bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Lectio probatoria, cave lector

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 19 March, 2013

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.

A previously unnoticed manuscript annotated by John Tiptoft

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 17 December, 2012

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.

Water in the Library

Posted in Biblioclasm, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 3 June, 2012

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?

A little more information about Tito Livio Frulovisi

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 14 May, 2012

I have broken my New Year’s resolution. At the start of 2012, I promised myself that I would have twelve months off reviewing. It was a commitment to enforced abstinence: I enjoy reviewing books, I like the challenge of both summarising and engaging with a work in the space of a thousand or 1,500 words. But it is time consuming: it does not involve just making the space to give the book sustained reading time (a challenge, as it is); it also requires research in itself — sample-checking the author’s primary evidence to gain a sense of trust, or otherwise, in the scholarship, reading those secondary works that have been central to the construction of their argument but which one has not yet had chance to read. And then you have to wonder how many people pay attention to your wise comments anyway.

So, I had good intentions to avoid all reviewing this year. It did not last long. The offer to write on a volume in which Cristina Cocco edits one of the comedies of Tito Livio Frulovisi had a double attraction: first, the text being printed was by an author with whom I have more than a passing acquaintance, having written about this wandering humanist in the English Historical Review and elsewhere. Second, it was for the The Medieval Review, an on-line project housed at Indiana University. Its website is not as elegant or as user-friendly as that the Reviews in History site of London’s IHR, which I have had cause to mention recently; but it is a worthy project and one which surely has the future on its side: for how long can print journals continue to justify taking up space with notices of individual volumes which often appear long after publication? I can see an ongoing purpose to hardcopy review articles, and to more combative debates aroused in response to a single work, but the shorter review is something to which the internet is best suited.

And so, reader, I succumbed to temptation. And now the review is available on-line. I will not repeat here what is freely viewable elsewhere on the web. But I do want to mention here two facts about Frulovisi one of which appeared in that review and another which seems not to have received recent scholarly attention.

The first is a discovery I made a while ago; I have alluded to it both in print in Studi umanistici piceni and on this website but not discussed it in full. It is the fact that the sole copy of Frulovisi’s comedies, a holograph manuscript which is now Cambridge: St John’s College, MS. C. 10, includes evidence of its early provenance. Alfonso Sammut tentatively attributed the manuscript to the library of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, but knew of no corroboration of his assumption. In fact, using a UV light in the darkest corner of the college’s upper library, ten years ago, I was able to decipher an ownership note that had been remarkably succesfully removed by rewashing — and it was, indeed, the duke’s mark of ownership, recording that it was a gift of the author. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Frulovisi presented to his barbarian patronthis manuscript of comedies most written for performance before a Venetian audience — a manuscript itself produced in England — raises questions about perceived cultural distance within quattrocento Christendom.

The other piece of information is one that seems not to have been mentioned in recent discussions of Frulovisi and which, indeed, revises my own chronology of his time in England. It is the fact that we can state with some certainty the date of the humanist’s departure from London for Italy. In the collection of papers Mediceo avanti il principato of the Archivio di Stato of Florence which are now magnificently available on-line (and I have to thank Angelo de Scisciolo and Fabrizio Riccardelli for bringing this resource to my attention) there is a document written in an English script which is a letter of introduction from Henry VI for Frulovisi to Cosimo de’ Medici. It explains that Frulovisi at that point was returning to his homeland (in natale solum ire); the letter is dated 26th August 1440.

The letter mentions Frulovisi’s services to the king and to his uncle, that is to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester — suggesting (against the tendency of recent scholarship) that he was by no means persona non grata in Greenwich, but also implying that the humanist had gained the attention of Henry VI, which he had so clearly craved. The dating of the letter is also notable, not just because it post-dates Frulovisi’s final departure by at least year from what is usually credited; it is so close to the time of the departure of the papal collector, Pietro del Monte, from England, that one wonders whether they travelled together, despite the somewhat fraught relations between the two as revealed in del Monte’s letter-book. Finally, the letter ends with the monogram of Thomas Bekynton, then secretary to the king, and it raises the question of whether Bekynton himself conjured up the prose the described Cosimo as someone who loved lettered and well-behaved men (literatos et bene moratos viros) — or were the words put into his pen by Frulovisi himself? That opens up a broader discussion about the presence of humanist Latin in the English chancery, something on which I have been writing recently and about which I could discuss further now, if only the length of this short post had not already become as long as a book-review.

How an article is not like wine

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 25 February, 2012

A small change has been made to the page listing the publications of David Rundle: I am today able to add as published an article on Antonio Beccaria appearing in the Italian journal, Humanistica, for 2010.

Of course, I would like the year in which my wedding took place to last for many moons, but my wife assures me that 2010 is long past. Certainly, this is not the first occasion on which the journal in which an article of mine appears sports a different date on the cover than it does in its publication details. In some ways, I have an affection for this quaint demonstration of how we all can fail to live up to the strict demands we set ourselves — better that world than the one in which publication is an urgent requirement if one is to be perceived as an active researcher (a culture that mis-defines research as dissemination), one in which there is a Manichean opposition between the published and the damned.

What, though, strikes me more is how this article has not done what every good wine should do and matured as it has sat in the publishing house. The article considers Antonio Beccaria’s production, during his long stay in England, of a collection of translations of the Church Father, Athanasius – a collection more extensive than anything produced by Ambrogio Traversari, whose own version, I suggest, Beccaria had on his desk in England or, to be more precise, in Greenwich, in the palace of his employer, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. I use this example to emphasise how humanist creativity was not confined to its supposed ‘centre’ of Italy and note, indeed, how these texts were imported to Beccaria’s hometown of Verona on his return there in the mid-1440s. There is another central argument to the piece which I now feel I expressed too softly and wish it had gained extra gusto of its own accord while waiting to appear in print: that argument is that the period that Beccaria took to produce his translations — a period of over six years — does not allow us to assume a single cause for the work, or a single message they are trying to convey. What, in particular, is unlikely is that Beccaria produced them conscious of one political context in which they might be useful for his master: the codicology of these manuscripts make them appear to be his own pastimes which he happened to present to Humfrey, rather than a demand placed on him each year by the duke.

If I wish I had been more forthright, there is another detail in which, following a recent visit to re-view the relevant manuscript in the Vatican (MS. Vat. lat. 413), I think my assertion is downright wrong. It does not change the overall argument of the article at all — it is a side-point to that discussion — but it is a hostage, an error I will need to unpick in my next publication (berating my own scholarship more harshly than I would anyone else’s, in print at least). This, then, is an article that has not matured and even, in one tiny element, is past its best. But, I hope, if you, most learned reader, care to look at it, you will not judge it has turned to vinegar.

Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 November, 2011

When is a manuscript royal? Is it solely when it was commissioned by a monarch? Or – a slightly broader definition – when it is called into existence by the will of a member of the royal family? Is it one which was made with the intention of entering a royal collection? Or one which, whatever its creator’s plan, did end up there in the Middle Ages? Or, indeed, one which reached the British Royal Library after the medieval period? It is a question worth asking because examples of all of these types of books are on display in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’ exhibition at the British Library.

On one level, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition answers the question: John Lowden begins the introductory essays by stating that the definition used includes ‘any manuscript for which there is evidence of a royal connection at any point in its history’ (p. 19). It is a definition so capacious that it invites sub-division, a process that Prof. Lowden himself undertakes in the pages that follow. But it is also a definition not immediately on display to those who visit the exhibition, relying on the brochure, captions or audio-guide to help lead them through the more than 150 manuscripts laid out in the cabinets. They are told, instead, that manuscripts ‘associated with successive kings and queens of England … include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries’. A set of associations are implied, linking ‘royal’ with ‘manuscript’– associations which the visitor without a catalogue can (like Miss Lavish wandering Florence without her Baedeker) have the thrill of discovering for themselves.

The visitor may find it is easiest to define ‘Royal Manuscripts’ by what it is not: in the first place, the exhibition does not attempt to provide a detailed history of the library of the English monarchs. It is the case that, after a useful brief section on the creation of a manuscript (where parchment and vellum are bravely distinguished), the exhibition proper opens with a section on Edward IV as founder of the royal library, showing samples of the outsize Burgundian manuscripts that he bought. Beyond that, though, there is little here to hint at the difference between the Plantagenets and their French counter-parts: the development of the library of the Louvre from at least the reign of Charles V had a sense of books as part of the royal patrimony, whereas in England, until the late fifteenth century, manuscripts were as likely to leave the king’s ownership as to enter them, the books he came to own being seen as appropriate diplomatic gifts, ripe to be alienated from his property. Nor is there any mention in the captions of the purchase of the residue of the French royal library by John, duke of Bedford in the earl 1420s and its likely transfer across the Channel. This is simply not a tale the exhibition wishes to tell.

Similarly, the exhibition is not about the physical allure of the written word captured on parchment. The display includes some rolls – of prayers and genealogies – and, in one instance, presents an indenture of Henry VII (a manuscript made for the king to give away to Westminster Abbey: BL, MS. Harl. 1498) bound as a book within its binding and chemise, with heavily-encased seals hanging from it. These, understandably, are the exceptions: after all, the royal collection has suffered the sort of solicitous attention that results in the original bindings being removed and thrown away, though they (as many a presentation miniature reminds us) would have been the most noticeable element of a book to its early owners. Nor is there a discussion of the development of script in these volumes, nor a sense of what import different textual presentations may have been intended to carry. The sub-title for this show tells us where its main interest lies: in that element of a book’s construction that was its illuminations.

But the openings presented belong not only to manuscripts made for kings or queens. The second section of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Christian Monarch’ describes, through the medium of illuminations, the long association of kingship with religious devotion, from Athelstan to Henry VIII. Some of these books were created as instruments of royal worship, while others entered princely hands only a few generations after their first construction – a distinction neatly summed up by the juxtaposition of two Psalters, both owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, with one made for his private worship (BL, MS. Royal 2. B i, noting that the presence of the duke’s notes in the calendar at fol. 4v works against the exhibition’s hypothesis that he intended the book for his nephew’s edification) and the other, the so-called St Omer Psalter, owned by him but produced in Norfolk nearly a century before it reached his hands (BL, MS. Yates Thompson 14). Yet others are included for their depictions of kings rather than being definitely royal in ownership – an example is the eleventh-century Rule of St Benedict from Christ Church, Canterbury with its fine miniature of three Anglo-Saxon kings joined by a swirling scroll that also lifts up the monk who reverently lies beneath them (BL, MS. Cotton Tiberius A iii). The section gives a sense of the habits of devotion and the duties they placed upon royalty but it also raises a question that lies at the heart of the rationale for this exhibition: was there a particularly royal type of illumination?

In some cases, the exhibition strains to associate a book with a royal patron. This is the case with the poster-boy for the show – God creating the world, as depicted in a Bible historiale (BL, MS. Royal 19 D. iii). It is a magnificent piece of work, its blues and reds a mass of delicately realised sets of wings – angels depicted à la Fouquet, if a few decades earlier. The audio-guide at this point echoes the catalogue in suggesting ‘it would not be a surprise if [the manuscript] were made for a royal owner’ but it goes further in suggesting the identity of that prince was likely to be Jean, duc de Berry. What interests me is the reasoning for this suggestion which, on the audio-guide, stresses the lavish nature of the illustration and implies that this would be most likely to be paid for by a member of a royal family. And yet, there are enough examples of resplendent manuscripts on display in this exhibition that were not commissioned by princes – from monastic and ecclesiastical establishments or from aristocratic families and (in the last century or so of the period) confraternities. The fact that some of the products made for such institutions or individuals later entered royal hands reminds us not only that princely collections were often inhabited by the second-hand but also that those same princes did not disdain handling manuscripts illuminated for the lesser-born. In other words, we would be best to avoid assuming that richness of decoration had particularly royal connotations at any point in the period covered by the exhibition.

The implication of this is that in their ownership and use of manuscripts, kings and queens were participating in a wider bookish culture. Rarely was it one of the factors that set them apart from their subjects but, instead, showed them sharing others’ interests. If this is so, we might wonder how far royal patronage defined what was new or what was best in manuscript production, rather than simply partaking of those fashions. Did princes earmark a larger proportion of their wealth on manuscripts than did other book-owners? Or did they reserve their cash for more ostentatious methods of conspicuous consumption? And, when they looked at a book, what drew their attention: did they turn to the illumination, seeing it as light relief from the over-supply of words that they were expected to decipher? Or did they let the volumes rest closed, so that the rich bindings were on show, at the expense of the masterful painting hidden inside? How did they hold these books and turn their pages? It is in the nature of a block-buster exhibition like ‘Royal Manuscripts’ that the objects are static, held open at a single folio for the duration of the display – no equivalent here to the daily turning of the pages in the Piccolomini Library of Siena’s Cathedral. What we are offered, in effect, is a snippet view rather than the whole book. The images can be enthralling, but the books in which they sit are not mere containers for artistic genius – each of these manuscript has a dynamism, an incorrigible plurality of its own, that can only be imagined when it sits under glass. We should savour the exhibition, with its juxtapositions and its insights, while we can; we should relish all the more the day these manuscripts are again available for consultation, folio by folio, opening by opening, in the Reading Room upstairs.

Who needs Treasure when you have the everyday?

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2011

My local library has opened an exhibition celebrating itself. Considering that that library is one of the largest in Britain and surely the most iconic university library in the world, no one could blame the Bodleian for doing that. Some might complain that the event is a tad unoriginal — the title, Treasures of the Bodleian, is also that of a volume from some twenty years ago. But, the answer could come, this has an elegant and interactive website, which includes a section looking forward to the opening of the New New Bodleian (Oxford’s answer to the game of Mornington Crescent, there) with an on-line ballot — albeit merely first-past-the-post — for what should be on display. And there’s even a write-in section for the ballot: ‘The People’s Choice’ it is called, which must be a sort of self-aggrandizing synecdoche, where the cultured bourgeoisie count as all ‘people’.

With my research interests, I was curious to see what the curators had decided was a ‘treasure’ and, in particular, what late medieval manuscripts they had on show. The answer is very few and nothing at all to do with the University Library’s second founder, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. And that’s even in the section called ‘A Bodleian Treasure’ with items, like Hilliard’s miniature of Thomas Bodley, providing visual vignettes of the library’s history. It is true that because of the early-sixteenth-century decline of the University Library and its eventual closure around 1549 — not all the fault of Richard Cox, despite what the commentary to the exhibition says — none of duke Humfrey’s manuscripts remained in the room now named after him, but some have returned. And if I was to propose a write-in campaign it would probably be for what is now MS. Duke Humfrey d. 1, a fairly small but refined manuscript of Pliny the Younger, with the duke’s ex libris and written in the hand of the Milanese humanist, Pier Candido Decembrio, who was then seeking the distant duke’s patronage. It encapsulates very well a particular element of Humfrey’s collecting and the international network that lay behind it.

And, yet, when thinking what makes for me the Bodleian such a remarkable place — my local haven for scholarship — I realised that much of what is redolent to me is immovable or intangible. They could hardly take down the original donors’ plaque for the south staircase to put on exhibition; and they certainly could not move the view from the Arts End of the original Library across Bodley’s Quad. Even more of a challenge would be to capture and to bottle the sensation when the light rakes across Duke Humfrey’s on an autumn morning; the yellowish tinge to the lighting in the north range of the Upper Reading Room is little imitated; and the echo of the dome of the Upper Camera — admittedly not as sonorous as that in Manchester’s Central Library — could hardly be on display. Then there are the little things which make the Bodleian, for me, what it is: the snakes of beads used to hold down manuscript leaves (held in a box called the snake pit); the curve of the back of the chairs in the old reading rooms; the out-dated clocks, often now most often stopped, that stand guard over the corner of the reading areas. It is these comforts of the quotidian that make the Bodleian a home to scholars — and that is surely something to be treasured.

A most unbiddable interviewee

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 21 August, 2011

Friday morning, 7:30am and a dream comes true. I’m in Duke Humfrey’s Library outside opening hours. But not, alas, to consult any manuscripts. I was there to be interviewed about the Duke himself. In conjunction with the British Library exhibition of Royal Manuscripts that will open in November, BBC Four has commissioned a series on manuscripts and kingship. It is being presented by the vivacious Nina Ramirez, who, in a whistle-stop tour, is trekking across the country and interviewing a galaxy of experts on medieval England. And, it was Friday, so it must be Oxford, and it is Oxford, so it must be Humfrey.

We were able to film at the Arts End of the Old Bodleian until just before 9am, when we had to decamp to New College Lane. Nina and I had to demonstrate that we could walk and talk at the same time — which, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, we did with aplomb (apart, perhaps, from when I walked into the bookcase). I learnt that al fresco interviewing has the potential pitfalls of passers-by, as was shown when a gentleman decided to walk right behind us and then crossed over to the director saying ‘Sorry – did I ruin that shot? You should get a real job’.

Those who know me will not be surprised that I may have proven less than biddable as an interviewee. I have strong views on Humfrey and was not about to change my interpretation to be on TV. So, ‘Humfrey really needs books for his job running the country, doesn’t he?’ — well, he needs to be seen to be interested in learning… ‘He was a Renaissance prince, then?’ Not quite… Nor was I able to get in as much about his sex life as I should have done.

But it was an enjoyable experience, in genial and very professional company. It is probably the only chance I will have to talk to a wide audience about Antonio Beccaria (on whom I have written on this site). And the high point? Walking out of the Bodleian after an hour’s filming past those readers who were hoping to be the first in the library that day.

A New Listing of Manuscripts once owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 September, 2010

In honour of the forthcoming conference on Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, I have just fulfilled a request of that paragon of humanitas, Alessandra Petrina. She suggested last year that it was time for a new listing of extant manuscripts from the duke’s library to be compiled. It is something I have had in mind to do for some time, and it is now available as a pdf on this website.

Producing the list has given me the opportunity to reflect on the development of our knowledge of the duke’s library. The most recent listing was that produced by the late Alfonso Sammut for his 1980 volume. It might be thought that brief descriptions of all the manuscripts owned by the duke went beyond his particular remit to study Humfrey’s associations with the Italian humanists. I recall Tilly de la Mare telling me that she and others persuaded Sammut to add that section to his work and, in compiling it, he had the assistance of several scholars, including Ian Doyle. The result was a list of forty volumes. In the thirty years since then, two of the manuscripts he attributed to Humfrey have had to be excluded, but a further eight have been added – an increase of about a fifth (I say about because Sammut counted one manuscript, Oxford: Magdalen College, MS. 37 as a single item, where, as it is formed of two parts only later brought together, I have counted it as two items, [32] and [33] in my listing).

Reviewing the expansion of our knowledge, it strikes me that the new information we now have tends to corroborate rather than challenge our understanding of the duke’s library. The attribution of the Thorney Computus to his collection [35] comes through the deciphering of his ex libris which reveals that he was given the manuscript by the abbot of Thorney in 1431. It reminds us of John Leland’s comment in the mid-sixteenth century that the duke had been given many beautiful manuscripts by abbots. It is also notable that, in this case, as in others already known, the duke was willing to part with a book less than a decade after receiving it – the Computus was given to the University of Oxford in 1439. The Computus is the oldest manuscript, to date, to come from the duke’s collection: many were produced with his lifetime, if not originally for him. This would seem appropriate for a collection famous for its humanist content, and the recent discoveries, three of which fit into this category (items [2], [6] and [12]), would seem to reinforce that impression. But there needs to be a word of caution expressed: humanist and refound classical texts were, we can be fairly certain, only ever a minority in his library. Even in the Oxford donation lists which are famous for this type of text, they play a relatively small role. The fact that our knowledge is now slanted towards them is surely not simply an accident of survival; it is probably a reflection of where scholarly interest has concentrated – for Tilly de la Mare and myself, the humanist subset of his library has held the greatest fascination. If we move our focus, we may find there is more waiting to be discovered, a point to which I will return in a moment.

If we do move our focus, it may, however, only underline further a factor in the vagaries of survival. Of the new discoveries, three were among the books given to Oxford; five were not. This reflects the imbalance that already existed: of the 47 extant manuscripts, only 12 were among those given to the University. If we were to assume that there had been an even distribution of destruction across all his books, this would suggest that he gave only a quarter of his volumes to Oxford and so had a collection which totalled over a thousand items. This seems to be a implausibly high number for a private library gathered over, at most, one lifetime. That is to say, it is likely that the total was lower, and consequently that the level of loss of the ‘non-Oxford’ books much lower than for those he gave to the University. In short, Humfrey did his books no favours when he gave them to England’s first university.

I have used the term ‘new discoveries’ and that, in itself, needs a gloss, for there was one book (item [37]) which had been identified in the 1870s but then was not noticed by other scholars: it has only recently been ‘re-discovered’, both by myself and independently by Godfried Croenen and others. I mention this because it helps bring home another insight afforded by listing Humfrey’s manuscripts: it is the process of the development of our knowledge. The late nineteenth century saw increased interest in the provenance of manuscripts (alongside a fascination with ‘autographs’), and scholars like Francis Madden did much to gather together the core of information about Humfrey’s manuscripts. But it was not with those ‘professionals’ that knowledge began: my work on this listing has served to confirm my admiration of Thomas Warton, an author whom I also discuss in my introduction, soon to be on-line, to the new edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England. His History of English Poetry, published in the 1770s and 1780s, was not to everyone’s taste, partly because it had so many digressions, but those digressions reveal the depth of Warton’s learning. It was Warton who first compiled a list of manuscripts once owned by Humfrey, drawing, it should be said, on the detailed information available in Leland’s notebooks. The late nineteenth century did not create our understanding of a library like Humfrey’s; it developed it by marrying knowledge of what was available in England with attention to what survived across the Channel. Even then, manuscripts obviously associated with the duke could be missed: a book, partly in the autograph of the French scholar, Nicolas da Clamanges, with the duke’s ex libris written in it several times, had entered the Bodleian in the mid-seventeenth century; its princely provenance was only noticed at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century [25]. At the same time, as I have already mentioned, there was a process of forgetting that worked concurrently with the serendipidity of discovery – a helpful reminder, if we need one, that scholarship rarely strides forward on an unhindered path to complete enlightenment.

This brings me to the last set of thoughts with which I wish to leave you: where next for discoveries of Humfrey books? I am too much of a romantic or an optimist to imagine that we have exhausted the possibilities of identification. What the recent decades have taught us, in a phrase that I admit to have used elsewhere, is that manuscripts turn up in the most likely places. Deeper understanding of famous, outsize collections – so outsize that all their contents have not received close scrutiny – may lead to further revelations. The libraries where we should look, though, are not confined to the British Isles, or to north-western Europe. The dislocation that occurred in the sixteenth century, in part through the Reformation, saw many manuscripts depart these shores. Thus, one of Humfrey’s treasures eventually reached Rome [47]. But it was not to Italy that contemporaries complained England’s patrimony was emigrating: John Bale specifically mentioned Germany. Not one Humfrey manuscript has yet been found in the libraries of that country. Yet.

To those of you who have spent years in the company of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester – and, in particular, to Alessandra who asked for this to be compiled – I dedicate the latest listing, in the unselfish hope that you will soon make it outdated.

Duke Humfrey’s in Fashion

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 14 August, 2010

I must admit it had not occurred to me until my wife mentioned it yesterday that this October sees the 620th anniversary of the birth of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. In my defence, the six centuries and one score years is not necessarily the most memorable occasion which requires celebrating but this autumn does see the Duke having his own little local renaissance.

First of all, on 10th and 11th September, there is going to be a small conference on Humfrey, at which I am speaking alongside such luminaries at Alessandra Petrina and Derek Pearsall.  Then, just under a month later, the Bodleian is having what it has dubbed ‘Duke Humfrey’s Night’ as a fund-raising event. One can sponsor an object or its conservation, though not one of the few Humfrey manuscripts now in the Library’s possession. The event is explicitly advertised as commemorating the anniversary of:

the birth of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose generous donation in the mid-15th century of a large collection of classical manuscripts transformed the original University Library established by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and led to the construction of the beautiful reading room now known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.

My eye was caught by the description of his ‘donation’ — in fact, at least four donations, with the two most significant being in 1439 and 1444, and with a total of about 300 books being given to the  University. The range of manuscripts included biblical commentaries, some scholastic texts, some legal works, a notable assortment of medical texts, some classical works, a few of them rare, and a smattering of new humanist writings. It is interesting to see, in Oxford, his gifts remembered for being a ‘collection of classical manuscripts’ — a partial recollection of the collection that perhaps says more about our generation’s interests than about his eclectic library. Humfrey is most celebrated for his patronage of humanists like Pier Candido Decembrio (though he claimed not to have received his dues from him) and Tito Livio Frulovisi, biographer of Henry V (though Tito Livio soon left the duke’s employ). It was via the Milanese Decembrio that Humfrey gained most of the rare classical works in his collection — refound texts like the Panegyrici latini. This, though, is in danger of overlooking the range of activities going on at his court around the duke, if not always with his close involvement. Then again, I can hardly complain about a concentration of interest in his ‘classical manuscripts’ — my own work, I suppose, is stoking that tradition. I must remember to make amends.