bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

John Leland and a sense of humour

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 31 January, 2022
John Leland (image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

A wry smile is not a gesture one would usually associate with John Leland (d. 1552), the self-styled restorer of British antiquity. We are more likely to envisage this scholar as so fearlessly learned that his intellect would brook no laughter; we might also use for him the cliché of a tortured soul, given that his last years were dogged by mental ill health (it is surely time that we stopped using that other well-worn phrase, ‘he went mad’). We might even suppose that we detect a connexion between those two biographical elements: we might sense that he was a second Funes, Jorge Luis Borges’s character whose memory was so prodigious — to the extent that he could never be forgetful — that it became to him intolerable, and was the cause of his demise. Yet, no person is only one person and so indulge me as I attempt to persuade you that on at least a single occasion Leland allowed himself a subtle sense of humour.

I should explain that I have found it recently necessary for my own learning to make myself better known to the learned Leland. He may have noticed me in past decades turning the pages of his notebooks in the Bodleian, interested in his book-lists. He may also have been aware that I have dabbled in his collection of lives of British writers, now restored to its intended title of De viris illustribus by its editor and Leland’s greatest living friend, James Carley. In recent weeks, however, I have been paying more attention to his Latin epigrams. This was originally for a short chapter I had been asked to write by Will Rossiter at Norwich for a volume he is editing with Petra Rau on Europe in British Literature and Culture. Working on that, however, made me realise that these poems were going to be centrally important for my developing research, as I attempt to reframe the history of the ‘Renaissance’ in England. A first attempt to express, in (I predict) characteristically tongue-tied fashion, what I want to say will be unveiled this Thursday at a research seminar which is, so to speak, a home fixture — a talk to the colleagues, friends and rising stars who make up the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent.

In that talk, brief reference will be given to Leland’s predecessors as writers of a collection of neo-Latin epigrams — brief because that is the space they are given within his pages. In particular, if we were to take as the basis for judgement the number of words composed about a person, Thomas More was not much on his mind. There are some passing references to More, but only one short poem which centres on him; Leland spends more time celebrating More’s daughters than their father. Margaret (Roper by marriage), Elizabeth (Dauncey) and Cecily (Heron) were certainly impressively learned but the reticence to give similar focus to More himself is doubly remarkable. First, because, as Leland makes it clear in one of his poems about those daughters, the poet was well-known enough to More to be invited into the sometime Chancellor’s house in Chelsea. Second, if there was any Englishman before Leland whose work as a lyric poet in classicising style would have been known to the international republic of letters, it was More, whose Epigrammata were printed alongside his Utopia.

Certainly, not all the attention paid to More’s verse was positive: More himself had chosen the medium of poetry to mock the French humanist, Germaine de Brie, who did not rise above the occasion but instead honoured his attacker with a publication dedicated to him, the Antimorus (1519), which included accusations that More’s prosody was faulty. As Carley has noted in a justly well-known article, Leland came to know both parties in this spat, as he spent some of the 1520s in Paris. The one time he pays attention to More in his poems is when he comments on the dispute:


Brixius est nivei candoris plenus, et ille
Iudicii veri libera verba ferit.
Brixius aequavit mellito carmine Morum,
Clarior ingenii nomine Morus erat.

Here it is in the translation of Prof. Dana Sutton, the man who has done so much for neo-Latin studies through his website, the Philological Museum, that we are all have a deep debt of gratitude to him:


Brixius is full of fair candour, and he lashes out at ill-considered words. Brixius has corrected More in respect to honeyed verse, yet More was the more distinguished in terms of intellect.

This appears carefully balanced and the usual assumption is that was the intention: Leland wanted to avoid offending either party — if, that is, one of they came to read it; while a few of his verses circulated, his collection remained unprinted at his death, only being brought to a wider public in 1589, by Thomas Newton, a countryman of my childhood home, being from Macclesfield. If, though, More had come by this, I wonder if he would have complimented Leland on his judiciousness. I suspect not. More was notorious for his humour which often could be a cutting wit. This was on display in his own epigrams where one of his techniques was ambivalent phrasing, allowing ironic readings worthy of Utopia. He might have wanted to see that in Leland’s own words, and so it is worth considering whether Leland could have ignored that trait when writing this.

So, I think we should look again and bear in mind one particular fact which would have been known to any reader of More or of his ‘darling’ Erasmus, withhis Encomium Moriae: both enjoyed playing on ‘Morus’ as not Latin but a rendering of the Greek ‘morus / moros’, meaning fool. If we imagine for a moment that Leland might be providing a Morean play on his name with the Greek, then that would allow the second couplet to mean: ‘In his smooth verse, Brie matched a fool, and his genius was better known by the name of fool’. If read in this way, it then allows a re-reading of the first couplet: Leland uses ‘niveus candor’ often as a compliment, but what if the noun has in this instance its allegorical sense of ‘innocence’; Prof. Sutton translates ‘ferit’ as ‘lashes out’ (taking ‘fero’ in the sense of bearing arms), but it could be as in bearing wounds, in other words to accept them: ‘Brie is full of white innocence, and that man bears honest words of true judgement’ (‘libera’ as ‘free’ in a positive rather than a negative sense). That is to say, Leland is the one passing judgement with unguarded words of true judgement.

I am not suggesting that what I have said is the single way in which it should be read, but rather Leland is allowing it to be read in more than one way – and, in so doing, is neatly emulating More. I would take the ambivalence of ‘ille’ in the first line (who is the ‘he’?) as a gesture to hint at the multiple layers to follow, and one which suggests how he is linking More and Brie together, subtly suggesting that the latter is guilty of the mistakes for which he blames the former. To put it another way: Brie is a fool if he takes More as a fool.

Or am I the fool for thinking that Leland would fool around in Morean fashion? I am not proposing this was his usual mode of working, but if he were to attempt something more ambivalent, this would be the moment to let it happen. I would be interested in your thoughts.

If you want to hear more on Leland and on how he configures the ‘Renaissance’ in England, then join us this Thursday at 5pm GMT: the seminar will be both in person and online, if you register ahead. Be warned: in a possibly Morean manoeuvre, there will be misdirection.

How codicology helps – a tale from the Upper Library of Christ Church

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 16 November, 2014

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:

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. 486, fol. 1

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. 486, fol. 1

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.

Danae Suttoni plurimas gratias, or Polydore Vergil on the net

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2014

That indefatigable scholar, Prof. Dana Sutton, clearly had a busy summer. He has both been updating his very valuable ‘Analytic Bibliography of on-line Neo-Latin Texts‘ and adding to its main source, that is, his own ‘Philological Museum‘ of editions he provides of Renaissance Latin works. It would be hard for any student of early modern England to avoid using this significant and continually expanding repository. For one thing (as Jim Binns taught us some time ago), a sixteenth-century Englishman wanting to publish a text in the learned language of Latin would usually look to the continental presses, rather than to those in Westminster or London: it is axiomatic that, in terms of printing, England was a backwater, with texts using the new technology regularly an import like the paper on which they were produced. This means that Early English Books On-line is not the quick short-cut to the text for many works written by Englishmen; the database, originally designed to put on the web those items listed in the Short-Title Catalogue (up to 1641), necessarily overstates the insularity of our forefathers by under-representing their ability to compose in our civilization’s lingua franca. There is a supplementary reason why Prof. Sutton’s Museum is a place all early modernists must visit: many of the works it contains have no critical edition and, when they do (as with, for instance, Andrea Ammonio’s Carmina of 1511), Sutton has a sharp eye for their failings. The Museum, in other words, is no side-show; it is the main act.

What has happened in recent months is that Dana Sutton’s has been turning his attention to Polydore Vergil, that humanist from Urbino who spent most of his adult life away from his hill-top hometown, swapping its sunshine for the more sullen skies that hang above London. He is surely best known for his monumental Anglica Historia, though his name is also associated with encyclopaedic De inventoribus, now available in the edition by Brian Copenhaver in that indispensable series, the I Tatti Renaissance Library. In addition, he was the author of a collection of adages – clashing with Erasmus over which of them should be considered the ‘inventor’ of that genre. What is more, as Dana Sutton is reminding us, he was the author of several dialogues, four of which appeared together in a Basel edition of 1545 but which, as Sutton suggests, were most likely composed at various earlier dates. All of them are now available in the virtual exhibition rooms of the Philological Museum, complete with foonotes (mainly identifying citations), translations and introductions. His painstaking efforts may not be enough to establish Vergil as an innovative dialogue-writer – their style is, in some ways, old-fashioned, sitting in a tradition of Christianising classicism that stretches back beyong Battista Spagnoli (Mantuanus) to Poggio Bracciolini – but their interest lies, in part, in their ‘ordinariness’.

The editorial work on these texts allows them to stand alone as witnesses to Prof. Sutton’s assiduity, but, in addition, as is shown in his introduction to Vergil’s Dialogus de Patientia, they form part of a wider vision of the reign of Henry VII which he has already outlined elsewhere in his Museum. He gives it fuller expression here, opening by saying that ‘in most studies of the introduction of Humanism into England, there is one figure who inevitably fails to receive the credit that is his due’ – and that is the new king himself. In this interpretation, Henry, aware of the ‘new learning’ from his time in France and Burgundy, recognises the importance of training his own people in it, both for diplomatic and for propaganda purposes, and appreciates that until his countrymen have become better educated, he needs must rely on imported humanists, like Polydore Vergil himself. I summarise the argument because, in the footnote to his first sentence, Prof. Sutton  chides me (with great gentility) for exemplifying the lack of attention to Henry as introducer of the studia humanitatis to England. It is absolutely true that I have not given him that credit, and it is for one (to my mind) good reason: I do not believe he deserves it. I do not want to act like the sort of churlish reviewer for whom other people’s works are fodder to their own egomania; you can end reading here with my praise of Dana Sutton’s hyper-activity ringing in your ears, but if you believe my scepticism demands an explanation, you can read a very brief response in the following final paragraph.

To my mind, there is a cluster of difficulties to the interpretation I have just outlined. In terms of chronology, it post-dates the use of humanist fashions in English diplomatic correspondence and oratory, while also allowing the impression that there was a wholescale shift to Ciceronian rhetoric; in truth, many products of chanceries – across Europe and not just in this corner of the world – remained resolutely unreformed. In conceptual terms, the interpretation seems to me to misrepresent the power of ‘propaganda’ in the early sixteenth century – or, rather, its limitations. Many of the products of Henry VII’s so-called grex poetarum were not propagated to a wide public; they were more often intended for the delectation of those on the king’s immediate orbit, a reflection of a set of developing habits which defined ‘court culture’. That culture could, indeed, have diplomatic value, as transmitted back by foreign visitors to their governments but it was not about the moulding of ‘public opinion’ which we usually take to be the definition of propaganda. A good example of this is provided by Vergil himself. To reiterate a suggestion I made some years ago, it seems to me that if Henry VII had envisaged that it was a shrewd method of achieving propaganda to dispense with some excess wealth by furnishing the visiting papal diplomat from Urbino with a pension that would allow him the time to write a history of England, then he must have died disappointed. This was not just a function of the decades that it took to write the work; when it was produced, there seems to have been no sense of urgency from the government for projecting their ‘propaganda tool’ to their people or to the world. It was Vergil himself who sought to have it published, like so many English neo-Latin writers, elsewhere in Europe, and it was Vergil who provided manuscripts of the work, not for his English patrons, but for the duke of his hometown of Urbino. Guidobaldo was also, as we see from the excellent recourse provided to us by Dana Sutton, the dedicatee of the set of dialogues published in 1545: a few years later, and Vergil was back in his hometown. We do not need to presume that the dedication was a tactic specifically intended to smooth the way for his return, but it does seem that repeatedly in his English years the humanist made attempts to continue to be in good favour with his original lords. If Polydore Vergil perceived his Historia as propaganda, it was more as a display of his own genius then as the mouthpiece of England’s regime. And for King Henry, father or son, the very presence of the humanist was evidence enough of their royal generosity or magnificence in providing a pension, a process of remuneration which had the added benefit of encouraging a demonstration of loyalty by the author second-guessing what his patron might want him to say. To propagate a specific message to their people, though, a monarch knew they had weapons mightier than any neo-Latin pen.