bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard VI: an unnoticed manuscript from the circle of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 May, 2018

The thrill of the library lies mainly, as I have said before, in allowing serendipity to work its magic and wish upon you a discovery. We might also consider that there is a taxonomy of such discoveries. There are those that are instantaneous and inescapable: they insist on not being ignored. Others, in contrast, are more surreptitious, not revealing themselves immediately but growing as a suspicion in one’s mind. There is, we should add, a third category: that ‘find’ which first seems plausible only to evaporate on further inspection — on those occasions, serendipity is more akin to the satanic verses.

We always hope, of course, to avoid that third class, and the one I am about to discuss falls instead into the second category. The endpoint (or final cause) of this post is, as usual on this trip to Cambridge MA, to provide a description of the manuscript in question, even though there is an excellent description in print by Laura Light; the rationale for compiling a new one is that we can now have a deeper understanding of the production of the volume. As an introduction to that description, it may perhaps be of some interest to reconstruct the steps I took to making this discovery.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Lat. 41, p. 3

Sir Edward Dering (1598-1644) by William Dobson (c) The Royal Welsh Regimental Museum Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

My attention was drawn to MS. Lat. 41, an acephalous and (slightly) imperfect humanist copy of Cornelius Nepos, by a line in Laura Light’s description. She notes that it had been in the collection of Sir Edward Dering (1598-1644); that makes this volume a relatively early arrival from Italy in England and, while there are cases of early seventeenth-century imports, it raised the question of whether he was its first English owner. On seeing the manuscript, it became clear that he was not, because at a back flyleaf which was once the original wrapper to the book, there are two prayers in Latin, written in an English secretary script of the mid-sixteenth century. Their addition could give pause to thought: are they pre-Edwardian or Marian or perhaps recusant? I admit I did not stop to think further because their presence, pushing back its English provenance further, raised the question of how the book reached the country. In the mid-century, England was, notoriously, more of an exporter of manuscripts than an importer, and it is therefore likely that it arrived in an earlier generation: but by what route?

This query in my mind was compounded by the sensation the manuscript exuded of being familiar. The manuscript is localised by Light (on the basis of advice from A. C. de la Mare) as being from ‘Northeastern Italy, s. xv2’. This seemed right to me but I wondered whether we could narrow down place and date further. First of all, the counterpart to the back flyleaf — the front part of the wrapper — presented a contents list written in a script, contemporaneous with the text, which I was sure I had seen before, in a manuscript in the Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 2. 19. I did not have an image of the relevant page to hand, but through the good offices and humanitas of Daniel Wakelin, one arrived on my screen and confirmed my suspicion. We know the name of this person: he called himself ‘Doctor Garsia Petri’, and we also know that he was in contact with a nobleman visiting Italy in 1458-61 from England, John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester. It may, in fact, be Doctor Garsia who gave Tiptoft MS. Auct. F. 2. 19, a copy of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations in a variety of littera antiqua associated with (but not by) the leading Paduan scribe, Bartolomeo Sanvito.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 41, p. 2

Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 2. 19, fol. 139 (with thanks to Dan Wakelin, whose finger appears here, for the photo).

What is more — and what ensured MS. Lat. 41 exuded that sense of familiarity — its main script has strong similarities with that in MS. Auct. F. 2. 19. It is by no means as calligraphic, even at times appearing to be rushed, and we might doubt that the scribe of the Oxford manuscript (and of other ones, listed by de la Mare and Nuvoloni in the appendix to their indispensable study of Sanvito) could ever make something as unaccomplished as this volume. Even if it is not by him, though, the similarities suggest that it came from the same milieu: that is, Padua, early in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. I will admit, though, that my suspicion is that we are, in truth, seeing the same scribe at work (as it were) on an off day.

There are, then, associations with Tiptoft but he obviously was not the only book-collector in north-east Italy in the later 1450s. Is there anything which could confirm an association with him? I went through the manuscript several times and there are not the usual tell-tale signs that I have mentioned on other occasions as being found in other manuscripts owned by him: neither his distinctive manicula nor any annotation next to the text appears here. There are, however, running headers in one of the lives presented here — and their script does appear to be a match for that of a running header in another Bodleian manuscript, MS. Auct. F. 1. 7, where the intervention is certainly by Tiptoft.

Cambridge MA: Houghton, MS. Lat. 41, p. 25, with running header by John Tiptoft

Oxford: Bodleian, Ms. Auct. F. 1. 7, fol. 2, with running header (and annotation at foot) by John Tiptoft.

In other words, the evidence accumulated by turning the pages of MS. Lat. 41 eventually made it undeniable that this manuscript was made in Padua in the later 1450s and was used by John Tiptoft. In the title of the post and in the description, however, I have refrained from claiming he owned it. There were other Englishmen in his entourage who could have commissioned it (and for whom a manuscript of lesser quality would have been more fitting); it is also known that the earl sometimes wrote in books he did not own. Equally, though, there is no sign of his companions — either John Free or John Gunthorp — in this volume. Perhaps I am being overly cautious, but better to err on that side than over-confidence.

I am open to persuasion on that point but it does not greatly affect the consequence of the discovery. It takes the number of manuscripts associated with Tiptoft to forty, an increase of over 30% since the last detailed discussion by Tilly de la Mare thirty years ago. It has long been known that Tiptoft was an avid collector and reader of humanist books but the surviving evidence for his interests has necessarily be considered meagre. That is changing and with it not only our understanding of the earl but also of the Italian milieux in which he moved. Let us hope that serendipity strikes again.

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A surge in Surigone studies

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 20 February, 2014

There are some humanists who we can know were significant in their own day but who are little more than a name to us. Such is the case with Stefano Surigone, who was from Milan but who spent much of his career in northern Europe. He is sometimes mentioned by English scholars for the verses he wrote in praise of Geoffrey Chaucer which were printed by William Caxton. That moment in his career tends to be noted with little further interest in him or his other works. There are a few worthy souls who are exceptions — he is mentioned by David Carlson in English Humanist Books, Dan Wakelin has perceptive comments to make on him in an excellent essay in a volume which (ahem) I edited, Rod Thomson a few years ago found a letter mentioning him which suggests the status he held in English literary circles. And now Surigone has been given further attention in an article on the lively England’s Immigrants site, run by the University of York, by Holly James-Maddocks, who is doing exciting work on fifteenth-century English illumination.

What Holly’s article demonstrates is a feature of the book-producing community which provided one of the themes of my lectures last term: its cosmopolitanism. Surigone, the immigrant at work in Oxford in the 1450s could turn to a local illuminator, John Bray, to beautify the admittedly rather unprepossessing small volume he wanted to turn into a presentation manuscript. It might be added that Surigone’s career reflects another element of this cosmopolitanism: the movability of humans. In a society where the vast majority would never in their life travel more than a few miles from their place of birth, a few exhibited a Wanderlust which saw them criss-cross Europe. So, Surigone did not stay in England from the 1450s until his dealings with Caxton a few decades later: in the meantime, he had been to continental university towns including Cologne.

In his absence, though, or after his final departure, he was certainly remembered by some Englishmen with admiration. This is what is revealed by the letter found by Rod Thomson, in Oxford’s Corpus Christi College. It is by the College’s first President, John Claymond, and speaks of Surigone’s teaching. That leaves us with a possible explanation for why he is little-known to us. There survives the manuscript discussed by Holly James-Maddocks, and another of his poems, but beyond that there are few witnesses to Surigone’s literary output. Was it that his interest was more in educating the next generation than in providing posterity with evidence of his genius? And is it the lot of the inspiring teacher to be remembered only for a short while, and then forgotten?

Putting shelfmarks in their place

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 5 December, 2010

I have been proof-reading a chapter that is about to appear in a volume on the production of books in late medieval England, edited by those fine young scholars (young in comparison to me), Alex Gillespie and Dan Wakelin. The publishers, CUP, in their wisdom have decided in one case to move the shelfmark of a manuscript I mention from the footnote into the text itself. Apparently, their house style tends to place shelfmarks in the body of a work — something I strive to avoid. This has set me thinking about the most appropriate way to cite manuscripts or specific copies of printed works.

Let me start by saying that there are some cases when I would certainly provide a shelfmark in the text itself: you only need to look at the manuscript descriptions I have put on-line to find instances of that. When I do that, I like to mark out the shelfmark typographical, my preference being for small caps. There is a difference, though, between a description or a catalogue, and continuous prose forming an article or chapter. Even in this latter case, I could see an argument for citing shelfmarks within a sentence, if you were having to publish with endnotes rather than footnotes. Then again, it would be better to avoid being published in such a format – but that is a debate for another time.

Considering why my strong preference is for avoiding shelfmarks in the text and having them cited at the bottom of the page, in the footnote, it seems to me that there are two reasons. The first could be dismissed as stylistic — but style is central (or should be central) to our practice as authors. The presence of a shelfmark, with or without the library abbreviated, is an intervention in the flow of the prose, a distraction from the words and their argument. If the manuscript needs to be identified in the text, much better to think of a verbal designation rather than a formula of words and number. Those who favour shelfmarks in the text would probably argue that it aids precision — but what I think they mean is that it looks more ‘scientific’. And that, indeed, is probably the nub of this issue: as authors, we are not scientists who cite equations or formulae, and we should not pretend we are by adopting a pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Placing shelfmarks in the text may exude an aura of forensic scholarship, but all it actually does is make the text less readable than it really should be.

The second point is equally important and also defines more tightly the alternatives for citing a manuscript in continuous prose. Reference to a shelfmark in text does not only distract, it can also mislead:  it necessarily associates the book in the reader’s mind with its present location rather than its earlier history.  This is a problem, obviously, also with talking a manuscript by a loconym based on its present home, like ‘the Madrid Hours’. That manuscript was of Low Countries manufacture (illuminated by the ‘Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy’) and was owned by an Englishman. It might be said that there is no harm to this practice, as the loconym so obviously does not relate to its origin, and that would, of course, be the case for an American or antipodean repository. But in other cases it is positively dangerous because there is still a tendency to assume present location may relate to origin, when usually the history is more complex. Let me give a specific example: it relates to a manuscript made by Thomas Chaundler, now Oxford: New College, MS. 288 (a description of it is available on-line). Chaundler was Warden of New College and so it might seem logical to assume that the volume was always in Oxford. But that is demonstrably not the case: he had it made for Thomas Bekynton, bishop of Bath and Wells, and it was in Wells that it lived, certainly into the 1530s when it was seen by John Leland. Its eventual arrival at New College presumably reflects a later appreciation of the author’s association with that Wykhamist foundation and so tells us more about the subsequent history of the construction of the College’s identity, rather than its earlier history.

In short, let us keep shelfmarks in their rightful place: they are welcome on the page, as long as they confine themselves to the footnotes and avoid distracting or misleading readers by inserting themselves in the text. Shelfmarks are, I suppose, a little like Victorian children: they should be seen but not have erred into the flow of one’s prose.