bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

John Leland and a sense of humour

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 31 January, 2022
John Leland (image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

A wry smile is not a gesture one would usually associate with John Leland (d. 1552), the self-styled restorer of British antiquity. We are more likely to envisage this scholar as so fearlessly learned that his intellect would brook no laughter; we might also use for him the cliché of a tortured soul, given that his last years were dogged by mental ill health (it is surely time that we stopped using that other well-worn phrase, ‘he went mad’). We might even suppose that we detect a connexion between those two biographical elements: we might sense that he was a second Funes, Jorge Luis Borges’s character whose memory was so prodigious — to the extent that he could never be forgetful — that it became to him intolerable, and was the cause of his demise. Yet, no person is only one person and so indulge me as I attempt to persuade you that on at least a single occasion Leland allowed himself a subtle sense of humour.

I should explain that I have found it recently necessary for my own learning to make myself better known to the learned Leland. He may have noticed me in past decades turning the pages of his notebooks in the Bodleian, interested in his book-lists. He may also have been aware that I have dabbled in his collection of lives of British writers, now restored to its intended title of De viris illustribus by its editor and Leland’s greatest living friend, James Carley. In recent weeks, however, I have been paying more attention to his Latin epigrams. This was originally for a short chapter I had been asked to write by Will Rossiter at Norwich for a volume he is editing with Petra Rau on Europe in British Literature and Culture. Working on that, however, made me realise that these poems were going to be centrally important for my developing research, as I attempt to reframe the history of the ‘Renaissance’ in England. A first attempt to express, in (I predict) characteristically tongue-tied fashion, what I want to say will be unveiled this Thursday at a research seminar which is, so to speak, a home fixture — a talk to the colleagues, friends and rising stars who make up the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent.

In that talk, brief reference will be given to Leland’s predecessors as writers of a collection of neo-Latin epigrams — brief because that is the space they are given within his pages. In particular, if we were to take as the basis for judgement the number of words composed about a person, Thomas More was not much on his mind. There are some passing references to More, but only one short poem which centres on him; Leland spends more time celebrating More’s daughters than their father. Margaret (Roper by marriage), Elizabeth (Dauncey) and Cecily (Heron) were certainly impressively learned but the reticence to give similar focus to More himself is doubly remarkable. First, because, as Leland makes it clear in one of his poems about those daughters, the poet was well-known enough to More to be invited into the sometime Chancellor’s house in Chelsea. Second, if there was any Englishman before Leland whose work as a lyric poet in classicising style would have been known to the international republic of letters, it was More, whose Epigrammata were printed alongside his Utopia.

Certainly, not all the attention paid to More’s verse was positive: More himself had chosen the medium of poetry to mock the French humanist, Germaine de Brie, who did not rise above the occasion but instead honoured his attacker with a publication dedicated to him, the Antimorus (1519), which included accusations that More’s prosody was faulty. As Carley has noted in a justly well-known article, Leland came to know both parties in this spat, as he spent some of the 1520s in Paris. The one time he pays attention to More in his poems is when he comments on the dispute:


Brixius est nivei candoris plenus, et ille
Iudicii veri libera verba ferit.
Brixius aequavit mellito carmine Morum,
Clarior ingenii nomine Morus erat.

Here it is in the translation of Prof. Dana Sutton, the man who has done so much for neo-Latin studies through his website, the Philological Museum, that we are all have a deep debt of gratitude to him:


Brixius is full of fair candour, and he lashes out at ill-considered words. Brixius has corrected More in respect to honeyed verse, yet More was the more distinguished in terms of intellect.

This appears carefully balanced and the usual assumption is that was the intention: Leland wanted to avoid offending either party — if, that is, one of they came to read it; while a few of his verses circulated, his collection remained unprinted at his death, only being brought to a wider public in 1589, by Thomas Newton, a countryman of my childhood home, being from Macclesfield. If, though, More had come by this, I wonder if he would have complimented Leland on his judiciousness. I suspect not. More was notorious for his humour which often could be a cutting wit. This was on display in his own epigrams where one of his techniques was ambivalent phrasing, allowing ironic readings worthy of Utopia. He might have wanted to see that in Leland’s own words, and so it is worth considering whether Leland could have ignored that trait when writing this.

So, I think we should look again and bear in mind one particular fact which would have been known to any reader of More or of his ‘darling’ Erasmus, withhis Encomium Moriae: both enjoyed playing on ‘Morus’ as not Latin but a rendering of the Greek ‘morus / moros’, meaning fool. If we imagine for a moment that Leland might be providing a Morean play on his name with the Greek, then that would allow the second couplet to mean: ‘In his smooth verse, Brie matched a fool, and his genius was better known by the name of fool’. If read in this way, it then allows a re-reading of the first couplet: Leland uses ‘niveus candor’ often as a compliment, but what if the noun has in this instance its allegorical sense of ‘innocence’; Prof. Sutton translates ‘ferit’ as ‘lashes out’ (taking ‘fero’ in the sense of bearing arms), but it could be as in bearing wounds, in other words to accept them: ‘Brie is full of white innocence, and that man bears honest words of true judgement’ (‘libera’ as ‘free’ in a positive rather than a negative sense). That is to say, Leland is the one passing judgement with unguarded words of true judgement.

I am not suggesting that what I have said is the single way in which it should be read, but rather Leland is allowing it to be read in more than one way – and, in so doing, is neatly emulating More. I would take the ambivalence of ‘ille’ in the first line (who is the ‘he’?) as a gesture to hint at the multiple layers to follow, and one which suggests how he is linking More and Brie together, subtly suggesting that the latter is guilty of the mistakes for which he blames the former. To put it another way: Brie is a fool if he takes More as a fool.

Or am I the fool for thinking that Leland would fool around in Morean fashion? I am not proposing this was his usual mode of working, but if he were to attempt something more ambivalent, this would be the moment to let it happen. I would be interested in your thoughts.

If you want to hear more on Leland and on how he configures the ‘Renaissance’ in England, then join us this Thursday at 5pm GMT: the seminar will be both in person and online, if you register ahead. Be warned: in a possibly Morean manoeuvre, there will be misdirection.


Good Duke Humfrey: bounder, cad and bibliophile (Part II)

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2013

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.

Andrew Holes in Paris II

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 29 March, 2013

I ended the previous post Sheherazade-like, leaving the tale to be finished another night. I had explained how I had happened upon a manuscript of works by Salutati which provided evidence of its being associated with the voracious English book-collector of the early fifteenth century, Andrew Holes. It also included a seventeenth-century note by Richard Smith stating that the owner at that point had another similar manuscript and so I was waiting for the opportunity to investigate whether that codex had also survived through the subsequent centuries and had reached the same safe-house of a library.

Tracking down that manuscript proved much simpler than is often the case: the first volume I called up on Thursday immediately announced itself to be the book for which I was searching. It fitted Smith’s description of a manuscript of works by the same author as its main part included a collection of Salutati’s Epistolae. It did not have a note of ownership by Smith, but it did share with the other manuscript a style of seventeenth-century contents list, which here ended with a reference to ‘in alio lib. MSS ipsius Authoris in 4’, a definite reference to the other manuscript. What was more, as I walked back to my desk and turned over the leaves, it became clear that here there regularly appeared in the margin the manicula that appeared once in the manuscript I had seen the previous year. In other words, the manuscript could definitely be associated with Andrew Holes.

I have used twice the phrase ‘associated with’ rather than ‘owned by’ because, as I explained before, there has been some confusion about Holes’ marginalia: two strikingly different scripts having both been attributed to him. When I studied the known Holes manuscripts nine or ten years ago, this struck me as problematic, and I suspected at that point that there were two separate readers at work. But there was not enough evidence to hand to confirm my suspicion. What I did not expect was that the manuscript in Paris I saw the other day would present such helpful evidence to provide a definite solution.

I mentioned that the main part of the manuscript was occupied by letters of Salutati. It must be said that despite Smith’s suggestion that the book was a twin with the one in which he wrote his ownership note, the size, mise-en-page and script, while all being similar, are in each specific subtly distinct. Smith specifically mentioned the ‘same vellum’ and it is true that for both manuscripts, the parchment has been prepared to be very smooth on the skin-side but fairly dark on the hair-side – as is seen in other early-fifteenth-century codices constructed in Florence. What was particularly notable in this ‘new’ manuscript is that the style of parchment served not only for the part including Salutati’s letters but also for a second fascicule, with its own set of leaf signatures and with a script quite different from that of the first part. This second section, which provides a copy of Francesco Barbaro’s De re uxoria, was written by an English scribe who helpfully signs himself at the final colophon, giving his name as ‘Johannes Burgh’. Burgh not only writes this second fascicule; he also annotates the first, providing textual additions. It was, I must admit, only while looking at those marginalia that it struck me with real force: this spiky but elegant gothic cursive bookhand is identical with one of the two scripts that have been attributed to Andrew Holes.

We can say a little more about John Burgh: as Josephine Bennett explained in her 1944 article, like Andrew Holes, he had been a student at New College; he was sent to the papal curia and became Holes’s own secretary. It is hardly surprising, then, that he should frequently intervene in his master’s manuscripts, though his addition of Barbaro’s work is the only occasion (to date) that we know of him acting as the scribe for a complete text – which is suggestive, surely of how much we must have lost.

The identification of him as one of the two annotators here makes it likely that we can identify the other reader, with his stubby manicula and his gothic cursive script which suggests some acquaintance with the Italian pre-humanist fashions as practised in Salutati’s circle, as Holes himself. That, in turn, should allow us to reconstruct with more precision his own reading habits. For instance, in this manuscript, what is notable is his interest in contemporary characters – he once notes ‘de poggio’, referring to Salutati’s protege and our friend, Poggio Bracciolini, whom Holes presumably knew personally – and in Salutati himself, noting the author’s own listing of his compositions. Holes seems to have been one of those book-collectors who chose to associate his activity with a particular writer: we already knew that he owned some books once owned by Salutati, but now we can see more fully his interest in the Florentine Chancellor who acted as mentor to the first generation of fifteenth-century humanists.

There is much more that this discovery can teach us. Let me, for the moment, note just one other implication. As I mentioned previously, most of Andrew Holes’s books were given to his alma mater of New College and most of them remain there. Some of them migrated and we can now add to that story because it is clear that both these Salutati manuscripts are examples of that. When the antiquary John Leland visited the library in the mid-1530s, the books he saw included two volumes of letters by Salutati, and a copy of the same author’s De verecundia. One of the epistolaries is now in the British Library but the other one, and the manuscript of De verecundia are surely those in Paris. It would seem, then, that they left the library but may have travelled together until they came into the hands of Richard Smith in the 1670s. With some more work, it may also be possible to trace in more detail the stages of ownership before they reached him.

Let me, though, return to the issue with which I began the last post. According to the diktats of the ‘Research Excellence’ culture in Britain, the work that I did about a decade ago on Holes’s manuscripts should have been printed at that point: in this system, one is not allowed to spend significant time without it showing a clear return in ‘published outcomes’. But, if I had done, what I would have been able to present to the world would have been a detailed discussion which showed there was a problem, without providing a solution. It may have been worthy, but it would have been singularly down-beat and, frankly, unsatisfying for author and audience alike. I am pleased that I failed: it was right not to write it up for publication. Indeed, if it had been, it may be harder to justify returning to it later, when it is possible to give a fuller, more pleasing and revealing tale now. Some academic research can be like fast food, rustled up quickly for instant gratification. There is a place for that. But there is surely a place also for Slow Study, the art of refraining from publishing until the recalcitrant jigsaw has, with a miraculous shake of the pieces, fallen all into place. I launch, then, the Slow Study Movement, with its motto, Festina Lente, and its guardian angel, patron saint of palaeographers, Serendipity.

The Slow Study Movement, or Andrew Holes in Paris

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 22 March, 2013

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…

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.