bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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.