bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Itinerary of the Itineraries of William Worcestre

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 October, 2015

Welcome to the latest issue of Aperçus & obiter dicta, that entirely virtual (that is to say, non-existent) journal, devoted to recherché discoveries. This instalment comes to you from the Brewhouse of Oxford’s Christ Church, a building which has been – o tempora, o mores – transformed from its original use and is now home to that institution’s archives. In revising the introduction to the catalogue of Christ Church’s western manuscripts, I have had reason to visit there more often than the patient Archivist would probably like (though she is too generous ever to admit it). I have, I must admit, come under the records’ spell. The Disbursement Books, which present in glorious detail the termly expenditure of the institution, are so rich in information that they repay the sort of repeated and close reading that one could only afford if allotted more than one lifetime, with each day offering more working hours than are allowed to a human being. We learn from them the dining habits of the House (as Christ Church is known to its members): the rewards regularly given to the servant who brings a doe; the changing fashions in meat (with turkey being often supplied – and thus presumably reared locally – from the very start of the seventeenth century). We discover the names of the men and the women who were employed for everyday tasks, and see them sign their names, or leave their mark when they are illiterate. We are also appraised of the running of the various elements that make up Christ Church: the ‘church’ which is Oxford’s cathedral (and which is the reason it is a solecism to call the House a college: it is a dual foundation); the array of buildings which occupy its curtilage, and – most relevant for my research – its library.

The library has its own section in these Disbursement Books but that is often sparse in contents; to learn more of activities related to it and to manuscripts we have to look elsewhere, as the following example demonstrates.  It comes from the first months of 1617 and appears in the section listing the costs of ‘Law and Iornies’. It reads:

To the Carrier for carrying our letter to Cambridge and carrying and recarrying William of Worcester — 2s 6d

The entry is, sadly, unsigned, so we do not know who made this trip or, rather, trips, to Cambridge, back to Oxford and then repeated the exercise. What is interesting is the reference to ‘William of Worcester’. The description of him being carried demonstrates that it was not a person who travelled; instead, this must record an object given the name, presumably, of its producer. That object was surely a book, for William Worcestre will be known to you, learned reader, as the fifteenth-century proto-antiquary who was long-suffering secretary to Sir John Fastolf and who, perhaps in posthumous revenge, plagues scholars with his spidery, inelegant handwriting. He is probably now best remembered for The Boke of Noblesse, which survives in a manuscript in the Royal Collection of the British Library. He was, in addition, an inveterate note-taker. One of those compilations was edited in 1969 with the title of Itineraries from the unique manuscript which belonged to Archbishop Matthew Parker and is, thus, in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as MS. 210. It is a holster-book, so called for its long, thin shape which made it particularly portable and with which Worcestre himself travelled. Patently, its peregrinations did not end with his death or with its ownership by Parker and subsequently Corpus for, being the only book in Cambridge that can answer to the name of ‘William of Worcester’, this must surely be the object that was being carried and recarried between Cambridge and Oxford.

This previously unnoticed entry is notable for two reasons. First, famously, Archbishop Parker had been very careful in drawing up instructions for his library intended to minimise losses. They involve annual audits which, if the care of the books is found wanting, would mean Corpus would lose the rights to the whole collection – these continue today, under the anxious eye of Christopher de Hamel, and are also the occasion for an impressive dinner in the hall of Corpus. Despite the archepiscopal injunctions, by the 1640s, a few Cambridge scholars were able to remove temporarily a volume from the collection for study elsewhere in the university. This example, though, comes over two decades earlier, and involves a loan over a much greater distance. One wonders what the late Archbishop would have thought of it.

We also might wonder what the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church wanted with this volume. The fact that the transaction is recorded in the Disbursement Books shows that this was an official matter, not a private arrangement for the sake of a solitary scholar. It would seem likely that the authorities at the institution wanted to consult Worcestre’s notebook because they thought there was something of relevance to them in it. With the endowment provided by its founder, Henry VIII, Christ Church had rights to lands in various parts of the country and there is other evidence to show that, in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century, attempts were being made to ascertain precisely what was due to the institution. These researches involved an interest in medieval manuscripts, as shown by the importuning of Sir Robert Cotton first to borrow and then to gain ownership of the cartulary of Osney Abbey, a house most relevant to the House for it had been the site of Oxford’s first cathedral before that honour (and all of Osney’s holdings) were transferred to the new foundation of Christ Church. Colin Tite has reconstructed the move of that codex to Oxford with remarkable accuracy, considering he did not have access to the records – also in the Disbursement Books – which corroborate his dating of the transaction: it was taking place in 1620. A decade later and another entry in the relevant Book (under ‘Expenses Extraordinary’) shows one of Christ Church’s number being paid for a journey which had a parallel purpose:

for searching records att lincolne to Mr. Burton — 25s

The entry is signed by Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy and, at this point, Librarian in Christ Church. The size of the payment shows that he was not crossing the High Street to the college of that name but must have travelled to the cathedral city after which the college was named.

It is, in conclusion, my supposition that Worcestre’s Itineraries were requested from Corpus, Cambridge for similar practical reasons – evidence, in other words, that this antiquary’s writings were not of merely antiquarian value in the early seventeenth century.

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