Let us admit it: manuscripts research is a drug. An observer of a special collections reading room may not credit it, sensing the hushed atmosphere that envelopes the seated individuals oblivious to the watching eyes as their attention concentrates on the volumes resting before them. We toil in what can often be drudgery – admittedly, comfortable but, all the same, a grind of request, checking and return recorded in brief notes which confirm that a book has been excluded from our enquiries. Even in this process, there is a tingling sensation, the tiny frisson of the scent and touch of parchment, the affecting recognition of contact with scribes and readers long dead but still present in the codex we have before us, and the irrepressible hope at the point just before we open the pages that here, maybe, will be a ‘find’. And when a find does come, it provides the rush, the exhilaration that keeps us enthralled to this drug through the years or, more often, decades which lie between each hit. We manuscript researchers are patient addicts.
Like any addict, when we are under the influence of the drug, we want to break out of normal behaviour: we are so stimulated that we want to shout, to break the silence of the reading room and call others to our desk so they can share in our excitement. What stops us, beyond a residual sense of propriety, is a semi-conscious realisation that very, very few, even in that learned space, would actually want to share, would appreciate what we have found to the extent we do. I remember once in the Vatican, at the point when I made a discovery and the power of the drug coursed through me like an intravenous injection, I looked around the room and caught the eye of a young researcher, who smiled and so revealed herself as a fellow addict, who knew from her own experience the sensation I was feeling. We did not talk – that is not the point: this is a designer drug, individuated for each user. What gives a hit to one person will leave another cold; but in the civilised opium den that is the library, there is an honour-code by which each respects the others’ moments of epiphany.
You might be able to tell that I am living on the after-effects of a dose of The Drug. In my career, I have had more than my fair share of hits – indeed, one sensation which, for me, comes at the moment of the rush is the downer, the question in my head: do I deserve this good fortune? Perhaps my luck will end; perhaps I have had my last find. Even if so (and, Lord, prevent it), the memory of the act of previous discoveries will sustain me. From the first occasions, in the mid-1990s, when, in Cambridge, I found in quick succession two manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, followed, on 5th April 2003, by the most memorable rush I have experienced, on a day when every manuscript I called up in the Bibliothèque nationale de France was a revelation – that day I nearly overdosed – with, only three months later, another hit, standing at the kitchen sink that serves the library of St John’s College, Oxford (have I told you that tale? Some day I surely will) – all these, and besides them, those moments in the Vatican Library, of course the Vatican, whose vast reserves of volumes to be seen will provide highs for eternity, with the most recent for me being reported on this website – each of these hits has driven me, impelled me to return to the library, to continue in this line of work while good sense (or the opposite, the demands of the REF) might argue otherwise. Note that it is the act itself that provides the hit; the thing discovered takes a cherished place in the friendship group of manuscripts one has known, but that is because of the associations it has earnt for you; certainly, the revelation of the discovery in print is only the after-effects, like the sucking on the lemon after the gin has been drunk dry.
I see, from the post I just mentioned, the date of my last hit was December 2012. So, I have waited nearly three and a half years for the next high: the interval itself increases the excitement. I have just returned from the States, where I had a useful week of research, looking in particular, at two manuscripts by Erasmus’s friend and the pre-eminent copyist in England in the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen. I visited first one, which by the date Meghen provides is his earliest manuscript; it was sold at Christie’s London rooms in 2010 (at a time when I as out of the country so unable to see it) and was bought by the Beinecke at Yale. The other has been at Princeton for longer and looking at it this week, it appears to me highly likely that it is from substantially earlier in Meghen’s career than that at Yale (I hope these words do not cause a feud between the two). All this, and the other books I studied, thanks to the kindness of the librarians at both Ivy League universities, was, as I say, useful – which is addict’s code for saying they provided no high. That, as happens, comes when and where you are not expecting it. It took place, in fact, last Thursday afternoon, 7th April 2016, in the special collections room in the Canaday Library of Bryn Mawr College. I was there because the reason for my visit to the States was to speak, at the generous invitation of David Cast and Roberta Ricci, at a colloquium on my old friend, Poggio Bracciolini, the following Saturday; my remit was to discuss his international reputation, for which I have stretched my own knowledge by studying his fortuna in early print but in which paper I also returned to manuscripts I know well, including those by the masterful mid-fifteenth century English scribe, Thomas Candour. The reason Bryn Mawr was such an appropriate location for this event was that the college was the alma mater of Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, who had translated the first collection of Poggio’s letters and who, in addition, was a renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts, many of them now housed in their Canaday Library. So, my purpose in arriving early was to study some of those volumes, with an eye to adding in some brief reference to them in my talk. What I found, however, could have transformed my paper completely: there was no way it would have been possible to know before I arrived that when I was handed a smallish volume, bound in pale calf-skin and containing two dialogues by Poggio, I was about to look on pages written by a man whose hand I know well – this is a previously unidentified manuscript produced by Thomas Candour. His codices are usually illuminated in a single style but – what makes this all the more exciting – is that the illumination here is not in that style but definably in the hand of the artist known as the Caesar Master. This is the only occasion on which England’s most significant humanist scribe and its most accomplished humanist-influenced illuminator are collaborators.
I warned you that a find is a personal thing. I can think of probably four people in the world who will be anything more than mildly interested in this – and one of those was in the audience on Saturday (thanks, Kathleen, for being there). Telling this tale, though, has helped me, I believe, to isolate the active chemical in the drug to which you, like me, may be addicted: it is serendipity. I have called serendipity before ‘the patron saint of palaeographers’, but perhaps that understates its importance or its relevance to a wider cohort of scholars. In what I have said today, you may recognise that what makes a find exhilarating is both its significance to one’s research and that it was unexpected. Serendipity does not prepare you for a discovery; it (or, if it is a patron saint, she) takes you in the hand blind-folded. But then she places you in front of what she thinks you should see, and takes off the blinkers and whispers in your ear, ‘look’. Of course, in truth, we make our own serendipity. By years of study, we gain eyes to see. By those years of drudgery, working without a hit, we make possible the irreplaceable sensation of the high. I am not giving up this drug – as I have learnt to say in the States – any time soon.
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.
I am not in the habit of shouting at the television. In part, that is because I am not much of a TV-watcher: until my then partner, now wife, moved in, there was no box in the house. When I do sit in front of it, the programmes on offer are usually not the sort to arouse violent reactions: I find it hard to get angry with Inspector Montablano. But a documentary has had me not just emitting expletives in a raised voice but also searching for suitable objects or pets to throw at the screen (lucky, then, that there are no animals in the house). The programme was the BBC’s ‘flag-ship’ arts phenomenon, ‘A Very British Renaissance’, presented by James Fox – not the actor but brother of Edward Fox, but ‘Dr James Fox’ (nowadays those who have written a dissertation can only appear on TV accompanied by the title, as if it were a mark of their trustworthiness in all matters).
I did not come to the programme cold: already this week I was put in training for the new sport of yelling in frustration and ire at the small screen. I had caught a few moments of another offering from the BBC, its ‘How to Get Ahead, at Renaissance Court’ – clever title, pity about the content. When I joined it, the presenter, Stephen Smith, was standing in the cortile of Florence’s Bargello, in front of Cellini’s bust of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, with its all’antica armour and ducal features finely realised in metal. Smith explains, however, that the Duke hated it because it presented him as a medieval prince while – cut to the Uffizi, with Smith next to Bronzino’s portrait of the Duke in armour – this is how he wanted to be presented, as a Renaissance prince. Smith went on to explain ‘Renaissance’ by evoking (in not so many words) Castigilione’s idea of sprezzatura but by then I had bawled at the screen and scrambled for the remote control. It was not simply that it had been assumed that two objects could encapsulate the contrast between ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ – it was the very presence of that discredited dichotomy, expressed with no reservation or recognition of its problematic nature, that made choice words fall unbidden from my lips.
I must admit I did expect ‘A Very British Renaissance’ to give me more opportunities to put my lung capacity through its paces. My prediction that the fifteenth-century Renaissance elements about which I write would be entirely absent quickly proved true. The Renaissance arrived, apparently, in 1507, when Pietro Torrigiano set foot on English soil (or mud, the dominant metaphor for ‘medieval’ Britain in this programme). No time, then, for Poggio Bracciolini or Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, or for the likes of Pietro Carmeliano, secretary and scribe to Henry VII. Indeed, according to the presenter, while ‘the Renaissance had been raging in Italy for two hundred years … here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever’. As you might imagine, at this point in the programme, rage was not confined to trecento and quattrocento Italy. The reason given for this laggardly showing? There had been so much in-fighting that Britain ‘hadn’t had time for a Renaissance’ – not (Dr Fox might have mentioned) that the struggles for power in Florence or the rivalry with Milan or between Milan and Venice had put a brake on ‘the Renaissance’. Neither, having been softened up by Mr Smith’s performance earlier in the week, did the recourse to the simplistic medieval / Renaissance division catch me completely off guard. So, we had Nicholas Kratzer with his ‘formidable mind – a genuinely Renaissance mind’, since he was interested in scientific observation. Likewise, we had his friend Hans Holbein, over whose drawings at Windsor Fox rhapsodised in eloquent fashion, introducing his peroration with ‘I think they’re even more important’ – it was part of the style of the programme that when a point required emphasis it was introduced by a first-person comment, even though the thought that followed was never original or particularly insightful. In this case, it was the claim that in Holbein’s drawings there were ‘the seeds of a new idea – the moment when people stopped thinking about themselves as types … and started to think about themselves as individuals.’ And so was brushed away over a century of scholarship spent dismantling the dubious concepts provided by Michelet and Burckhardt and we are again mired in talk of ‘the birth of the individual’.
It is a moment like this that you want to stop the presenter and interrogate him. In precisely what way is the remarkable draughtsmanship of Holbein associated with a new individualism? Is it that he made his sitters aware of their own selves? Did they walk in thinking of themselves as a type and leave realising they were unique? Or was the fact that they were willing to sit for him evidence that they already had a sense of their own individuality which they wanted captured on paper by this artist for hire? If so, then their sense of self did not need Holbein; it gained expression through him. But also, if so, did not the fact that these courtiers and merchants chose to call on Holbein’s services group them together as a type – the sort of person who would waste some of their expendable wealth on the conspicuous consumption of having their portrait done? They could chant in unison ‘we are all individuals’.
Yet, even the muddle-minded, half-baked historical thinking that underpinned the presentation was not what should concern us most. For one thing, there was also a disturbing politics at play. I realise the BBC is sensitive to the accusation of left-wing bias and maybe they worried about the fact that their presenter is a leftie – in the sense that David Cameron is. And Barack Obama. And me. Did they decide they needed their left-handed presenter to be not just right-on but also right-wing, so much so that the attitudes he was required to spout could warm the heart of Mr Farage (if he watched such cerebral stuff)? Did they require Dr Fox to give lines like the British ‘didn’t simply copy Europe, they would do things differently’? ‘Europe’ was consistently used in the sense of ‘the continent’. The assumption that the British Isles is not and has not been part of Europe is depressing politics based on bad history: it was certainly not how contemporaries in the period Dr Fox was discussing would have envisaged their civilisation. Meanwhile, in this year of the Scottish referendum, it might have been thought appropriate to make the case for a shared identity between Scotland and England. So, a section was included on Stirling Castle, but it would be understandable if those north of the border felt the programme stank of Sassenach arrogance. The terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ were used interchangeably; the overarching narrative was one provided by the political history of that part of the British Isles that centred on London. Thus, the Reformation discussed was that experienced in England, admittedly with notable omissions — no Break with Rome or Dissolution of the Monasteries — and ample space for anti-Catholic righteous indignation at the Marian persecution of Protestants, those ‘innocent people’ whose only crime was their religious difference from their monarch. The purpose of those lines was to introduce John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in which (the author’s near-namesake claimed) the true genius lay in its illustrations. At this point, we might have expected some discussion of their artistic skill but the only association made with the apparent theme of the programme was that the book was produced using a ‘Renaissance invention’ by which printing was presumably meant. Let us leave aside the re-write of history that implies, and concentrate on the conclusion of the section where it was asserted that the Book of Martyrs was not just ‘a monumental work of the Renaissance but also the beginning of a distinctly British tradition of graphically exposing injustice’.
And so we have the British (for which read mainly English) ‘genius’. The relative influences of Hegel and Herder on Burckhardt have been debated; the shadows of both fall across this programme but it turns out that the noun in the title is less significant than the adjective: this is less about the supposed Zeitgeist of the Renaissance than about the mythical Volksgeist of ‘the British’. Sir Arthur Bryant would be proud. What it is to be ‘British’ was not entirely pleasant: without the effete ‘elegance’ of the Mediterranean, ‘our’ Renaissance would express ‘solid, earthy reality’, and while there was a sense of fair play, there was also dislike of Catholics, and of foreigners, despite Britain’s debt to them. It was a construction of ‘Britishness’ in which England’s one intellectual of European standing in the early sixteenth century could have no place: Thomas More was conspicuous by his exclusion.
Perhaps, though, even a little Englander mentality is not the most worrying element in this programme. What was most depressing was that the information was presented not as a point of view, open to debate, but as a set of unquestionable facts: ‘I think’ used as an expression not of humility but of certainty. It presented a mindset in which the past can be easily categorised and judged. ‘How good a poet was he?’, Dr Fox asked about Thomas Wyatt (you can guess the answer). Standing besides the portrait by John Bettes in Tate Britain, he commented ‘I must admit this is not as good as Holbein but it’s pretty darn good’. We were given a history defined by league tables, in which Renaissance is certainly better than medieval, and in which Britain is separate from and implicitly better than ‘Europe’. Who constructs these league tables? The presenters, the doctors, the ‘experts’ – even when their expertise is patently doubtful. You, the viewers, have no part in that construction, you are the passive recipients of what is claimed to be established knowledge. You cannot see – to return to Stephen Smith – that Bronzino is Renaissance and Cellini medieval? That is because you are no expert. What unites the two programmes is that they are not intended to develop the watchers’ critical faculties or their ability to analyse the objects being displayed: it is, rather, to remind us that, we, on the wrong side of the screen, lack those faculties. This is not about liberal education but about indoctrination. It is this, even more than its recourse to a tired, demonstrably mistaken historiography, that makes these programmes deeply, depressingly conservative. Is this really in the spirit of the mission of the BBC?
I would like your advice (you, who are often so silent but who — I determinedly believe — are sitting there, shrewdly considering the prose). I have the not-unpleasant duty of breaking up term with a visit to Rome, to speak at a conference taking place in Place Navone — not, for sure, Piazza Navona, as this is at the École française. It is part of a series on ‘L’écriture latine en résaux’, with this event, organised by some impressive and strikingly young scholars, including Clémence Revest, concentrating on humanist works.
In my talk, I want to present in diagrammatic form some of the information about the relationship between manuscripts and so have turned to the established format of the stemma. Of course, it lacks some elements that philologist would consider a sine qua non; in particular, it does not trace the text back to its Ur-status or to its platonic form — there is no ‘x’ perching atop the tree here. What it gains, instead, though is some precision in dating: down the left-hand side is a set of years, with the manuscripts (most extant, some lost) aligned to that grid.
I should immediately admit that I am lucky: through a combination of philological and palaeographical knowledge, as well as circumstantial evidence, it is possible to be more definite about the date of a high proportion of these manuscripts than would be possible in most cases. Part of my paper will, in fact, be about how we can gain that precision and what it means for our understanding of the circulation of humanist texts. That said, there does remain some uncertainty about some dates – for instance, the copies of the ‘Virtue and Vice’ compilation listed at bottom right can only be dated tentatively and to a period of a few years rather than a specific date. One issue I have is how to demonstrate such tentativeness clearly in this tabular format. Should a different typeface be used? Should the lines of connexion be altered and if so, how?
One other change I would like to make is to signify more clearly the place of origin of the manuscripts. This is the purpose of the circle at top centre-right, marking those manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and given by him to Oxford University (in these cases, all in 1444). As those who know my work might realise, the intention is to delimit, to enclose the influence of Humfrey, and so provide a corrective to the assumption that he is the fons et origo of humanism in England. A good example involves Oxford: Balliol College, MS. 310 which sits on this chart floating at centre left (under the year 1449), intentionally without links to other manuscripts here. It is a copy, made by Theoderic Werken, of Leonardo Bruni’s Epistolae in the final nine-book edition; it has sometimes been assumed that it derived from a lost manuscript owned by Humfrey and given to Oxford but as the duke’s last gift to the university took place in the first days of 1444 and as the edition of Bruni’s letters was only completed after the author’s death in March of that year, that is highly unlikely, to say the least. What is more, it seems that the manuscript was produced in London, rather than in Oxford. The issue, then, is how to signify such differences of place: should the information be organised into columns (here it would be Oxford, London and Canterbury)?
I would be interested in your comments on these issues. More generally, I would like to hear if you think this type of presentation of information, ordering the manuscripts not just by their textual associations but also by their date, has any merit. I look forward to hearing from you.
Finally, a short set of fairly commonsensical abbreviations:
s: = scribe
p: = possessor
BL = London: British Library
BnF = Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France
NLW = Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales
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.
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.
Anyone who has been in earshot of me in the recent past – let’s be honest, not just the recent – is likely to have heard me rail against the culture dominant in Britain that presumes research is only research when it has been printed. It feels at times as if academia has become a support industry for the publishing world. I have no objection to new books: I love books; some of my good friends are or have once been publishers; indeed, I chose to marry one. The problem is not with publication but with the assumption that research only gains its justification through being presented in article or monograph form. There are surely other valid ways of disseminating new findings, be it in the lecture hall, at a seminar or even through an on-line posting.
Even that, though, is not the main concern. It is, rather, that the expectation of publishing encourages swiftly committing discoveries to print when they would be better gestating, maturing, ageing in the barrel of one’s mind. There are, of course, some types of research, where there is a finite set of sources or data which can be analysed and completed within a fairly short time-frame. But are we to privilege those over other types of scholarly investigation? What are we to say, for instance, to the palaeographer who is trying to reconstruct a scribe’s practice where the sources are disparate and, indeed, not for certain all yet identified? It is the sort of pursuit that feels near-infinite, a jigsaw-puzzle where the box has been lost and you are not even sure how much of the picture the remaining but dispersed pieces represent. But it also means that when a solution to a conundrum is discovered, it is all the more rewarding for the scholar and useful for scholarship. At that point, finally, publication would be justified, even required. To reach that, though, can – as the example I am about to give will show – take many years, more than can fit into an arbitrary five-year cycle fond of contemporary policy makers. I propose to you that we should emulate the Slow Food Movement and promote the art and the skills of Slow Study, withstanding the pressure to publish the half-baked, and let our work rest in the oven for as long as it takes.
My intention here, though, is not to give a manifesto, but to present an example of what I mean from my only research. It is a tale that reached something of a denouement just yesterday but it started at least a decade ago, and the journey from then to now had more than its fair share of pauses, frustrations – and luck. The main piece of good fortune that I have had is to have been contacted my friend and colleague, Stefano Baldassarri, asking me to look at a manuscript in Paris of texts by or related to Coluccio Salutati, Florence’s Chancellor at the turn of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, and god-father to the first generation of quattrocento humanists. Stefano was, at this point in 2010, in the process of editing a work that appears in the codex; he had noticed that the front flyleaf included an inscription by a seventeenth-century English owner, Richard Smith, a notable collector of both books and people’s death-dates. I did not have chance to go to Paris until 2012 – after Stefano’s fine edition was published (it is entitled La vipera e il giglio) – and then only on microfilm. But, as I looked through it, I saw in the margin of one folio a small, frankly unprepossessing pointing-hand or manicula which took my mind back to some research I had pursued – but (thank God) not published – eight years earlier.
In the first years of this millennium, interested in fifteenth-century collectors associated with Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, I spent time becoming better acquainted with the manuscripts of the English curialist, Andrew Holes. He gave to Humfrey one important manuscript, the sole copy of Salutati’s last masterpiece, De laboribus Herculis (a book now in the Vatican, but that is another story). The Florentine bookseller and unreliable gossip, Vespasiano da Bisticci, claims that Holes had collected so many books while he was an English representative at the papal curia that he had to hire a ship to carry them home. Whether that is true or not, those that survive number well over a score, with most of them in Oxford as Holes, a Wykhamist, gave his library to New College. Those manuscripts had received some recent attention in an article by that learned historian of the English in Rome, Margaret Harvey; she acknowledged for the palaeographical information the generous assistance of Tilly de la Mare. Margaret Harvey’s 1991 article was only the second to be dedicated to Holes; the first appeared in Speculum during the Second World War and its author, Josephine Bennett, entitled it ‘Andrew Holes: a neglected harbinger of the English Renaissance’. It is fair to say that Holes’s stock has not risen much since Bennett wrote, despite Harvey’s important piece, though, in various contexts in manuscript studies, he does gain a passing mention.
On that March day in 2012, the little pointing-hand in the Paris manuscript acted as a sort of Proustian epiphany taking me back to my work on Holes, for its style was familiar from his manuscripts. But it also reminded me of a problem which I had been forced to leave unresolved for lack of decisive evidence. I noticed that several scholars talked of manuscripts including marginalia by Holes, without ever giving specific folio references, but with the range of codices cited suggesting that two quite different sets of notes were being attributed to him. One was the script that provided the manicula, small, impressionistic, drawn vertically, and sometimes accompanied by words written rapidly in a gothic cursive. The other was much more presentable, a notably spiky gothic bookhand. It seemed to me to be implausible that one reader was moving between the two styles but I could not find any definite proof to identify one as Holes and so I had to designate the two sets of interventions ‘reader I’ and ‘reader II’.
The presence of the manicula – whoever was its author – suggested to me that we might be able to associate the Paris manuscript with the collection of New College and, indeed, in the sixteenth century, the antiquary John Leland saw in that library a volume the description of which corresponds with the manuscript I was studying. Not only that: the inscription by Richard Smith on the flyleaf mentioned that he also owned ‘another MSS of the same Author of the same vellum’. Might this be another manuscript from Holes and New College? Might it too have reached Paris? I could not pursue those questions that day last year – I only had a few hours in the library as I was in the city on other, more official business in the Sorbonne.
And, so, the search had to be put on pause another year. The wait, though, was worth it. As, I hope, will be the wait to hear the second and final instalment of this tale…
Yes, yes, I know. I have been silent for too long, leaving my audience shuffling in their seats uncomfortable at this Cagey performance. I did warn you when I started this site that I have neither the character nor the time to blog incessantly. But, by any standards, the hiatus since the previous post has developed from being a pregnant pause to a laboured silence. It is not, I would like to insist, because I have had nothing to say. Au contraire: several posts have been crafted in my mind, only to fail to be downloaded from brain to laptop. Perhaps their time will come or, more likely, they have been sent to the recycling bin of forgetfulness.
There is, however, one topic that has refused to be ignored and insists that I write something. My research in the last few days, in Oxford, London and Rome, has made me think about the uses and the limitations of the lectio probatoria: those intriguing and infuriating records in some medieval library catalogues of a terse extract, usually just the first word – if you are lucky, two or three – of a volume’s second folio (and so sometimes called the secundo folio). The practice of providing this information appears to have begun in Paris in the thirteenth century and became fairly common in France and in England (but, in contrast, very rare in Germany). The purpose of it is clear: while the opening of a text should always be the same, by the time a scribe and his pen come to the start of the next folio, it is unlikely that he will have reached exactly the same place as his exemplar or another copy to hand, and so the first words of that page can act as a diagnostic, identifying the specific volume where the title alone may not.
The use of such evidence in identifying extant manuscripts and so reconstruct their provenance is well recognised. Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano, in particular, have published studies using the lectio probatoria as a tool for manuscript provenance studies. More recently, James Willoughby has shown that the practice of recording the second folio continued into early print culture: this may seem, at first, nonsensical as what precisely marks out the (relatively) mass-produced printed book is that individual copies are not unique and all of one printing will begin each page with the same words. Yet, in defence of cataloguers who continued the practice, this did not, in the earliest decades of the new technology at least, have to worry them: several copies with identical layout may exist but only one was in their library and so the lectio probatoria remained a useful finding aid. And, as Willoughby explains, for the latter-day bibliographer, it can also be useful in helping identify precisely which printed edition the library owned: while multiple copies were identical, they were highly unlikely in their layout and thus their secundo folio to be exactly the same as the multiple copies of another printing.
But the historian’s use of the lectio probatoria has its limitations. There are obvious duds: the list-writer who records ‘et’ or ‘quod’ as the first word of the relevant page is providing the minimum of information which may not have been of much use then and is certainly not for our purposes. In other cases, the wording may still be fairly mundane but more revealing when combined with the knowledge of the text in the volume, which is usually the first piece of information listed. Yet, I have encountered cases where a search for the relevant phrase in the text cited suggests not it or anything like it occurs at an appropriate point early in the work. Either the cataloguer made a mistake or, as seems to be the case in some inventories, the text listed is not necessarily the first. This is the case with the indenture drawn up for the third and largest gift made by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester to Oxford University in 1444 (and which we know only from the copy recorded of it in the University’s Archives). My reconstruction of what happened is that the inventory-maker, working quickly, picked up the volume and (as was customary, because of the way clasps on bindings closed a book) opened it from the back, flicked through to find a title, and then moved to the beginning to record the lectio probatoria. What, then, he and other list-makers like him were providing was not a record of first work and second folio but a note stating that a manuscript included the cited work somewhere between its covers and, in addition, had the word or words recorded at its second folio.
The lesson from this is that to understand the evidential possibilities of the lectio probatoria, we first have to appreciate the particular modus operandi of that specific cataloguer. There are a couple of other rules of thumb that we need to follow and each can be introduced by a cautionary tale.
The first involves a manuscript of Juvenal, now in the Bodleian, that I was consulting last week. I was interested in it because it has been attributed to the collection of Robert Flemyng, dean of Lincoln (d. 1483), in whom I am interested as he was an early aficionado of humanist manuscripts, and himself a scribe competent in humanist cursive. The provenance of the manuscript – MS. Lat. class. e 30 – has been reconstructed on the basis that the secundo folio agrees with the lectio probatoria of an entry in the 1474 catalogue of Lincoln College, Oxford, where it is stated that the book was given by Flemyng. The manuscript, a small mid-fifteenth-century Italian humanist product is the sort of volume that Flemyng could have picked up on his travels – but it has at the foot of its opening page two coats of arms, one of the Loredan family, the other suggested to be that of the Malipiero family (though the tinctures are wrong). This helps localise the manuscript to the Veneto; it is not impossible that Flemyng bought it second-hand but there is no other evidence to relate it to him – he does not, as he does in a good number of the other books he owned, annotate this volume. Nor does the present Oxford location help localise its earlier existence: we only know it was in England at the start of the twentieth century and may have been elsewhere before that. What is more, there is a problem with relying on the lectio probatoria as deciding evidence. Remember that this is a work of poetry, where the scribe has to respect line divisions. This obviously makes it much more likely than with a prose text that two manuscripts could have the same opening of the second folio. In such a case, the lectio is much less probatoria than we should like.
The second case I present to you (if any of the audience are still in the house) involves a Vatican manuscript for which Williman and Corsano have proposed a provenance. It is a copy of Vegetius the secundo folio of which accords with the lectio probatoria of a volume of that work as recorded in the 1389 catalogue of Dover Priory. This would be interesting evidence of the migration of manuscripts to Italy from England, except that the manuscript itself – MS. Vat. lat. 4492 – disproves the reconstruction by the fact that it was written in Rome in 1408. The book simply came into the world too late to be that recorded in the Dover listing. By the fifteenth century, then, at least two copies of the text Vegetius existed – at opposite ends of Europe – with the same secundo folio. An unlikely occurrence in a prose text, certainly, but one which, given the laws of probability, is going to happen in some cases.
What I want to emphasise in this case – and which is relevant to the Flemyng example as well – is a fact so obvious it should not need stating: the evidence of the first words of the second folio should not be taken in isolation. It cannot be used as a trump card, rendering all other known facts redundant. If it does not accord with the other information available, alarm bells should ring and another explanation must be sought.
This, though, is not to suggest that we should ignore the possibilities the lectio probatoria provide – we too often work with so little evidence, we cannot lightly dispense with this precious piece of proof. Indeed, we can probably make more use of them than we are accustomed to do. They can sometimes help us provide details about manuscripts that are no longer extant. I have enjoyed, on some occasions, identifying more precisely the opening contents of a volume from the record of the lectio probatoria. So, for instance, the first of Humfrey’s gifts to Oxford (made in 1439), one of the entries reads:
Item oraciones Tullii 2o fo. aut quelibet
Checking those two words, I realised that they came at the appropriate point in just one of Cicero’s orations, the Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino, a work which was re-found in 1415 by Poggio Bracciolini (a friend of ours from other posts on this site). The brief entry, then, demonstrates that the duke was providing classical texts which had been circulating for less than a quarter of a century. This much has subsequently been noted in print in an important article by Rod Thomson, but we can add further comment. First, the opening text was an unusual one, most of the copies of the ‘new’ orations choosing other speeches with which to begin. That nugget of information may help us reconstruct the origin of the copy that Humfrey owned. Second, the specific location of the words in the relevant text can give us some general sense of the size of the volume. It can only be general – the changes in possible shape combined with the varieties of scribal practice would not allow anything more exact – but, in this case, with the phrase falling just over 500 words into the oration, we are probably looking at a large quarto volume, perhaps something with between 20 and 25 lines to a page.
I provide that final example to suggest some of the possibilities of the lectio probatoria which are, as yet, underused. It may not be able to match as often as we would like a record with an extant manuscript – and we should use caution, respectful of other evidence and conscious of the type of text that we are studying – but it may well be able to give some insight into a volume that no longer exists. To put it another way: we are, perhaps, too keen to imagine it as a key to unlocking the secrets of what we do have, rather than recognising it as a peep-hole onto what we can no longer touch.
Manuscripts have a tendency to creep up on you when you are looking elsewhere, tap you on the shoulder and then punch you between the eyes. That has been my experience today in the Vatican Library. I called up a manuscript because of what is known of its late fifteenth-century provenance and did not expect to find staring up at me from the lectern a codex made several decades earlier, clearly (from the illumination) in Milan and, what is more, in a script very close to that of Milanus Burrus: he was a highly accomplished scribe who developed his own response to the Florentine palaeographical reforms and created a mise-en-page that reminds us that you do not need to have illumination on the parchment to be looking at a work of art.
And when one manuscript has softened you up, another then comes in and knocks you sideways. As this is my last day of this research trip, I was attempting to tie things up neatly — whenever you do that, the books tend to have other plans for you. So, revisiting the manuscript of his Synesius translation that John Free made, with little expense spared, for Paul II, I wanted to compare the capitals and so ordered up another volume for comparison. The volume was MS. Vat. lat. 3162, a copy of Juvenal and Persius which is known to be Paduan and has interventions by Bartolomeo Sanvito, though, as Laura Nuvoloni explains in the sumptuous recent volume in ‘The Handwriting of the Italian Humanists’ series, the main scribe is a separate person, writing in a similar style. What caught me off-guard was that, looking through the codex, I came across one occasion where there is an alternative reading added into the margin by a hand which is very familiar to me — it is that of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester.
Those of you who have explored this site will already appreciate the importance of Tiptoft, whose library was perhaps second only to that of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the fifteenth century. We now have over thirty books from his collection, dispersed across Europe (his hopes of donating his books to Oxford where thwarted by his own execution). In one sense, it is perfectly understandable that this manuscript should have passed through the earl’s hands: he certainly knew its scribe, owning another volume which was produced by him (it is no. 11 in my listing). But there are two factors which are more surprising. The first of them is its location — there is, as you can see from the listing of the known Tiptoft manuscripts, no other book of his which is in the Vatican. The second relates to the contents of the codex: a few years ago I identified a copy of Juvenal and Persius from his library, written by Sanvito himself, and definitely in England in the late fifteenth century (no. 13 in the listing). Would he have had two rather similar-looking copies of the same texts? It is not impossible but surely unlikely. Perhaps, though, there is another explanation: Tiptoft is not the only annotator on the volume — the two other marginalia could well be by his secretary, who later presented his translation to Synesius to Paul II, John Free. We know that he remained in Italy when Tiptoft returned to their homeland, and it was in Rome that Free died prematurely in 1465. Now, MS. Vat. lat. 3162 did not arrive in the papal library earlier — it shows evidence of Italian ownership in the fifteenth and the sixteenth century — but we can posit a history for it: cast off by Tiptoft, who had a more elegant copy of the works it included, he passed it to Free, who took it to Rome, where, after his death, it circulated, only to end up in the Vatican some decades later.
This, I should say, is not the only discovery — and perhaps not the most important one — of the day. Having been pushed around by one manuscript, knocked about by another, I was then hit between the eyes by yet one more. So, I have been left punch-drunk and gasping for air, at the same time wishing that I could get more of the same and also knowing that I simply will, God and Mammon (aka research grants) both willing, have to return here to give the manuscripts as good as I have got from them.
I am out of touch with the times. To those who know me that much has been clear for many years but it has only struck home with me in recent months. Over a decade ago, when I was teaching at Mansfield, the Librarian would thank me if I reprimanded a reader who was found in the library showing such numb-skulled disrespect to books that they had brought in something to drink. Now, when I step into the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (which, in my imagination, remains a timeless haven for protecting learning) and see so many desks adorned with plastic bottles and watch readers swigging water from them, I have to restrain myself from breaking the silence with a call to the custodians who, I still assume, would rush to catch these culprits who have so clearly infringed the spirit if not the letter of the Bodleian oath that they should be summarily escorted from the hallowed premises, divested of their University Card and advised to leave Oxford with all their belongings on the first train.
But, of course, they are not culprits, as the Reading Room staff patiently explained to me when I remonstrated with them a few months back: the rules were changed in 2011. The previous ban on all food and drink was, so to speak, watered down to allow water in the reading rooms. And, as the staff went on, it has proved very popular (popular, I wanted to shout, but saving the Library’s patrimony for future generations is not about seeking fleeting popularity). They provided the ‘lesser evil’ defence: there had been readers who wanted to bring in tea or coffee or cola, and so, confining them only to water was some sort of success. I asked the staff why water was so much better than other drinks; they guessed the reason was that it would not stain, which made me wonder whether it would be acceptable to bring in white but not brown spirits, vodka but not brandy, mother’s ruin but not the water of life.
I am not, however, writing this to be a grumpy Ciceronian, declaiming ‘o tempora, o mores’; my palpitations have subsided. The purpose of these paragraphs is not to condemn but to understand, for I sense there is here a cultural change that deserves to be analysed and understood. When I was an undergraduate twenty – sorry, twenty-five – years ago, very few students would have thought that taking water into the Bodleian could be acceptable. A delight of owning a book was that you could do what you wanted with it: you could have it at your desk and have a cup or glass to hand, something you could not contemplate doing in the college library, let alone in the Bodleian with its national status as a copyright collection.
It was not considered either acceptable or, for that matter, necessary: my impressionistic memory is that water was drunk far less often than it is a couple of decades later. Perhaps I am misremembering or post-dating the development. After all, the internal design of the British Library on Euston Road, opened in 1997, included plentiful water fountains, though, again, my impression is that they began as something of a curiosity and have become more of a welcome feature. I will not speculate on reasons for the apparent life-style change, beyond noting that the dietician’s advice to drink H2O regularly seems even to inform the Bodleian’s new reading room rule, which reads: ‘Remember that water is permitted in the reading room…’. It is an injunction that seems not just to condone but to encourage water-drinking in the library.
But how does this arrangement accord with the Bodleian oath that I remember reading aloud as a Fresher in 1987? What is usually remembered is the phrase about not kindling flame, but that is a specific injunction within a more general prohibition about not defacing or damaging books in any way. And, as William Blades wrote in the nineteenth century, ‘next to fire, we must rank water … as the greatest destroyer of books’. It could be fairly retorted that he had in mind primarily loss of volumes at sea, to which should be added the destructive power of floods: not for nothing is the traditional library built on the first floor, not at ground level. In comparison to the quantity of liquid that causes the calamities of drowning or flooding, it might be said, the water students bring into the Bodleian is a mere puddle. It might be added that with the teats through which most imbibe soft drinks now, the danger of spillage is minimised (you will note that the reading room rule talks only of water without specifying how it is carried, allowing the possibility of it being in a paper cup or a glass or – like the farmer presenting his meagre gift to Artaxerxes – in cupped hands, but other information shows that the Library’s expectation is that the water will be bottled. Whether it could be San Pellegrino held in green glass is not made transparent, if you pardon the pun). The danger of spillage may be minimised, but it is still there; even if a litre and a half would not turn pages to papier-mâché, it could cause the sort of damage Bodley’s oath is intended to guard against happening. Perhaps, though, we have become purblind to this; perhaps we are culturally conditioned to downplay the possibility of water as one of what Blades called the enemies of books. What I have in mind is less the benign nature of water at a time when we perceive it to be increasingly scarce but, rather, the association that our western modern living has created between the destruction of books and burning, something about which I have talked elsewhere. Beside the power, etched in our cultural memories, of fire pales all other destructive forces.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that it is not all the Bodleian’s rooms which are as insouciant about the presence of drink. Go down the few steps from the Upper Reading Room into the Arts End of the old library and the notice at the entrance into Duke Humfrey’s, complete with graceless cartoon graphics, states boldly that ‘no food or drink (including water bottles) are allowed [sic] in this reading room’. Duke Humfrey’s has been lamentably denuded of its status as the prime location for manuscript consultation but it still has a certain aura of the inner sanctum – indeed, the distinction between reading rooms as watering holes, on the one hand, and spaces of scholarship where full abstinence is required, on the other, is surely increasing that divide. It also, of course, assumes a gradation in the books themselves – those that can be consulted in one of the general spaces being considered less valuable or, perhaps, more dispensable than those that are confined to places like Duke Humfrey’s. Whether a legal deposit library should promote such a distinction when all its collection needs protecting for posterity is, of course, a wider debate.
That a process of gradation exists could be seen as an admission of failure: an inability to protect all so the inner bastions become the line of defence. Even there barbarians might lurk: we should not be too dewy-eyed about Duke Humfrey’s as a special haven when Judith Loades can remind us of the time in the 1970s that Margaret Crum happened upon a reader in the room with a Thermos flask of tomato soup. If policing a collection has been a perennial concern, it may shed a different light on the decision to soften the rules about no food and drink in the library. I mentioned that the staff used the ‘lesser evil’ defence. One can imagine that argument being made in starker form: if readers do not feel comfortable in the library, they may either not use it (which would be their loss, not the Bodleian’s) or, worse, abuse it by stealing books from it. The possibility of water-damage to some volumes might then be calculated to be a risk worth taking if it reduced the rate of theft. If, though, that was in the authorities’ thinking, it suggests a deeper malaise: what standards of comfort are these? A reader needs to be able sit painlessly and to read without straining their eyes – but why has the requirement for acceptable seating and adequate lighting been supplemented by an insistence on being able to hydrate oneself?
The answer surely lies in expectations imported from other libraries and from new technology. Students’ experience of other libraries can make the absence of water seem a deprivation: after all, most if not all Oxford college libraries now allow bottles in, often on the basis that as they are open 24 hours they cannot stop it happening. What is more, one can e-mail, one can check Facebook, one can text in a reading room, so why should not one be able to fulfil a bodily need for liquid there? I sometimes regret the ability to be on the internet in the library – I am nostalgic for the times when it was a place where you were beyond communication, a hiding-place from the demands of every-day life – but, of course, I could not work without the resources it provides. My point is that the new connectivity has broken down walls in ways which sets new challenges for libraries like the Bodleian. It is not just barriers to learning that have been removed; the separation of ‘library’ from other, mundane space has been reduced as the outside world seeps into the reading room through the computer screen. Perhaps, indeed, the increasing need to make distinctions between reading rooms is a result of this logic, a need to internalise differences within the library where it previously existed between library and beyond.
Water in the library dilutes the space: it is a symptom of how the stone walls have become porous. I am not suggesting that the fabric of Schools Quad will suffer the fate of Jericho before the trumpets of Joshua. Thomas Bodley chose for his library the motto ‘quarta perennis’ – the fourth will last forever, where the previous three libraries of the University of Oxford, the mythical one of Alfred’s and the more real ones of Bishop Cobham and Humfrey, duke of Gloucester had all perished. Libraries do die, but we need not predict the Bodleian’s demise. Cultural shifts are making the old rules indefensible, but with the loss of those rules something less tangible but more essential also dissipates – the aura or charisma of the space. The challenge is this: how, in the emerging world order, can the library be re-endowed with fresh charisma?