bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The first humanist oration delivered by an Englishman?

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 11 November, 2009

I am not really one for recording ‘firsts’, just as I try to avoid the Romantic propensity to desire to identify an author by name — ‘anon.’ is for me as noble a designation as any; ‘firsts’ need only recording in Books of Records. But I have just made a discovery — a small one — so indulge me this once.

As I have mentioned before, I have been preparing an appendix of previously unpublished texts for the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England. They include two orations by the Veronese humanist Antonio Beccaria, secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. They were both written in 1444 and both relate to the negotiations surrounding Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou. Weiss noted their existence in his addenda but did not linger long on them; they have not received scholarly attention since. They are not unaccomplished with some fine rhetorical turns, but what has recently interested me is the question of whether Beccaria, the stated author, was in fact their orator. I began to wonder about this when I thought more closely about the title given to the first speech; the phrasing in one of the two manuscripts reads ‘Oratio exhortatoria ad pacem ad regem francie per legatos regis anglie composita per antonium beccariam veronensem’ — phrasing that suggests that Beccaria may have composed the oration in order for it to be delivered by one of the English delegation to France, led by the Earl of Suffolk, in May 1444. Considering the membership of that delegation, I was struck by the presence of Adam Moleyns, then dean of Salisbury and Keeper of the Privy Seal, later to be raised to the episcopacy only to have his life just short by the rebels of 1450.  What is more, he is remembered, in the words of the Oxford DNB, as ‘one of the most respected of the few English humanist scholars of his day’. In truth, that respect did not add up to much: a passing reference to his humanitas in a letter of Poggio Bracciolini’s (also in the appendix I am providing) and lukewarm praise for his eloquence from Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini. But could Moleyns have actually been the voicebox for Beccaria’s prose?

My hunch has become more likely when I looked further at the context of the second oration, given at the Convocation of Canterbury of October 1444. Checking that useful recent resource, the printed Records of Convocation, edited by Gerald Bray, there is a reference to lords attending on behalf of the king, led by the duke of Exeter and including Adam Moleyns, who, it is said, ‘satis eleganter aperuit … [et] apertissime delcaravit’ the king’s need for a grant to support his wedding celebrations. This is an unmistakable reference to the speech written by Beccaria — or should I say ghost-written? It seems to me highly likely that both speeches were composed by the humanist for delivery by Moleyns, thus making by my calculation Moleyns to be the first Englishman to utter the new Ciceronian Latin on an embassy or in Convocation.

The interest of this, of course, goes beyond the matter of a ‘first’. It throws both light and shadow on Moleyns himself: it provides evidence for a previously unnoticed association with Beccaria, but it also raises questions over how far praise of his eloquence was aimed at the wrong target: how far was his humanist learning, as it were, a thing but lent? It also gives more information about Antonio Beccaria, who was, it seems, available for hire, able to write speeches for those who asked (and, perhaps, paid) — only, it should be remembered,for him  to efface the name of the actual orator when recording or circulating ‘his’ orations. At the same time, it puts Beccaria in his place, so to speak: Weiss had imagined that Beccaria may have entered royal service, assuming, one infers, that he himself gave these addresses. But, clearly, a humanist in person was not significant enough to have that task — speech writers are a lower sort even than Victorian children: they should not be seen and only heard through more distinguished voices.