bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

That EU Referendum: the limits of history

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 21 June, 2016

However far one goes to try to escape the febrile atmosphere of Britain at the moment, it is impossible to run from the referendum. I was in Padua the other week, to speak at a conference entitled ‘Shakespeare and Padova’ organised by the exhaustingly energetic and molto simpatica Alessandra Petrina. Most conversations while I was there turned at some point to the possibility of Brexit. The Italians I spoke to were worried but, all the more, bemused. In a café where I sheltered from a thunder-storm, the waiter recognised I was English (I wonder how) and expressed himself a lover of all things British but, he added, ‘does Britain think it can stand up to China and to States on its own? I’m sorry…’. In the conference hall, it felt as if we are talking about the referendum even when, ostensibly, we were discussing events four or five centuries older.

You may, gentle reader, have already stumbled and wondered what on earth I could have had to offer to an event devoted to Shakespeare. I was not – you will be relieved to learn – attempting to extend my repertoire into what is called ‘the English Renaissance’ (erroneously so – but that is another story); rather I was providing a comparison with the fifteenth century. The theme of my opening lecture to the conference was to encourage the delegates to consider the possibility that the English perception of Padua had, in the plays of Shakespeare, lost the sharpness of focus that it had in the 1460s and 1470s: at that earlier point, English graduates of Padua were perceived as providing unwelcome imports which threatened the English ‘way of life’ but, I argued, by the 1590s, Padua had become less dangerous because it was, in effect, more distant. Closing the conference, the true expert on the English in Padua, Jonathan Woolfson, suggested something which appears diametrically opposed, emphasising an increase in contacts in the 1540s and 1550s as the backdrop to the sustained Elizabethan and Jacobean existence of a community of Englishmen passing through Padua for education and entertainment. What united our talks was the clear sense that there had been a significant shift – and I would suggest the contrasts over the nature of that shift are reconcilable. The question remains of the causes of that shift. The impression hung in the air that the destabilising effects of the Reformation were a prime source, though this surely needs to be linked with other economic and cultural factors. In Jonathan’s discourse, the very instability released new possibilities and new perspectives, where mine dwelt on the diapositiva of that: let us recall what was lost as much as what was gained.

You may already have sensed how we were liable to read our own interventions in the light of present events. I teased Jonathan after his paper that he had made the case for Brexit: short-term unrest and economic pain might create a period of isolation but one which could be the precursor of a rediscovery of ‘Europe’ on new terms. Jonathan certainly did not intend such a parallel and it has an obvious central flaw. Those in the reigns of Henry VIII, his son and his younger daughter who looked to continental innovations and urged a purging of the state and a break with tradition did so because they believed the losses were not just acceptable but essential for the salvation of themselves and their neighbours. What was at stake was nothing less than God. That is motivation indeed but where, in the Brexit campaign, is there anything similar? There is surely a duty on them to provide a commanding vision for a future Britain. What we hear instead is, on the economy, the counter-intuitive and unsubstantiated claim that it will be fine; what we hear asserted would be a gain is that there will be fewer foreign faces in the community – even though immigration would become more ‘in your face’ when the camps into which refugees are concentrated would be placed on our shores. If this is a vision, it is a nightmare. Is this the Britain we would want it to be?

That is the fundamental question and one which shows how high the stakes are. The interventions of historians in the debate has, on both sides, been too often ‘history teaches…’, suggesting that there is something elemental about a British identity. As has been pointed out, Britishness is itself a short-lived concept, masking a plurality of identities defined by country or region, by social status, by gender and by ethnic background. Yes, there are some factors we cannot undo, just as, in Padua, I could not avoid the identification as British and so be associated with the referendum that has been placed upon us. One of those factors is undeniably that, for at least the English (and, the polls suggest, most Eurosceptic) part of the United Kingdom, its traditions have been shaped by its time as a Roman colony, and by its continuing place within – and intermittent struggles to be without – the shared civilization of Europe. Even that, though, allows much room for manoeuvre: it is not history that will determine our next step, it is our free will.

What history also does not teach, as any academic knows, is that there is a grand march of progress. For some, in the nineteenth century, the nation state was the apogee of civilization, an achievement beyond what their ancestors could have dreamt of achieving (Charlemagne clearly not being thought of as an ancestor). In the later twentieth century, understandably disillusioned by the evils wrought by those same states, the natural evolution was seen to be supranational structures. We can believe that those structures, whether across Europe or embodied in the United Nations, are welcome, but we cannot assume they were inevitable. Progress does not march; improvements stumble forward, uncertain on their feet. They are piecemeal, hard-won and fragile. When we recreate ourselves, we can also make ourselves worse. This is where we surely stand now. This Thursday, our nation has the opportunity to stand up and shout ‘Britain first’ in the face of immigration; we could let loose humanity’s baser instinct. We need not hold on to the self-image of ourselves as a nation where decency rules and where we pride ourselves in standing up for the underdog. We can – but at what cost to our souls?


A New Listing of Manuscripts once owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 September, 2010

In honour of the forthcoming conference on Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, I have just fulfilled a request of that paragon of humanitas, Alessandra Petrina. She suggested last year that it was time for a new listing of extant manuscripts from the duke’s library to be compiled. It is something I have had in mind to do for some time, and it is now available as a pdf on this website.

Producing the list has given me the opportunity to reflect on the development of our knowledge of the duke’s library. The most recent listing was that produced by the late Alfonso Sammut for his 1980 volume. It might be thought that brief descriptions of all the manuscripts owned by the duke went beyond his particular remit to study Humfrey’s associations with the Italian humanists. I recall Tilly de la Mare telling me that she and others persuaded Sammut to add that section to his work and, in compiling it, he had the assistance of several scholars, including Ian Doyle. The result was a list of forty volumes. In the thirty years since then, two of the manuscripts he attributed to Humfrey have had to be excluded, but a further eight have been added – an increase of about a fifth (I say about because Sammut counted one manuscript, Oxford: Magdalen College, MS. 37 as a single item, where, as it is formed of two parts only later brought together, I have counted it as two items, [32] and [33] in my listing).

Reviewing the expansion of our knowledge, it strikes me that the new information we now have tends to corroborate rather than challenge our understanding of the duke’s library. The attribution of the Thorney Computus to his collection [35] comes through the deciphering of his ex libris which reveals that he was given the manuscript by the abbot of Thorney in 1431. It reminds us of John Leland’s comment in the mid-sixteenth century that the duke had been given many beautiful manuscripts by abbots. It is also notable that, in this case, as in others already known, the duke was willing to part with a book less than a decade after receiving it – the Computus was given to the University of Oxford in 1439. The Computus is the oldest manuscript, to date, to come from the duke’s collection: many were produced with his lifetime, if not originally for him. This would seem appropriate for a collection famous for its humanist content, and the recent discoveries, three of which fit into this category (items [2], [6] and [12]), would seem to reinforce that impression. But there needs to be a word of caution expressed: humanist and refound classical texts were, we can be fairly certain, only ever a minority in his library. Even in the Oxford donation lists which are famous for this type of text, they play a relatively small role. The fact that our knowledge is now slanted towards them is surely not simply an accident of survival; it is probably a reflection of where scholarly interest has concentrated – for Tilly de la Mare and myself, the humanist subset of his library has held the greatest fascination. If we move our focus, we may find there is more waiting to be discovered, a point to which I will return in a moment.

If we do move our focus, it may, however, only underline further a factor in the vagaries of survival. Of the new discoveries, three were among the books given to Oxford; five were not. This reflects the imbalance that already existed: of the 47 extant manuscripts, only 12 were among those given to the University. If we were to assume that there had been an even distribution of destruction across all his books, this would suggest that he gave only a quarter of his volumes to Oxford and so had a collection which totalled over a thousand items. This seems to be a implausibly high number for a private library gathered over, at most, one lifetime. That is to say, it is likely that the total was lower, and consequently that the level of loss of the ‘non-Oxford’ books much lower than for those he gave to the University. In short, Humfrey did his books no favours when he gave them to England’s first university.

I have used the term ‘new discoveries’ and that, in itself, needs a gloss, for there was one book (item [37]) which had been identified in the 1870s but then was not noticed by other scholars: it has only recently been ‘re-discovered’, both by myself and independently by Godfried Croenen and others. I mention this because it helps bring home another insight afforded by listing Humfrey’s manuscripts: it is the process of the development of our knowledge. The late nineteenth century saw increased interest in the provenance of manuscripts (alongside a fascination with ‘autographs’), and scholars like Francis Madden did much to gather together the core of information about Humfrey’s manuscripts. But it was not with those ‘professionals’ that knowledge began: my work on this listing has served to confirm my admiration of Thomas Warton, an author whom I also discuss in my introduction, soon to be on-line, to the new edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England. His History of English Poetry, published in the 1770s and 1780s, was not to everyone’s taste, partly because it had so many digressions, but those digressions reveal the depth of Warton’s learning. It was Warton who first compiled a list of manuscripts once owned by Humfrey, drawing, it should be said, on the detailed information available in Leland’s notebooks. The late nineteenth century did not create our understanding of a library like Humfrey’s; it developed it by marrying knowledge of what was available in England with attention to what survived across the Channel. Even then, manuscripts obviously associated with the duke could be missed: a book, partly in the autograph of the French scholar, Nicolas da Clamanges, with the duke’s ex libris written in it several times, had entered the Bodleian in the mid-seventeenth century; its princely provenance was only noticed at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century [25]. At the same time, as I have already mentioned, there was a process of forgetting that worked concurrently with the serendipidity of discovery – a helpful reminder, if we need one, that scholarship rarely strides forward on an unhindered path to complete enlightenment.

This brings me to the last set of thoughts with which I wish to leave you: where next for discoveries of Humfrey books? I am too much of a romantic or an optimist to imagine that we have exhausted the possibilities of identification. What the recent decades have taught us, in a phrase that I admit to have used elsewhere, is that manuscripts turn up in the most likely places. Deeper understanding of famous, outsize collections – so outsize that all their contents have not received close scrutiny – may lead to further revelations. The libraries where we should look, though, are not confined to the British Isles, or to north-western Europe. The dislocation that occurred in the sixteenth century, in part through the Reformation, saw many manuscripts depart these shores. Thus, one of Humfrey’s treasures eventually reached Rome [47]. But it was not to Italy that contemporaries complained England’s patrimony was emigrating: John Bale specifically mentioned Germany. Not one Humfrey manuscript has yet been found in the libraries of that country. Yet.

To those of you who have spent years in the company of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester – and, in particular, to Alessandra who asked for this to be compiled – I dedicate the latest listing, in the unselfish hope that you will soon make it outdated.

The Unacceptable Face of The English Face of Machiavelli?

Posted in Historiography by bonaelitterae on 29 August, 2010

I notice that Routledge have reprinted Felix Raab’s 1964 The English Face of Machiavelli – at a price that only the best-heeled institutions could afford. Its republication is testimony to its status as a classic, frequently cited as required reading in scholarly footnotes and undergraduate bibliographies. It is also, of course, a classic tinged with the tragic.

The English Face began life as Raab ended his. He had come to Oxford from Melbourne, the son of Jewish emigrés from Nazi Austria, as a graduate student. Late in 1962, he submitted his doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Machiavelli and secular political thought in England during the seventeenth century’, and went off for a walking holiday in Italy. It took a month for his body to be found after he fell fatally into a ravine. He could not, then, defend his thesis at a viva – we can only imagine what the conversation might have been – but he was posthumously awarded a doctorate. Raab’s name was kept alive in his first university by his father’s donation of his son’s book collection and by the establishing of a prize named after him; in Oxford, his thesis received what was, at the time, the unusual honour of being seen quickly into print, with a foreword by his former supervisor, Hugh Trevor-Roper. The adjective often used for the foreword is ‘affectionate’. It is a memoir of Raab, describing, for instance, the time that he arrived at a supervision and sat down opposite Trevor-Roper: the latter pushed across the table Raab’s latest piece of work and said ‘You know this won’t do’; Raab responded by pushing it back across the table and declaring ‘Yes, it bloody well will!’.

Knowledge of the author’s fate impinged on the minds of reviewers, who felt the need to resort to an elegiac tone. The comment of an historian of a similar surname, Theodore Rabb, can stand as an example:

Few books have illuminated major changes in intellectual history, as this one does, by exploring a strictly limited subject. Even fewer have been, like this one, a doctoral thesis, written with skill, grace, and wit, and published without revision. The tragic mountaineering accident which ended Dr. Raab’s life shortly after the thesis was finished has deprived intellectual history of a penetrating scholar. [Renaissance News, xix (1966), p. 41]

The published volume, he concluded, was ‘a fitting monument to a fine mind’. The English Face was, in short, quickly accepted as a significant work, in both the learned community and in the wider press.

There was one discordant voice: a long review appeared in the Italian journal, Il Politico, by Sydney Anglo. It can be called nothing other than a merciless demolition of Raab’s work. It derides the book’s refusal to look more broadly than English-born writers, giving no space, for example, to Alberico Gentili’s writings, produced while in London (and now, incidentally, being studied by Diego Pirillo) – a ‘national’ methodology that, Anglo insisted, is simply unacceptable in the study of intellectual history. The review also picks apart, time and again, some of the specific interpretations of texts. But what we would consider most damning comes in its first pages when Anglo points out that Raab had been ungenerous in his brief acknowledgement of his debt to a 1908 London D.Litt dissertation by J. W. Horrocks when ‘well over a third of Raab’s material comes straight out of Horrocks’s thesis’. He points out how English Face picks up quotations from primary sources second-hand via Horrocks’ work. The most excoriating line comes next:

However, plagiarism is by no means wholly to be condemned, for a borrower can often put another’s material to better use – as Raab himself has claimed. It is then even more unfortunate that the material so painstakingly collected by Horrocks has been marred in the reworking [S. Anglo, ‘The Reception of Machiavelli in Tudor England: a re-assessment’, Il Politico, xxxi (1966), pp. 127 – 38 at p. 129]

Anglo does not return to the accusation in his text, though his footnotes include other examples of what he sees as unacknowledged copying in, for instance, Raab’s claim that Innocent Gentillet’s anti-Machiavellian writings had little influence in England.

Anglo’s review was brought to my mind by a conversation I had the other week in which I could not remember where it was published. In hunting it down, I was struck by how difficult it was to find references to it. It is a review that, in many quarters, has suffered a strange death. In 1990, an Annotated Bibliography on Machiavelli scholarship appeared, but, as one reviewer noted, it did not mention Anglo’s article (the reviewer does not give a full citation). It is symptomatic that an important recent piece reconsidering the ‘Myth of Gentillet’ [N. W. Bawcutt in The Modern Language Review, xcix (2004)] takes question with Raab on an issue previously raised by Anglo, but without reference to the latter. It is only very recently, with Sydney Anglo’s own volume on Machiavelli’s reception (2005) and mention of the matter in Alessandra Petrina’s Machiavelli in the British Isles (2009), that the article and the issues it raises have been resurrected; many, meanwhile, continue to make uncomplicated reference to The English Face. Most often, the book has been cited on its own, without mention of the early, trenchant and potentially utterly destructive criticism. On a some occasions, the book and the review are mentioned alongside each other but rarely with any sign that the former should be read with consideration of the latter’s criticisms. That could be done by a simple ‘but see’, as was the case in the Pelican Guide for Readers edited in 1984 by Boris Ford. Geoffrey Elton found another mode of expression. He had been part of the chorus of praise for The English Face when it appeared; in his 1970 Modern Historians on British History, Elton tempered that with the comment that the book ‘provides many insights but also some bad slips’ [p. 177], elliptically mentioning the review in the footnote.

‘Some bad slips’. My point is not about whether Anglo was right or wrong to condemn Raab for plagiarism – I have not done the checking to corroborate or deny the accusation. What interests me is what the frequent ignoring or overlooking of that claim tells us about our own standards or ethics. We now teach undergraduates that plagiarism is one of the most heinous of academic crimes, though we also debate the relevance of the concept to previous centuries. We also collude with a wider inflation in use of the term, which can see it stretched to include so much that it can end up meaning so little. That inflation — or perhaps it is deflation — could allow for some charges of plagiarism to be dismissed as trivial – but that can not be with Anglo’s examples which would suggest a heavy unpaid debt. A defence perhaps could be that Anglo’s comments focus on the Tudor period, when Raab’s main interest lay in the seventeenth century – but does that mean our culture would accept a breaking of the rules in one part of a work if it is offset by genius shown elsewhere in the same volume? Considering our society’s preoccupation with a work’s originality – and honesty – surely an accusation of largescale unacknowledged copying demands some response, some rebuttal or acceptance, rather than the silence it usually receives. As the claims, readily available, stand unchallenged, does that mean those who continue to refer to The English Face without a blush complicit in an act of plagiarism? Or should we conclude that we expect higher standards from our students than we would set for ourselves?

Modern publishing practice demands that when an article is found to be cribbed, it is not removed or destroyed; it remains available, but with each page stamped ‘retracted’. I doubt Routledge considered doing that when they reprinted The English Face of Machiavelli.

Duke Humfrey’s in Fashion

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 14 August, 2010

I must admit it had not occurred to me until my wife mentioned it yesterday that this October sees the 620th anniversary of the birth of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. In my defence, the six centuries and one score years is not necessarily the most memorable occasion which requires celebrating but this autumn does see the Duke having his own little local renaissance.

First of all, on 10th and 11th September, there is going to be a small conference on Humfrey, at which I am speaking alongside such luminaries at Alessandra Petrina and Derek Pearsall.  Then, just under a month later, the Bodleian is having what it has dubbed ‘Duke Humfrey’s Night’ as a fund-raising event. One can sponsor an object or its conservation, though not one of the few Humfrey manuscripts now in the Library’s possession. The event is explicitly advertised as commemorating the anniversary of:

the birth of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose generous donation in the mid-15th century of a large collection of classical manuscripts transformed the original University Library established by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and led to the construction of the beautiful reading room now known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.

My eye was caught by the description of his ‘donation’ — in fact, at least four donations, with the two most significant being in 1439 and 1444, and with a total of about 300 books being given to the  University. The range of manuscripts included biblical commentaries, some scholastic texts, some legal works, a notable assortment of medical texts, some classical works, a few of them rare, and a smattering of new humanist writings. It is interesting to see, in Oxford, his gifts remembered for being a ‘collection of classical manuscripts’ — a partial recollection of the collection that perhaps says more about our generation’s interests than about his eclectic library. Humfrey is most celebrated for his patronage of humanists like Pier Candido Decembrio (though he claimed not to have received his dues from him) and Tito Livio Frulovisi, biographer of Henry V (though Tito Livio soon left the duke’s employ). It was via the Milanese Decembrio that Humfrey gained most of the rare classical works in his collection — refound texts like the Panegyrici latini. This, though, is in danger of overlooking the range of activities going on at his court around the duke, if not always with his close involvement. Then again, I can hardly complain about a concentration of interest in his ‘classical manuscripts’ — my own work, I suppose, is stoking that tradition. I must remember to make amends.

The Cult of Petrarch and the Art of Graffiti

Posted in Grand Tour by bonaelitterae on 13 April, 2010

Speaking last week in Padua at a conference expertly organised by the excellent Alessandra Petrina, I took the opportunity in the following days to follow where previous secular pilgrims have done: for the first time, I visited Arquà Petrarca, which sits in the embrace of the Euganean Hills. The village — or, as the tourist information would have it, borgo — only took its double-barrelled name in 1868, when it added the reference to its most famous former inhabitant, Francesco Petrarca, who lived out his final years here.

Petrarch’s tomb stands in front of the parochial church, and the house in which he lived is now a small museum. Its display bears witness to the cult of the poet, in particular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, there is a print depicting the opening of Petrarch’s tomb in 1834, when his remains were checked and a rib removed for separate burial (one example of a fashion for exhumations which could, in itself, be a topic worthy of an historian). The house also contains an example of the ‘Codici di Arquà’, begun in 1787 as visitors’ books. The purpose, the museum explains, was to end the previous practice of etching one’s name into the walls of the small villa. Now there remain examples of these graffiti (the most legible being by Austrian students from 1564) on the fireplaces and on the baroque wall-monument to what is supposed to be Petrarch’s mummified cat.

This history of graffiti interests me. Their presence demonstrate that, while the casa was in various private hands, it was also open to visitors. ‘Pilgrims’ would, presumably, turn off the road from Padua to Ferrara at Monsélice, and climb into the hills purposely to visit the village. Some would then wish to record their visit — they did not attempt to leave their mark on the marble of the tomb but thought it appropriate to etch their name in the stonework or plaster of the house. The owners, for their part, must either have been continually unobservant or (more likely) have been tolerant, if not welcoming, of such graffiti. In other words, such inscriptions were, until the late eighteenth century, an accepted activity for at least some tourists. If this is so, it puts in a different light the graffiti found so often elsewhere — in churches, for example, cut into alabaster figures or marked on frescoes. It has struck me before that these could rarely have been acts of a moment but must have been more deliberate and painstaking. In that situation, such graffiti must have had a resonance different from those with which we would associate the activity: not akin to vandalism, it was an act that lay somewhere between the desire to commemorate one’s own presence and a wish to pay homage to the place or the long-gone person in whose presence you were. Petrarch, perhaps, would have understood.

The Italian Renaissance and the British Isles

Posted in Renaissance Studies, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 13 September, 2008

I have a busy few months ahead of me. I’m hardly going on a world-tour but I have been invited to give lectures in a variety of locations, and I have listed them on a new page.

The first of these is at an event in the elegant surroundings of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, home to the Istituto Nazionale di studi sul Rinascimento. I anticipate a stimulating event, with several speakers who are always worth hearing, including Jonathan Woolfson (he of Padua and the Tudors fame, which I reviewed in Renaissance Studies), Alessandra Petrina (who shares with me an interest in Humfrey, duke of Gloucester; I reviewd her book for English Historical Review) and Michael Wyatt (author of The Italian Encounter with Tudor England, which I wish I’d had chance to review).

As these scholars and their publications suggests, the conference’s theme is the Italian Renaissance and the British Isles — a subject that appears to becoming newly fashionable. There has, of course, been a tradition of English interest in our forefathers’ engagement with Renaissance Italy, exemplified early in the twentieth century by Paget Toynbee and Mandell Creighton, and carried further in the second half of the century by scholars like Denys Hay, Sydney Anglo, Joe Trapp and David Chambers. I cite them in particular because their work is concerned directly with the interaction between Italian culture and Englishmen, rather than providing studies of northern humanism or the so-called English Renaissance — with, that is, the transmission of ideas as much as with the reception of ideas.

What has been less strong in the past, perhaps, has been Italian interest in the cultural dialogue. I exclude Roberto Weiss who wrote the seminal work on my specific area of interest, Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, since he was a cosmopolitan character: an Italian count whose career was in England, and who lived in Henley-on-Thames. I remember Nicolai Rubinstein saying that Weiss always signed himself ‘Roberto’ when in England and ‘Robert’ when in Italy — he wanted always to be an exotic outsider. He was also a capable cartoonist, but this is to take us away from the point. If Weiss can not stand as an example of Italian interest in the interaction between England and Italy, I am hard-pressed to think of enough names to demonstrate a tradition of interest in Italy in the topic — until, that is, recent years. Alessandra Petrina, whom I have mentioned, stands as one talented example, as does the young scholar Diego Pirillo, who is involved in organising the conference in at the Istituto. Perhaps it is significant that these are scholars in English faculties. The present flourishing is not confined to those departments — I find especially interesting the work on the English market for Italian art by Cinzia Maria Sicca — but there may well be a link between the post-War development of English as an international language, and the renaissance of Italian interest in the encounters of their countrymen with England in the quattrocento and cinquecento.

The result includes a series of volumes recently announced by Ashgate in Anglo-Italian Renaissance studies, edited by Michele Marrapodi of Palermo University. That is only one of several ventures that could be mentioned. It appears to be a good time to working in this field.