bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Which was the first Latin Life of Henry V?

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 18 September, 2008

I am about to upset the ghosts again. I have done so before when I described Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, as a book-lover but not a book-worm (a judgement I stand by, though I would express it with more subtlety now), or when I pointed out that Paul II, sometimes considered a humanist pope, in part because of his book-collecting, actually owed much of his library to the activities of one previous collector. On this occasion, the spirit who will be shaking his gory locks is far less distinguished than a royal or papal prince; it is the humanist, Tito Livio Frulovisi.

I have just seen the final set of proofs for an article coming out in the next issue of English Historical Review on Frulovisi’s most famous work, his Vita Henrici Quinti. Frulovisi – despite his resonant forenames — was hardly a great success in his own lifetime, but his Vita is remembered as the first posthumous biography of Henry V and, at a couple of removes, a source for Shakespeare’s play. The Vita was also, it is said, the source for another biography, called the Vita et Gesta Henrici Quinti, which was once thought to have been by Thomas of Elmham, and is now sometimes known as Ps-Elmham. Though this latter work was, like Frulovisi’s biography, edited and published by Thomas Hearne in the eighteenth century, it has not found much favour with historians: much longer than Frulovisi’s, it is considered simply more prolix, with little extra information, and in an overblown style which compares poorly to Frulovisi’s humanist Latin. Frulovisi, as secretary of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, is thought to have been, in effect, ghost-writing the war memoirs of Henry V’s youngest brother, which the Ps-Elmham did little more than copy.

What I argue – what I hope I demonstrate – in my article is that the Vita et Gesta is actually the earlier of the two works, and provides Frulovisi’s main source. There are several reasons to reverse the usual chronology — to return, indeed, to the chronology which many pre-twentieth-century scholars considered to be the case — and they include matters of both structure and style. I do not intend to repeat the arguments in detail here, but the stylistic argument is that Frulovisi was converting the florid Latin into humanist diction, but not always being successful. I give in the article two extracts to show how this worked; examples could be drawn from most pages of the works. I will give you another brief example which I do not mention in English Historical Review. It comes from early on in the biographies, and relates to the revolt of Owen Glendower:

Ps-Elmham, Vita et Gesta, p. 10 Frulovisi, Vita, p. 4
quousque totam Wallie rebellionem sua virtute penitus exstirpavit et ipsam patriam, cum universis incolis suis, eidem patri suo subjectam restituit cum reliqua Wallia in deditionem patris reducta
excepto ipso Owanno, capitali rebelli, pre timore in loca deserta et latebrosas caveas, absque pugnancium fortitudine fugiente ibidemque vitam inhonorifice finiente preter Owanum quendam Wallicorum caput, qui propter metum et conscientiam facinoris in deserta loca et antra sine comitibus fugatus vitam inhoneste finivit
eius filius et heres isti principi Henrico post in regem coronato serviens ei familiaris extitit domestico famulatu. eius Owani Henrico postea regi famulatus est filius.
De hiis Wallie guerris, per multa annorum continuatis curricula, de obsidionibus, conflictibus, frequenti strage, discriminosis incomodis, fortuna et infortuniis, aliisque infinitis in eisdem contingentibus, idem expavescens calamus pauca ponit, quia ad veram et certam singulorum noticiam non pervenit. Et hoc de Wallicis bellis satis, quorum ad certam quoque singulorum notitiam non devenerunt.

Frulovisi’s phrasing is, as ever, more succinct but it retains many of the terms used in the Vita et Gesta, even when they are of dubious usage (see the repetition of famulatus, which the Vita et Gesta uses as a noun in the non-classical sense of ‘household’ while Frulovisi attempts to make it more classical by turning it into a past participle, but the verb from which it comes is of rare occurence in classical Latin). At other times, though, he strains to be different from that in the Vita et Gesta. Notice, for instance, that Ps-Elmham talks of Glendower hiding in gloomy caves — caveas — but Frulovisi, wanting to be different, uses antra, a term which is only to be found in poetry, not prose. My point is not that Frulovisi was a poor Latinist — humanist phrasing was in the making and mistakes were unavoidable — but that the verbal resonances are one sign that Frulovisi copied from the Vita et Gesta, rather than vice versa. The Vita et Gesta pays scant attention to the rules of classical phrasing — using guerra rather than bellum, say — and if it was following Frulovisi, it would have achieved the remarkable feat of stripping out all the humanist usages, and keeping those which were non-humanist. It makes more sense, I would contend, to see Frulovisi trying, and sometimes failing, to render the Vita et Gesta into ‘better’ Latin.

The best way to demonstrate the range of reasons why we should take Frulovisi’s work to be derivative of the much-derided Ps-Elmham would be to have a modern edition made of the work (there has not been one since the efforts of the redoutable Thomas Hearne in the early eighteenth century). If my article spurs renewed interest in the Vita et Gesta, that would be an achievement. But, you might ask, does it matter? Does the relative dating have any significance? The answer is yes, because, as I point out briefly in my article, it changes our view of the connexions between the different chronicles of the fifteenth century, and can also give us pause to reflect on the nature of political culture in the 1430s, when both these texts were written. It also raises a question mark over the usual perception of Humfrey as an engaged patron, supposedly directing ‘his’ scholars — an attitude which belittles those scholars’ own efforts, however unoriginal their works might have been. That is an issue which I will certainly be discussing again.

UPDATE: the article is now published and if you go to the page listing my publications, there is a free link to it on the Oxford University Press website.