What was I saying the other day about the vain pursuit of finishing? While the proofs of the manuscript catalogue of Christ Church, Oxford progress towards the dreaded finality of print, I am also working to complete the text of another book, my monograph on humanist scripts and England. One chapter which I thought I had put safely to bed woke up this week with a start and a cry for more attention. The reason was the discovery of the provenance of an understudied manuscript in Cambridge University Library.
I am not complaining about this: it has happened at a moment when I can make the necessary changes to my text. Besides, I have already outed myself as a discovery junkie, waiting for the next high that comes with uncovering something not previously noticed. Not that this was a full hit — that comes when serendipity and surprise combine. In this case, I already suspected what might be there to find.
The trail to CUL, MS. Mm.iii.18 began with a note in the unpublished papers of A. C. de la Mare, a mine of gems held in the Bodleian. It was Tilly de la Mare who, in 1988, produced the last detailed study of the library of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, one of the two English secular princes — the other being Humfrey, duke of Gloucester — famed for collecting humanist manuscripts in the fifteenth century. She listed twelve manuscripts, including some by the enigmatic scribe known only by his initials ‘VfI’, but this Cambridge manuscript was not among them. She must have come across it later, for her notes comment that it too was by ‘VfI’. A few months back, I tried to follow up this lead and found to my surprise that it is not listed in the recent monumental catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in the UL, though it does include four bianchi girari initials. I contacted the library staff, and the amazingly helpful James Freeman sent me some images which confirmed that this codex, even though it is unsigned, is definitely written by ‘VfI’. That raised the question of whether it was made, as were several other of his productions, for the earl of Worcester. That I could not check without going to the UL myself and this last Wednesday was the first opportunity in a busy term to do that.
I assume that Tilly had not had the opportunity to consult the manuscript because if she had she could not have missed the tell-tale sign which welcomed me when I randomly opened the volume (a small moment of serendipity). What appeared was this:
If you ever come across a pointing hand like this, please drop me a line straightaway, for this is the highly distinctive manicula of John Tiptoft. There are, in fact, only a few other interventions by him in the volume, but it does also include annotations by his secretary, John Free, and others by another Englishman in his circle, John Gunthorp. What is more, this manuscript gives a hint about the origins of the scribe himself — but I will not mention that now; I have, after all, to leave something for the book.
As I said, the list of manuscripts provided in 1988 included twelve items; at that point, another ten were also known to have been his. The number now stands at 33, with another six related to Tiptoft but probably not owned by him. This is a notably high figure; it is nearly as many as survive from the library of the other noble just mentioned, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, whose collection (I estimate) originally numbered over 600. There are, though, I suspect, more of Tiptoft’s to find. I wish I could wait to discover them before publishing, but one never knows in this pursuit when the chase is done. Instead, I predict that the day I sign off the proofs of this monograph, an e-mail will appear in my inbox, responding to my request for new sightings of his manicula, alerting me to a previously unknown instance. I will curse the day but also allow a little cheer.
I am presently living in the year 1461, or so I thought. I am so deeply immersed in completing a chapter of a book I am writing for Cambridge University Press, that it occupies my mind nearly all my waking hours, and infiltrates some of my dreams too. The subject-matter is not new to me, in as much as the central figure is John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester (c. 1427-1470), whom I have mentioned on more than one occasion here. One of the pages on this site provides a listing of his manuscripts, an updated version of which will act as an appendix to the chapter. However familiar the material is, I am finding myself surprised by what I am writing, in more than one way.
There is something that seems disjointed in the career of Tiptoft. He was a pilgrim and intrepid traveller, who so liked Italy that he tarried there for nigh on three years. He spent his time in cultural pursuits, commissioning and buying up books for which there is ample evidence of his own reading. He even concocted a grand idea of presenting a large quantity of manuscripts to his university of Oxford, and wrote to them from Padua suggesting it. But a cynic might suggest that there was a more pressing reason for his long sojourn in the sun, enjoying cultivated conversation and a glass (or more) of wine: it ensured he could avoid involvement in the internecine conflict that embroiled the land of his birth at that point. But return he did to England, quite quickly, indeed, after the regime-change at home and soon became a key figure in Yorkist politics. His career as Constable of England and Governor in Ireland saw him gain a reputation for summary justice which led him to be so hated that, come the Readeption and his arrest, the crowd in the London streets bayed for his blood.
These two elements of his biography – the lettered friend of humanists, and the uncompromising enemy of Lancastrians – seem mismatched. I did not set out to resolve a contradiction which, I had thought, needed no resolution: we are all changeable and our lives rarely ring a monotonous tone of consistency. But then I met for lunch Tom Penn, who is writing a book on the Yorkists in power. Our conversation encouraged me to think further about the apparent disconnect between the two Tiptofts, and the more I thought about the material I have gathered, the more I came to sense that there are, indeed, links between the two men, and between those Tiptofts and the other one, the one who receives posthumous praise from William Caxton when he printed English translations of Latin texts that he said had been made by the earl.
Tiptoft’s enemies insinuated that his time in Italy had exposed him to nasty foreign influences which he had then imported back home; the suggestion was that his time abroad had made him less English. What I have come to sense is that Tiptoft’s perception was quite the opposite: that it was only be a wholehearted engagement with others within the shared tradition of Western Christendom that one could recognise, let alone realise, the full potential of what it could mean to be English. And, at that point, I wonder about what I am actually writing…
Tiptoft’s opponents, as I have described them, sound to me so much like fifteenth-century Brexiteers, wanting to reduce and confine their identity. He, in contrast, in his cosmopolitanism would have campaigned for Remain, though whether having the man known as the Butcher of England on one’s side is an advantage is doubtful. I did not set out to use my discussion of his manuscripts to become a commentary on our nation’s present predicament. In fact, I usually make an effort to divide between my historical writing and my political commitment. I remember asking Conrad Russell, eminent historian of seventeenth-century England and active Liberal Democrat peer, whether he thought his politics informed his writing of history; his succinct response was ‘I hope not’.
So, how have these parallels forced themselves upon the page? Has there been some sort of surreptitious infusion of a Zeitgeist into my veins? That would be disturbing as I have been reared an anti-Hegelian who, when it comes to the ‘spirit of the age’, practises complete abstinence. The difficulty with the concept is that the ‘age’ is not just imperceptible to all but the ‘great man’; it simply does not exist. What I see in history are not ‘periods’ as much as a myriad of minute shifts, unsynchronised and unequal, that perpetually shake the kaleidoscope through which we spy the world. There are, though, perhaps moments when we sense a movement of the plates beneath us, making accepted certainties judder. It is said that in the US post-1963 everyone could remember where they were of the news of the assassination of JFK: some wept, some cheered, but what they shared was a sense of a changed reality — something irreversible has taken place. For us in Britain, so often dormant in self-satisfied contentment, there has been a moment. It is not that a nation’s destiny has been altered. It is true that, on the basis of a single response from a woefully small proportion of the electorate, decisions are being made behind closed doors to break links with the European Union to an extent as yet unclear (so much for taking control). But, as I have said before, the European Union has never been about a calling, it is a matter of rational choice. What has happened has brought into sharper relief how difficult it is to talk as if there was a Britain as a single united nation. This is not simply about the increased divide between Scotland and England (leaving aside the issue of Northern Ireland); the deeper impact has been to expose the fissures within our society as raw wounds onto which the acid of further rancour is being poured.
We have experienced a moment and are living through its aftershocks. Have the unsettling consequences of it shaped how I have written? I like to think not: I prefer to say that I am reading the parallels into what I have written. I certainly want that to be the most plausible explanation, and not just for professional reasons of keeping one’s impartiality. I suspect I also want the history about which I write, bloody and unsettled through those times were, to be a safe haven that cannot be touched by the increasing bitterness of our here-and-now politics. There must be some advantage to being an historian and maybe it is this: that one can retreat not just from the outside world but into another time. As things stand now, I think I might prefer to be with Tiptoft in Padua in 1461 than in England in 2016.
But, if I were there, I think I know what he would say: we have enjoyed ourselves but we have to return — it is our duty. What, though, can I do, apart from campaigning for a more fully functioning democracy than we have been shown to have right now? Is it that there is also a duty for any historian in these circumstances? The goal of impartiality is more than a noble dream, but are there occasions when it becomes a dereliction of duty? Is one consequence of this moment that the historian writing about the present is not simply unavoidable, it is essential?
There are, I am finding, advantages to a retirement which is ludicrously precocious and — let us be pessimistic for a moment — temporary. In the nine days since it began, I have been on a lecture trip to Cork (with thanks to Caitríona for the invitation, and Jason and Emma for the best-of-Irish hospitality); I have enjoyed a decadently convivial tea (with thanks to Judith); I have settled down to work on completing my monograph, and…
When I first sat down to write this, I was hoping to continue with fanfare and the words ‘I have made a new discovery’. But I have not and what I have instead is in some ways more interesting. For, it is a cautionary tale which may help remind us of the limits of what we can do with our evidence and may suggest what is changing (and what not) about those limits in the digital age.
I am spending time with John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, who is the focus of one of the chapters of my book. Considering his reputation for sadism, some might consider that I am keeping bad company, even in my solitude. It is not, though, with his bloodthirstiness that I am currently concerned; instead, it is with his book collecting while he was in Italy from the autumn of 1458 until the summer of 1461. I have been drafting a brief paragraph on the humanists who sought his patronage, who included Ognibene Bonisoli da Lonigo, often described as a quiet-living schoolmaster in Vicenza who avoided the bustle of the larger cities. Ognibene presented to Tiptoft a manuscript of his commentary on Juvenal, and that is now in the Bodleian (where it is MS. Arch. Selden B. 50). He also dedicated to the earl a translation of a minor text he claimed was by Xenophon on hunting. I was about to write a footnote reading ‘the dedication copy is not known to survive’ when I decided that was a statement that required a further check.
The transmission of Ognibene’s text has been discussed by my one-time colleague, the enviably polyglot David Marsh. While the work is available in an incunable edition, in manuscript, David lists only five copies. A dedication copy is likely to have been produced as a stand-alone item, and that reduces the list further to two cases where the translation is totus codex. One, in San Daniele, is an unlikely candidate given the history of the Biblioteca Guarneriana. The other is in Yale University’s Beinecke and I had previously excluded from enquiries because the catalogue dates it to the very end of the fifteenth century, so at least two decades after Tiptoft’s execution in 1470, let alone his departure from Italy nine years earlier. Investigating this again, I wondered about the rationale for that dating; it is not made explicit but I suspect it was on the basis of the paper. It is said to have a watermark similar to one the grand master of such studies, Charles-Moïse Briquet, found occurring in stock produced in Verona in 1467, with variants datable to between 1476 and 1492. As the watermark is similar rather than identical to the image he provided, the assumption would naturally be made that it was one of the later variants being used. There is here, however, a helpful reminder of limitations of research even as exhaustive as Briquet’s. More often and not, when one finds a watermark, it is not exactly as is described in his listing (or in Piccard), and then, as the saying goes, all bets are off: no conclusion can be drawn definitely identifying a date on the basis of a similarity. At the most, the likeness might be suggestive of a place of origin since motifs circulated locally — unless, that is, the motif is simple or popular. Even then, however, place of production of paper is no guarantee of the place of its use as a writing surface.
The paper, then, can not be sufficient evidence for dating the manuscript but, if we had only the catalogue, we would have to take the statement on trust. Nowadays, however, we do not have to trust it. The Beinecke is one of those laudable institutions which has made not only its descriptions available on-line but, for many of its manuscripts, uploaded high-resolution digital images. This places the catalogue’s scholarship and the primary source which it describes in dialogue, one which can at times be revealingly discordant. I have described before, in the context of the discovery of a manuscript from Tiptoft’s circle, how this subtly shifts the method of research, in ways which are not entirely unproblematic; more fundamentally, it also alters our sense of the authority of scholarship. We do — and here is a second general note of caution — need to be wary not to replace trust of others with trust in ourselves: our eyes can be deceived by what we think we see on the screen.
Tiptoft was not one of those owners (like Humfrey, duke of Gloucester was) who had a pathological need to announce his possession of a book. Some manuscripts presented to him or written for him do have his coat-of-arms but he himself never provides an ex libris. How, instead, we can identify a book as his is usually by its marginalia, for he added to many of his manuscripts notes in a large littera antiqua, or (and this was more frequent) provided a distinctive diagonal manicula with long forefinger and cuff marked, sometimes surmounting a line in the margin, its straight vertical interrupted by small sets of curves. The images the Beinecke provides reveal an unadorned manuscript written in an elegant humanist cursive bookhand, with ample borders rarely interrupted by annotations, but there are three interventions. The first, at fol. 6v, is cropped but is clearly in the hand of the scribe (note, in particular, the style of st ligature, with the first letter joining the second just below the top of its ascender). This contrasts with the next note, ‘Superstitio venatoria’, at fol. 11v, where the script seems not to be that of the scribe (contrast the form of st ligature, for instance, or the shape of the v). It may be this reader who appears again at fol. 26, adding not a word in the margin but a long straight line, interrupted by small sets of curves, topped by a diagonal manicula with long forefinger and simple cuff marked. That sounds very much like my description of the interventions we can firmly identified as Tiptoft’s, and there are some similarities. If this were simply connoisseurship, we might make a triumphant declaration, but it is not and we would be wrong to do so.
‘Similar’ is not ‘the same’, and the similarities you see have to be balanced against the dissimilarities you want to ignore. So, in this case, the description I have just given overlooks two basic differences. First, Tiptoft usually draws a rather dapper frilly cuff, not the simple curves that appear in this case. True, he does not always use that, as can be seen on some of the openings from another manuscript I have been able to identify as his, Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. lat. 7966. But what is invariably the case — and I have gone through several manuscripts checking this is so — is that he always uses a single line to make the forefinger, rather than drawing it with two strokes as happens here. Likewise, if we turn to the words written in the Beinecke manuscript at fol. 16v, there are some similarities with Tiptoft’s hand but the aspect of the script is more flowing, more relaxed in itself than Tiptoft’s rather deliberate serifed strokes.
So, any identification of this reader with the dedicatee of the work the manuscript contains should not be asserted. I think I was sensible to pursue the possibility but more sensible not to force the evidence to prove something it cannot. The principle must be to err on the side of caution: only through firm, incontrovertible identifications can scholarship progress.
And, yet, this is not quite all. The more I look at the Beinecke manuscript, the more I am struck with the similarity of its script with other manuscripts made for Tiptoft or by artisans who worked for him. There is, in particular, a manuscript (for which there are no images available on-line) at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, their MS. 389, an imposing volume of Cicero’s Orations in which several copyists shared responsibility. None provides a direct parallel to the Beinecke’s script, with its slanted ascenders and tendency to some extravagant letter-forms, but the similarities of aspect and of detail (as in the curious ampersand) are suggestive: these probably did not come from the same pen but it would seem likely that they were from the same milieu. Likewise, there is a codicological detail of the Beinecke manuscript that cannot be checked on-line but may be significant: it is said to be not just on paper but on paper that is ‘highly polished’. This style of finish is also known from other manuscripts produced for Tiptoft (for instance, Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 1. 13) and might again suggest a common context of production.
That is to say, Tiptoft may not have touched these pages but among those whom he knew may have been one or more who did. We cannot make a firm identification but I think, at least, we can draw the conclusion that the codex now in Yale was made in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, on the terra firma of the Veneto, perhaps in or around Padua, the city where the earl was longest present while he was in Italy.
‘Is that it?’, you might ask, ‘can you say nothing more certain than that?’ My response would be that we have a duty not to pretend to certainty when it does not exist, however much others (like you, the reader in my head) or we ourselves put pressure to provide that definitive assertion. This takes will-power in a culture where the expectation is of quick publication. I have already owned up to my membership of the Slow Study Movement and I will insist that there are some types of research that cannot be squeezed into the straitjacket of a finite project started and finished within a REF cycle: manuscript studies demands a longer commitment than that. But, you might also point out, there is an added intellectual difficulty. I said that we should err on the side of caution and I must, therefore, admit that I have condoned error. You could legitimately note that I have shown that Tiptoft’s association with the Beinecke is ‘unproven’, rather than definitely to be rejected. I accept that. You might draw out from that a more general point: is it not our role to speculate? Yes, I respond, we must have speculation and hypotheses, but we must also be ready to set them aside them. What is more, if a hypothesis remains just that, a possibility which is not fully proven, then we might want to share it with colleagues in discussion or in a seminar, but we really should not waste the printed page on it. We should keep such speculation to the spoken word — or to a blog.
However far one goes to try to escape the febrile atmosphere of Britain at the moment, it is impossible to run from the referendum. I was in Padua the other week, to speak at a conference entitled ‘Shakespeare and Padova’ organised by the exhaustingly energetic and molto simpatica Alessandra Petrina. Most conversations while I was there turned at some point to the possibility of Brexit. The Italians I spoke to were worried but, all the more, bemused. In a café where I sheltered from a thunder-storm, the waiter recognised I was English (I wonder how) and expressed himself a lover of all things British but, he added, ‘does Britain think it can stand up to China and to States on its own? I’m sorry…’. In the conference hall, it felt as if we are talking about the referendum even when, ostensibly, we were discussing events four or five centuries older.
You may, gentle reader, have already stumbled and wondered what on earth I could have had to offer to an event devoted to Shakespeare. I was not – you will be relieved to learn – attempting to extend my repertoire into what is called ‘the English Renaissance’ (erroneously so – but that is another story); rather I was providing a comparison with the fifteenth century. The theme of my opening lecture to the conference was to encourage the delegates to consider the possibility that the English perception of Padua had, in the plays of Shakespeare, lost the sharpness of focus that it had in the 1460s and 1470s: at that earlier point, English graduates of Padua were perceived as providing unwelcome imports which threatened the English ‘way of life’ but, I argued, by the 1590s, Padua had become less dangerous because it was, in effect, more distant. Closing the conference, the true expert on the English in Padua, Jonathan Woolfson, suggested something which appears diametrically opposed, emphasising an increase in contacts in the 1540s and 1550s as the backdrop to the sustained Elizabethan and Jacobean existence of a community of Englishmen passing through Padua for education and entertainment. What united our talks was the clear sense that there had been a significant shift – and I would suggest the contrasts over the nature of that shift are reconcilable. The question remains of the causes of that shift. The impression hung in the air that the destabilising effects of the Reformation were a prime source, though this surely needs to be linked with other economic and cultural factors. In Jonathan’s discourse, the very instability released new possibilities and new perspectives, where mine dwelt on the diapositiva of that: let us recall what was lost as much as what was gained.
You may already have sensed how we were liable to read our own interventions in the light of present events. I teased Jonathan after his paper that he had made the case for Brexit: short-term unrest and economic pain might create a period of isolation but one which could be the precursor of a rediscovery of ‘Europe’ on new terms. Jonathan certainly did not intend such a parallel and it has an obvious central flaw. Those in the reigns of Henry VIII, his son and his younger daughter who looked to continental innovations and urged a purging of the state and a break with tradition did so because they believed the losses were not just acceptable but essential for the salvation of themselves and their neighbours. What was at stake was nothing less than God. That is motivation indeed but where, in the Brexit campaign, is there anything similar? There is surely a duty on them to provide a commanding vision for a future Britain. What we hear instead is, on the economy, the counter-intuitive and unsubstantiated claim that it will be fine; what we hear asserted would be a gain is that there will be fewer foreign faces in the community – even though immigration would become more ‘in your face’ when the camps into which refugees are concentrated would be placed on our shores. If this is a vision, it is a nightmare. Is this the Britain we would want it to be?
That is the fundamental question and one which shows how high the stakes are. The interventions of historians in the debate has, on both sides, been too often ‘history teaches…’, suggesting that there is something elemental about a British identity. As has been pointed out, Britishness is itself a short-lived concept, masking a plurality of identities defined by country or region, by social status, by gender and by ethnic background. Yes, there are some factors we cannot undo, just as, in Padua, I could not avoid the identification as British and so be associated with the referendum that has been placed upon us. One of those factors is undeniably that, for at least the English (and, the polls suggest, most Eurosceptic) part of the United Kingdom, its traditions have been shaped by its time as a Roman colony, and by its continuing place within – and intermittent struggles to be without – the shared civilization of Europe. Even that, though, allows much room for manoeuvre: it is not history that will determine our next step, it is our free will.
What history also does not teach, as any academic knows, is that there is a grand march of progress. For some, in the nineteenth century, the nation state was the apogee of civilization, an achievement beyond what their ancestors could have dreamt of achieving (Charlemagne clearly not being thought of as an ancestor). In the later twentieth century, understandably disillusioned by the evils wrought by those same states, the natural evolution was seen to be supranational structures. We can believe that those structures, whether across Europe or embodied in the United Nations, are welcome, but we cannot assume they were inevitable. Progress does not march; improvements stumble forward, uncertain on their feet. They are piecemeal, hard-won and fragile. When we recreate ourselves, we can also make ourselves worse. This is where we surely stand now. This Thursday, our nation has the opportunity to stand up and shout ‘Britain first’ in the face of immigration; we could let loose humanity’s baser instinct. We need not hold on to the self-image of ourselves as a nation where decency rules and where we pride ourselves in standing up for the underdog. We can – but at what cost to our souls?
Let us admit it: manuscripts research is a drug. An observer of a special collections reading room may not credit it, sensing the hushed atmosphere that envelopes the seated individuals oblivious to the watching eyes as their attention concentrates on the volumes resting before them. We toil in what can often be drudgery – admittedly, comfortable but, all the same, a grind of request, checking and return recorded in brief notes which confirm that a book has been excluded from our enquiries. Even in this process, there is a tingling sensation, the tiny frisson of the scent and touch of parchment, the affecting recognition of contact with scribes and readers long dead but still present in the codex we have before us, and the irrepressible hope at the point just before we open the pages that here, maybe, will be a ‘find’. And when a find does come, it provides the rush, the exhilaration that keeps us enthralled to this drug through the years or, more often, decades which lie between each hit. We manuscript researchers are patient addicts.
Like any addict, when we are under the influence of the drug, we want to break out of normal behaviour: we are so stimulated that we want to shout, to break the silence of the reading room and call others to our desk so they can share in our excitement. What stops us, beyond a residual sense of propriety, is a semi-conscious realisation that very, very few, even in that learned space, would actually want to share, would appreciate what we have found to the extent we do. I remember once in the Vatican, at the point when I made a discovery and the power of the drug coursed through me like an intravenous injection, I looked around the room and caught the eye of a young researcher, who smiled and so revealed herself as a fellow addict, who knew from her own experience the sensation I was feeling. We did not talk – that is not the point: this is a designer drug, individuated for each user. What gives a hit to one person will leave another cold; but in the civilised opium den that is the library, there is an honour-code by which each respects the others’ moments of epiphany.
You might be able to tell that I am living on the after-effects of a dose of The Drug. In my career, I have had more than my fair share of hits – indeed, one sensation which, for me, comes at the moment of the rush is the downer, the question in my head: do I deserve this good fortune? Perhaps my luck will end; perhaps I have had my last find. Even if so (and, Lord, prevent it), the memory of the act of previous discoveries will sustain me. From the first occasions, in the mid-1990s, when, in Cambridge, I found in quick succession two manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, followed, on 5th April 2003, by the most memorable rush I have experienced, on a day when every manuscript I called up in the Bibliothèque nationale de France was a revelation – that day I nearly overdosed – with, only three months later, another hit, standing at the kitchen sink that serves the library of St John’s College, Oxford (have I told you that tale? Some day I surely will) – all these, and besides them, those moments in the Vatican Library, of course the Vatican, whose vast reserves of volumes to be seen will provide highs for eternity, with the most recent for me being reported on this website – each of these hits has driven me, impelled me to return to the library, to continue in this line of work while good sense (or the opposite, the demands of the REF) might argue otherwise. Note that it is the act itself that provides the hit; the thing discovered takes a cherished place in the friendship group of manuscripts one has known, but that is because of the associations it has earnt for you; certainly, the revelation of the discovery in print is only the after-effects, like the sucking on the lemon after the gin has been drunk dry.
I see, from the post I just mentioned, the date of my last hit was December 2012. So, I have waited nearly three and a half years for the next high: the interval itself increases the excitement. I have just returned from the States, where I had a useful week of research, looking in particular, at two manuscripts by Erasmus’s friend and the pre-eminent copyist in England in the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen. I visited first one, which by the date Meghen provides is his earliest manuscript; it was sold at Christie’s London rooms in 2010 (at a time when I as out of the country so unable to see it) and was bought by the Beinecke at Yale. The other has been at Princeton for longer and looking at it this week, it appears to me highly likely that it is from substantially earlier in Meghen’s career than that at Yale (I hope these words do not cause a feud between the two). All this, and the other books I studied, thanks to the kindness of the librarians at both Ivy League universities, was, as I say, useful – which is addict’s code for saying they provided no high. That, as happens, comes when and where you are not expecting it. It took place, in fact, last Thursday afternoon, 7th April 2016, in the special collections room in the Canaday Library of Bryn Mawr College. I was there because the reason for my visit to the States was to speak, at the generous invitation of David Cast and Roberta Ricci, at a colloquium on my old friend, Poggio Bracciolini, the following Saturday; my remit was to discuss his international reputation, for which I have stretched my own knowledge by studying his fortuna in early print but in which paper I also returned to manuscripts I know well, including those by the masterful mid-fifteenth century English scribe, Thomas Candour. The reason Bryn Mawr was such an appropriate location for this event was that the college was the alma mater of Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, who had translated the first collection of Poggio’s letters and who, in addition, was a renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts, many of them now housed in their Canaday Library. So, my purpose in arriving early was to study some of those volumes, with an eye to adding in some brief reference to them in my talk. What I found, however, could have transformed my paper completely: there was no way it would have been possible to know before I arrived that when I was handed a smallish volume, bound in pale calf-skin and containing two dialogues by Poggio, I was about to look on pages written by a man whose hand I know well – this is a previously unidentified manuscript produced by Thomas Candour. His codices are usually illuminated in a single style but – what makes this all the more exciting – is that the illumination here is not in that style but definably in the hand of the artist known as the Caesar Master. This is the only occasion on which England’s most significant humanist scribe and its most accomplished humanist-influenced illuminator are collaborators.
I warned you that a find is a personal thing. I can think of probably four people in the world who will be anything more than mildly interested in this – and one of those was in the audience on Saturday (thanks, Kathleen, for being there). Telling this tale, though, has helped me, I believe, to isolate the active chemical in the drug to which you, like me, may be addicted: it is serendipity. I have called serendipity before ‘the patron saint of palaeographers’, but perhaps that understates its importance or its relevance to a wider cohort of scholars. In what I have said today, you may recognise that what makes a find exhilarating is both its significance to one’s research and that it was unexpected. Serendipity does not prepare you for a discovery; it (or, if it is a patron saint, she) takes you in the hand blind-folded. But then she places you in front of what she thinks you should see, and takes off the blinkers and whispers in your ear, ‘look’. Of course, in truth, we make our own serendipity. By years of study, we gain eyes to see. By those years of drudgery, working without a hit, we make possible the irreplaceable sensation of the high. I am not giving up this drug – as I have learnt to say in the States – any time soon.
This website has been feeling neglected. I see that it is over two months since I posted here and those who read the last message might imagine that I was stung into silence by the lashes I had to bear from my severest critic. Far from it: I am not scared of him. I have not been idle – or, rather, I was wonderfully, blissfully idle all too briefly when in vacanze beneath the deep blue sky of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. My silence has been occasioned by the opposite of idleness: I have been working hard on several projects which have provided new nuggets of information that I have honestly been intending to share with you, if only there were a spare moment. The findings could provide a set of pithy interventions for Notes & Queries — indeed, it seems to me that the internet, properly organised, can provide a space probably more appropriate now for that sort of learned comment or minor revelation than old-style paper periodicals could. Imagine: an on-line journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.
The first of these little discoveries I will mention is also the most recent. Yesterday, following up a lead from the major on-going publication of the catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in Cambridge college collections, I entered the cyber-world of Corpus Christi’s Parker Library. I have already commented on how rich a resource this is – and I do so in full consciousness of the criticisms some have levelled at it, not all of them unjustly: it is expensive, it does need more updating than it presently receives, but it does provide such a wealth of primary material, making it possible to engage with a manuscript and coax it to offer up some of its secrets without even holding it in your hand.
One of the manuscripts which I viewed was MS. 409, a mid-fifteenth-century Italian humanist copy of Cicero’s De finibus. As I ‘turned’ the pages (perhaps that noun too needs inverted commas), I had a growing sense of a familiar presence lurking in the margins. One of the drawbacks of the on-line – or, at least, of my habits of use – is that I find it encourages one to progress through the volume, rather than as one would when picking up the book, begin by looking at the first and then the final folios (which are usually richest in provenance information) before turning over every leaf. So, it was only when I reached the last three or four images that my suspicion proved well founded. For, following the main text, in another hand which M. R. James describes charitably as ‘italic’, there is a short collection of epitaphs. I felt certain they are written by John Free, a Bristolian, the Wunderkind of English humanism, educated in the school of Guarino da Verona and then resident in Rome — it is said he was on the verge of being made a bishop when he died all too young in 1464. Some alleged foul play.
John Free was also, for a while at the turn of the 1450s to 1460s, the secretary of John Tiptoft, and I have sometimes seen them in company, with both annotating the same manuscript. As is apparent from other pages on this website, I have an ongoing interest in the library of Tiptoft, earl of Worcester and self-appointed heir to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in his book-collecting and promised patronage of the University of Oxford. So, you will appreciate that it mattered to me to confirm or refute my impression that Free was at work in this manuscript. It did not take long to corroborate my first thought, but here is a salutary warning to us Google scholars: if I had confined my checking to on-line resources, it would have been difficult to find the evidence to clinch the case. There are few specimens of John Free available – the most accessible and extensive being the two pages of a manuscript he wrote for Tiptoft, now in the British Library as MS. Harl. 2639. While there are general similarities and some shared idiosyncracies between the bookhand there and the script in the Parker’s MS. 409, the latter is too cursive to make a firm identification with confidence. There is in Oxford’s Balliol collection a manuscript that includes Free’s own rapidly-written transcription of a Poggio translation; it is MS. 124 but that is not yet been photographed and uploaded by the college’s energetic archivist to her excellent flickr account. So, it is only by using hard copy reproductions that I could find a match so close to make the identification irrefutable. In other words, however tiresome we may find it, we always have to move away from our screen to make the most of what we find on it.
So, this manuscript shows that it passed through the hands of John Free. It also has other annotations which link it to the circle of John Tiptoft and we may, indeed, be able to associate it also with their friend in Ferrara, Ludovico Carbone — but I say that only tenatively until I have had chance to see the manuscript truly in the flesh. What my page-turning did reveal is that this manuscript does not contain any of the tell-tale evidence of the earl’s own handwriting, but, even without that, I suspect there is justification to suppose that it was in his collection. The main text ends with an added note in an English gothic script (fol. 81v) and it would be reasonable to assume that the volume was in England from the late fifteenth century and stayed here to reach, in the mid-sixteenth century, its donor to Corpus, Archbishop Parker. As we have seen, however, Free never returned to England and there is little sign that the books he himself owned did reach his homeland. On the other hand, we know that a large part of his former employer’s collection did come to England — not all, it must be said, and hardly any reached the institution to whom he had promised it, the University of Oxford. But there is certainly enough examples to show that the books he purchased on his Italian travels returned with him and, after his untimely death during the Lancastrian Readeption, were on the market. It seems likely that this was the fate of Cambridge: Corpus Christi College, MS. 409. Thus, it is now added, as 31.5 to the listing on this website of ‘probable’ manuscripts from Tiptoft’s library.
This, then, was a virtual find – the first, I think, I have made without the book physically before me. I might add, though, that the frisson, the breathless moment of excitement, is not much less than if I were sitting far from home in the library itself. I will admit that the quickened pulse and tingling sensation which comes with the act of discovery is what keeps me in the business — it is a drug, a stimulant or perhaps an aphrodisiac, previously only available in special collections rooms. I have also to admit that I am not quite sure how I feel about it becoming more readily available and (forgive the pun) free to use.
Manuscripts have a tendency to creep up on you when you are looking elsewhere, tap you on the shoulder and then punch you between the eyes. That has been my experience today in the Vatican Library. I called up a manuscript because of what is known of its late fifteenth-century provenance and did not expect to find staring up at me from the lectern a codex made several decades earlier, clearly (from the illumination) in Milan and, what is more, in a script very close to that of Milanus Burrus: he was a highly accomplished scribe who developed his own response to the Florentine palaeographical reforms and created a mise-en-page that reminds us that you do not need to have illumination on the parchment to be looking at a work of art.
And when one manuscript has softened you up, another then comes in and knocks you sideways. As this is my last day of this research trip, I was attempting to tie things up neatly — whenever you do that, the books tend to have other plans for you. So, revisiting the manuscript of his Synesius translation that John Free made, with little expense spared, for Paul II, I wanted to compare the capitals and so ordered up another volume for comparison. The volume was MS. Vat. lat. 3162, a copy of Juvenal and Persius which is known to be Paduan and has interventions by Bartolomeo Sanvito, though, as Laura Nuvoloni explains in the sumptuous recent volume in ‘The Handwriting of the Italian Humanists’ series, the main scribe is a separate person, writing in a similar style. What caught me off-guard was that, looking through the codex, I came across one occasion where there is an alternative reading added into the margin by a hand which is very familiar to me — it is that of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester.
Those of you who have explored this site will already appreciate the importance of Tiptoft, whose library was perhaps second only to that of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the fifteenth century. We now have over thirty books from his collection, dispersed across Europe (his hopes of donating his books to Oxford where thwarted by his own execution). In one sense, it is perfectly understandable that this manuscript should have passed through the earl’s hands: he certainly knew its scribe, owning another volume which was produced by him (it is no. 11 in my listing). But there are two factors which are more surprising. The first of them is its location — there is, as you can see from the listing of the known Tiptoft manuscripts, no other book of his which is in the Vatican. The second relates to the contents of the codex: a few years ago I identified a copy of Juvenal and Persius from his library, written by Sanvito himself, and definitely in England in the late fifteenth century (no. 13 in the listing). Would he have had two rather similar-looking copies of the same texts? It is not impossible but surely unlikely. Perhaps, though, there is another explanation: Tiptoft is not the only annotator on the volume — the two other marginalia could well be by his secretary, who later presented his translation to Synesius to Paul II, John Free. We know that he remained in Italy when Tiptoft returned to their homeland, and it was in Rome that Free died prematurely in 1465. Now, MS. Vat. lat. 3162 did not arrive in the papal library earlier — it shows evidence of Italian ownership in the fifteenth and the sixteenth century — but we can posit a history for it: cast off by Tiptoft, who had a more elegant copy of the works it included, he passed it to Free, who took it to Rome, where, after his death, it circulated, only to end up in the Vatican some decades later.
This, I should say, is not the only discovery — and perhaps not the most important one — of the day. Having been pushed around by one manuscript, knocked about by another, I was then hit between the eyes by yet one more. So, I have been left punch-drunk and gasping for air, at the same time wishing that I could get more of the same and also knowing that I simply will, God and Mammon (aka research grants) both willing, have to return here to give the manuscripts as good as I have got from them.
I am looking forward to visiting, this coming week, the University of Cork, where I will be giving a lecture entitled ‘ “The Butcher of England”, a Renaissance man: John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester and the Yorkist discovery of humanist eloquence’. I do not seem to be able to get away from Tiptoft, Constable of England, Lieutenant of Ireland, notorious for both his bloodthirsty nature and his status as ‘a Renaissance Prince’. I am hoping to do something new in this talk, tailored to my hosts: I am going to attempt to combine codicological discussion with an overview of changes in Latin style in fifteenth-century England. The purpose of this post is to provide those who are planning to attend (and those who, though absent, can conjure up a concept of what the evening will be like) with a sneak preview. I have produced a few pages comprising some of the texts to which I will refer (it is a Word document) — close reading of them beforehand is not essential, and to avoid disappointment, I should emphasise that there will be brief discussion of them. Those who do look at them will, I suspect, not find it hard quickly to grasp the line of argument of the paper.
For those who are less interested in the niceties of Latin epistolography, the lecture will also provide — the gods of Powerpoint willing — some visual stimulation. The argument will be underpinned by discussion of my research into the library of John Tiptoft. It was a collection which, in the middle of the twentieth century, was lamented as being nearly completed lost. We can now identify over thirty manuscripts from the collection, and for those who are interested, they can view the present list on this website.
I hope that these resources provide some intellectual nourishment — not that a whole meal, more an amuse-bouche for this coming week.
Update: Today, 1st December, I have also upload my handout for the talk, as a pdf.
I received the other day an off-print of what deserves to be recognised as an important article. And, as articles are supposed to be at a disadvantage to books in that they are not reviewed (a bitter-sweet blessing at best), let me draw attention to it for any internet explorers who, in their travel, stumble across this site.
The distinguished Italian journal, Italia medioevale e umanistica, was founded by ‘il grande’ Guido Billanovich and published by Antenore, the Paduan publishing house which, after Billanovich’s death, was bought by Salerno Editrice in Rome. It is pleasing to see that the journal which has been so important to humanist studies has returned to its highest standards with, in its latest volume (xlviii, carrying the year 2007), an article on ‘The Reception of the Italian Renaissance in fifteenth-century Oxford’ by Prof. Rod Thomson.
Rod Thomson is probably equally well-known for his work on William of Malmesbury and for his manuscript catalogues. An interest in humanism might seem a new departure, but it seems a more natural development from several projects he is working on or bringing to conclusion, in particular his volume in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (under the general editorship of Richard Sharpe) which will publish the book-lists of the University and Colleges of Oxford. At the same time, he has been completing a catalogue of the manuscripts of Merton College (where a famous book once owned by one English collector, John Tiptoft, now resides) and starting one of the manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, which owns many of the books of John Shirwood and John Claymond, both of whom had humanist interests.
The article shows how scholarship has not yet drunk to the full from the book-lists of collectors like Humfrey, duke of Gloucester: there are more vivifying drops that can be squeezed out of the pithy records, in particular by a study of their verba probatoria ( the first words of the second folio of text, originally intended to identify the unique volume being cited but also allowing us on occasion to clarify the contents of a now-lost manuscript). Rod Thomson also provides helpful listings of known manuscripts owned by a range of English ‘humanist’ collectors, in the first place the duke of Gloucester, but also William Gray, Robert Flemyng and John Tiptoft (there kindly acknowledging the information which I could provide and which I present elsewhere on this website).
How I would put the central lesson of this article is that, when studying the arrival of humanist texts in England, what is notable is not so much the number of volumes reaching Britannos toto penitus orbe divisos, as the speed with which they travelled north: several works, especially in the collection of Gray, arrived in England in the mid-1450s only a couple of years after they had been composed. In the case of Gray, who became bishop of Ely, it should be remembered that his books reached Oxford, only by bequest; he died in 1478. While this new article concentrates on is Oxford, certainly the capital of humanist interest in fifteenth-century Britain, it has wider relevance beyond the colleges and halls of that university town.
Rod Thomson shows that there is more to be said in this area — a delight, as you might expect, for me to hear. In his first paragraph, he chides ‘notorious non-publishers.’ I am hoping to prove not to be eligible for that designation, as I finish off my book on England and the Identity of Renaissance Humanism, c. 1400 – 1460. When I have finished that I plan, time and funding permitting, to turn to a project which, as this article mentions, was once mooted by Richard Hunt and Tilly de la Mare: a study of English humanist hands. Already, I have much of the information gathered together, though more and more comes to light – only this last week, in Rome, I found another script which demands inclusion. But more of that another time.