whom he had promised it, the University of Oxford. But there is certainly enough examples to show that the books he purchased on his Italian travels returned with him and, after his untimely death during the Lancastrian Readeption, were on the market. It seems likely that this was the fate of Cambridge: Corpus Christi College, MS. 409. Thus, it is now added, as 31.5 to the listing on this website of ‘probable’ manuscripts from Tiptoft’s library.
This, then, was a virtual find – the first, I think, I have made without the book physically before me. I might add, though, that the frisson, the breathless moment of excitement, is not much less than if I were sitting far from home in the library itself. I will admit that the quickened pulse and tingling sensation which comes with the act of discovery is what keeps me in the business — it is a drug, a stimulant or perhaps an aphrodisiac, previously only available in special collections rooms. I have also to admit that I am not quite sure how I feel about it becoming more readily available and (forgive the pun) free to use.