bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

What is the point of a library?

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 10 November, 2010

Saturday saw me in the stunning setting of Durham’s Castle, for a conference on the Medieval Library. It was organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, the publishers of Medium Ævum. The papers took us from the classical precedents (an excellent paper by Matthew Nicholls) to the arrival of print (James Willoughby on characteristically learned form), but through them I sensed some persistent questions.

Later modern societies might conceptualise ‘the library’ as an independent building, a specific pin-point on the map. But for centuries up to, perhaps, the eighteenth, the library was defined rather by its physical or conceptual proximity to other rooms. As Matthew Nicholls mentioned, a classical library might stand next to a mousieon where learned conversations could occur. In the medieval monastery, a library would take upper floor space; below might be the refectory in which the books themselves came alive by being read (as they did in Medingen, as described by Henrike Lähnemann). Similarly, academic libraries – like those in Cambridge about which Peter Clarke talked lucidly – would hold collections which may be useful for study, the focus of which was the lecture hall. For princes (a subject in which the conference’s speaker, Hanno Wijsman, is such an expert), there may be a place in their palace where their books were kept, as in the tower of the Louvre for the codices of the French kings, but the manuscripts would also be seen in the great hall or chamber, where acts of presentation are usually depicted as happening. In other words, we associate books pre-eminently with libraries but their lives were not confined to that specific space. To take this further, it could be said that the library was the place where the book went to rest, the busy-ness of its life occurring elsewhere in the building.

So, the papers at the conference made me think about the limits of libraries, their particular purpose and place in the odyssey of a book. The pre-eminent intention of a library was – as was clear from the discussions like Richard Gameson’s bravura review of images of libraries and their furniture – the safeguarding of knowledge through the protection of books. Yet, as Matthew Nicholls pointed out, this could be self-defeating: a library could itself succumb to fire, flood or other disaster, leaving us with only the titles of its books, not their contents. As Matthew put it ‘libraries can be bottlenecks rather than thoroughfares in the circulation of knowledge’. Presenting your work to a library-owner might gain you prestige and patronage, but not posterity. Thomas Bodley, famously, boasts in the motto of his Library quarta perennis – the fourth will last forever – and libraries now have an institutional certainty that is alien to their predecessors. Yet, that of the earlier Libraries of Oxford University, two died and one (that of Alfred) never existed, might give us pause for thought and remember that even libraries should have a memento mori perennially before them.

But if libraries are designed, however much they fail to do so, to safeguard knowledge – what knowledge? There seems to have been a long association of three concepts: the bibliotheca, religio and sapientia. The libraries are repositories for particular sorts of wisdom and what is interesting is what is excluded from the definition. Ovid complained that his books were banned from Rome’s libraries (which was to their advantage, as they now survive). The collecting of medieval libraries was – as the Cambridge examples discussed by Peter demonstrated – necessarily haphazard: even if there was an original rationale, that could be undermined by the addition of new gifts, and if a donation itself had a special focus, it would often join a collection that worked by different rules. There were also practical limits to a library – a physical space can only take so many books. In my experience, a large library in the later medieval England would include 500 volumes, a very large collection perhaps 800 – 900. The great challenge – as James Willoughby showed – came with print and the exponential increase in the number of books available at a cheap price. That, of course, made the limits of the library an all the more insistent issue. And so began the quixotic early-modern project to reverse Babel and gather together universal knowledge in one place. But, even then, the basic truth remained: whatever the quasi-religious status of learning with the library its temple, the bibliotheca was never the repository of knowledge, but of some knowledge. In that sense, at least, the medieval library may have the advantage over its latter-day successors: it was conscious of its own limits.

Lost Plutarch Lives, lost Humfrey manuscripts

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 9 July, 2009

As I have mentioned recently, I am working away on providing addenda and corrigenda to Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England, which, forty years after its author’s death, is to be resurrected virtually, as it were, with an on-line edition on the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature website. It has given me the opportunity to bring together some shards of information which help clarify, if not fully resolve, some quandaries. Here is one of those.

Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, owned several manuscripts of Latin translations of Plutarch’s Vitae, some of which he gave to the University of Oxford, in his donation of 1444, and one of which, as we shall see, was shipwrecked in Cambridge after his death. The relevant booklists have been or are being edited in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (that for Oxford by Rod Thomson, and that for King’s, Cambridge, already published, by Peter Clarke); I use the sigla of that series in the following notes. I will also cite the invaluable guide to the Latin Plutarch recently published by Marianne Pade and which I have discussed elsewhere.

Two of Humfrey’s Plutarch manuscripts are known now to survive. One is London: BL, MS. Harl. 3426, a set of translations by Leonardo Bruni, given to Oxford (UO3.97); the other Oxford: Magdalen College, MS. 37 (A), including renditions by the little-known (and less-loved) Antonio Pacini. This latter codex does not appear in Humfrey’s gifts to the University. Several other inventory entries attest to manuscripts that are now lost, like, for instance the mention of a Vita Pelopidae (UO3.100), which must be the translation produced by Humfrey’s secretary, Antonio Beccaria of Verona, and dedicated to Pietro del Monte (Pade, i, pp. 221 – 23 & ii, pp. 70 – 71). Another example occurs in the inventory of King’s College, Cambridge, probably made in 1457.

Here I should enter a caveat: as it is known that King’s asked for books owned by Humfrey on his death to be donated to the new college and as two surviving manuscripts from the King’s inventory (Cambridge: King’s College, MS. 27 and London: BL, MS. Harl. 1705) are, indeed, Humfrey books, it has sometimes been assumed that his library was given wholescale to King’s. This is demonstrably incorrect: probably only a small proportion of Humfrey’s collection reached Cambridge, as is shown by the fortunes of several of the prince’s other books; and only a proportion of the books listed in 1457 came to King’s from the chattels of the late duke of Gloucseter. But, having said all that, there is one lost book, formerly owned by King’s, that we can say for certain came from the duke’s palace of Greenwich. The entry reads ‘Vita Agidis et Cleomenis Lacedemoniorum regum…’ (UC29.154), which the modern editor, Peter Clarke, identifies as ‘Plutarch, Vita Agidis et Cleomenis, probably as tr. Antonio Beccaria (together with nine other of the lives)’. I think we should delete the word ‘probably’ , and the clause in parantheses.

The evidence Peter Clarke has in mind is a passage in a lively late-fifteenth-century eulogy of Vittorino da Feltre, schoolmaster to princes and to humanists like Beccaria. In it, the author, another of his pupils, Francesco Prendilacqua, takes the opporunity to praise Beccaria, and lists his works, which, he says, include translations of:

Vitas ex Plutarcho XI Romuli, Thesei, Solonis, Demetrii, Agidis, Cleomenis, Pelopidae, Coriolani, Alcibiadis, Timoleontis, Eumenis [F. Prendilacqua, De Vita Victorini Feltrensis Dialogus, ed. J. Morelli (Padua, 1774), pp. 66 – 67]

This list has sometimes been considered suspect and, certainly, for some of these translations there is no independent evidence, but Beccaria certainly did, as we have already seen, put into Latin while in England the Pelopidas, as well as the Romulus (even though that version, even including the dedication to Humfrey, was cribbed from Giovanni Tortelli). As the only other known translation of the Agis & Cleomenes was made in the late 1450s, after the production of the King’s catalogue, we should give Prendilacqua credence and be confident that the entry refers to Beccaria’s translation.

However, we should not entertain the suggestion that the King’s manuscript included all of the humanist’s renditions of Plutarch. That is, in fact, an impossibilty, since two of Beccaria’s known renditions of Plutarch, the Alcibiades paired with the Coriolanus, were composed about a decade after the humanist had returned to his homeland [Pade, i, pp. 323 – 26]. Nor would this suggestion sit well with what we can surmise of Beccaria’s habits. We know a fair amount about how Antonio Beccaria worked, because we have some other of his translations, from St. Athanasius, in his holograph, in London: BL, MS. Royal. 5 F. II and Cambridge: King’s, MS. 27. You can know see Beccaria’s script on-line, thanks to the generosity of the British Library. The manuscript now in the Royal collection is formed of booklets and it appears that he presented the work to his master, Humfrey, section by section: he practised the rule of small gifts often, rather than outsize presents irregularly. In that case, the booklets were gathered together and presented as one volume to Oxford (UO3.21). But, in the case of his Plutarch versions, the evidence of the book-list would suggest that each Life was kept separately and appears as a separate entry.

I have talked of there being ‘some’ lives are in the 1444 Oxford book-list. I have mentioned two, for both of which Humfrey’s copy is lost: Pelopidas, and Romulus (UO3.105). Immediately following the second entry, there is another (UO3.106), one which has left scholars, including myself, scratching our heads. It refers to a ‘Vita Demetrii’ — but the only known translation of Plutarch’s life of Demetrius comes from the end of the 1450s. However — and here is the point of this intricate discussion — look at the list from Prendilacqua above: he states that his former class-mate at Vittorino’s school translated this very work. The explanation for the entry, then, is that it was another Plutarch Vita translated by Humfrey’s Veronese secretary, presented to the duke and given away by him only a few years later.

This identification allows us to make a further, tentative suggestion. Note the ordering of Prendilacqua’s list. It would not seem to have any rationale in relation to the subjects of the Lives themselves and, of course, it could simply be random. But it is usually assumed that the Romulus was the first text presented by Beccaria to Humfrey in the late 1430s, and the Pelopidas is tentatively dated to 1441 – 2, while it is known, as I have mentioned, that the Alcibiades and Coriolanus were translated in the late 1450s. Might the list be in chronological order of translation? If so, it would suggest that Antonio Beccaria also rendered Plutarch’s Vitae of Solon and of Theseus into Latin while in England — versions which, like several others he produced, are lost.

The identification of Humfrey’s Vita Demetrii as being by Beccaria does away with the need to muse, as Marianne Pade does [i, pp. 254 – 56], about whether Guarino could have sent to Humfrey a translation of the Demetrius but which no longer survives. Guarino certainly wrote a letter to the duke, which may have been accompanied by a manuscript of Plutarch translations. Pade suggests that it might have included a collection of Guarino’s versions plus the Lucullus translated by Guarino’s pupil, Leonardo Giustiniani. If so, it would equate with the 1444 reference to ‘vitam Timonis et Lucilli 2o fo. hominibus (UO3.91, where the lectio probatoria appears in Giustiniani’s preface [Pade, ii, p. 120]). But there were other routes by which the Giustiniani, a popular translation, could have reached England, and if Guarino did send a manuscript with his letter, it may instead have been of his translation of Plutarch’s moral essays, one of which was certainly available in Oxford in the mid-1440s.

This brings me to my final point: the strange death of the Lives in England. Humfrey’s library shared the interest in Plutarchan biography that was fashionable in Italian humanist circles. But the taste at the ducal palace in Greenwich was no trail-blazer in England: interest in that aspect of Plutarch was surprisingly limited this side of the channel. It was, indeed, the moral essays that entertained Humfrey’s compatriots more. The neglect that eventually saw several translations of Plutarch vanish began soon after the duke of Gloucester’s own demise.