bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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…

Henry V writes to Martin V in English

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 23 February, 2011

I had one of those moments yesterday when a long-gone moment seems suddenly immediate. I was sitting in the peaceful surroundings of the Archivio Segreto and looking through a collection of Martin’s V letters — the collection itself is eighteenth-century, copying from fifteenth-century records. One letter that caught my eye opens:

Cognovimus ex certis litteris quae tua propria manu scriptis dicuntur in Idiomati Anglicam [sic] per interprete nobis expositis Serenitatem tuam egre tulisse quod Venerabilis frater Thomas Episcopus Cicestrensis iam pridem in quodam publico Consistorio fuerit in sedendo tractatus minus honorabiliter quam Oratori Regio conveniret…

You can quite imagine the scene: Thomas Polton, English royal proctor at the the papal curia, holds in his hand a letter that he had received from his master. He hands it to the Roman pope who returns it as he can not make head nor tail of the text, but Polton assures him that it is in Henry’s hand and translates the English into the lingua franca of Latin on the spot. He explains that the king’s English expresses his righteous anger at a slight done to Polton himself in the seating-plan of a meeting — that sort of detail that those of us beyond the diplomatic world can too easily take as downright petty — a slight (Polton goes on to explain) that the king took as being against his own person. You can also imagine Polton himself conjuring up another scene, distant in place but not in time, as he describes how his master the king, on campaign in France, must have been so angry to take the time to demand quill and parchment, so that he could express immediately his  fury in his own words. We might wonder: did Henry actively choose English as a mark of defiance of international protocol, a slight meant to reflect the slight he claimed he felt? Or was it that he did not have the requisite skills to be able to compose on the spur of the moment in a more learned language? I suppose what lies behind that question is a character judgement on whether Henry V was one of those who is unable to control their emotions or whether he was the consummate politican who could manufacture anger and make it felt far from his own physical presence.

The date of the letter is 13th June 1422 — less than two months later the author of the English note would lie dead. As to the note itself, that, of course, is lost. I have not checked in detail but Martin’s conciliatory response, from which I quoted, does not seem to have gained much notice. I would be happily corrected but I can not find it summarised in the relevant volume of the Calendar of Papal Letters or, on a quick search, can I find mention of it in the relevant writings of the great scholars who have written on Angl0-papal relations in this period, Johannes Haller and Magaret Harvey. But, for me at least, it provides a lively vignette of both that whirlwind-king and the ritualism of the papal curia. The image of Polton standing before Martin V and explaining the letter he held in his hand will stay in my mind for some time.