bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Britons, Bretons and Germans

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 19 February, 2011

This is a cautionary tale. It concerns the difficulty of assigning modern nationalities to Renaissance characters. It results from my following up two references in one footnote. I should explain: I have become interested in the practical issues created by the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman curia in the years after the end of the Schism. One article — I won’t mention author or location – makes interesting reference to the critical comment sometimes passed on the accents of foreign preachers or orators in Rome.

The footnote cites two references, the first to Jacopo Gherardi’s Diarium romanum, in which it is said that, in 1481, Guilelmus de Quercu, ‘natione Britannus et principis sui orator ad pontificem, ex Carmelitarum ordine’ gave a good sermon ‘quamvis ab externo barbare pronuntiata’. The article, following the editor of Gherardi’s diary, identifies the preacher as an ‘English Carmelite’, which set me scratching my head as I had not heard of this English representative in Rome. After some searching, the fog of confusion lifted: the reference is actually to Guilelmus de Domo Quercu, then in Rome as the representative of his prince, the duke of Britanny. In fact, his sermon was printed soon after it was given and, indeed, its elegant humanist Latin is available for you to see on-line.

This is not the only occasion of which I am aware where ‘Britannus’ does not refer to Great Britain but to its little relative, the duchy in the geographical area of France. If this raises concerns over how to identify a character, the second reference exacerbates those issues. The article also cites the papal master of ceremonies, Johann Burchard (with a lapsus calami mistaking the page reference). Burchard noted that an English orator’s speech in December 1492 was well composed but not well received ‘propter inexpeditam expressivam’. As that phrase suggests, Burchard was in no position to judge the quality of others’ Latin. That is by the bye, as is the fact that the orator in question was John Shirwood, a collector of humanist manuscripts and printed books, and accomplished author. It should be added that Shirwood died in Rome less than a month after he gave that oration so his ‘inexpeditam’ expression might well have more to do with his age and health than his foreign nature. If this was the last occasion on which Shirwood spoke before a pope, it was not the first — he was in fact a long-term resident in Rome, closely associated with the English Hospice, where he was to be buried. Burchard mentions him several times and — finally I reach the point of this description — on one occasion includes him in a list of significant clerics present in Rome at the time of  the election of Innocent VIII. Burchard organises his list by nation; the entry for Shirwood reads: ‘Ex Germanis: episcopus Dunelmensis, orator regis Anglie’.

Now, the term ‘German’ had a wide reference, encompassing much of the Holy Roman Empire north of the Alps. Those from the Low Countries would often identify themselves by their town or diocese and then add that they were of the ‘German nation’. But could the term be used even more loosely? Burchard, of course, was in a position to know better: was his phrasing a reflection of local Italian usage with a designation as ‘German’ being at times equivalent to saying ‘ultramontane’? There may be other explanations for the phrase but it should, at least, give pause for thought before too ready an acceptance or interpretation of fifteenth-century phrasing as mapping onto modern usage.

There is the moral of my tale. That — and perhaps this: scholarship would be so much easier if one did not check others’ footnotes and took what they said on trust. But, then, no self-respecting academic would dream of doing that. Would they?