bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

I have been petrified

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 June, 2013

The other week saw a jolly event: the second launch of Roscoe and Italy, a collection of essays edited by the indefatigable Stella Fletcher. The volume discusses a wide range of aspects of the intellectual life of the Liverpudlian pioneer of Renaissance studies, William Roscoe, including chapters on his friends, including one by myself on William Shepherd, first (and so far only) British biographer of the adventurous humanist, Poggio Bracciolini.

The first launch of the book was in Roscoe’s hometown, an event at which I could not be present. Not to be outdone by Liverpool, Florence decided to have a presentazione, at the British Institute. It involved elegant speeches by Stefano Baldassarri, Mark Roberts of the Institute, and John Law, followed by a lively discussion. During that, I pointed out how wonderfully inappropriate the event was: Roscoe, as is well-known, never left the shores of Britain and, indeed, found travelling to London too unpleasant. He would not have wanted to journey to Florence, and preferred to conjure up its Renaissance identity through the books and paintings with which he surrounded himself.

All the same, it was a pleasure to be able to celebrate both the author and the book about him on the banks of the Arno. There was much praise for the work and it is certainly a stimulating and, indeed, well-produced volume. Of course, no book is without its imperfections, and I am sure sharp-eyed readers will catch some misprints or other infelicities. I myself noticed one on first opening it, but this was a matter of amour propre. On the page with the list of contributors, it is stated ‘David Rundle is Corpus Christi College, Oxford’.

As a battle-cry, it cannot equal ‘I’m Spartacus’ but it is still an impressive claim. The weight of the college’s Headington stone walls sit heavily on my shoulders… It is a bold statement that has left me asking existential question about the meaning of ‘is’. Is ‘is’ as in the cinema bill boards, where to say Helen Mirren is The Queen suggests a representation so impressively real that you could the actor has inhabited the being of the person portrayed? It reminds me of a theatre studies exercise at school in which we each had to act one of the buildings of Macclesfield — I was to be the church (I am told my spire was not up to much but that I made a wicked nave).

Or is ‘is’ to suggest that somehow I capture the quintessence of the institution? I appreciate that my work on humanism in England makes an association between me and the foundation of Richard Fox which was praised (beyond reality) by Erasmus. I am not so sure, though, that that is the entire identity of Corpus now, nor am I sure I am, in character, any more a Corpuscule than I am a Houseman (Christ Church being my alma mater).

But then, perhaps, ‘is’ means here simply that I have come to look like the crenellated quadrangles of the small but complex College. If that is the case, I truly am petrified.

Rod Thomson discovers a Humfrey manuscript

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 2 July, 2009

On Thursday 2nd July in the Year of Our Lord 2009, most people in Oxford were wondering how to survive the relentless heat. Rod Thomson, meanwhile, was working coolly away in Corpus library, where, to add to his already-extensive record of scholarly achievements, he now can add unearthing a manuscript formerly owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. It is a discovery that has made the sun shine all the brighter on my day.

The manuscript is Corpus MS. 1, a later thirteenth-century Bible, localised to Oxford. What had previously gone unnoticed was the partially covered, and partially erased ex libris at the top of the final verso (fol. 488v). I can confirm that it is undeniably and irrefutably the ‘short’ ownership inscription by the duke: Cest livre est a moy homfrey duc de gloucestre. The erasure, which removed part of the Christian name and all words following, is by scraping (itself a scrape of information which may assist to piece together this manuscript’s odyssey).

The verbum probatorium does not accord with the inventories of the duke’s gifts the University of Oxford, nor to any entry in the catalogue of King’s College, Cambridge (where a few – we should not overstate the number – of his books were washed up after his death).  This codex can, therefore, take its place among the majority of those which survive from his collection for it is a remarkable fact that it appears that the rate of survival of those that reached an institution in his lifetime, or soon after,  has been lower than those that remained in his hands. At the same time, this manuscript is highly unusual among the extant books which he owned as it is the only complete Bible that we can say for certainty was his. There are, of course, his lavish Psalters (London: BL, MSS Royal 2 B I and Yates Thomson 14) but nothing quite in this category.

It is for Prof. Thomson to coax further from the manuscript the secrets it blushes to tell the world, as he continues his work on the catalogue of the college’s collection. What is certain is that he can take his place among a small group of scholars who, in the past century, have discovered a manuscript once owned by ‘Good Duke Humfrey’. The roll-call includes Berthold Ullman, Roberto Weiss, Christopher de Hamel, Tilly de la Mare, Ian Doyle and, most recently, the young Dutch scholar, Hanno Wijsman. I hope Rod considers himself in worthy company.