bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to win favour with a prince

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 11 August, 2015

I am presently writing a chapter for the Oxford Illustrated History of the Book, which is being edited by James Raven. I have 9,000 words to cover ‘the Middle Ages’. That is nine words for each year of the millennium it covers. As you can imagine, I can only touch on any subject briefly – but one I am including is touch itself. Taking the lead from the work of John Lowden, Kathryn Rudy and others, I am drawing attention to the stains, dried damp patches and and other damage that bear witness to how a book has been handled – the evidence that fingers rubbed, or lips kissed or tears dropped, as the owner used a devotional manuscript to inspire their contemplations. In doing this, I have been looking at some Books of Hours in the Bodleian, including MS. Bod. 850, which was owned by the Sidney family (with Philip’s birth in 1554 recorded in the calendar at the front of the volume). Produced in the mid-fifteenth century, it has many signs of use, including some instances of rubbing – Jerome’s poor lion is all but lost his head in the religious fervour that one miniature incurred. What, though, I want to mention now is another piece of evidence of the interaction of the written word or the faithful – or the superstitious, since the passage in question was crossed out, presumably in the mid-sixteenth century.

It is to be expected that the volume is mainly in Latin but it descends at times into the vernacular. On one occasion, English is used for a rubric introducing a prayer added at the end of the volume. It provides advice on when and how to use the prayer and includes this instruction (fol. 107ra-rb):

write this prayer and do to be saide upon hit this masse of our lady vultum tuum deprecabuntur and put that prayer writen upon thi hede afore that thou go to kynges or prynces Erles barons or ony other grete men and thou shall fynde grace and worship of hem and that day thou shalt nat peryssh…

You can imagine the scene from the prince’s point of view. He looks out at the crowd and sees among them a figure who stands out for having a piece of parchment stuck to their forehead. I’ve got to get to know them, the prince says to his equerry. And therein lay the secret of the success of the Sidney family…

Of course, what is being advised is a true phylactery, a Christian equivalent to the Jewish tradition of a talismanic prayer-book. What I find striking is the instruction to write. We may assume from this that there was an expectation that writing was possible – and in the immediate milieu of the Sidney family, that was surely a fair assessment. But let us remember that only a minority of the population could read, let alone write, when this instruction was given: I am not convinced by the higher estimates for literacy, that put reading ability in the mid-fifteenth century at about a third of the male population – they extrapolate from the abnormal context of an urban environment. And when we talk of high levels of literacy, we assume in the vernacular. What is notable with the instruction in this manuscript is that the prayer that follows in in Latin. It seems that what is being proposed is not a simple exercise that anyone could complete: to produce an accurate rendering of the required text would be a challenge which then requires a mass to be said over it, and, when that is achieved, walking around with it on your head might draw a stare, at least. Gaining a prince’s favour is not as easy as it may sound – and that, I suspect, is the point of this instruction.

3 Responses

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  1. Jeanne de Montbaston said, on 13 August, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    I love this.

    But, isn’t ability to write something that could just mean, ability to access someone who could write? Like the way you don’t have to have owned a TV in order to have watched the queen’s coronation?

    Maybe there was a fashion for strips of paper tucked casually behind one ear …

  2. bonaelitterae said, on 15 August, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Thanks! It would be interesting if ‘write’ meant ‘get someone to write’ – as ‘saying a mass’ presumably means having a priest to say it. The same point applies: this is not a simple mechanical action – it is intended to be difficult.
    Of course, the answer to the head-wearing of a strip of parchment would be to have a hat firmly on the head. But what happens when you actually see the prince…

  3. Jeanne de Montbaston said, on 16 August, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Oh, sure. I was just thinking out loud. Really enjoyed the image!


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