bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A previously unidentified manuscript from the collection of Christopher Urswick – and the need to catalogue maniculae

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 18 April, 2016

One of the benefits of the addiction with which, as I have described, we manuscript researchers are afflicted, is the afterglow that follows the high. It is a short span of time but one in which it seems that the luck – or self-made serendipity – continues to hold and further finds can be made. So it has happened with me today. It is unrelated with the subject of the high itself, the unidentified work of Thomas Candour, but is connected with other codices I saw on my American travels. Two of these were the work of Pieter Meghen, both made for the Dutchman’s first English patron, Christopher Urswick, dean of Windsor. In both, the same reader annotates the volume and he has been identified as Urswick himself. I have not before studied systematically his manuscripts – here operates the curse of excellent scholarship which wards of later travellers through the same regions: Urswick’s book collection received a seminal study by the late Joe Trapp in the first volume of that estimable journal Renaissance Studies (estimable – I explain in the spirit of full disclosure – because it published my first article). With such a work published, is there any need for further investigation? There is, of course, always more to be discovered. What happened in this case is that the annotations with their distinctive drooping manicula reminded me of a note I made some fourteen years ago about a manuscript in the Bodleian. This is the first day since my return that I have had the opportunity to check MS. Rawl. G. 28, a tiny, pocket-sized later fifteenth-century copy of Cicero’s De officiis in a hybrid gothic script with some humanist features, including the repeated use of a low-set ampersand as both conjunction and suffix. Having just turned over it leaves, I can nwo announce with full confidence that it includes, starting at fol. 10 and with the last appearing at fol. 102v, marginalia which are, indeed, by Urswick. This should be added to the list of volumes that passed through his hands.

We might also add that he was not the first owner: another reader also annotates the book – sometimes translating short passages of Latin into English – and, as at fol. 95v, Urswick’s notes are written around those of the other reader, the sequence of ownership can be established. I think we may be able to go further and say something more about that other reader, but I am not fully certain of that yet (confirming it may require a trip to Rouen, tant pis) and, anyway, one revelation is enough for one day.

A revelation, you say? This hardly registers on the Richter scale of codicological discoveries, you complain. I did say the find was small – and, indeed, that is why it is presented here in what I have called before the imaginary journal,  Aperçus & obiter dicta, rather than being hidden away in my notes waiting, like so much else, to be launched upon the world in print and with fanfares. I mention it, however, because it introduces a wider issue to which we should attend. Too often, in catalogues, the presence of a manicula or pointing hand is noted with no more description. I could not have made the link I have done if I had not copied out an example of it myself (remember, this was before the days of digital cameras) and written a record as an aide-memoire of its main features. What I am suggesting is that we need both a repository of images of maniculae and an agreed language (equally for hard-copy descriptions and for tagging of on-line images), designed to explain the salient elements of a pointing hand. We might start with the term itself: some catalogues talk of a maniculum or maniculus but these are simply mistakes (in Latin, the diminutive of a term takes that term’s gender and as manus is feminine…); should we, though, talk of a ‘manicula’ or use the new English coinage, ‘manicule’? I leave to an International Convention the debate and testy resolution of that issue. What, I think, matters more is that we should record features like its angle: is it upright or horizontal, or diagonal (rising or, as I have just said, drooping)? Does it show fingers as well as fore-finger? Does it have a cuff? Is it connected to a marginalising line and, if so, in what style?

These, I would suggest, are the key elements we need to record: perhaps you have more you would like to suggest (as long as we stop short of a counsel of impossible perfection). Maniculae can be a powerful tool for recognising a person’s annotations, particularly when verbal notes are rare or overly succinct – but we can only harness that power if we show them the respect of a clear and shared vocabulary.

Confession of a Manuscript Researcher

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 12 April, 2016

Let us admit it: manuscripts research is a drug. An observer of a special collections reading room may not credit it, sensing the hushed atmosphere that envelopes the seated individuals oblivious to the watching eyes as their attention concentrates on the volumes resting before them. We toil in what can often be drudgery – admittedly, comfortable but, all the same, a grind of request, checking and return recorded in brief notes which confirm that a book has been excluded from our enquiries. Even in this process, there is a tingling sensation, the tiny frisson of the scent and touch of parchment, the affecting recognition of contact with scribes and readers long dead but still present in the codex we have before us, and the irrepressible hope at the point just before we open the pages that here, maybe, will be a ‘find’. And when a find does come, it provides the rush, the exhilaration that keeps us enthralled to this drug through the years or, more often, decades which lie between each hit. We manuscript researchers are patient addicts.

Like any addict, when we are under the influence of the drug, we want to break out of normal behaviour: we are so stimulated that we want to shout, to break the silence of the reading room and call others to our desk so they can share in our excitement. What stops us, beyond a residual sense of propriety, is a semi-conscious realisation that very, very few, even in that learned space, would actually want to share, would appreciate what we have found to the extent we do. I remember once in the Vatican, at the point when I made a discovery and the power of the drug coursed through me like an intravenous injection, I looked around the room and caught the eye of a young researcher, who smiled and so revealed herself as a fellow addict, who knew from her own experience the sensation I was feeling. We did not talk – that is not the point: this is a designer drug, individuated for each user. What gives a hit to one person will leave another cold; but in the civilised opium den that is the library, there is an honour-code by which each respects the others’ moments of epiphany.

You might be able to tell that I am living on the after-effects of a dose of The Drug. In my career, I have had more than my fair share of hits – indeed, one sensation which, for me, comes at the moment of the rush is the downer, the question in my head: do I deserve this good fortune? Perhaps my luck will end; perhaps I have had my last find. Even if so (and, Lord, prevent it), the memory of the act of previous discoveries will sustain me. From the first occasions, in the mid-1990s, when, in Cambridge, I found in quick succession two manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, followed, on 5th April 2003, by the most memorable rush I have experienced, on a day when every manuscript I called up in the Bibliothèque nationale de France was a revelation – that day I nearly overdosed – with, only three months later, another hit, standing at the kitchen sink that serves the library of St John’s College, Oxford (have I told you that tale? Some day I surely will) – all these, and besides them, those moments in the Vatican Library, of course the Vatican, whose vast reserves of volumes to be seen will provide highs for eternity, with the most recent for me being reported on this website – each of these hits has driven me, impelled me to return to the library, to continue in this line of work while good sense (or the opposite, the demands of the REF) might argue otherwise. Note that it is the act itself that provides the hit; the thing discovered takes a cherished place in the friendship group of manuscripts one has known, but that is because of the associations it has earnt for you; certainly, the revelation of the discovery in print is only the after-effects, like the sucking on the lemon after the gin has been drunk dry.

I see, from the post I just mentioned, the date of my last hit was December 2012. So, I have waited nearly three and a half years for the next high: the interval itself increases the excitement. I have just returned from the States, where I had a useful week of research, looking in particular, at two manuscripts by Erasmus’s friend and the pre-eminent copyist in England in the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen. I visited first one, which by the date Meghen provides is his earliest manuscript; it was sold at Christie’s London rooms in 2010 (at a time when I as out of the country so unable to see it) and was bought by the Beinecke at Yale. The other has been at Princeton for longer and looking at it this week, it appears to me highly likely that it is from substantially earlier in Meghen’s career than that at Yale (I hope these words do not cause a feud between the two). All this, and the other books I studied, thanks to the kindness of the librarians at both Ivy League universities, was, as I say, useful – which is addict’s code for saying they provided no high. That, as happens, comes when and where you are not expecting it. It took place, in fact, last Thursday afternoon, 7th April 2016, in the special collections room in the Canaday Library of Bryn Mawr College. I was there because the reason for my visit to the States was to speak, at the generous invitation of David Cast and Roberta Ricci, at a colloquium on my old friend, Poggio Bracciolini, the following Saturday; my remit was to discuss his international reputation, for which I have stretched my own knowledge by studying his fortuna in early print but in which paper I also returned to manuscripts I know well, including those by the masterful mid-fifteenth century English scribe, Thomas Candour. The reason Bryn Mawr was such an appropriate location for this event was that the college was the alma mater of Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, who had translated the first collection of Poggio’s letters and who, in addition, was a renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts, many of them now housed in their Canaday Library. So, my purpose in arriving early was to study some of those volumes, with an eye to adding in some brief reference to them in my talk. What I found, however, could have transformed my paper completely: there was no way it would have been possible to know before I arrived that when I was handed a smallish volume, bound in pale calf-skin and containing two dialogues by Poggio, I was about to look on pages written by a man whose hand I know well – this is a previously unidentified manuscript produced by Thomas Candour. His codices are usually illuminated in a single style but – what makes this all the more exciting – is that the illumination here is not in that style but definably in the hand of the artist known as the Caesar Master. This is the only occasion on which England’s most significant humanist scribe and its most accomplished humanist-influenced illuminator are collaborators.

I warned you that a find is a personal thing. I can think of probably four people in the world who will be anything more than mildly interested in this – and one of those was in the audience on Saturday (thanks, Kathleen, for being there). Telling this tale, though, has helped me, I believe, to isolate the active chemical in the drug to which you, like me, may be addicted: it is serendipity. I have called serendipity before ‘the patron saint of palaeographers’, but perhaps that understates its importance or its relevance to a wider cohort of scholars. In what I have said today, you may recognise that what makes a find exhilarating is both its significance to one’s research and that it was unexpected. Serendipity does not prepare you for a discovery; it (or, if it is a patron saint, she) takes you in the hand blind-folded. But then she places you in front of what she thinks you should see, and takes off the blinkers and whispers in your ear, ‘look’. Of course, in truth, we make our own serendipity. By years of study, we gain eyes to see. By those years of drudgery, working without a hit, we make possible the irreplaceable sensation of the high. I am not giving up this drug – as I have learnt to say in the States – any time soon.

The centrality of the margin

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 6 June, 2015

Erik Kwakkel, one of our leading palaeographers (and by ‘our’, I mean us Europeans), has just posted on his blog a stimulating article on the size of margins in medieval manuscripts. As he rightly points out, they tend to dominate the page – that is to say, the text block forms the minority of the space. He remarks that this is astonishing, by which he means in a culture where parchment was rare and thus, we might add, there existed a culture of the palimpsest. The focus of his article is pre-Gothic; for me, working mainly with humanist manuscripts, such proportions are an expected part of what I describe as the ‘eloquent page’ which is, simultaneously, a work of conspicuous consumption: the text is isolated in a cream-white sea of margins. With scribes working after the invention of print, this could be taken to extremes: I spent a little time working out the proportions of text to margin in the manuscripts of the prolific Netherlandish scribe of the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen: the text could form under a third of the page. Here, the intention seemed to be to mark out the superiority of manuscript over printed text by the ostentatious waste of space on fine parchment, rather than the packed page on cheap paper that made print a commercial, if not often an aesthetic, success.

I have also been reminded of the importance of blank sections of manuscript by one of my present projects, creating an on-line database of fragments in the bindings of the books of Samuel Harsnett, archbishop of York (d. 1631), now held in the University of Essex. Many of these sixteenth-century bindings include pastedowns, flyleaves binding strips, reinforcing pieces or tabs taken from manuscripts. Here was a culture in which creating the finished product of the bound book involved destroying older books. You might baulk at that phrasing: a manuscript might have entered the bookseller’s already too damaged to be valuable as anything other than scrap, but the practice still suggests at the least a connivance with dismantling. What is more, what has struck me is that for some sorts of uses in bindings – particularly trapezoidal binding strips – some binders clearly had a distinct preference for blank parchment. They would not, we can assume, have had it made to order and instead they reserved for use margins from codices: we can know for certain that this is happening when a flick of pen-flourishing or a rubbed plummet note is still partially visible on the cutting (as in the examples I posted on Twitter). That is to say, those parts without text may have had a better chance of surviving through being recycled than those which the scribe had short-sightedly blemished by inflicting ink and letter-forms upon it.

All this discussion, though, misses a larger, very obvious point: the margins form only part of the blank space of a page. The textblock itself works by having space between the words and between the lines. Even at the most compressed, the height of minims may only be half the distance between lines and, while we must take into account ascenders and descenders, we are likely to have to conclude that at most about half of what we call the textblock is occupied with letters. That is to say, in the less-than-50% reserved for words, little more than 50% might be taken up with them. That is because (as I have put this in a lecture I gave last year), script needs space like the candle needs shadow – except that the script is the shadow casting darkness on the light of the page.

We could say that this makes the words all the more precious; they are in dialogue with their own absence, and that dialogue is surrounded by what might look like silence. I like to think of this as a metaphor for the social context in which these manuscripts were produced: the words being the minority, just as the literate who could engage with the words through reading were the few. I am not saying that scribes actually thought of the mise-en-page in these terms, though, as I will suggest in print soon, I do think we can see some being very conscious of themselves working within a majority-illiterate society and conscious of the limits to literacy, including their own. More obviously, though, the inhabting of the margins of gothic manuscripts by grotesques often so at odds with the text, at some level speaks to this paradox. Decoration and text are not in conversation; they are speaking different languages.

The presence of that decoration (another blemish on the virgin parchment) reminds us also that, just as oral culture was by no means uncreative, so these margins are not mute. An implication of what I have just said is that, if we look to all space on the page, we can recognise that it is not all blank in the same way. These spaces, too, are places, with their own articulation. How well can we hear their voices?

Italian Culture and the Tudor Court

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 23 October, 2011

Step into the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace or, indeed, the equivalent space at Holyrood and you sense the self-imposed expectation that all should be of a certain standard, from the ironwork of the banisters to the heavy wood of the toilet doors. Have the opportunity to take a light lunch looking over the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and the same seems true not just of the permanent fittings but also of the food – the dainty smoked salmon sandwich or the amuse-bouche of mozzarella and pesto. There appears to be a projection of royal identity or, rather of certain values associated with that identity, even to those who are transient visitors, temporarily at the very edge of what in its loosest sense could be termed the court.

I mention this because on Friday, through the kind invitation of Kate Lowe, I attended a symposium on Italian culture at the Tudor court held (thanks to Lucy Whitaker) under the auspices of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. It was followed on Saturday by visits to Windsor Castle and (for this I had to bow out) Hampton Court. The occasion marked a culmination of a collaboration between Queen Mary’s, London and the Royal Collection which saw a funded doctorate, now submitted, by Charlotte Bolland. But the event felt less like an end than a beginning: a conversation that helped take stock of what we already know but also what more there is to find, to define and to conceptualise. The event was organised with few papers and an emphasis on discussion, with about thirty participants around the table. It was structured by a set of questions, each thrown out by one of the participants – the result was, helpfully, both some answers and many more questions. So, what I want to provide is not a depiction of the topic but rather an overview of some of those issues that might be usefully researched in future.

I will begin with a set of questions that, while not often at the centre of discussion provided a theme that ran through the day. How often were products recognisable to their users as hailing from a specific place of origin? In our own generation, we might, for instance, rarely check the labels on foodstuffs – unless we are concerned about food airmiles or want to boycott some benighted country – but we would talk of Dutch Edam, French baguettes and Danish pastries. Was there a deeper sensitivity to origins in the sixteenth century? And, if so, were products considered ‘Italian’ or more specifically, say, Venetian (glass), Milanese (armour) or Cremonese (at the end of our period, violins)? These products could include animals – some of our discussion, prompted by Charlotte Bolland, considered the role of horses as diplomatic gifts and the self-presentation of the Gonzagas of Mantua as both the owners and the arbiters of the best equine specimens. Nor were these ‘products’ confined to the tangible; Lucy Whitaker raised the question of whether Italians were particularly associated, in sixteenth-century minds, with technical innovation. I would add the link made between Italy – particularly Rome – and eloquence in the pre-Reformation period. These affinities between place and product or practice could also lead us to a comparative question: were the cities of Italy, generally or individually, particularly associated with a greater number of ‘things’ than were other places in western Europe? However we were to answer that, we would have to recognise that the wider issue lying behind it would be whether there was any concern to achieve economic autarky or whether the commercial inter-dependence of Europe – and beyond – was recognised and welcomed. We also cannot pretend these issues are static: as reputations change and skills spread or migrate, so the perceived affinities must eventually shift.

That being the case, the first cluster of questions has to be balanced or combined with another: how far did individual products or practices bear witness to what might be called a melange of manufacturing? This could most obviously encompass the naturalisation of an activity – Sydney Anglo, in deliciously provocative mode, opened the proceedings by noting how few Italians were involved in the ‘italianate’ arts of war or of festivals and other courtly pastimes as practised in sixteenth-century England. We might also think of mediated influences — with France and Burgundy being the usual suspects paraded in this category. But this is an issue which envelopes other phenomena too. We heard from Maria Hayward of clothing that could be begun in one place, shipped north from the Mediterranean and finished in England. I would parallel this with examples of manuscripts written, for instance, by a Dutch scribe for an English patron in the littera antiqua bookhand favoured by Italian humanists, illuminated in a fashionable French style and then bound in England (I have in my mind’s eye some of the codices for which Erasmus’s favourite scribe, Pieter Meghen, was the copyist).

The key concept here is, of course, eclectic or hybrid and that is often seen as the defining characteristic of court culture. The question then becomes whether the court was eclectic because that was seen as the route to the best or whether being hybrid or cosmopolitan within the confined space of the court was itself seen as being best – was this hybridity for an aesthetic purpose or as an end of itself? Behind this lies issues of how far the court was a place best suited to judge the best, whether discernment of quality was itself an innate quality of those gatherings of the high-born and the highly promoted. That, in turn, can broaden into the wider question – court: trend-setter, fashion-victim or old fogey? The answer to that, of course, depends on the cultural material which one studies. In terms of textiles, for instance, we heard of the court’s tailoring as being at the cutting edge, so to speak. In terms of the production of books, I would say that, most often, the court was a participant rather than a leader. Our trip to the library at Windsor threw up not quite an exception to this but certainly a useful counter-example: an inventure of Henry VII’s reign, occupying several pages, written first in Latin, then in English, its administrative purpose signified by the uneven cut of the top of the folios (wavy rather than serrated), the whole presented as a small book with its original binding similarly indented at the top – a type of product that is so particular and, at the same time, so associated with the traditions of royal bureaucracy that it could only have been produced in the environs of Westminster. That is to say, the court could prove the ideal location for the creation of the singular, the cultural hapax legomenon or, put more bluntly, the oddball.

These issues lead naturally onto considerations of the relationship between the court and other activities. We were often reminded, particularly by Cinzia Sicca, of the importance of the mercantile world, as importers and as conduits of goods to the court. Was the court a parasite on the back of international commerce? Were, indeed, the court’s activities only possible in the increasingly metropolitan – though not necessarily increasingly cosmopolitan – world of London? Yet, the court itself was not one location with a static character. Leaving aside the issue of the court being used as shorthand for the royal court (no Skeltonian question of ‘which court?’ here), the king’s entourage was both movable and highly fluid. Part of its eclectic nature surely lay in that instability of presence with the toing and froing of international visitors re-shaping its identity and focus repeatedly. That process of visiting related to a highly pertinent question raised on the day by Margaret McGowan: the balance between ‘making’ and ‘doing’ in relation to court life. To put it another way, how far were the royal works of palace building themselves a prelude, the provision of a theatrical setting in which the performances that were the real work of the court took place? Do we do an injustice to court culture if we privilege the monumental over the ephemeral?

Cutting across all these issues, of course, are matters of periodisation. The Tudor century was, as Cliff Davies would remind us, no such thing – there was little consciousness of ‘Tudor’ to define it. We might instead see a simple way of dividing up the time to be the name of the monarch whose court it was, but that surely gives too much credit to the centre-point in defining the circle which, in fact, constructed the royal persona. Each scholar might detect different patterns: for my own part, I would see a continuity from the early 1460s to the early 1510s in terms of the Italian influences on royal diplomacy, while at the other end of the sixteenth century, there is (despite the change from English queen to Scottish king) arguably a continuity of interests from, say, the late 1580s to the early 1610s. Between those periods, further divisions might need to be made with, of course, the religious turmoil of the 1530s to late 1550s being necessarily a state of flux and uncertainty. But, then, such instability – the continual chasing of the butterflies of ‘fashion’, the blend of languid waiting and kinetic energy reminiscent of a departure lounge – these phenomena might be quintessential to the intrigue of the court.

Piece of English Renaissance history going for a song

Posted in Auctions, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 28 May, 2010

A song might be pushing it: a whole opera or monumental mass. It is on sale at Christie’s at an asking price of £25,000 – £35,000. But, in comparison with other lots, that is a small change. And, like Henry IV’s Paris, it is certainly worth a mass.

I have Peter Kidd to thank for bringing my attention to the manuscript in question. It is a codex signed by a scribe whose character was as colourful as his books: Pieter Meghen, from the Low Countries, who worked for Erasmus, both in making books and in transporting letters, and whose calligraphical skill was not hindered — perhaps, indeed, it was assisted — by the fact that he was one-eyed (as he calls himself in this book: ‘monoculus’). Nor did his heavy-drinking stop him producing an attractive littera antiqua much in demand in Erasmus’s circle and particularly in England. One of Meghen’s earliest patrons was the Englishman Christopher Urswick, almoner to Henry VII and Dean of Windsor. The manuscript now up for sale in London on 2nd June appears to be the earliest dated manuscript made by Meghen for Urswick — and it is previously unnoticed.

That it seems to have hidden away from scholars is all the more remarkable as Meghen is by no means a forgotten figure and his association with Urswick specifically has been studied by no less a scholar than the late Joe Trapp of the Warburg. The texts that it presents in some elements confirm very comfortably with what we know already about Urswick and his collecting: it includes, for instance, a fourteenth-century text, the Speculum Edwardi III attributed to Simon Islip and now thought to be by William de Pagula (though there is reason to doubt that — but that is another story), which had some vogue for early Tudor ecclesiastics like Urswick. And, as in other Tudor manuscripts, it is coupled with other patristic and humanist works. Here, though, the humanist represented is one not otherwise known in either Urswick’s library or in Meghen’s oeuvre but who did enjoy a small popularity in England: Niccolò Perotti. Another author included is Baldwin of Canterbury who, again, is not an author Meghen transcribed elsewhere but who makes an interesting link back to an early generation of humanist book-production in England as a copy of works by him, now in Brussels, was made by Meghen’s countryman, Theoderic Werken, in 1453 for William Gray. Gray, bishop of Ely, boasted, with some stretching of the truth, of royal blood and for part of his career attempted to live up to his claim by his ostentatious lifestyle which included collecting manuscripts.

The book on sale at Christie’s, to judge by the images (for, as readers will know, I am exiled to Florence for a month — I can not complain), shows Meghen at his most accomplished, providing a very regular upright bookhand which would look starched if it were not for the playful majuscules and descenders that Meghen could not, on occasion, resist including. With all this, it also has a set of miniatures. A fine manuscript and one that adds to our knowledge of both the scribe’s career and the milieu of English Renaissance activities at the very start of the sixteenth century, while Thomas More was still mastering Greek. The asking price is not unreasonable, especially when compared to other items in the sale — I think in particular of a manuscript of Mandeville’s Travels, 64 folios without significant illumination, which surely can only justify its putative cost of £150,000 – £200,000 because vernacular texts have a certain cachet among manuscript collectors. There is a premium on early examples of the English language, which means that the history of our nation’s more learned culture is relatively bon-marché. Rush, while stocks last.