bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

An apparent corrigendum

Posted in Academic Practices, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 4 May, 2015

I have today been able to add the latest article to my list of publications. It is one whose prose will seem somehow familiar to those of you who are attentive readers with retentive memories: ‘Good Duke Humfrey: Bounder, Cad and Bibliophile’, which has just appeared in the Bodleian Library Record, began life as a lecture to Bodley’s Volunteer Guides, an extempore performance then written up as two instalments on this blog. What has now appeared replicates that with some – but, as we shall see, not enough – refinement and with the addition of the latest version of the listing of the Duke’s manuscripts, which has also appeared as a page here (what the print version does not incorporate are the links to images which, as you will see on that page’s comments, was very helpfully supplemented last year by an assiduous reader, Bradley Dubbs). This article, then, can be said to have been born digital but have grown up hard copy.

Here is an inside tip: the significance of the piece lies in its appendix which, as it were, wags the tale told in the main text. The body of article is in knock-about, hopefully crowd-pleasing style, with only light annotation. What the listing of manuscripts provides, in contrast, is as authoritative statement as possible of what we know about the Duke’s library at the present time. I have been reluctant in the past to publish this in hard copy since that captures in a permanent form our state of knowledge which is necessarily incomplete and open to addition. I still have qualms but, at the same time, I have come to recognise that there is a use to taking stock of where scholarship presently stands and recording that moment to encourage others to rise to the challenge of supplementing what we know. While that can best be done on-line, this format does not reach as effectively all who work in this corner of the field of bibliographical endeavour. Hard copy exudes some aura of bona fides not available to a personal website, for an article goes through review, editorial checking and the intervention of a copy-editor. That process, in this instance, changed details of the presentation but not the substance of either the main text or the appendix, but the result is something which has a sense of permanence. What I am saying is that it is a fixity provided by publication which the rationale of publication intends should be undermined. This is an article which wants to be superseded.

What it did not want is for its errors to be noticed immediately. But, when I was able to open the hard-copy off-prints on Thursday evening and browsed through the first paragraphs, I was left dismayed by an egregious lapsus calami made by the author (remember, I am his severest critic). At the top of p. 37, explaining Humfrey’s status as royal prince, it describes him – not once but twice – as ‘heir apparent’ to his nephew, Henry VI. This is, of course, arrant nonsense. The designation of ‘heir apparent’ is reserved to that member of the family who will inherit come what may but Humfrey’s chances of succeeding could have been thwarted if Henry were to marry and to father a child. That, of course, might have seemed unlikely considering the young king had run away at the sight of naked female flesh cavorting before him at his court. Indeed, when (five years after Humfrey’s death) Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, did give birth to a son, many suspected that the king could not have been the father. All the same, the possibility of Henry siring a son made his uncle not heir apparent but heir presumptive.

This is, I should add, a slip that was made in the blog-post of the lecture and was imported from there into the article. The conclusion might, then, be that my prose had failed to rise to the more exacting standards of print publication, though I am not convinced we should allow lower standards on-line. The difference, instead, is that what is posted on the internet is mutable and thus corrigible. I use this website, at times, as a safe forum in which to essay a first version of what I will later circulate in print with the aspiration that time and others’ reading will help me improve my expression and my argument. That, at least, is the theory. In this case, obviously, it did not happen and I am left wondering whether I can hunt down all the copies in the world and correct them myself.

Being faced with one’s own fallibility is not a new experience, I suspect, for any of us. As I may have said to you before, I find re-reading one’s own previous writings shaming and doubly so – both because there is a queasy feeling that one could not acheive now what was written then and, at the same time, there is the hot sensation of embarrassment at seeing what ignorance one once had. However hard we try, we cannot wash away all the errors in our writing. We should not, perhaps, take that in the spirit of Luther when he said esto peccator and pecca fortiter, implying that we could not avoid our sinful nature and so should learn to live with it. We scholars can, after all, avoid making error by the simple expedient of not publishing in a format that proclaims its fixity. As academics, we are a breed that over-produces in the publications we spawn – we live in a culture that encourages and celebrates such over-production (yes, the REF is blind). Perhaps we should stop to think – as authors and as peer-reviewers – that if a work is half-good, then it is not good enough to see the light of day: a half-bad publication is one which may do more to set back than to move forward scholarship.

That said, this article is now published and I cannot press a recall button. As it is, I hope that with its detailed appendix it rises above the half-way mark of goodness. What I ask of its readers is that you sit with a pencil and lightly correct, p. 37, lines 3 and 4, deleting ‘apparent’ and writing in the margin ‘presumptive’. Be like the early modern readers who thought of any book they bought as not finished by the act of leaving the printing-house and, instead, inviting their own interventions. And what I suggest to you who are my colleagues on-line is that we should adopt more of the habits of the res publica litteraria: let us be bolder with each other, readier to correct each other (in an affirmative fashion). That would surely strengthen our community and be no bad thing for scholarship.

Good Duke Humfrey: bounder, cad and bibliophile (Part II)

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2013

Following on from yesterday’s post, here is the second half of the Christmas Lecture that I gave to the Bodleian’s Volunteer Guides on 16th December 2013:

The reason Humfrey’s interest in Eleanor Cobham raised both eyebrows and ire was that it entailed abandoning his first wife, the woman known in English as Jacqueline of Hainault but named in other European languages as Jacqueline (or Jacoba) of Bavaria. She had come to England in Henry V’s reign, seeking support for her claim to win her inheritance in the Low Countries which had been occupied by her uncle. The king’s intention seems to have been to use his protection of Jacqueline as an opportunity to put pressure on his Burgundian allies. After Henry’s death, Humfrey decided to continue that policy by marrying her – not recognising, his peers said, that, in the changed circumstances after the king’s death, such strong-arm tactics were no longer sensible. The Duke attempted a military foray into the Low Countries in 1424-25 but with little success, leaving his wife imprisoned and Eleanor Cobham, a lady-in-waiting to Jacqueline, in her bed.

Yet, Humfrey’s love-life was not as simple as such a summary suggests. Those contemporaries – including a delegation of the women of London – who were scandalised by the Duke’s abandoning of Jacqueline would surely have been all the more shocked if they had known the full story, which we can piece together from the flyleaves of one manuscript. It is a copy of the poems of Jean Froissart, probably brought by the author himself to England in 1395. In the early fifteenth century, it was owned by Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, as showed by an inscription at the front of the book. Below that, and on the back flyleaf also, there are notes in another hand, that of Humfrey himself. In some he declares his affection for Jacqueline, writing ‘Cest bien saison A Jaque de Bavarie’, but others among the notes reveal that he was not a model of constancy. On more than one occasion, he writes ‘plus laide nya Jaque de Bavarie’ – there is no one uglier than Jacqueline. Ungallant, indeed, but if we wonder why he wrote this, the explanation comes from the same page, for he also writes ‘plus belle nya my waryny’, identifying the new object of his affections not as Eleanor but as Warigny, that is is Jeanne de Warigny, wife of one Jacqueline’s equerries. Clearly, from Jacqueline’s bed to Eleanor’s there were stopping-off points on the way.

This does not exhaust the list of Humfrey’s love conquests. There must have been at least one other mistress, though we cannot identify her by name. He acknowledged having two illegitimate children, Arthur, who was arrested with him at Bury St Edmunds, and Antigone (an unusual name but one not unknown in fifteenth-century England). The latter married and, in 1436, had a child, suggesting that she must have been born at the latest at the time of Humfrey’s Burgundian escapade and perhaps a little earlier. Given all this activity, it is little wonder than the Duke’s surgeon, Gilbert Kymer, later to be Chancellor of this University, when writing medical guidance for Humfrey during his time in the Low Countries, suggesting, as the text’s learned eighteenth-century editor put it, that his master may be too given to the ways of Venus. The burden of the advice is that sex is good for you, but not that much.

If we turn a few years later, though, when Humfrey had settled into married life with Eleanor – a union which was to have no issue – it seems that his attentions had shifted from female flesh to the flesh of animals that is parchment. This may be a double optical allusion: the evidence may understate the Duke’s continuing virility and it may be that he was busily collecting manuscripts in the 1420s, but most of the evidence we have for his bookish activities does come from the later part of his life. To those books I should finally return and consider the issue that I mentioned earlier: how come the collection so generously provided for the University of Oxford by Humfrey could perish little more than a century after it had been donated?

The story often told – you may have told it yourself to visitors to the Bodleian – talks of a catastrophe inspired by Reformation zeal. In campaigns to stamp out superstition, there were government Visitations of the University in 1535 and in 1549. Tales of books being thrown out from college libraries come from the first Visitation but it was in the wake of the second that the University decided to close its Library. It is sometimes claimed that the closure was preceded by a bonfire of the Library’s books and that only a tiny remnant of the collection remained in the University’s possession.

This, though, both understates and misdescribes the loss. It understates in as much as it is sometimes said that one manuscript did survive the destruction as the property of the University. It is a commentary on Valerius Maximus which has been in the Bodleian nearly all this ‘modern’ Library’s life and was included in its very first catalogue of 1602, but it was not originally intended to be held in the University Library: it was made on the orders of John Whethamstede, abbot of St Albans for Gloucester College (on the site of what is now, by a change of geographical affiliation, Worcester College). In other words, there is no survivor from the third Library of the University that stayed in situ until Bodley’s founding of his fourth Library. The loss in the mid-sixteenth century was complete.

At the same time, for all the evocative tales of pages flying in the wind like butterflies, there is no contemporary evidence to prove that there was, in fact, any conflagration somewhere close to where we sit this evening that engulfed Humfrey’s tomes. The tales of that occurring are heard first in the seventeenth century and they may not reflect any accurate memory stretching back to the 1540s. It is certainly the case in the second quarter of the sixteenth century that, in England, whole libraries were closed, their contents thrown out, often to be dismembered, individual pages to be used in wrapping gloves or binding books. That practice was the result both of Reformation events – the Dissolution of the Monasteries as well as the rooting out of popish practices – and of new technology, the arrival of printed books pushing out of place old handwritten volumes that were now outdated and, for many, not yet so ‘retro’ they were fashionable. That something like this happened to part of the University Library is suggested by a note in one manuscript, now in Oxford’ s Corpus Christi College. Beneath Humfrey’s ownership note, a later possessor, John Dee, the Elizabethan scholar and astrologer, records that he had bought the manuscript in 1557, when it was sold by weight. It very much sounds as if this manuscript – and others – was on the market not for its content but for its residual value as scrap.

However, there were, I want to suggest to you today, other more specific reasons why the third University Library died. To demonstrate this, I want to introduce, finally, another manuscript, one which was not recognised as being either Humfrey’s or the University’s until I made the fortunate discovery ten years ago. It is a celebrated manuscript, produced in the late eleventh century for the Abbey of Thorney and is known as the Thorney Computus. At the end of this heavy tome there is an inscription that has been erased and not previously deciphered but, under ultra-violet light, it is legible and explains that this book belongs to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and was given to him by the Abbot of Thorney in 1431. One wonders whether one or more of the monks had a tear in their eye when they saw their most precious manuscript being carried off in the Duke’s entourage. Humfrey himself did not enjoy ownership of it for very long, since, in 1439, it was to be part of his first large donation to the University, and is recorded as such in the Register. What is relevant for us now, though, is not how it arrived in Oxford but how it departed – and that was in the saddle-bags of an alumnus, antiquary and, yes, book-thief called Robert Talbot. This man had form as a remover of volumes from libraries: there is a letter from 1531 noting that a book wanted by Thomas Cromwell was not in place in New College Library and it was conjectured that it was in Talbot’s hands, for someone had seen him with it, with its chain still dangling from it. Significantly, Talbot left Oxford that same year of 1531, putting the loss of the Thorney Computus to at least four years before the first Reformation Visitation of the University. This is a loss that cannot be put down to the impact of Protestantism.

I take this manuscript as emblematic of a wider phenomenon. We know that, in the early sixteenth century, there were difficulties with the Library keeping to its stated opening hours – perhaps the chaplain who was supposed to climb the turret to unlock the door did not want to cross over from his base in the University Church in the rain. We also know that borrowing, quite against the rules of the Library, was in some cases happening. And we know that the result was that when the scholar John Leland came to Oxford in the later 1530s to study the manuscripts in the Library, he had access to a catalogue and had to record that some of the books he wanted to see had been stolen.

This is not to deny that a decision must have been made at some point, probably in the aftermath of the 1549 Visitation, to close the Library, dispense with the remaining books, sell off the furniture and use the now-empty space for storage. That decision was taken in a context of confessional conflict, certainly, but before that decision had taken place there had been, I would suggest, decades of decline. This was not a death be a single catastrophe or deluge, it was a death drip by drip, made possible by a lack of attention that inspired others to pay the Library disrespect. Someone like Talbot, in a situation when he entered the cold Library room and saw some books already removed, may have reasoned to himself that the beautiful volume he had before him would be safer in his hands than on that dusty shelf – and he may have been right.

Why, though, should that decline have begun in the first place? Why did the authorities not appreciate that this Library was one of their major assets? The answer probably has several elements. The arrangements for the librarian, as I have suggested, may have been less than fit for purpose. Moreover, in a town where several colleges had their own libraries, the need for a central collection might have seemed to some an otiose addition, and one which would be a drain on resources. This was a library rich in books but not in financial endowment; in such a situation, its long-term viability would have been open to question in any situation but in one when the change of technology made the Library look yet more old-fashioned, not to say, redundant, the issue was more pressing. 

We, of course, are living through a second information technology revolution, when the Bodleian itself faces new challenges. We might wonder whether it can survive or whether it will suffer the fate of the third Library. Will it prove, as boasted in the founder’s motto, Quarta perennis, to be perennial, to live forever? We will never know that, of course, but I have some faith that it will last some years longer. Why am I so confident? Because of you sitting in front me. You, the Volunteer Guides, are a demonstration of how loved and respected the institution is. You are the loyal guardians of its history and, thus, of its future. For that, Volunteer Guides, I salute you.

Good Duke Humfrey: bounder, cad and biliophile (Part I)

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 17 December, 2013

Yesterday, 16th December, I gave the Christmas Lecture to the Volunteer Guides of the Bodleian Library. The talk took place in the University’s Convocation House, with the convivial party following next door in the Divinity School. I would like to thank Marilyn Tresias for the invitation, and Felice Vermeulen for her skilful organisation. My talk was entitled ‘Good Duke Humfrey: bounder, cad and biliophile’. As has become my usual practice, I spoke without notes, but I intend to provide here an approximation of what I said. This is the first instalment, with the second half appearing tomorrow:

When I was invited to talk to you about Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, on whose library I have worked intermittently for over a decade, I accepted with alacrity. Standing here now, I wonder whether I should have tread with more angelic steps. Sitting at the back of your business meeting a moment ago, it struck me that I was about to lecture to people all of whom are themselves expert in being the speaker, rather than the passive listener. Not only that but you are the guides to this institution, Thomas Bodley’s successor foundation to that endowed by the Good Duke, by Bodley’s own calculation the fourth Library of the University of Oxford – the third being Humfrey’s, the second that provided by Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester and the first (moving back beyond history into the mists of myth) that donated by King Alfred. What, I am wondering, can I tell you that you do not already know about the man largely responsible for the third library of the University of Oxford?

You certainly do not need me to remind you that Humfrey delighted in being described as the son, brother and uncle of kings. He was the youngest boy of Henry Bolingbroke who, when Humfrey was not yet ten, usurped the English throne from Richard II and was crowned Henry IV. Humfrey was brother to Henry V who, at Agincourt, saved his youngest sibling’s life when Humfrey, thrown from his horse, lay prone on the ground, with Henry standing over him, fighting off assailants until the duke of Gloucester could be pulled to safety. And he was uncle to Henry VI who, it has been said, moved from the inanity of childhood to imbecility without the intermission of lucidity that usually occurs between those two states. He was, in his nephew’s long minority, England’s Protector – not its Regent, and that was an issue of some contention. Moreover, from 1435, following the death of his last surviving elder brother, John, duke of Bedford, Humfrey was heir apparent to the throne.

The heir apparent who, as you also well know, ended his life on 23rd February 1447 at St Saviour’s Hospital, Bury St Edmunds, arrested on an accusation of treason against his own nephew. The manner of his death was cause for him to be awarded posthumously the sobriquet of ‘Good’. Those contemporaries who may have been in a position to know did not suggest any foul play was involved in the duke’s death but the circumstances allowed those of a more suspicious bent to smell the scent of conspiracy and murder. In the sixteenth century, the most frequent explanation was that he had been smothered ‘between two featherbeds’, though others said he had been strangled – that is the version that appears in Shakespeare – while some suggested that the murder had been hidden by effecting it with, in John Foxe’s words, ‘a whole spit [being] privily forced into his body’. In the immediate wake of his demise, his downfall was taken by those discontented with the regime as a symbol of the end of good statesmanship. There is something fitting that two of the battles of what we know of as the Wars of the Roses should have been fought close by the chantry chapel erected for him in the Abbey of St Albans.

Yet, later political historians have not been so quick to find goodness in the Duke. Rather, the general opinion is that – saving his nephew – Humfrey was the runt of the Lancastrian pack: he lacked the political shrewdness of his father, Bolingbroke, the charisma of his eldest sibling, Henry V, or even the downright competence of his closest brother in age, John, duke of Bedford. Humfrey was, these historians say, hot-headed, cack-handed and tight-fisted – but, they go on, at least he liked books.

About the books, of course, you, the volunteer guides of the Bodleian, know so much. You know that he amassed a large collection, some presented to him by their authors, some sent to him from the Continent (from France and from Italy), some given to him (more or less willingly), and many bought by him. What is all the more striking is that, in his own lifetime, he gave away something in the region of three hundred of them in a series of donations to the University of Oxford, between the late 1430s and 1444.  The University believed it was the rightful inheritor of the rest of his collection but Oxford was to be thwarted in that aspiration. On his death, the crown claimed that the Duke had died intestate – a claim strongly challenged by the University but to no avail. The result was that Humfrey’s possessions passed into the hands of the crown, and his books were dispersed, with some (but by no means all of them) suffering a sorry fate of ending up in Cambridge, at King’s College, Henry VI’s new foundation, the sister of the chantry school he founded at Eton. The Reformation saw significant deprivations to that college, so much so that only one of Humfrey’s manuscripts now resides there and only another one is known (now in the British Library). That said, the manuscripts he gave to the University of Oxford did not fare much better.

Humfrey’s books had originally been stored in the Old Library, the first-floor space in the semi-detached university accommodation adjoining the Church of St Mary the Virgin. As you know, the University authorities decided to revise the plans they had already made for the Divinity School, so that that building could house on its first floor a new library room, suitable for the donations of the Duke and of others. It opened in 1488 but its heyday was brief: by the very middle of the sixteenth century, it was closed and its books dispersed. How that came to happen is something to which I want to return at the end of this talk.

The result of the two dispersals of Humfrey’s library – that immediately following his death and the other in the sixteenth century – leaves us, presently, with just under 50 manuscripts (the exact number depends on how you count them) from a collection which probably comprised, at a necessarily rough estimate, between 500 and 600 manuscripts: an overall survival rate of under 10%. This masks some variation for, in fact, the books given to the University of Oxford have suffered worse than those he did not donate. Of the 274 listed in the University Register, only 14 are presently identifiable: a survival rate of 5%. Of those, just three are in the Bodleian, with another two of Humfrey’s books, not originally given to Oxford, now resident here; in the Oxford colleges, we can now count seven manuscripts, of which probably four come from those donated to the University.

How do we identify a manuscript as once having belonged to the Duke? As I have just mentioned, the relevant Register of the University of Oxford includes inventories of three of the gifts that Humfrey made and, on occasion, a manuscript can be matched with the information that provides. More often, though, the evidence for his ownership comes from the Duke’s own hand, for Humfrey was one of those blessed collectors who cannot resist writing in their books. In many of his volumes, Humfrey adds a formula announcing his ownership either at the front or at the final colophon – sometimes both and a few times in more places. In its usual form it reads: ‘Cest livre est A moy homfrey duc de gloucestre’. On occasion, he is even more helpful, giving his not just his name but details of how he came by a book – whether he was given it and, if so, he sometimes mentions when, or whether he bought it from, for example, an acquaintance’s executors. More rarely, but also significantly, he adds a motto to mark his ownership. I want to concentrate for a moment on one of those. At the very top of a copy of a medical treatise which opens with an illumination of his coat-of-arms, he adds ‘Loyale et belle A gloucestre’ – ‘loyal and beautiful to Gloucester’, in the feminine. The gender of those adjectives has made some wonder whether, in fact, this was a gift to Humfrey from his wife but I see no reason to make that assumption. The motto is definitely written in Humfrey’s script and there are other signs of his interest in this manuscript: he notes a section on cures for baldness (a passage which, I have to admit, also interests me). The use by a husband of a motto relevant to a wife is not unknown in other manuscripts of the fifteenth century – there is a well-known example in the collection of Humfrey’s brother, John, duke of Bedford. Are we then to take this as a mark of uxoriousness, a symbol of his love for his wife? That wife was the ill-fated Eleanor Cobham, who would end her life in prison – a little like her husband, though her confinement lasted decades not days and was as a result of her attempts, in 1441, to use sorcery to predict when Humfrey would be king. Eleanor was a distant relative of the Cobham, bishop of Worcester, who founded the University’s second library (on Bodley’s counting); it was surely not, however, for that family association Humfrey came to marry her. Indeed, that he married her at all was, to some people’s eyes a scandal, and this brings me to what you have been waiting for: Good Duke Humfrey as bounder and cad.