Welcome to the latest issue of Aperçus & obiter dicta, that entirely virtual (that is to say, non-existent) journal, devoted to recherché discoveries. This instalment comes to you from the Brewhouse of Oxford’s Christ Church, a building which has been – o tempora, o mores – transformed from its original use and is now home to that institution’s archives. In revising the introduction to the catalogue of Christ Church’s western manuscripts, I have had reason to visit there more often than the patient Archivist would probably like (though she is too generous ever to admit it). I have, I must admit, come under the records’ spell. The Disbursement Books, which present in glorious detail the termly expenditure of the institution, are so rich in information that they repay the sort of repeated and close reading that one could only afford if allotted more than one lifetime, with each day offering more working hours than are allowed to a human being. We learn from them the dining habits of the House (as Christ Church is known to its members): the rewards regularly given to the servant who brings a doe; the changing fashions in meat (with turkey being often supplied – and thus presumably reared locally – from the very start of the seventeenth century). We discover the names of the men and the women who were employed for everyday tasks, and see them sign their names, or leave their mark when they are illiterate. We are also appraised of the running of the various elements that make up Christ Church: the ‘church’ which is Oxford’s cathedral (and which is the reason it is a solecism to call the House a college: it is a dual foundation); the array of buildings which occupy its curtilage, and – most relevant for my research – its library.
The library has its own section in these Disbursement Books but that is often sparse in contents; to learn more of activities related to it and to manuscripts we have to look elsewhere, as the following example demonstrates. It comes from the first months of 1617 and appears in the section listing the costs of ‘Law and Iornies’. It reads:
To the Carrier for carrying our letter to Cambridge and carrying and recarrying William of Worcester — 2s 6d
The entry is, sadly, unsigned, so we do not know who made this trip or, rather, trips, to Cambridge, back to Oxford and then repeated the exercise. What is interesting is the reference to ‘William of Worcester’. The description of him being carried demonstrates that it was not a person who travelled; instead, this must record an object given the name, presumably, of its producer. That object was surely a book, for William Worcestre will be known to you, learned reader, as the fifteenth-century proto-antiquary who was long-suffering secretary to Sir John Fastolf and who, perhaps in posthumous revenge, plagues scholars with his spidery, inelegant handwriting. He is probably now best remembered for The Boke of Noblesse, which survives in a manuscript in the Royal Collection of the British Library. He was, in addition, an inveterate note-taker. One of those compilations was edited in 1969 with the title of Itineraries from the unique manuscript which belonged to Archbishop Matthew Parker and is, thus, in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as MS. 210. It is a holster-book, so called for its long, thin shape which made it particularly portable and with which Worcestre himself travelled. Patently, its peregrinations did not end with his death or with its ownership by Parker and subsequently Corpus for, being the only book in Cambridge that can answer to the name of ‘William of Worcester’, this must surely be the object that was being carried and recarried between Cambridge and Oxford.
This previously unnoticed entry is notable for two reasons. First, famously, Archbishop Parker had been very careful in drawing up instructions for his library intended to minimise losses. They involve annual audits which, if the care of the books is found wanting, would mean Corpus would lose the rights to the whole collection – these continue today, under the anxious eye of Christopher de Hamel, and are also the occasion for an impressive dinner in the hall of Corpus. Despite the archepiscopal injunctions, by the 1640s, a few Cambridge scholars were able to remove temporarily a volume from the collection for study elsewhere in the university. This example, though, comes over two decades earlier, and involves a loan over a much greater distance. One wonders what the late Archbishop would have thought of it.
We also might wonder what the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church wanted with this volume. The fact that the transaction is recorded in the Disbursement Books shows that this was an official matter, not a private arrangement for the sake of a solitary scholar. It would seem likely that the authorities at the institution wanted to consult Worcestre’s notebook because they thought there was something of relevance to them in it. With the endowment provided by its founder, Henry VIII, Christ Church had rights to lands in various parts of the country and there is other evidence to show that, in the second and third decades of the seventeenth century, attempts were being made to ascertain precisely what was due to the institution. These researches involved an interest in medieval manuscripts, as shown by the importuning of Sir Robert Cotton first to borrow and then to gain ownership of the cartulary of Osney Abbey, a house most relevant to the House for it had been the site of Oxford’s first cathedral before that honour (and all of Osney’s holdings) were transferred to the new foundation of Christ Church. Colin Tite has reconstructed the move of that codex to Oxford with remarkable accuracy, considering he did not have access to the records – also in the Disbursement Books – which corroborate his dating of the transaction: it was taking place in 1620. A decade later and another entry in the relevant Book (under ‘Expenses Extraordinary’) shows one of Christ Church’s number being paid for a journey which had a parallel purpose:
for searching records att lincolne to Mr. Burton — 25s
The entry is signed by Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy and, at this point, Librarian in Christ Church. The size of the payment shows that he was not crossing the High Street to the college of that name but must have travelled to the cathedral city after which the college was named.
It is, in conclusion, my supposition that Worcestre’s Itineraries were requested from Corpus, Cambridge for similar practical reasons – evidence, in other words, that this antiquary’s writings were not of merely antiquarian value in the early seventeenth century.
When it came to constructing ‘our own’ ‘Very British Renaissance’, the Scots, it seems, had little to contribute. In the first episode of the BBC programme of that title, presented by the art historian Dr James Fox, Stirling Castle made a guest appearance. It stood alone: the second episode of the three-part series dispensed with any attempt to define ‘British’ as anything other than ‘English’, with Wales and, indeed, most of England itself beyond the south-east also forgotten. And, indeed, if those from north of the border played any role in this Renaissance, it was, implicitly, as the bad guys: it all went wrong, the final episode suggested, when James I (as he was described) allowed a Stuart court culture to develop that looked to the ‘foreign Renaissance’ rather than to ‘our homegrown’ one.
You will see that I have stayed the course, selflessly I may say, caring not for blood pressure nor for restful leisure time. After I fulminated about the first episode ‘A Very British Renaissance’, I felt it behove me to continue watching so that you did not have to (and I know several of you are grateful to me for that). And I must admit that the later episodes surprised me in two ways. The first was that I found myself growing to like the tall figure on the small screen. I will admit that ‘to my mind’ – a favourite phrase of Dr Fox – the presenter, in his first instalment, was simply too fey as he chatted up a putto. In the second, which concentrated on Elizabethan England, he was more knowing and his enthusiasm was undeniably infectious. That excitement continued into the last episode but with it came an element not seen before, a certain forthrightness, a willingness to dismiss as much as to delight. The one constant across these later episodes was that he did not cleanse himself of those attitudes which had so successfully raised my hackles earlier: his blithe elision of England with Britain; his unblinking assumption that, of course, these islands had a separate civilization from mainland Europe, and his recourse to a depiction of ‘our’ ‘British’ character which, he implied, the Renaissance reaffirmed and reinforced. In fact, the second surprise was the way in which the third episode saw him dirty his hands further with this greater-England, little-Britain Whiggish cant.
Having given his first discussion over to the supposed domestication of the Italian Renaissance on these shores in the earlier sixteenth century, the second episode had concentrated on how peculiarly ‘British’ was the art of Nicholas Hilliard or were the achievements of Thomas Harriot as the English Leonardo. The final offering took, from its start, a rather different angle, setting up a dichotomy between the court’s ‘foreign’ Renaissance, all classicism, masques and ‘sycophantic drivel’, and the wholesome, homegrown British Renaissance of the ‘real world’ – which turned out to be the Suffolk countryside and Christ Church, Oxford. Now, I am a Houseman, Oxford’s Henrician foundation my alma mater, and the stately expanse of Tom Quad through which Fox walked saw me mature, while the elegance of the Upper Library is where I will be at work with the manuscripts this afternoon, sitting at the desk where the presenter fingered The Anatomy of Melancholy. But even I would not want to claim for this cathedral-college status as the epitome of reality – and not because, before it became known as (and I have truly heard a tour-guide call it thus) ‘Harry Potter’s college’, it was the looking-glass world of Alice. Rather, we should be severely sceptical of any neat distinction between ‘fantasy’ and the ‘real’, as if each did not mediate the other to such an extent that the technicolor and the monochrome bleed together in our lives. The desire for dichotomy – the ordering of the world by binary oppositions – is itself suspect but has been the driving motor of ‘A Very British Renaissance’. Its shift of gear in the third episode begged more questions than it could possibly answer: were there, then, two Renaissances occurring simultaneously in England? Was the ‘Italian Renaissance’ still alive, then, in the early seventeenth century or was the court outdated as well as decadent? When did the division between ‘court’ and – though this was not Fox’s term – ‘country’ develop?
However inconsistent it may be with what went before, it could be said, in its defence, that at least a political thread united this presentation with the previous ones: it would not take a master cryptographer to decode the implications of a tale of an out-of-touch élite squandering money on ‘Europe’ while the true British heroes knew the value of their own land. We could also hope that it should also not take an intelligent viewer many moments to see this is as fictitious as most Europhobic yarns. Fox suggested that while the Stuarts preferred the fripperies of a van Dyck portrait, those elsewhere were developing the English genius, with Nathaniel Bacon both a gardener and an artist of his products, and William Harvey the man who made medicine modern by his discovery of the circulation of the blood. No mention of the genre of the still life of the Dutch Golden Age that clearly inspired Bacon; no hint that Harvey had read the medical pioneers Vesalius or Matteo Realdo Colombo. Perhaps there is something quintessentially ‘British’ in the homegrown’s reliance on the import – and on the self-deception that it is English tout court.
Does this matter? I do recognise that, however well Mr Farage and his band of Europhobes do on 22nd May 2014 when about a quarter of the electorate bother to turn out, it will probably not be with a mental image of ‘A Very British Renaissance’ in their minds that the voters’ hand swings to the UKIP box. I also appreciate that I could be accused of asking too much – a consistent argument, an honesty with the evidence: but this is a television programme! And that, I think, is where my concern lies. My mind veers towards another series airing at the moment, the deliciously satirical take on the modern BBC, ‘W1A’. In the latest episode, there is a scene where the Head of Values is on his phone counselling against moving ‘Songs of Praise’ to the radio to make TV space for ‘Britain’s Tastiest Village’. He suggests it is not in the spirit of Lord Reith – a pause as he listens – and repeats ‘Reith’, the name clearly unfamiliar to his BBC colleague. ‘W1A’ has drawn plaudits for the Corporation’s ability to find comedic value in its corporate workings; perhaps ‘A Very British Renaissance’ was commissioned in a similar spirit, one of parody of the public broadcasting tradition. It takes on a serious subject, it travels to umpteen settings, it has a ‘Dr’, no less, to present it. Yet, if the curious watched the programme in the hope of learning about the Renaissance what could they take from it, apart from possibly unintended and unwanted advice on their voting intentions? There is no clear definition of ‘Renaissance’, a rather incomplete sense of chronology, a cast-list of characters that combines household names with the little known in a manner which could be interesting but is more likely to confuse – not to mention the absence of any discussion of the ‘how’: how precisely, for example, were the English able to access foreign fashions and how that changed over the period. An audience is more likely to leave this befuddled than enlightened.
I am, though, being ungenerous. What a viewer could not help but take away from Dr Fox’s engaged and personable presentation is that there is a relationship between the British Isles and what we call the Renaissance which is worth investigating. That is surely a public service in itself. Maybe it will even convince the Head of Values — or whichever head poncho — that a programme introducing to a wide public the richness and complexity of that history would be worth commissioning.
Is the book returning to its cradle? We call the products of the first five decades of print incunabula – a seventeenth-century re-use of the Latin for swaddling-clothes or cot, to signify their witnessing to the technology’s tentative first steps. In the established chronology, the so-called coming of the book was followed by the coming of age of the book. But is the book now reaching a second childhood? It is a question that was much on my mind as I met with a group of librarians for an Oxbridge Academics study week late last month.
I have been struck by a cluster of phenomena. Let me outline three vignettes. First, the librarians, mainly from American schools, described the use of computers, the internet and Kindles in their establishments, sometimes alongside, sometimes replacing books. They explained, in particular, how parents wanted their young children to learn from hard-copy books, with computers the preserve of the more mature child.
Second, I have been re-reading some of the coverage over the controversy in Britain of some local councils’ plans to close some public libraries. It is hardly a surprise that authors should line up to rail against those plans. One statement which succeeded in arousing its own hoo-ha was that of Alan Bennett, describing (more than once) the closure as an act of child abuse. An intentionally hyperbolic phrase surely designed to gain the publicity which it did. But what seems not to have been discussed is how Bennett has implicitly defined the public library not as a place for all but a sanctuary for the young. Children are by no means the only users of these libraries, whose existence is not intended to be (and should not be) simply an extension of school book-provision. Those of pensionable age often are borrowers too – Bennett could equally have talked about granny-bashing, but it is the association of reading and childhood that he chose to stress.
Third, Oxford is presently bidding to be World Book Capital in 2014. You would think it would be an obvious choice but what I want to highlight now is how the organisers of the bid present Oxford’s associations with books. The press release launching the bid emphasised:
For centuries, Oxfordshire’s authors have provided people of all ages around the world with timeless tales of imagination, passion and adventure, from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ to Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy or Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
Leave aside the mis-spelling of one author’s surname (Oxford’s bid for World Proof-reading Capital may be less than successful), ignore even that the three examples cited cover only about 150 years, rather than justifying the phrase ‘for centuries’ (reference to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy would have done that better). What is notable is that, in a city which produced the premier English Dictionary (and, for that matter, those for Greek and Latin), a city of poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins and Matthew Arnold, a city of scholars including – to mention only two among the living – Richard Dawkins and Diarmaid MacCulloch, it is the contribution of Oxford residents to the genre of fantasy literature and particularly children’s fantasies that is prized most.
Why, in all three instances, is there a particular association of books with childhood? We could read this positively, as part of the enduring legacy of nineteenth-century progressive liberals who dreamt of universal literacy: the expectation that everyone should be able to read one language with ease, plus the recognition that the learning process must begin at the youngest possible age, is so embedded in our culture that the artefact manifesting the written word is necessarily associated with the child. That association is understandable but has it become so engrained that we link the young with the book at the expense of fully appreciating its significance to other ages? To put it another way, we need books written for children as well as for adults, but what happens when the child becomes perceived – in more senses than one – as the primary reader? What does that then do to our perceptions of acceptable literacy, to the expected breadth of vocabulary and style of presentation that is considered the social norm?
I also wonder about the psychology behind those school parents who expect their young children to sit with books in front of them, before their learning process concentrates on the wonders of the screen. Is this a reflection of the parents’ own memories – or myths – of childhood, a time when books were part of the cocoon of safety and comfort enveloping one’s early years? And does it imply a sense that books are something one moves beyond – a relic to be retained as quaint, when life has found other ways to communicate?
But, then, how do those other ways to communicate relate to literacy? You are reading these words (a very few of you – and you are noble for it), but when you look at a screen, you are as much interacting with icons and with word-formations. We talk of different types of ability to read and prize functional literacy: but how functional is literacy going to be?
St Paul talked of when he thought as a child and spoke as a child – might we also now say, read as a child? When I became a man, I put away childish things. But are we in danger of storing away those very things that we take as definitive of our civilization by the very process of associating them with the under-age. Do we now see the full potential of the book through a glass, darkly?