Satire is a potent tool in the face of the arrogance of power. Laughter punctures pride more fatally than any righteous anger. And it has not gone unnoticed that one of the winners of the election of the latest US President has been humour itself — laughing at him, not with him. Print media have, for instance, noticed the twitter phenomenon that is Donaeld the Unready, recasting the new incumbent of the Oval Office as an Anglo-Saxon bretwalda. My own favourite is this one:
Sad loser monks saying I’m unstable! Total lies. We’ve got the greatest stables in Mercia. They’re HUGE! All the horses, so many. Clip Clop.
— Donaeld The Unready (@donaeldunready) 9 February 2017
However, I want to suggest to you today that if the President is a reincarnation, his former self was not content to live in the alter orbis which was the British Isles; he was surely a denizen of mainland Europe. How can I know this? By invoking the noble art of palaeography.
There are some things, of course, which are beyond satire – and that includes Donald Trump’s signature. Graphologists have had a field day with this, though I am not convinced by some of the claims, like the suggestion that it shows him to be protective of the family. I cannot see that and, instead, find it hard to avoid concluding that there is something psychotic in his willingness to overwrite not just the typed words but his own letters — look at that final p which is turned into ascender crossing over the bowl of the letter. It looks assertive but it also is self-destructive. This President unwrites himself.
That jagged motion of final p creating a pointed hat worthy of the Ku-Klux Klan serves no necessary purpose beyond ostentation: it is what palaeographers would call an otiose stroke. Such features were often produced with a turn of the nib to create a thinner or even hair-line stroke. In Trump’s handwriting, though, there is no differentiation between thick and thin, just as the straight lines are rarely combined with any curved movements of the pen. For instance, a letter like n is formed with a diagonal joining the two minims (rather than the linking it the top). There is little variation and no subtlety here.
Let us, though, consider President Trump’s approach to mise-en-page when placing that signature on an Executive Order.
Note how his script insists on taking up space, being equivalent to five or six lines of typed text. This is by no means unprecedented. It reminds me, for instance, of cases of Henry VII of England adding his name in large thin gothic letters below the beautiful italic of his secretary, Pietro Carmeliano (whom I have discussed on this site recently). In such instances, the royal writing looks ungainly in comparison to the script above but that serves only to enhance the impression that the monarch is emphasising his taking ownership of the page, even as he compromises its calligraphy. Its purpose is to show that the king does not need to master penmanship for he is the master of those who have done so.
Yet, that is not the only historical parallel one can draw. Over the long tradition of script, the balance between the minims (eg m and n) and the ascenders of tall letters (eg d and l) has shifted: in the bookhand promoted in the Carolingian empire, when there was an expectation of clarity of writing, a minim would be about half the size of an ascender; in late medieval culture, the gothic aesthetic which saw beauty in the uniform aspect of a page, ascenders were reduced to being often little more than residual. President Trump has decided to reject both of those practices: it seems that he feels his hands must make ascenders, and bigly. They dwarf the minims by a ratio of about 3:1. Once again, though, such a contrast is not original to him. It was a frequent habit in medieval charters, particularly on the top line. It is seen, for instances, in specimens of Merovingian chancery script, though when I mentioned this in conversation with an eminent palaeographer, she accused me of making a comparison that was slanderous to Merovingian civilization.
I would certainly not want to give the impression that this sense of proportion was confined in time or location. It was not only a habit of chanceries drawing up official documents but was also seen in certain bookhands. The example below is in many ways more elegant than anything achieved by a pen wielded in the 45th President’s hand — it knows the value of combining curves with straight strokes — but it shares an affection for extended ascenders.
It is a famous manuscript, a lectionary from the Abbey of Luxeuil in southern Burgundy. We have several witnesses to this script which was developed in that cloister. We also have an end-date for their production: in 732, the abbey was burnt to the ground and its monks massacred by a daring raid by Muslim Moors. Do not tell that to President Trump.
History without palaeography is a story half told. Here is a small example from the first decades of the sixteenth century. It comes from my monograph on The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain which I am presently completing. I present to you, in part, because I want to invite you to comment on the evidence I have for you.
It is often said that the Brescian humanist, Pietro Carmeliano, was the man who introduced the italic hand into England. The situation, as I explain in my book, is rather more complicated than that, but that is not the issue today. It is also said that he was the first person appointed as the king’s Latin secretary in the mid-1490s. It is true that he revelled in that title, though quite what it signified is open to discussion. He certainly produced a substantial quantity of correspondence for Henry VII; the first sign we have of his acting as a royal scribe (this evidence seems to have been overlooked) is from 1488. If you want not just to see his elegant script but to own a specimen, you may be lucky: not all are in public collections and some do appear for sale. One was up for auction last year and by the look of the note added at the top it somehow strayed (presumably in the nineteenth century) from the Archivio di Stato in Milan.
Another letter written by him was sold at Christie’s a few years ago; the auction house kindly tells me is now in private hands.
The story also told is that Carmeliano’s fortunes withered in the wake of Henry VII’s death. Other humanists celebrated the accession of his son as a new golden age. One of these poets was Thomas More, though, as I argued many, many years ago, his praise of the young Henry VIII was not as straightforward as it at first appears. Its classic statement, though, was provided in prose by an Italian, from Lucca, who called himself Andreas Ammonius (and who is now known as Ammonio). In a letter to Erasmus he ghost-wrote for William, Lord Mountjoy, Ammonio declared that this would be a new era of liberality, and he himself benefitted from it. In an act which is seen as a symbolic changing of the guard, he took on the role of the king’s Latin secretary, being first mentioned as that in 1511; Carmeliano, it is suggested, was yesterday’s man.
Let us leave aside that Carmeliano did not quit the scene and continued to be referred to as Latin secretary himself. That is significant for what I have to say here only in as much as it suggests that the position was not an exclusive one — and earlier evidence suggests that there was more than one secretary for Latin correspondence in earlier years. These men, in fact, included Andrea Ammonio himself.
There do not seem to be many images of Ammonio’s script available on the web (if you find one, please tell me) but here is one:
This, as you will see, is dated from June 1515, four years after the first reference to him as Latin secretary. This script, though, appears in earlier unsigned letters. At this point, I am going to have to ask you to open another tab and visit the wonderful Portal de Archivos Españoles site. On the page Inventario Dinámico choose the Archivo of Simancas, and under their Colecciones, choose Patronato Real. You are then looking for ‘Leg. 54’ and for two particular items in it. The first to find is document 99. It is a letter to Ferdinand of Aragon dated 30th July 1509 and signed by the new king Henry VIII (it also appears as item 52 in the catalogue of the 2009 British Library Henry VIII exhibition). Look at the script and compare it with what you see above: can you see the similarity? If not, take time to survey the details: look at the tick used sometimes on final e, and the left-turn on the foot of p and q, or look at the shape of the g, or the st ligature. There are so many shared characteristics in detail and in overall aspect that I am confident in proposing that this is by Ammonio as well. If you do not share my confidence, then your next challenge is to tell me: who else could this be at this date? Incidentally, note how fitting it is that he should be employed for a letter on behalf of Henry’s friend and the person from who Ammonio drafted the letter to Erasmus, William, Lord Mountjoy.
This, though, is not all. In 1509, Ammonio had already been resident in England for four years. Now find the document known as Leg. 54, Doc. 70. You will see that this is dated 18th October 1506. Your first impression might be that this is by a different hand from the others you have just seen and certainly the script is thinner, more upright and less assertive — it seems to be by a person learning their trade. Then look more closely, comparing the 1509 and 1506 letters together: look for the ornate ‘quam/quan’ abbrevation, or the placing of the suspension mark for ‘que’ or, indeed, the styling of the serifs. This, I suggest, is once again by Ammonio, not yet settled into his role and essaying his own humanist cursive. In developing his practice, he would have turned to exemplars he had to hand or to a colleague — that is, most likely, to Pietro Carmeliano. The implication of this evidence, in other words, is threefold. First, Andrea Ammonio was involved in the production of royal letters alongside Carmeliano. This, in turn, suggests that we might need to rethink our impression that there was a simple sequence of office-holders: it seems more likely that the title of secretary was an honour given to those who produced the letters, rather than being an exclusive post available only to one person at a time. Finally, what these letters also suggest is that Ammonio may well have owed his first entrée into working for the crown to Pietro Carmeliano. This, of course, does not mean that a rivalry may not have later developed, though we should also not assume that Carmeliano was cast out into darkness when the sunshine of Henry VIII’s munificence shone on Ammonio. In later years, Carmeliano was a rich man. What is more, though he was Ammonio’s elder, he outlived him: the younger humanist succumbed to sweating sickness in the summer of 1517. In 1520 (and, again, this has been undernoticed), Carmeliano was describing himself as secretary to Henry VIII.
The point of this tale is to remind ourselves as historians that reading documents, however subtly, is not enough if we want more fully to reconstruct events like those around 1509. By close attention to the palaeography, with due care and attention to its pitfalls, of course, we can move towards a richer understanding. This might be expressed as a paradox: to delve deeper, we have to appreciate these sources at their face value.
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.
A song might be pushing it: a whole opera or monumental mass. It is on sale at Christie’s at an asking price of £25,000 – £35,000. But, in comparison with other lots, that is a small change. And, like Henry IV’s Paris, it is certainly worth a mass.
I have Peter Kidd to thank for bringing my attention to the manuscript in question. It is a codex signed by a scribe whose character was as colourful as his books: Pieter Meghen, from the Low Countries, who worked for Erasmus, both in making books and in transporting letters, and whose calligraphical skill was not hindered — perhaps, indeed, it was assisted — by the fact that he was one-eyed (as he calls himself in this book: ‘monoculus’). Nor did his heavy-drinking stop him producing an attractive littera antiqua much in demand in Erasmus’s circle and particularly in England. One of Meghen’s earliest patrons was the Englishman Christopher Urswick, almoner to Henry VII and Dean of Windsor. The manuscript now up for sale in London on 2nd June appears to be the earliest dated manuscript made by Meghen for Urswick — and it is previously unnoticed.
That it seems to have hidden away from scholars is all the more remarkable as Meghen is by no means a forgotten figure and his association with Urswick specifically has been studied by no less a scholar than the late Joe Trapp of the Warburg. The texts that it presents in some elements confirm very comfortably with what we know already about Urswick and his collecting: it includes, for instance, a fourteenth-century text, the Speculum Edwardi III attributed to Simon Islip and now thought to be by William de Pagula (though there is reason to doubt that — but that is another story), which had some vogue for early Tudor ecclesiastics like Urswick. And, as in other Tudor manuscripts, it is coupled with other patristic and humanist works. Here, though, the humanist represented is one not otherwise known in either Urswick’s library or in Meghen’s oeuvre but who did enjoy a small popularity in England: Niccolò Perotti. Another author included is Baldwin of Canterbury who, again, is not an author Meghen transcribed elsewhere but who makes an interesting link back to an early generation of humanist book-production in England as a copy of works by him, now in Brussels, was made by Meghen’s countryman, Theoderic Werken, in 1453 for William Gray. Gray, bishop of Ely, boasted, with some stretching of the truth, of royal blood and for part of his career attempted to live up to his claim by his ostentatious lifestyle which included collecting manuscripts.
The book on sale at Christie’s, to judge by the images (for, as readers will know, I am exiled to Florence for a month — I can not complain), shows Meghen at his most accomplished, providing a very regular upright bookhand which would look starched if it were not for the playful majuscules and descenders that Meghen could not, on occasion, resist including. With all this, it also has a set of miniatures. A fine manuscript and one that adds to our knowledge of both the scribe’s career and the milieu of English Renaissance activities at the very start of the sixteenth century, while Thomas More was still mastering Greek. The asking price is not unreasonable, especially when compared to other items in the sale — I think in particular of a manuscript of Mandeville’s Travels, 64 folios without significant illumination, which surely can only justify its putative cost of £150,000 – £200,000 because vernacular texts have a certain cachet among manuscript collectors. There is a premium on early examples of the English language, which means that the history of our nation’s more learned culture is relatively bon-marché. Rush, while stocks last.