bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Never read once

Posted in Academic Practices, Reading by bonaelitterae on 30 March, 2020

I have a morning when what I have published is unwriting itself. I am working on a long-overdue article which should be a simple write-up of a plenary lecture given two years ago. In challenging myself, however, to think deeper and go further, I am realising how superficial I have been in what I have already allowed to go out to the world. Reviewers to date have been very kind to The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain; I would be much harsher.

The first chapter of that book is entitled ‘The Eloquent Page’, which encapsulates a point central to my argument: the Quattrocento humanists in reforming how the page looked did so in the belief that the presentation of a text was not extrinsic to its meaning but essential to its expression. For words to be beautiful, they need not only to sound so (in the mind’s ear) but also to be pleasing to the eye. If, in other words, one wants to write with eloquence, it is not just about a phrase being well-turned; it must be also be well turned out on the page. In pursuit of this visual expression of eloquence, the humanists believe they had found their paradigm via a re-invention of an earlier style of script. Their assumption was that, just as a particular idiom of Latin was, for them, the best method of communication, so this new old bookhand, the littera antiqua, was not simply a good possibility but the best.

I stand by all these claims but what has struck me today is how much more persuasive I could have made them. The article I am writing touches on how humanist texts praise of the built environment. What I have come to appreciate and regret is that I missed a trick in Renaissance Reform in not drawing a parallel between ideas of a well-designed building and what we can call the architecture of the page. Fundamental to both of them is the sense of proportion, and it was clearly that perception of balance, through which comes harmony, that attracted the humanists to their littera antiqua.

I could say, in my defence, that making such an association would have been in danger of disrespecting chronology: in the development of the revived styles, the page came before the Palazzo Rucellai or the Pazzi Chapel. The humanists did not need to think — indeed, could not think — of architectural prototypes for their reforms, whereas later Brunelleschi or Ghiberti could not but have been conscious of the re-design of the page as setting an exemplar for their own innovations. I might also say that, perhaps partly in response to developments in the art of the built, a hyper-sensitivity to the proportions of the page appeared in the second half of the fifteenth century, when scribes like Bartolomeo Sanvito began to show a concern for the golden ratio. A perception of the importance of proportion, then, was integral to the early humanists’ reform, but turning that into a science came later than the main focus of my discussion.

Either of those defences, though, is weak when set against my obvious failure. The associations had been expressed with exquisite eloquence by Ernst Gombrich in his classic essay ‘From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of Arts’. When I say ‘classic’, I mean both in the public sense that it is often republished and highly regarded and also in a more private way: it is an essay which I read first early in my days of doctoral research and which was fundamental to my intellectual development. I remember cheering its anti-Hegelianism, being enthralled by its delineation of a human community, feeling the thirst to read as much Gombrich as possible. I have still on my wall a quotation from him, which I have written out in a tidy script which I stopped being able to achieve quarter of a century ago:

I learned what I should have always have known, that the past was not people by abstractions but by men and women

If I turn, though, to my recent monograph and check the bibliography, I find no mention of his name. It is true that you will also not found there a reference to Michel de Certeau, who is another (but more recent) strong influence of what I have written. Perhaps it is the case that the deepest debts are the ones that cannot be expressed. I still accuse myself, though, and find myself guilty of ingratitude. I take some comfort that I am alone in this specific oversight: there is an important recent doctorate on the humanist reform of script and one which we should hope soon appears in print, by Philippa Sissis, and she provides ample citation to Gombrich. At least my failing is peculiar to me but that does not exonerate me.

I also know how this failure occurred: I read as I live life — I savour and then I move on. I rarely return to re-read, and if I do re-read it is sometimes because I have forgotten I ever seen it in the first place. I know, in this instance, that I did return to Gombrich’s article several times, so it transfused itself into my mental apparatus, but I must to have come to assume that my recall would be perfect and I would have nothing to regain by revisiting it again. Perhaps, in privileging further reading, I have lived by the assumption that it is better to have read and lost of the memory of it than never to have read it at all. Today, in contrast, I have come to realise the truth of the famous passage in Seneca’s Letters:

Distringit librorum multitudo; itaque cum legere non possis quantum habueris, satis est habere quantum legas.

He is surely not talking of reading as the eye gliding over the page but the sort of intensive study which comes only with frequent re-acquaintance. Perhaps it is better than never to have read than to have read only once. Maybe this should be an article of faith for the virtuous pursuit of slow scholarship.


The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain — in one word

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2019


If you had to summarise your book in one word, what would it be? The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain has its official publication date on 2nd May 2019. I have, then, been giving some thought to what my response to the question would be and I think the answer is: cosmopolitanism.

I appreciate that some might me to justify my use of that word. I employ the term in its general sense of involving people from different countries but, the remit of my book, with its cast-list which ranges from St Andrews to Rome and from Majorca to Milan, is rather narrower than the word’s little sense. My use of the concept cannot have the worldwide reach that cosmopolitanism has in present-day philosophy. I could defend my profligate deployment of the term by noting that Diogenes the Cynic, the first person on record to claim he was a cosmopolite, envisaged a world that did not include the Americas or Australasia. I could also point out that The Renaissance Reform draws attention to how humanists saw the British Isles as at the very edge of the world — but I could not claim that those humanists’ vision was so myopic that it stopped at the Mediterranean or that it was oblivious to cultures beyond Western Christendom. Indeed, the interaction of ‘the West’ (as defined by obedience to the pope) with Eastern Christendom impinges on the book’s discussion. Moreover, a sense of the edges of a civilization is intentionally at the borders of its coverage. All that said, The Renaissance Reform cannot pretend to be a contribution to the global Middle Ages. Perhaps, if I had my time again, I might replace ‘cosmopolitan’ with ‘Europolitan’ — a citizen of Europe (with the inclarity of its definition being productive) — except that I see that term has already been appropriated by a Swedish mobile phone company, and I would not want to infringe their copyright.

The emphasis on cosmopolitan in the book is a challenge. The theme of the work is the re-design of the manuscript book, in script and layout, promoted by Florentine humanists at the very start of the fifteenth century and its success among the British. That statement in itself is a provocation, since it is usually assumed that humanism reached England, at its earliest, in the reign of Henry VII and only found glorious summer under the sun of York and Lancaster combined, Henry VIII. In contrast, I insist that there was a sustained tradition of interest from the 1430s which should qualify to be called ‘the English Quattrocento’. This is not to say that the tradition was the sole preserve of roast-beef-eating English-born, or that it grew solely in English soil. On the one hand, there were many immigrants who were central to the promotion of the humanist agenda in England — with the most significant being not Italians but Dutch scribes. On the other, there were Englishmen and Scots who were active in the humanist reforms in their heartland of Italy. These Britons were part of a wider pattern of engagement which, I claim, was integral to the success of the humanist aesthetic for the book. I would go further and say that some were significant not merely in its propagation but in its construction. That is to say, this Renaissance reform originated with a coterie of Florentines but it gained its popularity through international collaborators. The leitmotif was cosmopolitanism at not just the edges of Europe but what was to Italian eyes its epicentre.

Oxford: Balliol College, MS. 310 fol. 32v — Letters of Leonardi Bruni, written in England by the Dutch scribe, Theoderic Werken (1449).

This assertion, for which I give evidence in the monograph and other recent publications, raises a question: why would non-Florentines or non-Italians adopt a script designed to be a local reaction against ‘gothic’ (that is northern European) influence? We tend to see in the humanist bookhand as immersed in a particular set of cultural co-ordinates: the legacy of ancient Rome with its physical presence in Italy (though not much in Florence itself), the humanists’ attempts to revive eloquence both textually and visually. Yet this — I hypothesise — was not primarily what other Europeans saw on the page when viewing a book in the new ‘Roman’ hand. Here, I take cosmopolitan to mean ‘the world’ not in a simple synchronic sense of how it is now but also encompassing its shared inheritance. The humanists, in developing their reform they turned to prototypes of the eleventh and twelfth century — to late caroline minuscule or ‘protogothic’ bookhand. Such prototypes were not, of course, Italian patrimony alone: caroline minuscule, emanating from north-east France and beyond, had been successful across Europe, and ‘protogothic’ had thrived near the shores of the English Channel. That is to say, what non-Italians saw when they looked upon the ‘new’ script, created in its very particular local circumstances, was an acknowledgement of a tradition in which they could see themselves as full partners.

The humanist reform, however, was not a single moment. The bookhand itself developed — in part, thanks to the intervention of ultramontanes. Equally, there was also a ‘second wave’ when, in the north-east of Italy in the mid-quattrocento, what we know of ‘italic’ was invented. That very name, foisted on the script by French and English, suggests its Italian origins, and it worked on viewers in a very different way from the ‘Roman’ hand, since there was not for this any historic precedent to which it returned. While the humanist bookhand was archaising, italic was archaising by metaphor. The result was that this later script’s international success worked differently and was, in its first decades, more dominated by Italians. In The Renaissance Reform, this is presented as a shift in cosmopolitanism but it could be configured otherwise: as a move from Europolitan to Italophile.

Lot 951 - A rare letter to Da Vinci’s patron, with a full signature HENRY VII: (1457-1509) King of England

A royal letter of 1506, signed by Henry VII, written in italic by Pietro Carmeliano (private hands).

As will be clear from what all that I have said, the field of action for this cosmopolitanism is the page. In that sense, detecting it is akin to the sensitivity art historians show to the multiple cultural contacts that shape a Renaissance painting or miniature. In palaeographical terms, cosmopolitanism can stand as a conceit for digraphism or polygraphism. The Renaissance Reform discusses the movement between scripts, and the adoption of humanist elements in gothic scripts; it also muses on how far we can sense a conscious rejection of the reforms when a bookhand shows no humanist influence. I also invoke at one point the concepts of code-switching and code-mixing, but an implication of what I have just said is that, while these may be separate ‘codes’, they could announce, to some eyes, their shared origin, speaking of one graphic tradition that has ramified into many forms.

It could be legitimately said that the ‘some’ just mentioned are only ‘a few’. The Renaissance Reform is very clear that it is talking about a minority among a minority. Most of its characters stood out from the many who were born in the same village or town because these people were highly mobile across Europe. They also were the privileged because they were highly literate, in societies that were majority-illiterate. Cosmopolitanism — citizenship of this ‘world’ — was only for the select. At the same time, a theme that underlies this book is a sense that they themselves sensed their special status and that some were humbled by it. Some, I suggest, took it less as a badge of pride than as a spur to think on the poverty of their own literacy and, indeed, on the limits of their own cosmopolitanism.

Postcard from Harvard IV: a little witness to English humanist interest

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 3 May, 2018

The manuscripts I have discussed so far have all been easy on the eye (as they say). The subject of today is not. Indeed, seated on the shelves alongside gorgeously illuminated presentation manuscripts, this codex might feel embarrassed by its appearance. That it is pocket-sized is not that unusual, but that it is written cursively on quires that are encarté (paper except for the outermost and central bifolia which are parchment) suggests that this was a volume on which little expense was spared. Nor can it claim to be a textual rarity — it provides a copy of a fifteenth-century bestseller, Leonardo Bruni’s new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. For me, though, this small workaday volume is gold dust in the library.

Cambridge MA: University of Harvard, Houghton Library, MS. Lat. 286, fol. 1 – the opening of Bruni’s translation of Aristotle’s Ethics.

The manuscript does not exclude any explicit statement of where or when it was produced but its evidence — palaeographical, philological and codicological — is revealing. James Hankins in his listing of Bruni manuscripts in North America correctly states that it was made in England. This is apparent from the pen-flourished initials, the script of the main text (which shows substantial continental influence) and of the textual corrections, which are by another hand using some anglicana forms. Those corrections show that the copy was being checked against its prototype — a suggestion that, for all its appearance of low-grade production for personal use, this was created in a communal context, with some care to ensure a level of textual accuracy. Collating passages of the text suggest where that might have been: it has affinities with two manuscripts which have Oxford associations. Those two volumes, however, are probably later than this one. This is where the paper becomes important.

The scribe wrote on paper of one stock, with a watermark of a hand, the fingertips of which touch a half-moon. The information gathered in Piccard on-line shows that there was a fashion for this in at a few German papermills in the 1430s. Those who know about paper suggest that use often follows at most a few years after production, but they are thinking of mainland Europe. England, which relied (apart from the 1490s) entirely on imported paper, may count as a special case: with the travel and distribution times involved, we would expect the possible lead-in before use to be longer. Perhaps Orietta da Rold’s exciting project mapping paper in medieval England will shed further light on the average time-delay. Even, though, if we assume a couple of decades between production in the German-speaking lands and use in this manuscript in Oxford, that would place it soon after the mid-point of the century, and that may be a little late, judging from the script. We know that the Ethics translation was known in England from the early 1430s, at the latest — that is, within fifteen years of its composition — and it may be that we have before us an early witness for its English circulation.

In short, this unprepossessing codex is notable evidence for the interest in the humanist re-translation of Aristotle’s textbook of ethics in England. It joins six other manuscripts identified at present as being of English provenance. Beside them, there is the well-known incunable, printed in Oxford in 1479. We might want to think of that printed version as a new beginning, but we could also see it as a culmination of an Oxford interest in the text stretching back decades.

Here is my description of MS. Lat. 286. As always, comments welcome.

How to read a research article

Posted in Academic Practices, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2016

At the University of Essex, where I teach, we have introduced a new assignment to help our second years with their preparations for choosing and researching a topic for their undergraduate dissertation. It involves each of them taking a research article and writing a short report on how the author would have gone about defining their topic and building up the evidence on which it is based. We appreciate that this could be a challenging task and so, in suggesting a couple of articles they could study from my reading lists, I have included one of my own articles with the offer of explaining how I came about writing the piece. I now realise that was rash: if the task of writing a report is challenging for them, it is all the more difficult for an author to think back to where they were intellectually a few years ago: the moment has passed and none of us, I imagine, would write now precisely how we did then.
What I can do which should be of some help is to give some hints of what an historian looks for when analysing a research article. So, here are some tips, meant to be of more general use, but which grow out of some reflections on an article entitled ‘Humanism across Europe: the structures of contacts’ which was published in 2012.

Not all research articles are equal. There is no one formula for a ‘research article’ – the term covers a range of styles of writing, and appear in a variety of publications. Some discuss the results of an investigation in a single archive, usually drawing out conclusions at the end. Others are more argument-led, with the research likely to be more eclectic. This is not simply a binary opposition: it is more like a spectrum, and my article falls closer to the ‘argument’ end than the ‘research’ end. As we shall see, however, no article can omit either of those two elements. You might well ask how you judge the article’s place on the spectrum – the basic answer is to pay attention to its content and how it is constructed but there is also another element which sometimes can help.

Be aware of the context. An article never appears on its own; it always appears in a larger publication. The classic format is for a research article to appear free-standing in a learned journal – in that case, it is unlikely for there to be dialogue between it and others in the same issue – but some journals increasingly produce ‘special issues’ where a set of essays discuss a related theme. This is similar to the collection of essays, like that in which my article appeared. In such a case, the author of the article you are reading may well be aware of what the other contributors have written and be engaging with them, even if it is by consciously bringing a different perspective. Look at where my article appeared and notice who was the editor of the volume: as it was the same person as the author, you can be sure that the chapter was written in full knowledge of the other contributions. You might even conclude that its purpose was to provide an overarching interpretation, placing the chapters that preceded it within a wider argument.

Check the date. Part of the issue of context is to understand when a work was written. We know that time’s arrow travels in only one direction: an article cannot be influenced by scholarship that appeared after it – and even the most assiduous academic may not be fully up-to-date with what has been published. So, the date of publication gives something like the cut-off point (the terminus post quem non) of possible influence – but it is only approximate. How long did it take the work to reach print? Was it written as a conference paper and the revised for publication, pushing the date of original composition back further? Are you using the original version or a re-print? Make sure you understand this element of the context: in a collection of essays, the preface will help; in an article, there is often a first footnote, listing acknowledgements but also, sometimes, explaining the origins of the work. Paying attention to these details will help you appreciate where the work sits in the historiography – that is, at what point it inserted itself in existing debates. That takes us to the next and perhaps most important point.

Find the debate. Historians are argumentative (and if one of them denies that this is the case, they have proven my point). Historians thrive by placing themselves in a debate, by detecting or creating disagreement so that they can then construct a new perspective. Any article, then, is more than its research: it forwards a position. How an article does this differs. Some might not even seem to be intent on making an argument, and some might be written as if what it has to say is not open to debate. In those instances, it is your essential task to detect how it fits into the historiographical scene and how it can be used to enlighten the big issues of scholarship: this creates the possibility that you, as an historian yourself, can use an article in ways the author might not have expected. But, as historians prize argument, it is unusual not to have the position being taken placed in the foreground. Admittedly, it is rare nowadays to find an academic in our discipline launching a full-frontal attack on another (‘Prof. X shows a shocking inability to do justice to the evidence…’) – and some would say we are better for that, even if it makes scholarship less entertaining for the readers. Some might even not mention an opponent by name in the text – my own style is often to talk about ‘the standard narrative’ or to remark ‘it has been argued…’. When that happens, how do find out who they have in their sights? The solution is to heed the next piece of advice.

Follow the footnotes. The text of an article and its footnotes relate to each other like the two hands on the piano. To read an article without paying attention to the notes is like hearing a melody without its base line – or, rather, an argument without its basis in evidence. The footnotes reveal what the text might hide: they reveal the author’s debts and disagreements – but they do more than that. They do not only help you more fully understand where the historian sits in a debate; they also make explicit the evidence – the research itself – on which the article and its argument is based. This is why footnotes matter so much to historians and why we disparage other disciplines which think that citations can be confined to a brief bracket at the end of a sentence: historians live by the demonstration of sound research their footnotes display. Or, sometimes, they fall because of their poor quality; more than one scholarly reputation has been damaged by the revelation that the author’s footnotes are inaccurate or, worse, borrowed – a kind way of saying plagiarised – from others. In my own area of study, footnotes most often cite unprinted primary sources (and so list a manuscript or document by its present location), though in the article I have set my references are more often to published editions.

Evaluate the evidence. By reading both the text and the footnotes, you can build up a fuller sense of the research that lies behind the article – and you can also begin to judge the strength of its argument. You will want to ask yourself what types of evidence are used and what range. Some articles will be tightly focussed on one set of materials, others will range more widely – but always with a sense of coherent whole to them. In my article, you will find several different types of primary material used, as well as what the social sciences call ‘secondary research’; that is, some statistics based on data-sets compiled by earlier scholars. As you think about how the author developed their article, you will also want to ask yourself: what is the most significant evidence used here? Remember that the way an article is written is very rarely an unfolding of the story of how the research was conducted. It is constructed after the research was completed and will order the evidence in a manner that makes it as convincing as possible, with the result that the most significant material is unlikely to be at the very beginning (or very end) of the article. So, what you are doing is understanding how the results of the historian’s time in the archives has been organised and deployed in order to make their argument persuasive.

Sense the sections. The consequence of this is also that an article is – like an essay you write should be – a set of steps. The author needs to lead the reader through the stages of the argument as the evidence is unveiled. Sometimes (but only in a minority of cases), these steps will helpfully be flagged up by sub-divisions in an article: these might involve sub-titles or numbers or (as in my article) simply an extra line-break. By being aware of these, though, you can get a better sense of how the author has arranged the information they have gathered. Of course, it is up to you as reader to consider whether the evidence could be organised differently or supplemented by other material, with changes to the argument as a result. When you do that, you move from being a reader to being a potential author, ready to do your own research and enter the sand-pit of historiographical debate.

Good luck.

Up for auction: new light on John Shirwood and English humanism

Posted in Auctions, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 27 November, 2011

I have commented before on the excitement of previously little-known manuscripts coming up for sale. Lord knows that there is enough in our public repositories that has not been properly investigated and waiting to be discovered. But there is an extra frisson when an unique volume, from private hands, appears on the stage at an auction. This is the case with lot 45 of the Sotheby’s sale in London on 6th December: a manuscript that has been unknown to scholars because it has been in private hands since the Reformation and has never before appeared for sale. One of its selling points is that it adds to our knowledge of John Shirwood, described with little hyperbole in the sale catalogue as ‘one of the earliest English humanists’.

I have been long acquainted with Shirwood who, in his lifetime, became bishop of Durham and whose collection of manuscripts and incunables, via the successor to his see, Richard Fox, reached the latter’s new foundation in Oxford of Corpus Christi College. I have become used to seeing his ungainly large annotations and rapidly drawn manicula in his books. I remember seeing him get rather over-excited in the margins of one printed volume at a sententia of Cicero’s, saying that it was worth noting 10,000 times. Then, when preparing the appendix to the fourth edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England, I looked more closely at his one known work, De ludo arithmomachiae, a description of a chess-like mathematical game that, in a touching preface in attractive humanist Latin, he says he taught to his now-dead patron, George Neville, archbishop of York, then in exile in Calais for his disloyalty to the Yorkist regime that his family had helped make and had tried to break.

The manuscript now on sale takes us to an earlier stage of Shirwood’s career, before Neville was archbishop and was merely bishop of Exeter. The volume itself has the hallmarks, in its script and illumination, of being a product of the university town of Oxford in the early 1460s. The main part of it is occupied by works of Walter Hilton in Latin, followed by some prose and verse texts in English. They are followed by an epitaph, introduced by an image of a corpse, which, the title tells us was written by John Shirwood, chancellor of the cathedral of Exeter, in memory of John Southwell, seneschal to Neville. This information allows us to date the composition of the epitaph (but not necessarily, of course, the copying) to 1460 – 65. That Shirwood wrote verse as well as prose is itself a revelation. One might hope that he wrote in a Latin that demonstrated he had already mastered humanist Latin — but, actually, the manuscript is more interesting than that. The poem does have some classical references, but none of them highly unusual or outside the range of reference available before the feted ‘re-discovery’ of further texts in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The structure of the epitaph with each couplet opening and closing with the words ‘munde vale’ shows Shirwood working within a more established tradition of composition. In short, what we have here is Shirwood in ante-humanist mode.

This sheds interesting light on the development of the humanist learning of Shirwood and, indeed, of Neville himself, who was to become known as a friend of the Greek cardinal, Bessarion, and who employed Greek scribes in his household. Did the elevation of Neville to York open new vistas for him and his protege? Either certainly could have read humanist works earlier in Oxford, as some were available there, in large part thanks to the generosity of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. But that they were there did not mean they must have read them (or, it should be added, that the university town was the only place where they could have found that inspiration). Oxford’s mid-century intellectual interests were not, of course, confined to the humanist — and, indeed, I think this manuscript is a useful example of that. The sale catalogue strains to associate the manuscript closely with Shirwood himself, because of the presence of this previously unknown epitaph of his. But there is no sign of his script in the codex, and the inclusion of his verses — probably as an afterthought — may better reflect his master’s standing in Oxford: Neville was long-term chancellor to the University. It would be little surprise if the literary activities within his household were quickly available to the clerks of Oxenford; those clerks, for their part, showed themselves keen (here as elsewhere) to add to their reading with some small sign of their interest in the recent or what they might have seen as the up-to-date.

What I am hoping to emphasise is the obvious truth that, while Oxford may have been important to English humanism (and this is often overstated), humanism was not of overwhelming significance in Oxford. This is reflected in this manuscript:  for those few of us interested in the development of English humanism, this codex is of significant importance, but we should appreciate that in the context of the manuscript itself, English humanism is at best a minor element — a future perfect, as it were. The manuscript has interest enough beyond the couple of folios at the end where Shirwood’s poem is included. In fact, the main part of the book provides a striking example of a scribe regularly engaging with what he is copying: he regularly adds notes in the margin, cross-referring from Hilton to other authors, like Bonaventure and Bede. And, with my interests in maniculae, I cannot leave unmentioned his pointing hand, that curves out from the text and arches back towards it — a style that, in my experience, is not typical of fifteenth-century readers. It is, instead, old-fashioned or perhaps I should say archaising. Perhaps here, in this detail, rather than in Shirwood’s verse, there is sign of a desire to resurrect the scholarly style of long-lost generations — a parallel to (conscious or not), but not an imitation of, the humanist agenda.

Henry of Kirkestede steps slightly further from the shadows

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 24 January, 2011

A few decades ago and the name of Henry of Kirkestede would have been known to very, very few. His major work, a Catalogus scriptorum ecclesie, had from the sixteenth century been ascribed to ‘Boston of Bury’. Even after R. H. Rouse had demonstrated that it should instead by attributed to the monk of Bury St Edmunds who became its mid-fourteenth-century librarian, Henry from the Norfolk village of Kirkestede, the error continued to circulate. In the meantime, in editing the Catalogus for the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, Richard and his wife Mary Rouse proposed another work for Kirkestede: a Speculum Coenobitarum, discussing the origins of monasticism and celebrating its signifance by listing the saints and other worthy figures who had been monks. The Rouses’ argument that Kirkestede substantially revised and expanded this text produced at Bury, was based on internal similiarities with the Catalogus: what they could not show was a manuscript that made explicit reference to his involvement. Now, we can have yet greater confidence in their inspired supposition because there is a small piece of further evidence that comes from an unexpected location.

I have been mulling over a manuscript in the Vatican, MS. Vat. lat. 1221, largely dedicated to hagiography of Thomas Becket. It is unusual for this type of text in being written on Italian parchment in the fifteenth century in a humanist script with matching bianchi girari initials. It has been known to scholars mainly because it includes an otherwise unknown letter of John of Salisbury. I have had the suspicion that the manuscript, though looking to all intent and purposes as an Italian product was actually the work of an Englishman — there are a couple of moments when the copyist slips into a more gothic script and he shows notable mastery of English placenames. My interest led me to look more closely at all its contents. Near the end, there is a set of lists recording monks who were saints, popes, kings, authors and doctors of the church. Each list is introduced by four lines of verses — verses which also appear in the similar lists that make up the revised Speculum Coenobitarum. But what makes this all the more striking is that those lists include a rubricated colophon which reads ‘Explicit compilatio fratris de kyrkested’.

Now, it might be said that the phrasing is open to interpretation: properly, it should refer to a brother at the monastery of Kirkestede. If so, it would be curious: there is little other evidence of such scholarly activity from that Lincolnshire Cistercian house, and it would beg the question why the compiler of the manuscript does not mention the order in his concluding collection of oaths made on being a monk. A more plausible explanation is that the Christian name ‘Henry’ has been omitted either because the scribe did not know much about him or was transcribing from a copy that itself did not record the forename. It seems to me that the identification with Henry, and thus corroboration of Rouses’ suggestion, is inescapable.

This being so, it raises interesting issues about the popularity of the work. All the manuscripts of the revised Speculum known to date are from English monasteries — in particular, Bury itself, St Albans and Durham. This  copy made in Italy (and soon after production, it can be added, in the papal library) could suggest an international fame that has previously been unnoticed. Then again, as its copyist is likely to be an Englishman, most likely in Rome, it might be said that the work had travelled far from Bury but not far from the English community.

Weiss on-line

Posted in Blogography, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 23 October, 2009

One hears that there as many resources available on-line for the louche and the aficinados of the demi-monde as there were courtesans in Renaissance Venice. Now there is one more site for Weiss. Pardon the pun, out of which I should have grown by now, but it still amuses. Me, at least.

The Weiss in question is Robert(o), and more specifically his Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century. Habitués of these postings may recall that my summer has been spent writing addenda to his work, which remains the main guide to its subject. The first instalment of the new, fourth, edition is now available at the Medium Ævum website. Others will follow in the coming weeks and, eventually, it will not be just the text, with addenda, that is available but also a new appendix of unpublished texts and an introduction by myself.

The instalments each appear in two pdf formats, one closer to a printed version and one with the new addenda inserted as marginal glosses  (how unhumanist!). I would be interested to hear views on both of these. My fellow editor, Anthony Lappin, prefers a style that moves us away from the printed version and, as I’ll mention in a moment, it has its real advantages, but I also have a sense that we need to keep in mind the concept of the old-style hard-copy book. That is partly because there will be those who prefer to print off and read than to view on screen; indeed, I could name those scholars in this subject area who would do just that. But there is also a wider point: scholarship still conceptualises itself in paginated, paper format and to deny that is to leave the on-line world as a ghetto blocked off from the greater universe of scholarship. We have to take the older styles of learning with us if what we do is to be of relevance.

But there are advantages to a version designed to be viewed rather than held. I have consciously attempted to include in the addenda references to works now available on-line, so that the extra information links this work with the wider web of knowledge that subtly criss-crosses the ether. The technology is not ideal: even with Firefox, a click on a link takes you from the pdf to the next site within the same pane; I refrain from using the obvious pun, this time. My advice is to have open the pdf in two tabs (or windows if you are bounded by timid Explorer), so that one can trawl beyond the text, while the other can by your port and portal. The result, we hope, is that the effect of attaching together text with other on-line resources is like providing the thin but perceptible bonds that tie together the figures in the Allegory of Good Government in the Palazzo Publico of Siena: it helps to found a well-ordered settlement — far from the sites of vice — in the new republic of letters.  This is a community with no illiberal limits on immigration, so come and join us.

When two lives collide: an anti-heroic view of humanism

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 18 October, 2008

As will already be apparent to the careful reader, I try to keep my lives separate: my involvement, at a minor level, in politics and the civic life of Oxford taxes a different node of my mind from those cells taken up with thinking about the Renaissance. Between politics and research, an invisible wall has been constructed. I believe that is the way it should be. As a result, I am finding a recent turn my writing has taken to be unsettling.

That the practice of politics and the process of intellectual study should be kept separate seems to be a widely-shared attitude. I remember a conversation with the late Conrad Russell, ‘revisionist’  historian of the seventeenth century and Liberal peer, when I asked him whether his political outlook informed his historical thinking. ‘I hope not’ was his response. The reasons are manifest: the pursuit of knowledge, with the assumption that you are striving for ‘truth’, inhabits a different universe from the political life where the emotive and the tribal are among its essential elements. This is not to say that a scholar should not be engagé — on the contrary, my own view is that there is a duty on them, as on others, to move beyond their own activities and be involved in the political community. It may even be that their own research can inform their politics, though it is notable how often that is not the case: a Marxist may tend to be a Marxist in both voting and writing, but for others there can often be an apparent mismatch between the ideas in their publications and their espoused political loyalties. Perhaps Russell himself can stand as an example of that, for his ‘revisionism’, with its emphasis on the contingent  in the development of the conflict which became the Civil Wars was hardly indulgent of the historical mythologies on which some liberal writings have been based.

My quandary is that I find myself preparing a paper for next week in which the position presented happens to sit well with my own political outlook. It is to do with the concept of the ‘hero’. As a Liberal, I have an innate and firm suspicion of ‘heroes’; I have a belief that those who are placed in positions of power are no better than others, and should not be expected to be. Tales of ‘heroes’ too often tend to imagine that a few have particular virtues, beyond those attainable by most men or women. On the contrary, those we elevate to heroic status are as flawed as any of us: we are no worse, and no less able to achieve. What has been developing in my own research is a critique of a tradition of writing on Renaissance humanism which, as I now see it, describes the humanists and their activities in heroic terms. Without giving you the whole of my forthcoming paper, the sort of writing I have in mind is that which, for instance, narrates tales of humanists finding classical texts as a process of selfless striving and determination against all vicissitudes which culminates in a success for the good of civilisation. The humanists themselves might have liked to have had their activities written in these terms but they, at least, would have been able to detect what was rhetorical embellishment in the tales.

What I find myself doing is puncturing such narratives by emphasising the unheroic, the very human, nature of these characters and their activities — how they were distracted by their sex lives, or how they made claims which were intentionally false. I have no desire to put such scholars — much more skilled than myself — on trial but rather to save them from the mythologies that have de-humanised them.

I am comfortable with the direction my writing is taken but I do wonder how far it is informed by my ideological beliefs. Is, in fact, the idea of the scholar who can rise above the other elements of their life itself a construction of a hero, a myth that I should jettison as well?

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Can we trust Wikipedia?

Posted in Blogography, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2008

The wickedness of Wikipedia is a common theme — the worry that students garner their information from the on-line encyclopedia, at the expense of ‘real’ work, undertaken surrounded by piles of printed tomes. We have all heard the urban myths of lecturers going on the internet to add intentionally false entries to Wikipedia so that they can catch their students if they plagiarise. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but should every good scholar ignore it completely?

First of all, let us not become protective of print encyclopedias, which often fall far below the level of extensive, unquestionable knowledge that we naively expect of them. I should know, I have edited an encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I would rate only two printed volumes: the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Hale, and the more recent and wide-ranging Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance by Gordon Campbell. To warn students off a true-ready reliance on what they read in print, I am fond of quoting an example from another encyclopedia of the Renaissance, one which sits quietly on the open shelves of the Bodleian and which states: ‘Petrarch was the first man to use the Latin term humanismus.’ As there is no such word in Latin, as it is a German term invented in the early nineteenth century, and as Petrarch did not employ any word or phrase cognate with humanismus, this is utter nonsense. Piffle. Twaddle. Moonshine. Balderdash. Codswallop. And claptrap. In short, hard copy does not equal hard facts.

What, of course, printed reference works do claim is some sort of academic recommendation, supplemented by the reputation of a worthy publisher: thus, the lists of advisors that appear at the front of any volume (completed with university affiliations), a page or so after the imprimatur of the publisher. These may encourage confidence where none should exist, but they do at least demonstrate a link, however tenuous, with academia. Wikipedia lacks such a patena of respectability, presenting itself instead as the standard-bearer of on-line democracy, encouraging anybody to contribute. In those areas of life which attract attention on the internet, this can create clashes, ‘vandalism’ and repeated re-writings without necessarily any improvement in veracity — but, then, we are not interested in articles on Britney Spears or which is the best George Clooney film (Michael Clayton, by the way). Most of the articles of interest to a student of the Renaissance are not battlefields in the same way: a reader is more likely to be caught out by accidental error than caught in the crossfire between contributors reflected in an entry.

Wikipedia has developed its own rules of engagement for contributors, centring on providing a NPOV (a Neutral Point of View). But there is a curious result from this: Wikipedia is consciously, achingly non-hierarchical but it can certainly be deferential. For example, the discussion board for contributors about Machiavelli has one of them objecting to a sentence in the entry because it makes assertions ‘Without reference to a reliable academic source‘ [their italics]. As another contributor points out, there is much about Machiavelli which is controversial within academia, but there does seem to be a tendency in Wikiworld to seek external justification for what is said by reference to the supposedly impartial truth found in the writings of academics. It leaves little room to realise that even the driest historical monograph can hide bias, blindspots and mistakes behind its dour binding.

There is an added issue with Wikipedia which is worth mentioning: it is not one but several encyclopedias. It exists in all the major European languages, including Latin, but the text in each language can be separate from that in others. Sometimes, an article is simply translated but often that is not the case. This can create some oddities: the character Burckhardt celebrated as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, has a stub of an entry in Latin with an external link — to his works in Italian; the corresponding Italian entry does not provide that link; and neither of these lead the reader to those Latin texts which are available on-line at the Biblioteca Italiana site. In other cases, if one only looked at the English entry, you would come away with only very limited information: for another humanist of the early quattrocento, Guarino da Verona, the most detailed articles are those in Italian and German. More generally, the rule for the reader should be that if you are interested in a subject, check the article in the range of languages listed in the left-hand bar of Wikipedia: even if you can not fully grasp the text, the links provided could lead you to more information than you could gain by only reading one version.

My own impression, having spent some time looking over a range of Renaissance articles on Wikipedia, is that the limitation most often is not as much inaccurate  as incomplete information. In the entries for Alberti, the English version has a list of works which is highly truncated — a reader would be in a dangerous land if they assumed that the article provided a sufficient base of knowledge. There may be a seemingly counter-intuitive principle in play: the more obscure a character, the more likely it is that the Wikipedia entry (if there is one) will present useful information. In some cases, of course, Wikipedia simply will not have any entry: I have recently sent off an article on an interesting humanist, Antonio Beccaria, who spent some years in England; he does not appear on the website. On the other hand, I have also written about the even less well-known Tito Livio Frulovisi, who does have a fairly good article — because (I admit it, gentle reader) I put it there. For the more recherché, if somebody has bothered to post an article, they are likely to have put some effort into doing it.

The inverse of this is that the better-known characters can not be as well served. So, Machiavelli himself has, in English, a long entry with a useful listing of his works. But the text makes some significant errors. For instance, looking at it this morning, I noticed it states that he considered The Prince his magnum opus. I can see how the contributor made this assumption — the famous letter to Vettori in which he describes his method of composition gives a sense of Machiavelli’s depth of engagement in the project at the time of writing — but it hardly fits with the fortunes of the text in his own lifetime: it circulated in manuscript, but, like the Discourses was only printed after his death. The only text that Machiavelli actively promoted himself by having it printed was one which we study much less nowadays, his Art of War. That work, and his History of Florence, hardly get a mention in this English Wikipedia article. A fuller treatment of his life, with some useful quotations, appears in Italian, though again attention is directed to a minority of his works.

If the guideline is, the bigger the name, the lower the value of the article, there’s another that can be added: names are better than things. Wikipedia is weaker talking about concepts than about characters. Take ‘civic humanism’, Hans Baron’s master-concept used to describe a tradition of Florentine republican justification: it does not appear in an article on its own, but instead the reader is re-directed to ‘classical republicanism’. This does not give much room to highlight the controversy which surrounds ‘civic humanism’. The wider concept of Renaissance humanism comes off even worse: the entry is hardly worth reading.

Yet, we should return to the comparison with print encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s sins are, in many ways, unoriginal: its weaknesses are the ones you could also find in most older encyclopedias. They too are often weakest on concepts, and least satisfying when they are talking about the most famous — and, so, most controversial — characters. What, of course, they often have lacked is the ability to develop. The future of reference works, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica knows, is on-line, where information can be added and corrected. A comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia suggests that, for our area, each has some advantages over the other: of the characters we have talked about, Machiavelli has a judicious article in Britannica, but most other humanists receive only a insubstantial summary. Even a significant figure like Leonardo Bruni is treated in this way, while Wikipedia gives more information (though it is, at present, skewed towards only a few of his works). In Britannica, the lesser humanists I mention are featured not at all. Where, of course, Wikipedia has a singular advantage is that it has the ability not just to be corrected: you can do the correcting.

So, if I should end by answering the question I set myself: of course we should not trust Wikipedia, just as we would not trust any other work or source. As historians, we trust nobody. But that does not mean we don’t use them and learn from them. The advice to students must be: read but read carefully. The advice to academics should be: if you don’t like something, change it. Admittedly, some entries might be beyond redemption but that is the case for a very few dealing poorly with concepts. Most are capable of improvement — and it is our job to do it. So, as I said, this morning the Machiavelli article talks erroneously of The Prince being his magnum opus. By this evening, I will make sure it does not anymore.