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.