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.