bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

An apparent corrigendum

Posted in Academic Practices, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 4 May, 2015

I have today been able to add the latest article to my list of publications. It is one whose prose will seem somehow familiar to those of you who are attentive readers with retentive memories: ‘Good Duke Humfrey: Bounder, Cad and Bibliophile’, which has just appeared in the Bodleian Library Record, began life as a lecture to Bodley’s Volunteer Guides, an extempore performance then written up as two instalments on this blog. What has now appeared replicates that with some – but, as we shall see, not enough – refinement and with the addition of the latest version of the listing of the Duke’s manuscripts, which has also appeared as a page here (what the print version does not incorporate are the links to images which, as you will see on that page’s comments, was very helpfully supplemented last year by an assiduous reader, Bradley Dubbs). This article, then, can be said to have been born digital but have grown up hard copy.

Here is an inside tip: the significance of the piece lies in its appendix which, as it were, wags the tale told in the main text. The body of article is in knock-about, hopefully crowd-pleasing style, with only light annotation. What the listing of manuscripts provides, in contrast, is as authoritative statement as possible of what we know about the Duke’s library at the present time. I have been reluctant in the past to publish this in hard copy since that captures in a permanent form our state of knowledge which is necessarily incomplete and open to addition. I still have qualms but, at the same time, I have come to recognise that there is a use to taking stock of where scholarship presently stands and recording that moment to encourage others to rise to the challenge of supplementing what we know. While that can best be done on-line, this format does not reach as effectively all who work in this corner of the field of bibliographical endeavour. Hard copy exudes some aura of bona fides not available to a personal website, for an article goes through review, editorial checking and the intervention of a copy-editor. That process, in this instance, changed details of the presentation but not the substance of either the main text or the appendix, but the result is something which has a sense of permanence. What I am saying is that it is a fixity provided by publication which the rationale of publication intends should be undermined. This is an article which wants to be superseded.

What it did not want is for its errors to be noticed immediately. But, when I was able to open the hard-copy off-prints on Thursday evening and browsed through the first paragraphs, I was left dismayed by an egregious lapsus calami made by the author (remember, I am his severest critic). At the top of p. 37, explaining Humfrey’s status as royal prince, it describes him – not once but twice – as ‘heir apparent’ to his nephew, Henry VI. This is, of course, arrant nonsense. The designation of ‘heir apparent’ is reserved to that member of the family who will inherit come what may but Humfrey’s chances of succeeding could have been thwarted if Henry were to marry and to father a child. That, of course, might have seemed unlikely considering the young king had run away at the sight of naked female flesh cavorting before him at his court. Indeed, when (five years after Humfrey’s death) Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, did give birth to a son, many suspected that the king could not have been the father. All the same, the possibility of Henry siring a son made his uncle not heir apparent but heir presumptive.

This is, I should add, a slip that was made in the blog-post of the lecture and was imported from there into the article. The conclusion might, then, be that my prose had failed to rise to the more exacting standards of print publication, though I am not convinced we should allow lower standards on-line. The difference, instead, is that what is posted on the internet is mutable and thus corrigible. I use this website, at times, as a safe forum in which to essay a first version of what I will later circulate in print with the aspiration that time and others’ reading will help me improve my expression and my argument. That, at least, is the theory. In this case, obviously, it did not happen and I am left wondering whether I can hunt down all the copies in the world and correct them myself.

Being faced with one’s own fallibility is not a new experience, I suspect, for any of us. As I may have said to you before, I find re-reading one’s own previous writings shaming and doubly so – both because there is a queasy feeling that one could not acheive now what was written then and, at the same time, there is the hot sensation of embarrassment at seeing what ignorance one once had. However hard we try, we cannot wash away all the errors in our writing. We should not, perhaps, take that in the spirit of Luther when he said esto peccator and pecca fortiter, implying that we could not avoid our sinful nature and so should learn to live with it. We scholars can, after all, avoid making error by the simple expedient of not publishing in a format that proclaims its fixity. As academics, we are a breed that over-produces in the publications we spawn – we live in a culture that encourages and celebrates such over-production (yes, the REF is blind). Perhaps we should stop to think – as authors and as peer-reviewers – that if a work is half-good, then it is not good enough to see the light of day: a half-bad publication is one which may do more to set back than to move forward scholarship.

That said, this article is now published and I cannot press a recall button. As it is, I hope that with its detailed appendix it rises above the half-way mark of goodness. What I ask of its readers is that you sit with a pencil and lightly correct, p. 37, lines 3 and 4, deleting ‘apparent’ and writing in the margin ‘presumptive’. Be like the early modern readers who thought of any book they bought as not finished by the act of leaving the printing-house and, instead, inviting their own interventions. And what I suggest to you who are my colleagues on-line is that we should adopt more of the habits of the res publica litteraria: let us be bolder with each other, readier to correct each other (in an affirmative fashion). That would surely strengthen our community and be no bad thing for scholarship.


The first humanist oration delivered by an Englishman?

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 11 November, 2009

I am not really one for recording ‘firsts’, just as I try to avoid the Romantic propensity to desire to identify an author by name — ‘anon.’ is for me as noble a designation as any; ‘firsts’ need only recording in Books of Records. But I have just made a discovery — a small one — so indulge me this once.

As I have mentioned before, I have been preparing an appendix of previously unpublished texts for the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England. They include two orations by the Veronese humanist Antonio Beccaria, secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. They were both written in 1444 and both relate to the negotiations surrounding Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou. Weiss noted their existence in his addenda but did not linger long on them; they have not received scholarly attention since. They are not unaccomplished with some fine rhetorical turns, but what has recently interested me is the question of whether Beccaria, the stated author, was in fact their orator. I began to wonder about this when I thought more closely about the title given to the first speech; the phrasing in one of the two manuscripts reads ‘Oratio exhortatoria ad pacem ad regem francie per legatos regis anglie composita per antonium beccariam veronensem’ — phrasing that suggests that Beccaria may have composed the oration in order for it to be delivered by one of the English delegation to France, led by the Earl of Suffolk, in May 1444. Considering the membership of that delegation, I was struck by the presence of Adam Moleyns, then dean of Salisbury and Keeper of the Privy Seal, later to be raised to the episcopacy only to have his life just short by the rebels of 1450.  What is more, he is remembered, in the words of the Oxford DNB, as ‘one of the most respected of the few English humanist scholars of his day’. In truth, that respect did not add up to much: a passing reference to his humanitas in a letter of Poggio Bracciolini’s (also in the appendix I am providing) and lukewarm praise for his eloquence from Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini. But could Moleyns have actually been the voicebox for Beccaria’s prose?

My hunch has become more likely when I looked further at the context of the second oration, given at the Convocation of Canterbury of October 1444. Checking that useful recent resource, the printed Records of Convocation, edited by Gerald Bray, there is a reference to lords attending on behalf of the king, led by the duke of Exeter and including Adam Moleyns, who, it is said, ‘satis eleganter aperuit … [et] apertissime delcaravit’ the king’s need for a grant to support his wedding celebrations. This is an unmistakable reference to the speech written by Beccaria — or should I say ghost-written? It seems to me highly likely that both speeches were composed by the humanist for delivery by Moleyns, thus making by my calculation Moleyns to be the first Englishman to utter the new Ciceronian Latin on an embassy or in Convocation.

The interest of this, of course, goes beyond the matter of a ‘first’. It throws both light and shadow on Moleyns himself: it provides evidence for a previously unnoticed association with Beccaria, but it also raises questions over how far praise of his eloquence was aimed at the wrong target: how far was his humanist learning, as it were, a thing but lent? It also gives more information about Antonio Beccaria, who was, it seems, available for hire, able to write speeches for those who asked (and, perhaps, paid) — only, it should be remembered,for him  to efface the name of the actual orator when recording or circulating ‘his’ orations. At the same time, it puts Beccaria in his place, so to speak: Weiss had imagined that Beccaria may have entered royal service, assuming, one infers, that he himself gave these addresses. But, clearly, a humanist in person was not significant enough to have that task — speech writers are a lower sort even than Victorian children: they should not be seen and only heard through more distinguished voices.