bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Danae Suttoni plurimas gratias, or Polydore Vergil on the net

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2014

That indefatigable scholar, Prof. Dana Sutton, clearly had a busy summer. He has both been updating his very valuable ‘Analytic Bibliography of on-line Neo-Latin Texts‘ and adding to its main source, that is, his own ‘Philological Museum‘ of editions he provides of Renaissance Latin works. It would be hard for any student of early modern England to avoid using this significant and continually expanding repository. For one thing (as Jim Binns taught us some time ago), a sixteenth-century Englishman wanting to publish a text in the learned language of Latin would usually look to the continental presses, rather than to those in Westminster or London: it is axiomatic that, in terms of printing, England was a backwater, with texts using the new technology regularly an import like the paper on which they were produced. This means that Early English Books On-line is not the quick short-cut to the text for many works written by Englishmen; the database, originally designed to put on the web those items listed in the Short-Title Catalogue (up to 1641), necessarily overstates the insularity of our forefathers by under-representing their ability to compose in our civilization’s lingua franca. There is a supplementary reason why Prof. Sutton’s Museum is a place all early modernists must visit: many of the works it contains have no critical edition and, when they do (as with, for instance, Andrea Ammonio’s Carmina of 1511), Sutton has a sharp eye for their failings. The Museum, in other words, is no side-show; it is the main act.

What has happened in recent months is that Dana Sutton’s has been turning his attention to Polydore Vergil, that humanist from Urbino who spent most of his adult life away from his hill-top hometown, swapping its sunshine for the more sullen skies that hang above London. He is surely best known for his monumental Anglica Historia, though his name is also associated with encyclopaedic De inventoribus, now available in the edition by Brian Copenhaver in that indispensable series, the I Tatti Renaissance Library. In addition, he was the author of a collection of adages – clashing with Erasmus over which of them should be considered the ‘inventor’ of that genre. What is more, as Dana Sutton is reminding us, he was the author of several dialogues, four of which appeared together in a Basel edition of 1545 but which, as Sutton suggests, were most likely composed at various earlier dates. All of them are now available in the virtual exhibition rooms of the Philological Museum, complete with foonotes (mainly identifying citations), translations and introductions. His painstaking efforts may not be enough to establish Vergil as an innovative dialogue-writer – their style is, in some ways, old-fashioned, sitting in a tradition of Christianising classicism that stretches back beyong Battista Spagnoli (Mantuanus) to Poggio Bracciolini – but their interest lies, in part, in their ‘ordinariness’.

The editorial work on these texts allows them to stand alone as witnesses to Prof. Sutton’s assiduity, but, in addition, as is shown in his introduction to Vergil’s Dialogus de Patientia, they form part of a wider vision of the reign of Henry VII which he has already outlined elsewhere in his Museum. He gives it fuller expression here, opening by saying that ‘in most studies of the introduction of Humanism into England, there is one figure who inevitably fails to receive the credit that is his due’ – and that is the new king himself. In this interpretation, Henry, aware of the ‘new learning’ from his time in France and Burgundy, recognises the importance of training his own people in it, both for diplomatic and for propaganda purposes, and appreciates that until his countrymen have become better educated, he needs must rely on imported humanists, like Polydore Vergil himself. I summarise the argument because, in the footnote to his first sentence, Prof. Sutton  chides me (with great gentility) for exemplifying the lack of attention to Henry as introducer of the studia humanitatis to England. It is absolutely true that I have not given him that credit, and it is for one (to my mind) good reason: I do not believe he deserves it. I do not want to act like the sort of churlish reviewer for whom other people’s works are fodder to their own egomania; you can end reading here with my praise of Dana Sutton’s hyper-activity ringing in your ears, but if you believe my scepticism demands an explanation, you can read a very brief response in the following final paragraph.

To my mind, there is a cluster of difficulties to the interpretation I have just outlined. In terms of chronology, it post-dates the use of humanist fashions in English diplomatic correspondence and oratory, while also allowing the impression that there was a wholescale shift to Ciceronian rhetoric; in truth, many products of chanceries – across Europe and not just in this corner of the world – remained resolutely unreformed. In conceptual terms, the interpretation seems to me to misrepresent the power of ‘propaganda’ in the early sixteenth century – or, rather, its limitations. Many of the products of Henry VII’s so-called grex poetarum were not propagated to a wide public; they were more often intended for the delectation of those on the king’s immediate orbit, a reflection of a set of developing habits which defined ‘court culture’. That culture could, indeed, have diplomatic value, as transmitted back by foreign visitors to their governments but it was not about the moulding of ‘public opinion’ which we usually take to be the definition of propaganda. A good example of this is provided by Vergil himself. To reiterate a suggestion I made some years ago, it seems to me that if Henry VII had envisaged that it was a shrewd method of achieving propaganda to dispense with some excess wealth by furnishing the visiting papal diplomat from Urbino with a pension that would allow him the time to write a history of England, then he must have died disappointed. This was not just a function of the decades that it took to write the work; when it was produced, there seems to have been no sense of urgency from the government for projecting their ‘propaganda tool’ to their people or to the world. It was Vergil himself who sought to have it published, like so many English neo-Latin writers, elsewhere in Europe, and it was Vergil who provided manuscripts of the work, not for his English patrons, but for the duke of his hometown of Urbino. Guidobaldo was also, as we see from the excellent recourse provided to us by Dana Sutton, the dedicatee of the set of dialogues published in 1545: a few years later, and Vergil was back in his hometown. We do not need to presume that the dedication was a tactic specifically intended to smooth the way for his return, but it does seem that repeatedly in his English years the humanist made attempts to continue to be in good favour with his original lords. If Polydore Vergil perceived his Historia as propaganda, it was more as a display of his own genius then as the mouthpiece of England’s regime. And for King Henry, father or son, the very presence of the humanist was evidence enough of their royal generosity or magnificence in providing a pension, a process of remuneration which had the added benefit of encouraging a demonstration of loyalty by the author second-guessing what his patron might want him to say. To propagate a specific message to their people, though, a monarch knew they had weapons mightier than any neo-Latin pen.


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  1. Dana Sutton said, on 5 October, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    First and foremost, thanks for the tremendously flattering things you have to say about me and my work!

    Let me begin by making a corrective point about your first paragraph. ” a sixteenth-century Englishman wanting First and foremost, thanks for the tremendously flattering things you have to say about me and my work!

    Let me begin by making a corrective point about your first paragraph. ” a sixteenth-century Englishman wanting to publish a text in the learned language of Latin would usually look to the continental presses” is too sweeping. If you were to add the word “early” before “sixteenth”, you would be more accurate. The essential point, I think, is that Renaissance Latin was printed with all sorts of special abbreviations and diacritical marks requiring a specialized type font. Such fonts would have to be purchased on the Continent and were expensive, and it was well into the reign of Henry VIII before more than a couple of London printers became convinced that making the capital investment in such a font made good business sense, and those that did had their eye firmly fixed on the religious trade. Likewise, it took time for those that were able to print Latin to assure themselves there was a significant readership to provide a market for Humanistic books. Hence early English Humanists, including resident foreigners, were obliged to have their books produced on the Continent. But by the time of, say, John Leland the situation changed and it became the norm to bring out books at home. Eventually there were even some London printers (such as John Wolf and Thomas Vautrollier) who seem to have specialized in producing Latin literature, not to mention Joseph Barnes’ press at Oxford, founded in 1584. Sure, there were always exceptions (even William Camden, for reasons unknown, had one of his books printed at Frankfurt), but the situation you describe is only characteristic of the early decades of the century. One only has to leaf through the pages of the Short Title Catalogue to see that the printing of Latin texts became a thriving industry.

    I’d stoutly maintain this, that Henry VII was the first English sovereign to have any sense of the power and the value of the written word, or of the possibilities of literature written in the Latin language. As far as I know, for ex., the War of the Roses generated no significant apologetic literature in the vernacular, let alone in Latin. But, at very minimum, surely Henry wanted his version of the reign of Richard III and his own occupation of the throne (and likewise his version of the Perkin Warbeck saga) to be put on paper, and, among other things, he wanted it put on paper in Latin as well as English for foreign consumption. His abortive attempts to make a historian out of his regius poeta Bernard Andre failed because it turned out that Andre had absolutely no talent in that line (unfortunately, most of Andre’s attempts at history are still unedited, I’ve seen a few specimens and you’ll have to take my word about how bad they are), and it is highly likely that he turned to Polydore to produce the kind of stuff he had wished Andre to turn out. Yes, it is very likely Polydore wound up writing something far more ambitious than Henry had in mind, and hence took forever to finish the thing (I suspect he fell under the spell of Hector Boece’s similar Humanistic soup-to-nuts history of Scotland and decided to imitate it), but it was definitely Henry who got him started. He explicitly says so in the dedicatory epistle, written to his brother, prefacing the 1521 edition of De Inventoribus Rerum: Ubi ne bonum ocium tererem, rogatu Henrici eius appellationis septimi regis praestantissimi res eius populi gestas scripsi, in historiaeque stilum redegi. (By the way, Copenhaver’s edition of De Inventoribus Rerum was of the 1499 edition containing Books I – III only, there is no edition of the 1521 version containing all eight Books, although two English translations are available).

    I strongly doubt that Henry collected his gaggle of pet continental Humanists merely as court ornaments — he was far too much the pragmatist to support them without expecting something of tangible value in return. Surely, part of this “something of tangible value” was the production of literature flattering to himself. We can argue about for whose consumption this literature was supposed to be written, and I have to admit it is unclear to me whether Henry had any glimmering of the tremendous multiplying power of the printing press (if he had, then wouldn’t he have subsidized one or more London printers to put a stop to the situation I described above?), but it is obvious that, in various ways, he was interested in using the written word to shape his image for SOMEBODY’s benefit, even if we are not sure whose, and so I do not think the word “propaganda” is inappropriate. It was not intended for mass consumption, but, in some way I admit we don’t understand, highly targeted to some specific audience. Another feature of his programme was to improve the culture and the Latinity of educated Englishmen, doubtless for reasons of state (I only cited diplomacy as an example of the kind of needs he had for doing this, probably there were others as well, since the kind of centralized Tudor government he was in the process of creating required an ever-growing cadre of educated functionaries). To achieve this improvement, he used a two-pronged attack: a.) maintaining his grex poetarum, Polydore, and sundry other Humanists, and also providing a welcoming environment for temporary Humanist birds of passage, most memorably Erasmus, and b.) giving his sons, first Arthur and then Henry, the best and most modern Humanistic education available, thereby setting them up as role models in order to make that kind of education fashionable. Henry was one of the most calculating sovereigns England has ever had, and I have no doubt a lot of shrewd calculation went into this whole effort. Surely it would be a serious mistake (and a serious misreading of Henry) to downplay or trivialize it. There may have been a third prong as well, if you care to see Henry’s hand behind such improvements in England’s educational establishment as the foundation of the St. Paul’s School.

    To grasp the importance of Henry’s initiatives, all you have to do is stand back and ask yourself a couple of basic questions. What would English culture have looked like had Richard Plantagenet won at Bosworth Field? Can you imagine any similar revolution in English culture achieved so swiftly and so decisively, had it not been imposed from the top?

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