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.
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.
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.