The problem with finishing is that you never really do finish. You produce your text, replete with footnotes — and you think it is done. You feel that you should receive advice from your peers and betters, and so you importune others to read it, some of who do, and you revise (probably not as much as you should) in light of their feedback and your own re-reading — and you think it is done. You submit it, you receive further comments, you have it accepted — and you think it is done. You receive queries from the copy-editor and you are grateful for being saved from several slips and refine it accordingly — and you think it is done. You see the proofs and realise that there is more to be corrected and you work by the midnight oil to improve it at that late stage — and you think it is done. Of course, it is not. It remains imperfect and provisional. Your last word is only part of the ongoing conversation.
I have very recent experience of this, with the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, Oxford. This is the work mainly of Ralph Hanna, but I helped at a late stage, updating the descriptions and adding some more (of sixteenth-century manuscripts), as well as expanding the introduction. In that introduction, we survey what little is known of books of the previous institution, whose Norman buildings provide now the college chapel which doubles as Oxford’s cathedral. Until their dissolution in 1524 by Cardinal Wolsey, making way for his new foundation of Cardinal College, these were the buildings of the Augustinian priory of St Frideswide’s. As we say in the introduction, it was not known for being a place of learning, and only a few manuscripts are associated with it. We also say that ‘only a single literary manuscript has been identified as being owned by’ it, and technically that is true: the bible of English medieval institutional provenances, Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, now available on-line as MLGB3 (thanks to James Willoughby and Richard Sharpe), mentions only that codex as the one literary survival. I have now, however, convinced myself that another volume should really be added to that list and so should have appeared in our introduction.
The manuscript is hardly unknown: it sits in the Bodleian with the shelfmark MS. Digby 177. It is an obvious candidate for coming from the priory, as it provides a unique copy of a description of the miracles attributed to St Frideswide, said to have been compiled in the 1180s by Prior Philip of the Oxford house. In revising W. D. Macray’s nineteenth-century catalogue of the manuscripts given to the Bodleian in 1634 by Sir Kenelm Digby, Andrew Watson, working with the materials of the late Richard Hunt, addressed the issue of this manuscript’s provenance and expressed unresolved ambivalence: ‘it is possible that [it] comes from St Frideswide’s Priory, Oxford, but … it may be no more than a section with an Oxford interest which has been detached from a larger book with no Oxford connection’. It was, of course, Andrew Watson who provided the Supplement to Ker’s MLGB and he saw no reason there even to hazard the suggestion that it is expressed so tentatively in the revision of the Digby catalogue. What, then, persuades me that the issue should be reviewed?
First, against the suggestion that this manuscript was part of a larger book, Watson’s own comment can be quoted: ‘the last page looks as though it had been the final page of a unit on its own’. The last recto is, indeed, rubbed, and so is the first recto, suggesting that this fascicule travelled alone for some of its life. Morever, as Watson also notes, it reached Digby from the Oxford antiquary, Thomas Allen and it appears in his catalogue, listed alone as an item (‘fo. 7’), in contrast to the volumes entered immediately before and after it where multiple contents are listed. In other words, it is likely that Allen came by it in its present state, unencumbered with other material, and this may well have continued its prior existence, as a discrete codex.
The codicology of the manuscript is strongly suggestive of its Oxford provenance. The main part is written in an elegant bookhand on the cusp between so-called protogothic and a textura rotunda. The final columns (fol. 28vb– 30rb) are in a darker ink and by different hand, spikier and yet closer to being fully gothic. That addition provides the tale of an extra miracle which, it says, happened ‘in ciuitate oxoneforde eciam nostris temporibus’ — it appears, in other words, to be updating the collection with a recent occurrence. Even if the main text was not produced in Oxford, it would seem likely that this addition was made there.
In addition, the title added at top left of fol. 1 may be notable in its phrasing: ‘Incipit prologus domini philippi prioris de miraculis sancte fridwide’. That the author is known but it is felt unnecessary to state of where Philip was prior hints that this was written within the community. Moreover, there are signs of later use of the volume, not just notes in plummet the bottom margin of fol. 15v-16, showing that there was continuing interest in the text, but also at the top right of the final verso where an acrostic is added, in a thirteenth-century anglicana hand, on the name ‘Fridesuuida’. Wherever this was, there was a continuing devotion to a saint whose cult was localised to Oxford and centred on the priory named after her.
The clinching evidence would, of course, be an ex libris. It seems to me that there was once one, near the top left of the first folio, just right of the later shelfmark, ‘A 14’. I have tried checking it under UV but to little avail. Its secret remains, for the moment, just beyond our grasp, as frustrating as any branch of fruit with which Tantalus was tormented.
Even without that, though, I feel there is enough to merit at least proposing an association with St Frideswide’s as probable, though by no means certain. With, however, the proofs of the introduction of the Catalogue now back with the type-setter, it is too late to add a footnote, and so that work is out-of-date before its off the press. I have half a mind to beg them to stop and not complete the publication process: we all have a duty only to publish when we can place our hand on our heart and promise we believe a work is as polished as it could possibly be. As I have said before, if a work is half-decent, then that is not good enough. But assuming for a second that the publishers would even countenance a delay, it would not be a momentary pause: this one hypothesis creates several ramifications which deserve to be pursued. Pitted against that, our society piles on the pressure to see texts in print — it prefers something to be available than to be perfect. The result, of course, is that the threads woven together to form the text begin unravelling as soon as the fabric is complete. If we are to be finishers, we are to be the heirs not to Tantalus but to Sisyphus.
Addendum: the delight of the online is that one can, of course, update. Having completed this draft, I came across this talk by Andrew Dunning which I was not able to attend but which, using different evidence, makes a persuasive case for the manuscript I discuss here being Prior Philip’s fair copy of his collection of the saint’s miracles. I am pleased that there will be someone to point out the oversight in the Christ Church catalogue.
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.
A last will and testament is by its nature a formulaic document. It opens with assurance that the person expressing their wishes is of sound mind, lists the bequests to family, friends and institutions, and closes by establishing the executors who are to see to the fulfilment of the will. Within the standard wording and the list of gifts, so defined by cultural convention, there are moments of light when a human voice seems to speak above the murmur of what is standard and expected.
One such passage comes from the will of a man whose posthumous reputation has been, at best, ambivalent. Otho Nicholson was an agent for James I, whose task was to help fill the royal coffers and, by the bye, enriched himself. He seems not to have had any university education but was one of those who sought to create an assocation for himself later in his life: he provided Oxford with a water-supply reaching the city at Carfax Conduit. One of the pipe-lines from the conduit was reserved for Christ Church, whose Library Nicholson also ‘restored’ (and so he appears in the introduction to the catalogue of Christ Church’s manuscripts, the revisions of which I am now completing). We might like to think that Nicholson was virtuous for being a benefactor without even a sense of pietas to impel him to his generosity; the less maganimous might see in his ostentatious donations a desire to buy respectability.
His good deeds in Oxford are remembered in his will, but only briefly. The larger sequence of bequests is reserved for friends like Fulke Greville and, all the more, for his family. Through them we might be able to trace his extended family tree but little here tells of what he thought of his relatives – except for one passage. Here it is:
Item I give unto my disordered Sister Anne Lee one Annuitie of Ten pounds per Annum To be payde to her quarterlye duringe her liefe Uppon condicion nevertheless that shee leave her unwomanly boldnes in gaddinge daylye to the Courte and troublinge the King, Queene, Prince and divers honourable Lordes and Ladyes there with her Counterfeitt clamors (as heretofore she has too often done) And that shee give herself to a civill carriage of lyfe and followe her needle for her better manytenans Shee having good knowledge to use the same…
You sense how Nicholson’s heart sank when sister Anne walked in the room, how he must have feared the good contacts he had made at court might be undermined by what he perceived by her meddling. We also get sight of what was considered to be a more appropriate lifestyle for a lady – and might wonder whether Anne stuck the needle through the cloth a little sharper when thinking of her patronising brother. Most of all, perhaps, we might feel that, among the references to people who are little more than names in this will, she comes alive and is someone whom, in her fiestiness, we might like to meet.
There is a coda to this: Nicholson’s will was proven in July 1622 but it was found that the lavish range of bequests that he had so thoroughly arranged exceeded the monies remaining at his death. Perhaps, then, Anne never received her annuity and was thus free to continue gadding daily to the Court.
The work on the manuscript catalogue of Christ Church, Oxford is drawing close to its completion. Small finds, however, are still being made and it is one of those I want to share with you.
It involves MS. 486, the sole surviving complete witness to William Gager’s tragedy, Dido. It is very fitting that it should reside in Christ Church for not only was it written by Gager while he was a student at the foundation but its first performance took place in its Great Hall on 12th June 1583. That performance was a lavish occasion, intended to impress a visiting Polish prince, in the presence of the University’s chancellor, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester; both Philip Sidney and Giordano Bruno were probably in the audience. Yet, the close connexion of the manuscript’s content with Christ Church does not mean that it has continuously been resident in the House, as its members call it, since its production: it only arrived in the last decades of the nineteenth century, having been purchased at an Edinburgh book-seller’s. This has allowed speculation over its origins. The historian of sixteenth-century university drama, Frederick Boas, was impressed by the elegance of its presentation – there is no illumination but it is written in an italic book-hand with frequent pen-flourishing – and surmised it was a ‘fair copy’ of the play probably produced for one of the distinguished members of the audience at its performance. That led others to go further and suggest that the little codex is in the hand of the playwright himself, but J. W. Binns, who edited the tragedy and who, more generally, has done so much to enrich our understanding of early modern English learned literary culture, suggested that attribution ‘may be open to doubt’. He does not expand on that comment but I assume that what he had in mind was the contrast between MS. 486 and the secretary script on display in Gager’s autograph notebook, now in the British Library as MS. Add. 22,583.
More recently, another lion of early modern literary studies, Dana Sutton (and writing his name reminds me I owe him a response on another matter), re-edited the play in his edition of Gager’s complete works – which, with characteristic generosity of spirit, he has made freely available on-line. In his work, Sutton expresses confidence that the hand penning MS. 486 is, indeed, that of the author, but others have not been fully convinced. The recent catalogue of British Drama displays some caution saying at one point that it is ‘probably’ holograph and, at another, down-grading that to ‘possibly’. It is my contention, having spent time in both Christ Church and the British Library, that the hesitation is unnecessary – what follows vindicates Sutton’s identification and suggests also that we can, in all likelihood, take the date of writing to be close to that of the play’s performance.
First, on palaeographical grounds, it seems to me that the notebook and the copy of Dido are definably by the same person. Yes, they are written in different scripts but that is unsurprising from someone of Gager’s education – and, indeed, we can see him moving between scripts in another context: in the archives of Christ Church, the annual disbursement books include the signatures of those receiving payment and Gager appears there frequently. For the year 1577-78, his signature oscillates between a humanist-influenced and a secretary scripts. What is more, even without that evidence, there are enough similarities of letter-forms, particularly on the capital letters, but also on forms like the short final s, to be certain that the scribe of both manuscripts was the same, in the notebook writing at greater speed, in the Dido with more concern for presentability. There are, I am afraid, no images of the BL manuscript available on-line, but here is a picture, provided by Christ Church’s ever-helpful Assistant Librarian, Cristina Neagu, of the opening of MS. 486:
You will also notice from this image one codicological feature – the handwriting is even but on an unruled page, with the only ruling being the single bounding line on each side, forming a rectangle in which the text-block sits. What a photograph like this cannot reveal is that there is also a distinctive watermark in the paper. It is not fully legible and does not appear in the standard compilations of watermark sbut its central motif is a pair of weights, with a flower above and a horizontal scroll below, apparently reading ‘LAMAIN’.
Watermarks, even when we can be sure of their place and date of production, can only give us a terminus ante quem non for their use, but what, it occurred to me, this watermark might do is prove the manuscript’s proximity to Christ Church if we could show that other volumes produced there used the same paperstock. It was with that in mind that I checked the Disbursement Books where Gager’s signature appears, but they are on paper (as they record, supplied by the Oxford stationer and binder, Richard Garbrand) which regularly have a water-jug or ‘pot’ watermark. There is, however, another manuscript which is of identical paperstock to MS. 486 – and that is Gager’s notebook. Furthermore, that notebook, which includes parts of the Dido and, a few pages later, has notes dated to September 1583, has the same pattern of ruling as MS. 486. In other words, Gager had a sheaf of paper from the same stock and prepared in the same manner, some of which he used in the eventful year of 1583 for his own drafts and some for the ‘fair copy’ of his tragedy. Not only does this confirm the identification of him as the scribe of both, but it makes it highly likely that MS. 486 was, indeed, written in Christ Church around the time that the stately tragedy was being performed on a temporary stage erected in the Hall.
I should emphasise the limits of our evidence: the codicological details do not absolutely demonstrate a precise date of use of the paper for MS. 486; all they can do is provide suggestive evidence. I will also admit a slight scepticism about Boas’s suggestion that the copy was made for one of the guests at the performance: if it were, it was notably understated, without any attempt at coloured decoration; and, if it were, it has survived remarkably well, with no marks of ownership or damage from use. It is perhaps more likely that it was kept safe – perhaps by the author himself.
The lesson, in conclusion, that I would like to draw is not a new one and should be familiar to any scholar of manuscripts and their contents: if we are to eke out of what sits before us all possible information, we have to take account of every detail, however insignificant it may at first appear. As I have said before, the law may not care de minimis, but we must do.
On the other hand, this could be entitled ‘Notes from Christ Church Library’ and be a contribution to that beguiling but non-existent journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.
My work in Christ Church has seen me pore over the earlier catalogues of the library or, more precisely, of its ‘archives’ in an attempt to reconstruct the physical history of the manuscript collection. The codices have only been held in the ‘New Library’ since it was opened in the 1760s. Before that, the books of Christ Church were held in a room — I remember it being used in my day (as the old say) as an undergraduate set — off the cloister of St Frideswide’s. Not quite all manuscripts were kept there as some were considered to belong to the Chapter as opposed to the ‘college’ (a misnomer in this dual institution but a usage that appears often enough in the records of the place that likes to call itself the House). It was, in fact, only with the move into new premises that a space was set aside as the near-exclusive preserve of manuscripts. Earlier, what was considered fit for the ‘archives’ combined printed books with some handwritten codices. It was an arrangement that existed from the 1670s, but which underwent a significant transformation in the wake of the death in 1710 of Henry Aldrich, dean of Christ Church and polymathic bon-viveur, whose interests ranged across languages and disciplines. His collection in large part became the property of the House, and the contents of the Archives came to be dominated by his music collection, skilfully described by John Milsom in the excellent on-line catalogue. What, curiously, seems not to have been included in that section of the library at that point were the few manuscripts Aldrich himself owned. It was only with the move and the re-organisation work overseen by Edward Smallwell, later bishop of Oxford, that the books created by Aldrich and some owned by him were given pride of place in the new ordering of the Archives.
I have described the archives of the 1760s as providing a ‘near-exclusive’ preserve for hand-written volumes. There are some exceptions, usually there because of a direct association with the former Dean, including, for instance, ‘Aldrich’s Logick’ a volume which combines two printed editions of that work. Close by that volume in the catalogue compiled by Smallwell is an entry, A.13, for ‘Henricus octavus de Sacramentis. 8o.’. Clearly, this is a copy of the anti-Lutheran tract, the Assertio septem sacramentorum, which announces Henry VIII as its author. After it had been printed in Richard Pynson’s workshop in 1521, several copies were all bound in the same style by John Reynes, with the Tudor Rose and English royal arms on the panels. The copy that is still resident in Christ Church, now with the shelfmark Z.e.6.4, is a fine example of this (I have Christ Church’s ever-helpful Special Collections librarian, Cristina Neagu, for the photographs shown here).
This much is relatively well known. It has also been surmised that the intention of these bindings was to beautify some copies so that they could act as diplomatic gifts or presents to favoured subjects.We do not know who the first recipient of the Christ Church copy was but what perhaps is not as well known is that we can say something of the volume’s history, for at its title-page it has a signature.As is clear, this was owned by William Cecil, who was to be first minister to Henry VIII’s younger daughter. The script is close enough to other ex libris he wrote to be definably his, though it style, and the absence of any reference to his title of Lord Burghley, might suggest this was written fairly early in his career (for a contrast, see his note at fol. 1 of BL, MS. Harl. 2471, for instance). Given that he was born only in the year that the Assertio was published (or perhaps the year before), then Cecil could not have been its first owner. But, clearly, he thought this work was worth owning, however far the Church of England which he did much to support had moved away from the doctrinal position espoused in the text.
It would appear that the volume remained in the Cecil family until the famous sale of the collection in 1687: the work is recorded in the sale catalogue as ‘libri theologici, in quarto’, no. 23. At that point or soon after, it must have reached the hands of Henry Aldrich. It was not his habit to add his ownership note to his books but a listing of his library made after his death does include this work and, as I have said, its placing in Smallwell’s arrangement of the Archives is suggestive of that provenance. When the future bishop of Oxford came to look at this book, he might have considered there to be something pleasing about having a distinguished copy of the Assertio in the foundation created by the text’s acclaimed author.
In my virtual post-bag has arrived this letter of complaint, from (it seems) my worst critic. I think it best to let you read it without further comment:
Someone who calls himself a Renaissance scholar really should uphold high standards of scholarship. I take no relish in pointing out to you how the research you have had the temerity to post on-line falls below what you should expect of yourself.
I refer to your discussion of Nicholas Cantilupe’s Historiola of the University of Cambridge and the manuscript of it now in Christ Church, Oxford, their MS 138. I congratulate you on identifying this as the copy used by Thomas Hearne in his printed edition of this little work – though one might wonder, with the antiquary Thomas Baker, whether Hearne did the opusculum ‘too much honor in giving it an Edition’. There is no doubt you are correct in that specific but in another you have made a grave error, and one which is obvious to see, thanks to the images of the manuscript that Dr Cristina Neagu of Christ Church Library has put on the web.
You claim that the inscription at the top of fol. 3 is in the hand of Hearne himself. I see also that you accept the description of that note as identifying the text ‘with reference to Leland and Tanner’. That, in itself, should have made you stop to think. Hearne, as you note (again, correctly), saw this manuscript in 1712; he released to the world his edition seven years later. Thomas Tanner, however, while he had compiled much of the information used in his Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica in the last years of the seventeenth century, did not complete the work by his death in 1735; it appeared in print, as you should know, in 1748. Hearne died in the same year as Tanner so how, do you suppose, could he have written a note referring to a work which had not yet been finished, let alone published?
As the note certainly is in an early eighteenth-century hand and, we can surmise, pre-dates Hearne’s edition (for if it were later, the learned reader would surely have cited it), we should realise there is a condundrum here. It is, though, one which is easily solved, if only you had eyes to see. If you look again at the note, you will (I fervently hope) kick yourself at the misidentification that you have perpetrated. The script there is clearly not Hearne’s but it is that of another antiquary, Thomas Tanner himself (for comparison, see the plates in that seminal article by Richard Sharpe in The Library in 2005 on Tanner). What is happening, then, is that the work was identified with reference to the Henrician bibliographer, John Leland, and the note signed by ‘Tho: Tanner OAS’. Those last letters should also have given you a clue to the dating of the note – OAS must stand for Omnium Animarum Socius, that is Fellow of All Souls, a position to which Tanner was elected on All Souls’ Day 1696. As Tanner left Oxford five years later, we can date this note to a short period – and thus appreciate that Hearne was not the first to identify the text.
I might go on to add that, in rushing to announce your little discovery (complete with errors), you did not wait to uncover the further evidence, which does exist, of Tanner’s interest in manuscripts in Christ Church, where he was later to be a canon. But I am aware that the information in question will be revealed in the catalogue of western manuscripts of that foundation which is nearing completion, where I also expect to see a more accurate discussion of MS 138.
Do you wish to attempt to defend yourself? Are you going to claim that your sin is less heinous because it was merely ‘pre-published’ on-line. I recognise you live in a culture where error is more readily condoned than non-publication, where it is thought better to put something into print, however incomplete or imperfect it is, rather than to allow the scholarship to mature until it is ripe to be read. You might point to others whose failures are yet worse – those who import citations into their footnotes without checking, those who copy information without doing the research, those who show little respect for the evidence in their keenness to develop an eye-catching argument. But you are not accused of their faults; your own are serious enough. I would have expected you to appreciate that you have a duty to hold yourself to higher standards, not to be drawn into the agenda for mediocrity that ‘research exercises’ and university league-tables have fostered. You are part of a culture that will publish and be damned in the eyes of posterity.
I am aware that you are fond of telling your students ‘we are historians, we trust nobody’. You should recognise that such healthy distrust must extend to yourself.
I am disappointed in you and am a little less respectfully yours,
Mea culpa is my post-script. This new discovery does mean that the files on the Christ Church Library website are inaccurate and out of date. They will be replaced soon – but with the former, imperfect file still present, as a monument to human error. Will that fate placate my alter ego? I will admit that I am still debating that.
When it came to constructing ‘our own’ ‘Very British Renaissance’, the Scots, it seems, had little to contribute. In the first episode of the BBC programme of that title, presented by the art historian Dr James Fox, Stirling Castle made a guest appearance. It stood alone: the second episode of the three-part series dispensed with any attempt to define ‘British’ as anything other than ‘English’, with Wales and, indeed, most of England itself beyond the south-east also forgotten. And, indeed, if those from north of the border played any role in this Renaissance, it was, implicitly, as the bad guys: it all went wrong, the final episode suggested, when James I (as he was described) allowed a Stuart court culture to develop that looked to the ‘foreign Renaissance’ rather than to ‘our homegrown’ one.
You will see that I have stayed the course, selflessly I may say, caring not for blood pressure nor for restful leisure time. After I fulminated about the first episode ‘A Very British Renaissance’, I felt it behove me to continue watching so that you did not have to (and I know several of you are grateful to me for that). And I must admit that the later episodes surprised me in two ways. The first was that I found myself growing to like the tall figure on the small screen. I will admit that ‘to my mind’ – a favourite phrase of Dr Fox – the presenter, in his first instalment, was simply too fey as he chatted up a putto. In the second, which concentrated on Elizabethan England, he was more knowing and his enthusiasm was undeniably infectious. That excitement continued into the last episode but with it came an element not seen before, a certain forthrightness, a willingness to dismiss as much as to delight. The one constant across these later episodes was that he did not cleanse himself of those attitudes which had so successfully raised my hackles earlier: his blithe elision of England with Britain; his unblinking assumption that, of course, these islands had a separate civilization from mainland Europe, and his recourse to a depiction of ‘our’ ‘British’ character which, he implied, the Renaissance reaffirmed and reinforced. In fact, the second surprise was the way in which the third episode saw him dirty his hands further with this greater-England, little-Britain Whiggish cant.
Having given his first discussion over to the supposed domestication of the Italian Renaissance on these shores in the earlier sixteenth century, the second episode had concentrated on how peculiarly ‘British’ was the art of Nicholas Hilliard or were the achievements of Thomas Harriot as the English Leonardo. The final offering took, from its start, a rather different angle, setting up a dichotomy between the court’s ‘foreign’ Renaissance, all classicism, masques and ‘sycophantic drivel’, and the wholesome, homegrown British Renaissance of the ‘real world’ – which turned out to be the Suffolk countryside and Christ Church, Oxford. Now, I am a Houseman, Oxford’s Henrician foundation my alma mater, and the stately expanse of Tom Quad through which Fox walked saw me mature, while the elegance of the Upper Library is where I will be at work with the manuscripts this afternoon, sitting at the desk where the presenter fingered The Anatomy of Melancholy. But even I would not want to claim for this cathedral-college status as the epitome of reality – and not because, before it became known as (and I have truly heard a tour-guide call it thus) ‘Harry Potter’s college’, it was the looking-glass world of Alice. Rather, we should be severely sceptical of any neat distinction between ‘fantasy’ and the ‘real’, as if each did not mediate the other to such an extent that the technicolor and the monochrome bleed together in our lives. The desire for dichotomy – the ordering of the world by binary oppositions – is itself suspect but has been the driving motor of ‘A Very British Renaissance’. Its shift of gear in the third episode begged more questions than it could possibly answer: were there, then, two Renaissances occurring simultaneously in England? Was the ‘Italian Renaissance’ still alive, then, in the early seventeenth century or was the court outdated as well as decadent? When did the division between ‘court’ and – though this was not Fox’s term – ‘country’ develop?
However inconsistent it may be with what went before, it could be said, in its defence, that at least a political thread united this presentation with the previous ones: it would not take a master cryptographer to decode the implications of a tale of an out-of-touch élite squandering money on ‘Europe’ while the true British heroes knew the value of their own land. We could also hope that it should also not take an intelligent viewer many moments to see this is as fictitious as most Europhobic yarns. Fox suggested that while the Stuarts preferred the fripperies of a van Dyck portrait, those elsewhere were developing the English genius, with Nathaniel Bacon both a gardener and an artist of his products, and William Harvey the man who made medicine modern by his discovery of the circulation of the blood. No mention of the genre of the still life of the Dutch Golden Age that clearly inspired Bacon; no hint that Harvey had read the medical pioneers Vesalius or Matteo Realdo Colombo. Perhaps there is something quintessentially ‘British’ in the homegrown’s reliance on the import – and on the self-deception that it is English tout court.
Does this matter? I do recognise that, however well Mr Farage and his band of Europhobes do on 22nd May 2014 when about a quarter of the electorate bother to turn out, it will probably not be with a mental image of ‘A Very British Renaissance’ in their minds that the voters’ hand swings to the UKIP box. I also appreciate that I could be accused of asking too much – a consistent argument, an honesty with the evidence: but this is a television programme! And that, I think, is where my concern lies. My mind veers towards another series airing at the moment, the deliciously satirical take on the modern BBC, ‘W1A’. In the latest episode, there is a scene where the Head of Values is on his phone counselling against moving ‘Songs of Praise’ to the radio to make TV space for ‘Britain’s Tastiest Village’. He suggests it is not in the spirit of Lord Reith – a pause as he listens – and repeats ‘Reith’, the name clearly unfamiliar to his BBC colleague. ‘W1A’ has drawn plaudits for the Corporation’s ability to find comedic value in its corporate workings; perhaps ‘A Very British Renaissance’ was commissioned in a similar spirit, one of parody of the public broadcasting tradition. It takes on a serious subject, it travels to umpteen settings, it has a ‘Dr’, no less, to present it. Yet, if the curious watched the programme in the hope of learning about the Renaissance what could they take from it, apart from possibly unintended and unwanted advice on their voting intentions? There is no clear definition of ‘Renaissance’, a rather incomplete sense of chronology, a cast-list of characters that combines household names with the little known in a manner which could be interesting but is more likely to confuse – not to mention the absence of any discussion of the ‘how’: how precisely, for example, were the English able to access foreign fashions and how that changed over the period. An audience is more likely to leave this befuddled than enlightened.
I am, though, being ungenerous. What a viewer could not help but take away from Dr Fox’s engaged and personable presentation is that there is a relationship between the British Isles and what we call the Renaissance which is worth investigating. That is surely a public service in itself. Maybe it will even convince the Head of Values — or whichever head poncho — that a programme introducing to a wide public the richness and complexity of that history would be worth commissioning.
My wife said to me the other evening: ‘You don’t like being in your comfort zone, do you?’ She knows me.
It is perhaps one reason why I enjoy working with manuscripts that to understand their history you have to move far, far away from any area in which you might be a specialist. And so it was with a small, slightly damaged and utterly undistinguished small codex I was looking at in Christ Church last week. As I have mentioned before, the foundation’s Library holds one of the more eclectic collections of the Oxford colleges, the gifts of grateful graduates, Students (that is, Fellows in the real world that is Oxford elsewhere) or simply friends. The manuscript I was looking at — MS. 122, a commentary on the decretals – was given in the 1640s by a Student of Christ Church, Robert Payne.
Robert Payne has a certain fame, less for the fact that he was a translator of Galileo (his rendition was never printed) than for his friendship with Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, Noel Malcolm has shown that some of the papers and works, now at Chatsworth, attributed to Hobbes should, in fact be credited to Payne. He was an undergraduate at Christ Church in the 1610s and in his time there seems to have become a protégé of Edmund Gunter, mathematician and designer of scientific instruments. Payne proved a loyal son of his alma mater, and in the 1640s made two gifts to Christ Church of books, the manuscript I was studying and, as the donation note records, ‘insuper dono suo adjecit Concavuum Marmortum & Instrumentum æneum Magstri Gunteri’. This much is well-known but what has not been done is to marry up the surviving books and artefacts with his donations.
It could well be said that the fortunes of his other gifts was of tangential interest to the manuscript he presented but I wanted to understand how it may fit into his wider act of largesse. So, I checked the catalogues for matches with the printed books he gave. In many cases, the works and even the editions matched but could not be equated with the ones he gave, presumably because his had been sold off later as a duplicate (there were several such sales in the nineteenth century). So, for instance, for one edition of Euclid given by Payne we have a copy but it cannot be his because it carries a note recording Sir Charles Scarborough’s ownership at the end of the seventeenth century — that note also draws attention to the fact that there are inserted quires of handwritten notes, in the script, it is said, of Edmund Gunter. He was perhaps remembered longer in Christ Church than was Payne.
In other cases, we can be more confident that there is a match when, for instance, a volume combines editions listed consecutively in the donation note. And we can be absolutely certain when Payne’s script is found in the book — a script which is present in several of the Savile collection in the Bodleian and which I can identify with notes in at least two Christ Church volumes. Of those, the one which will attract more interest is the edition of De systemate mundi of Galileo, the author whom Payne translated. The edition has a donation note clearly in Payne’s hand. It is now crossed out but is legible as ‘Ex dono Petri Earle’. Who Mr Earle may have been, I admit I do not yet know.
But what of the objects Payne also gave? As my hospitable host in Christ Church, Cristina Neagu, taught me, the scientific instruments held there had been sent on long-term loan to the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street. They have an excellent on-line catalogue and it did not take much searching to narrow down the possibilities for the ‘instrumentum aeneum’ to one item, a bronze sector made to Gunter’s design in the 1620s and 1630s. The term ‘concauum marmortum’ confused me more and even when I turned to those with expertise, there was further scratching of pates. It took some lateral thinking to find in the same Museum’s on-line catalogue something which could answer to a ‘marbled concave’: it is described as a ‘concave marble disc, for lens polishing?’. The interrogative suggests the cataloguer’s own uncertainty when faced with the object, as does the proposed date of ‘c. 1700?’, which, we can now know, postdates its shaping by over half a century. But that cataloguer was probably not the first to be perplexed by the object — having discovered its identity, it struck me that a similar uncertainty most likely affected the librarian who had to record it in Christ Church’s donation book and, more used to listing paper volumes by their title, could think of no better phrase for what sat on his desk before him than ‘concauum marmortum’. Even the donor’s own lifetime, part of his gift may not have been fully appreciated.
At least, for the librarian, our little manuscript had the advantage of being within his comfort zone. But where does it sit within the rationale Payne must have had for his gifts? The answer is that, in the context of works of science and of Greek and Italian texts, it does not fit. But that is not a negative answer but rather a revelation in itself: the way that a manuscript could be bought as a curiosity, rather than being central to a collection. It rather puts a palaeographer’s interests into a corner.
In short, what we have in these gifts is a tension between two concepts of the library, one which sees it primarily as a stock of books, some new, many old, while the other sees it as a repository of knowledge in all its forms, with an emphasis in novelty and innovation. The latter concept — that of Payne — did not, of course, win out, some might be pleased to remember.
Christ Church was an arriviste on the Oxford scene. The brainchild of England’s most successful butcher’s son, it was founded as Cardinal College only in 1525, when the number of colleges of the university was already in double figures. On Wolsey’s fall, his institution became, in name at least, King’s College, to wallow in neglect until Henry VIII’s attempts to appease the gods for his desacration of the established church by replacing monasteries with new bishoprics led him, at the very end of his reign, to establish in Oxford an institution that combined cathedral and college. It makes Christ Church a unique institution, adding to the roll-call of titles for Oxbridge heads of house (Master, Principal, Warden, Provost, President…) by being the only to one to be ruled by a Dean.
Christ Church might be, then, a new foundation but, like those ennobled from his mates and sidekicks by Henry VIII, it has become part of the fabric of the establishment, the Oxford institution with the closest links to royalty. Not, it must be said, that its illustrious contribution to history — boasting thirteen Prime Ministers, the founders of both Pennsylvania and New Zealand, let alone philosophers, religious reformers and poets among its alumni — is what is uppermost on many visitors’ minds nowadays; it is not even its reputation as the home of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, that attracts people; as I heard a tourist guide say to his teenage flock the other day, it is now known as ‘Harry Potter’s college’.
The late date of its creation and its distinguished connexions both have an interesting effect on its manuscript collection. Christ Church was founded when printed books were already occupying libraries to over-filling; while hand-written books still had an important cultural position and could provide texts not available in print, there was no need for a core of codices as there had been in, say, Merton, or any likelihood of a single donation formed solely of manuscripts, as there had been with the bequest of William Gray, bishop of Ely (d. 1478), to Balliol. At the same time, the young parvenu could not but expect to receive manuscripts as signs of respect from individuals who had been educated in its walls or who had passed through them. The result is a collection that is wonderfully eclectic and also well-stocked with richly decorated volumes. It is with one such manuscript, of suitably aristocratic heritage, that my recent small discovery is concerned.
The volume is a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours, which came to Christ Church as part of its most substantial donation, that of William Wake, himself an alumnus whose career culminated in his tenure of the Archbishopric of Canterbury. His early career saw him in France and it would be attractive to imagine that this Book of Hours came into possession while there. It is certainly a French production but one so rich in illumination that it may be that Wake could only afford to purchase it later in his life. The volume, called the Hours of St Denis, opens with an illumination depicting its commissioner, Guy XV, comte de Laval from 1484 to his death in 1501, a significant political figure with lands in Brittany, richly awarded for his loyalty (while others were not) to the Valois monarchy. The images that enliven every page of this manuscript have been (surely correctly) attributed to an artist known as Maître François. As Thomas Kren demonstrated in an article published in the festschrift to Margaret Manion in 2002, this illuminator was one who worked with a scribe who produced several Books of Hours and who (unusually for copyists of devotional manuscripts) identified himself in one book, the Hours of Jacques of Langeac (now Lyons: Bibliotheque muncipale, MS. 5154). The scribe’s name was Jean Dubreuil, who was active between c. 1465 and c. 1485. What has not been noticed — but what will already be obvious from the title of this post — is that a comparison of the leaves of the Christ Church manuscript with others by Dubreuil shows this book to be an unsigned manuscript by this scribe. It has all the characteristic features of his flowing lettre bâtarde, with the prominent loop on top of the d and the hair-strokes on letters including the e. What is interesting is that the Christ Church book could not have been written before 1484, late in Dubreuil’s known career. Perhaps, though, it was not produced much after that — each count of Laval not only had to take on the name ‘Guy’ but also to adopt the comital coat of arms. Perhaps, then, Guy XV had this Book of Hours produced to celebrate his recently attained status. Perhaps, also, he chose the contents of this lavish volume for private devotion to demonstrate that his own loyalty was not to Brittany but to France. It might, in other words, have been a ‘private’ book but it was one for which using accomplished craftsmen was appropriate for it provided a ‘public’ message.