bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and Magna Carta

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 January, 2021

As this evening I will be giving a lecture to the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, and the organisation has kindly agreed to my request that it should be a free event, it seems only fitting that I should share a nugget of unpublished research with you.

The title of my talk is ‘St Albans, Oxford and the fate of the library of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester’. This will be, in fact, the second time in just over two years that I have spoken to a St Albans audience. The previous occasion was memorable for taking place in the city’s cathedral, the former abbey; my lectern was close to where the duke’s impressive chantry still stands. This time, there can, of course, not be any trip to Hertfordshire; all will take place thanks to the magic of Zoom. It is also made possible by the riches of manuscript material which is now online, and it is about one such volume that I have something to reveal.

Frequent visitors to this site might realise that I have a long-term project to reconstruct the history of the library of that most ostentatious of fifteenth-century English collectors, the royal prince, Humfrey. This is long-term not in the sense that a funding body might imagine, taking three or so years; this is one which is being undertaken (on and off) over decades. It might prove a life-time’s work, if my life is long enough. As readers of this site will know, I make no apologies for offending the gods of REF: I am a devotee of slow scholarship.

This, yes, is a long-winded manner of saying that what I am about to discuss involves research from the BC era — that is Before Covid-19. I have returned to it in these winter days thanks to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. It involves one small piece of information which needs to be placed into a wider context, and that will be provided by my eventual study of the duke’s library. For today, I want to concentrate on that single detail.

Humfrey’s connexions with the abbey of St Albans are well-known; he is often talked of as a friend and intellectual soul-mate of its long-term abbot, John Whethamstede. The latter, we know, gave manuscripts of his writings to the duke — it is symptomatic of the losses that have occurred from the duke’s book-collection that none of those survives. Indeed, the only manuscript that care now bear witness to the association between the insitutional library of St Albans and the private one gathered by Humfrey is a famous volume of part of the history of Matthew Paris. It was written by the author himself, was kept at the abbey and is now in the British Library, as MS. Royal 14.C.VII. In between, it was for a few years, owned by the duke of Gloucester.

London: British Library, MS. Royal 14.C.VII, fol. 9

Quite how Humfrey came to possess it is not apparent; the assumption that he was given it by Whethamstede is understandable but unproven. What precisely happened to it after it left his hands is another interesting and shady story, which I will touch upon in my talk this evening. What I want to mention now is what happened to the book while it was (presumably) at his palace of Greenwich.

One of the issues around the duke’s book-collecting is the issue of his personal involvement with the volumes he owned. On the one hand, those who sought his patronage expressed their astonishment at how learned he is — but they say that before they met him (if they ever did) and they would say that, wouldn’t they? On the other, he was willing to give away over three hundred of his manuscripts during his lifetime, to the University of Oxford — was he bored of them? The situation, of course, is more subtle and, indeed, of wider significance: we need to places what habit around him in the wider context of the practices and purposes of courtly reading. It was much more often a group activity than a solitary one; it could also be a delegated habit, with prince expecting others to do it for him. I have, however, over the course of my research, come across some cases where Humfrey himself does write in the margins of his books — not simply his ownership notes, which are well-attested, but notes engaging with the text. This manuscript gives a notable example of this.

Humfrey annotates the volume on a few occasions, and far less regularly than some other readers, like Polydore Vergil in the next century. One instance, however, is of particular interest. It occurs next to Matthew Paris’s discussion of Magna Carta.

London: British Library, MS. Royal 14.C.VII, fol. 155v with annotation by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester

Humfrey paused at this point and picked up his pen. He wrote ‘nota bene’ (his most frequent intervention in the books he read) but then goes on: ‘nota de Illis qui faciunt contra magnam cartam anglie quomodo incurrunt sentenciam excommunicacionis’. That is, ‘note about those who act against England’s Magna Carta how they incur the punishment of excommunication’. Here we have a royal duke, a descendant of Kings John and Henry III, noting the importance of obedience to Magna Carta.

We might like to see in this some sign of a ‘constitutionalist’ mindset on the part of Humfrey. We might also want to claim that the fact this is one of the rare occasions on which he felt compelled to write demonstrates how important this was to him. Or we might wonder what propelled him to write and for whom he was writing. The sense I often get when seeing his interventions in his books is that he sees himself being seen: this prince whose life could hardly ever be private was expecting an audience even to these acts we would imagine as moments of inward reflection. What I sense and what I will talk about at length another day is that, for Humfrey, the page was his stage. There is a theatre to annotations.

Books that need no reading

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 12 June, 2012

Last Friday saw me take the train to Reading where I gave a paper at an enjoyable colloquium on Libraries: New Research Directions, organised by Rebecca Bullard under the aegis of her University’s Early Modern Research Centre. My contribution was on ‘How Libraries Die, or what the fate of medieval manuscripts in early modern England can teach us’ but I do not intend here to bore you with a reprise of my discussion of the decline and demise of the Library of the University of Oxford and its wider significance. What is surely more interesting was the colloquial element of the day itself, the development of the discussion around varying concepts of libraries.

In particular, the discussion was framed by Matthew Nicholls’ opening distinction between the library as a store-house and the ancient bibliothecae of which he spoke as points of communication. My own talk saw the library more in the role of the former and – developing thoughts inspired by an earlier conference on the Medieval Library – I emphasised how books lived beyond the walls of the rectangular, first-floor room which was the conventional library; indeed, how, in some circumstances, it was only by being beyond those walls that they could survive. The axiom I presented was that a library is where books come to rest, not where they are alive. The final discussion, ably chaired by Warren Boutcher, returned to these issues with one participant mentioning that, in the educational library he is cataloguing, he comes across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books which remain uncut: what does this tell us about the workings of that library? Are these books dead or sleeping? An impassioned response was that an unread book is a book waiting for its reader – and it is that insight which has set me thinking further.

The unread book in the role of Sleeping Beauty has its allure but I do wonder whether it is a concept reflective of a consciousness born of mechanised mass book-production – a consciousness, then, which became possible in the later generations of print technology. The proposition that I want to put to you is that the assumption that the library is a place where books wait for their readers involves a narrow conception of what the book is.

Let me first have your agreement that we all know of texts that are too ephemeral or too personal for reading – for instance, the diary with ‘Do NOT Read’ on its first page (which, of course, stands as an encouragement to furtive perusal if ever there was one). A diary, of course, is not intended to be housed in a library, though if fame falls on the unfortunate shoulders of the author, it may end up there.

If, though, we allow the possibility that a book can be intended not to be read, we then begin thinking about what might its purpose be: it must surely lie not in what happens after it is completed but in the process of its creation. To put this in historical terms, in manuscript culture, in the midst of the processes of fabricating a book – the preparation of the parchment, the stitching of the leaves and the binding them – there was necessarily an extended session of intellectual engagement when the strokes of ink deposited on the animal skin created a text endowed with sense by its creator. We might sometimes wish that that intellectual engagement was greater – there were too many sloppy scribes but their work can sometimes be the only witness we have to a text. Here is a central point: a work could be produced without a thought to its wider circulation. It may be intended only for the author’s edification; it may be created in one copy for presentation to a potential patron (in which case the canny author would not put too much hope in the thought that the patron would actually peruse the work: only a fool thinks princes read books) or its ideal readership might be God alone. The process of creation was sufficient in itself; if we are looking to associate the book with reading, we can find it integral to every act of production. The movement of the codex and its coming to rest in a library could be seen, in this context, as its afterlife. By its presence in a library, further reading became a possibility, not an expectation – an added bonus, if it were.

I should nuance this in two ways. It is certainly the case that authors in manuscript culture did not necessarily lack a concept of publication – and some authors (I think, from the fifteenth century, of John Capgrave and John Whethamstede) combined the practices of producing what we can call the singular and the plural book (I leave aside the middle possibility where text is intended for a tightly limited local audience). However, publication – that process of multiple production and intentional circulation by author or a promoter – rarely centred on the physical space that European tradition defines as a library. Individual scholars might visit books in one of those rooms, rattle their chains and make a transcript from a copy resident there, but that is a process we would define as closer to research than publication. In some cases for which I have evidence, it would seem that a transcript was made from the library volume and then multiple versions made from that copy (the Virtue and Vice compilation about which I have talked in print is useful evidence for this) – not philological good practice, for sure, but a case where the object in the library can seen as the originator of a tradition, but only at one remove.

The second way in which I should nuance what I have said is by acknowledging that the dynamics of print did not immediately and entirely wipe clean the mentality of bespoke production: many early print-runs were not large-scale nor were they driven by economic speculation but occurred in the relative security of sponsored publication.

It may, then, only be with the mass production of books which appears to distance writer from written page that the sense of book-making as reading has evaporated. And we should not be too hasty to read this as a gain: mass production can be over-production in which the economics mean it is cheap to supply a surplus of volumes and then cheaper not to store them but to declare them obsolete and pulp them. In this context, the library book becomes the lucky survivor, and the library the safe haven where the book can have a life. There again, as my talk on Friday suggested, we should not be too certain all libraries are truly safe.