bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Library of the Weston World

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 29 September, 2014

Roberto Weiss, apart from being an émigré Italian count, a professor at UCL and a leading historian of humanism, was skilful with a pen. Among his papers now held in the Warburg, there are several examples of the Christmas cards he drew for friends. The portfolio also includes a depiction of the then-new building of the Bodleian, erected on the north side of Broad Street, with a caption describing it as Oxford’s Kremlin. When compared with the charm of the ramshackle cluster of shops and pubs that were demolished to make space for the library’s austere facade, the sense of loss might be understandable.

Broad Street

Oxford’s Broad Street before the building of the New Bodleian.

However, over the past months, this ugly duckling has quietly been shedding its young plumage, and now we can glimpse how it will look in its new guise. Today is the beginning of the culmination of the project which sees the unloved New Bod transformed into the Weston Library.

The first spaces to be opened in the building, unveiled today, are the reading rooms. Ahead of going across to Colchester for the start of term, I made a brief detour to glimpse what will be. Not everything is in place – and will not be, I understand, for some months – but already it is clear that this will be a vast improvement on the subterranean ice-chamber in the Radcliffe Science Library where Special Collections have been held for the past couple of years. I will admit that part of me wishes that modern papers and ‘old books’ were kept separately but as, in my work, I often emphasise how we should study incunables and manuscripts side-by-side, I can hardly complain when we have a combined ‘Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room’ (though the sequence surely puts things back to front). And the space, which I remember as once being the politics journals room, is a fine expanse, filled with adequate light, set off by its high – and impressive – wooden ceiling. The desks are ample and the round-backed seats perhaps too comfortable. There is also, as I was shown, goodly space for expansion of open stack material: the old reading room was better equipped with catalogues, reference works and periodicals than anywhere else I have worked, and this may now improve yet further. The staff, though, would not want us to judge the place on its first day of opening – this is the start of a period of transition and all of us readers should wait until mid-2016 before passing definitive comment.

I mentioned the old reading room and, of course, Duke Humfrey’s this is not. It is sad to think that it will be a rare occurrence when a manuscript can be studied in the space first designed for them, and it is a worry that we may lose the association of knowledge that was the post-War organisation of the Old Bodleian – manuscripts available on one floor, with classical and theological texts below, and historical and literary works above. The fate of the original haven of learning is not yet announced, as far as I know, and I can only hope it will be better served than by the clutter of drawers and instruments that recently squatted there. But the new space in the Weston Library has the potential to be an even better location for manuscript consultation. Not only that, but there is more to come. Next spring will see the opening of the main foyer of the Library which, from the quick viewing I was allowed today, will be an airy and impressive space to rival the renovated Ashmolean or the entrance hall of the British Library. There are exciting times ahead of us.


Just published: Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 22 May, 2012

Saturday saw the launch in Durham of a book I have edited for Medium Ævum Monographs: Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe. It is a set of essays covering much of the geographical span of Christendom, from Hungary to Scotland and from Castile to Poland. In order to make it all the more useful for readers, it also includes a collection of just over sixty potted biographies of humanists mentioned in the volume — an appendix which I compiled with the globe-trotting Oren Margolis.

The launch itself was a jolly affair, rounding out the Annual General Meeting and Lecture of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, who publish the journal Medium Ævum and the Monograph series. The Annual Lecture was given by Prof. Helen Cooper and was a scintillating discussion of ‘The Ends of Story-telling’, reminding us how at a most basic level story collections sought to comprehend, to come to terms with or to cheat the final end of existence, through the character of the story-teller. The volume I have edited occupies similar chronological territory to Helen Cooper’s lecture (though she ranged beyond one century or even one millennium), but deals with a set of scholars for whom death was to be defeated by their achievement of fame, in their own country and elsewhere.

The launch was presided over by Anthony Lappin, both President of the Society and its managing Monographs Editor, with a response — brief to avoid keeping the audience away from the alcohol that followed — by myself. As you can tell, even if the speakers were not elegant, the setting of the Senate Suite in Durham’s Castle certainly was.

Tony Lappin watches in stunned silence as David Rundle turns Humanism on its side.

As I explained in my short speech, the volume is part of a new story for the Society — a collection of essays rather than a single-authored volume and one which has developed out of another new initiative, the Society’s one-day conferences. At the same time, it is in ways a return to an old story, for the casus belli for this project was the related one of creating a new on-line edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, a book which was itself one of the very earliest (old series) Medium Ævum monographs.

One thing I did not have time to note in my comments was that this volume is the thirtieth Monograph in Medium Ævum’s ‘new series’. The fact that the number appears in Roman numerals allows all sorts of possibilities: I could claim that this is a volume which is XXX-rated, which could boost sales (available from the Society website at a very reasonable £40 – or just £20 if you join the Society). Or perhaps it should signify that you shouldn’t give a XXX for any other study of humanism in fifteenth-century Europe.

Up for auction: new light on John Shirwood and English humanism

Posted in Auctions, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 27 November, 2011

I have commented before on the excitement of previously little-known manuscripts coming up for sale. Lord knows that there is enough in our public repositories that has not been properly investigated and waiting to be discovered. But there is an extra frisson when an unique volume, from private hands, appears on the stage at an auction. This is the case with lot 45 of the Sotheby’s sale in London on 6th December: a manuscript that has been unknown to scholars because it has been in private hands since the Reformation and has never before appeared for sale. One of its selling points is that it adds to our knowledge of John Shirwood, described with little hyperbole in the sale catalogue as ‘one of the earliest English humanists’.

I have been long acquainted with Shirwood who, in his lifetime, became bishop of Durham and whose collection of manuscripts and incunables, via the successor to his see, Richard Fox, reached the latter’s new foundation in Oxford of Corpus Christi College. I have become used to seeing his ungainly large annotations and rapidly drawn manicula in his books. I remember seeing him get rather over-excited in the margins of one printed volume at a sententia of Cicero’s, saying that it was worth noting 10,000 times. Then, when preparing the appendix to the fourth edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England, I looked more closely at his one known work, De ludo arithmomachiae, a description of a chess-like mathematical game that, in a touching preface in attractive humanist Latin, he says he taught to his now-dead patron, George Neville, archbishop of York, then in exile in Calais for his disloyalty to the Yorkist regime that his family had helped make and had tried to break.

The manuscript now on sale takes us to an earlier stage of Shirwood’s career, before Neville was archbishop and was merely bishop of Exeter. The volume itself has the hallmarks, in its script and illumination, of being a product of the university town of Oxford in the early 1460s. The main part of it is occupied by works of Walter Hilton in Latin, followed by some prose and verse texts in English. They are followed by an epitaph, introduced by an image of a corpse, which, the title tells us was written by John Shirwood, chancellor of the cathedral of Exeter, in memory of John Southwell, seneschal to Neville. This information allows us to date the composition of the epitaph (but not necessarily, of course, the copying) to 1460 – 65. That Shirwood wrote verse as well as prose is itself a revelation. One might hope that he wrote in a Latin that demonstrated he had already mastered humanist Latin — but, actually, the manuscript is more interesting than that. The poem does have some classical references, but none of them highly unusual or outside the range of reference available before the feted ‘re-discovery’ of further texts in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The structure of the epitaph with each couplet opening and closing with the words ‘munde vale’ shows Shirwood working within a more established tradition of composition. In short, what we have here is Shirwood in ante-humanist mode.

This sheds interesting light on the development of the humanist learning of Shirwood and, indeed, of Neville himself, who was to become known as a friend of the Greek cardinal, Bessarion, and who employed Greek scribes in his household. Did the elevation of Neville to York open new vistas for him and his protege? Either certainly could have read humanist works earlier in Oxford, as some were available there, in large part thanks to the generosity of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. But that they were there did not mean they must have read them (or, it should be added, that the university town was the only place where they could have found that inspiration). Oxford’s mid-century intellectual interests were not, of course, confined to the humanist — and, indeed, I think this manuscript is a useful example of that. The sale catalogue strains to associate the manuscript closely with Shirwood himself, because of the presence of this previously unknown epitaph of his. But there is no sign of his script in the codex, and the inclusion of his verses — probably as an afterthought — may better reflect his master’s standing in Oxford: Neville was long-term chancellor to the University. It would be little surprise if the literary activities within his household were quickly available to the clerks of Oxenford; those clerks, for their part, showed themselves keen (here as elsewhere) to add to their reading with some small sign of their interest in the recent or what they might have seen as the up-to-date.

What I am hoping to emphasise is the obvious truth that, while Oxford may have been important to English humanism (and this is often overstated), humanism was not of overwhelming significance in Oxford. This is reflected in this manuscript:  for those few of us interested in the development of English humanism, this codex is of significant importance, but we should appreciate that in the context of the manuscript itself, English humanism is at best a minor element — a future perfect, as it were. The manuscript has interest enough beyond the couple of folios at the end where Shirwood’s poem is included. In fact, the main part of the book provides a striking example of a scribe regularly engaging with what he is copying: he regularly adds notes in the margin, cross-referring from Hilton to other authors, like Bonaventure and Bede. And, with my interests in maniculae, I cannot leave unmentioned his pointing hand, that curves out from the text and arches back towards it — a style that, in my experience, is not typical of fifteenth-century readers. It is, instead, old-fashioned or perhaps I should say archaising. Perhaps here, in this detail, rather than in Shirwood’s verse, there is sign of a desire to resurrect the scholarly style of long-lost generations — a parallel to (conscious or not), but not an imitation of, the humanist agenda.

The colourful life of Roberto Weiss

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 10 October, 2010

My ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century has recently been made available on-line. In that, I try to place Weiss’s first monograph into its intellectual milieu and to provide some suggestions of how the tale of English engagement with the studia humanitatis — and vice versa — could be revised by a new approach building on the work of Weiss and those who followed him, in particular A. C. de la Mare. What I could not do is to bring to life Weiss’s character — and I can only wish I had more opportunity to delve into his biography, for it is intriguing.

This self-proclaimed ‘count’ had certain exotic allure in his early life because he had made the decision to emigrate from Italy: he appears, for instance, in Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. It is said that he arrived to go to university in Cambridge, did not like it, so rushed over to Oxford and persuaded them to take him. Quite why he wanted to adopt Britain is the subject of rumour rather than hard fact but it is said that he settled here out of dislike for the Fascist regime in the land of his birth. There is, though, one piece of plausible information that might help to corroborate this rare insight into his politics.

In Oxford, he was fortunate enough to fall into the ambit of John Buchan, whose son was at Oxford with Weiss, and who lived at Elsfield, only a few miles outside the city. Weiss’s connexion with Buchan continued after his undergraduate days, with him acting as an informal research assistant when Buchan, then Governor-General in Canada, was completing his biography of Augustus. That work itself was partisan in its politics, drawing unfavourable comparisons between the first Roman Emperor and his soi-disant successor, Mussolini. Soon after its publication, it was translated into Italian but was revised or censored so as to remove those comments.  Long after the War, in 1961, it was reprinted in Italian — and it is said that it was Weiss who revised the translation to reinsert Buchan’s original criticisms of Fascism. No reference is made in the volume itself to the identity of the reviser.

Away from politics, those I know who remember Weiss describe him as a ‘gentleman’ — and as a gifted cartoonist. He used to etch Christmas cards for his friends and apparently sat through the inaugural meeting of the Society for Renaissance Studies drawing impressions of those around him. They do not, I think, survive, though some of his papers did reach the Warburg where, looking through his notebooks written in his neat small handwriting and which record both his intellectual pursuits and practical, mundane necessities, you feel you are in his presence. He died a year before I was born. Having spent some time with not just his works but also with tales of him, I can only wish it had been otherwise.


The first humanist oration delivered by an Englishman?

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 11 November, 2009

I am not really one for recording ‘firsts’, just as I try to avoid the Romantic propensity to desire to identify an author by name — ‘anon.’ is for me as noble a designation as any; ‘firsts’ need only recording in Books of Records. But I have just made a discovery — a small one — so indulge me this once.

As I have mentioned before, I have been preparing an appendix of previously unpublished texts for the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England. They include two orations by the Veronese humanist Antonio Beccaria, secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. They were both written in 1444 and both relate to the negotiations surrounding Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou. Weiss noted their existence in his addenda but did not linger long on them; they have not received scholarly attention since. They are not unaccomplished with some fine rhetorical turns, but what has recently interested me is the question of whether Beccaria, the stated author, was in fact their orator. I began to wonder about this when I thought more closely about the title given to the first speech; the phrasing in one of the two manuscripts reads ‘Oratio exhortatoria ad pacem ad regem francie per legatos regis anglie composita per antonium beccariam veronensem’ — phrasing that suggests that Beccaria may have composed the oration in order for it to be delivered by one of the English delegation to France, led by the Earl of Suffolk, in May 1444. Considering the membership of that delegation, I was struck by the presence of Adam Moleyns, then dean of Salisbury and Keeper of the Privy Seal, later to be raised to the episcopacy only to have his life just short by the rebels of 1450.  What is more, he is remembered, in the words of the Oxford DNB, as ‘one of the most respected of the few English humanist scholars of his day’. In truth, that respect did not add up to much: a passing reference to his humanitas in a letter of Poggio Bracciolini’s (also in the appendix I am providing) and lukewarm praise for his eloquence from Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini. But could Moleyns have actually been the voicebox for Beccaria’s prose?

My hunch has become more likely when I looked further at the context of the second oration, given at the Convocation of Canterbury of October 1444. Checking that useful recent resource, the printed Records of Convocation, edited by Gerald Bray, there is a reference to lords attending on behalf of the king, led by the duke of Exeter and including Adam Moleyns, who, it is said, ‘satis eleganter aperuit … [et] apertissime delcaravit’ the king’s need for a grant to support his wedding celebrations. This is an unmistakable reference to the speech written by Beccaria — or should I say ghost-written? It seems to me highly likely that both speeches were composed by the humanist for delivery by Moleyns, thus making by my calculation Moleyns to be the first Englishman to utter the new Ciceronian Latin on an embassy or in Convocation.

The interest of this, of course, goes beyond the matter of a ‘first’. It throws both light and shadow on Moleyns himself: it provides evidence for a previously unnoticed association with Beccaria, but it also raises questions over how far praise of his eloquence was aimed at the wrong target: how far was his humanist learning, as it were, a thing but lent? It also gives more information about Antonio Beccaria, who was, it seems, available for hire, able to write speeches for those who asked (and, perhaps, paid) — only, it should be remembered,for him  to efface the name of the actual orator when recording or circulating ‘his’ orations. At the same time, it puts Beccaria in his place, so to speak: Weiss had imagined that Beccaria may have entered royal service, assuming, one infers, that he himself gave these addresses. But, clearly, a humanist in person was not significant enough to have that task — speech writers are a lower sort even than Victorian children: they should not be seen and only heard through more distinguished voices.

Weiss on-line

Posted in Blogography, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 23 October, 2009

One hears that there as many resources available on-line for the louche and the aficinados of the demi-monde as there were courtesans in Renaissance Venice. Now there is one more site for Weiss. Pardon the pun, out of which I should have grown by now, but it still amuses. Me, at least.

The Weiss in question is Robert(o), and more specifically his Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century. Habitués of these postings may recall that my summer has been spent writing addenda to his work, which remains the main guide to its subject. The first instalment of the new, fourth, edition is now available at the Medium Ævum website. Others will follow in the coming weeks and, eventually, it will not be just the text, with addenda, that is available but also a new appendix of unpublished texts and an introduction by myself.

The instalments each appear in two pdf formats, one closer to a printed version and one with the new addenda inserted as marginal glosses  (how unhumanist!). I would be interested to hear views on both of these. My fellow editor, Anthony Lappin, prefers a style that moves us away from the printed version and, as I’ll mention in a moment, it has its real advantages, but I also have a sense that we need to keep in mind the concept of the old-style hard-copy book. That is partly because there will be those who prefer to print off and read than to view on screen; indeed, I could name those scholars in this subject area who would do just that. But there is also a wider point: scholarship still conceptualises itself in paginated, paper format and to deny that is to leave the on-line world as a ghetto blocked off from the greater universe of scholarship. We have to take the older styles of learning with us if what we do is to be of relevance.

But there are advantages to a version designed to be viewed rather than held. I have consciously attempted to include in the addenda references to works now available on-line, so that the extra information links this work with the wider web of knowledge that subtly criss-crosses the ether. The technology is not ideal: even with Firefox, a click on a link takes you from the pdf to the next site within the same pane; I refrain from using the obvious pun, this time. My advice is to have open the pdf in two tabs (or windows if you are bounded by timid Explorer), so that one can trawl beyond the text, while the other can by your port and portal. The result, we hope, is that the effect of attaching together text with other on-line resources is like providing the thin but perceptible bonds that tie together the figures in the Allegory of Good Government in the Palazzo Publico of Siena: it helps to found a well-ordered settlement — far from the sites of vice — in the new republic of letters.  This is a community with no illiberal limits on immigration, so come and join us.

Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe, in Oxford

Posted in Conferences, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 14 August, 2009

You eruditissimi who grace my site with your presence will probably be interested to know of an upc0ming event.Humanism Poster It is a one-day conference on Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe which is going to take place on Saturday, 17th October 2009 at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. We have — if you exclude myself — a good line up of speakers who will cover a wide expanse of Europe, from Iberia in the west to Hungary and Poland in the East.

The day, as you can see from the small image of the poster, is being organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, and has the support of the Society for Renaissance Studies. It will also, we hope, mark the on-line publication of the revised edition of Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, which is going to have an introduction, new addenda and appendices and extra indices. If, that is, I get all the work done for it.

If you want to know more about the day, visit the Medium Aevum website, where there are details and the registration form in pdf format. I hope to meet you there!

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Humfrey and a diverting lapsus calami

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 4 July, 2009

My waking hours at the moment are being spent providing addenda and corrigenda to Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England during the fifteenth century, for the projected on-line edition to be produced in the autumn by the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature. Checking a reference he provides to Charles Kingsford’s English Historical Literature this morning, I note that a passage from a chronicle recording the death of the duke of Gloucester in custody in 1447 contains praise of the late prince, with the transcription opening thus:

hic dux erat vix literatissimus…

Even I have hardly been as harsh in criticism. Given the context, Kingsford, or his typesetter, clearly slipped where it should say ‘vir literatissimus’. A claim which, even these five words demonstrate, could hardly be made for the chronicle’s author.

Enjoy the weekend!

Rod Thomson discovers a Humfrey manuscript

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 2 July, 2009

On Thursday 2nd July in the Year of Our Lord 2009, most people in Oxford were wondering how to survive the relentless heat. Rod Thomson, meanwhile, was working coolly away in Corpus library, where, to add to his already-extensive record of scholarly achievements, he now can add unearthing a manuscript formerly owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. It is a discovery that has made the sun shine all the brighter on my day.

The manuscript is Corpus MS. 1, a later thirteenth-century Bible, localised to Oxford. What had previously gone unnoticed was the partially covered, and partially erased ex libris at the top of the final verso (fol. 488v). I can confirm that it is undeniably and irrefutably the ‘short’ ownership inscription by the duke: Cest livre est a moy homfrey duc de gloucestre. The erasure, which removed part of the Christian name and all words following, is by scraping (itself a scrape of information which may assist to piece together this manuscript’s odyssey).

The verbum probatorium does not accord with the inventories of the duke’s gifts the University of Oxford, nor to any entry in the catalogue of King’s College, Cambridge (where a few – we should not overstate the number – of his books were washed up after his death).  This codex can, therefore, take its place among the majority of those which survive from his collection for it is a remarkable fact that it appears that the rate of survival of those that reached an institution in his lifetime, or soon after,  has been lower than those that remained in his hands. At the same time, this manuscript is highly unusual among the extant books which he owned as it is the only complete Bible that we can say for certainty was his. There are, of course, his lavish Psalters (London: BL, MSS Royal 2 B I and Yates Thomson 14) but nothing quite in this category.

It is for Prof. Thomson to coax further from the manuscript the secrets it blushes to tell the world, as he continues his work on the catalogue of the college’s collection. What is certain is that he can take his place among a small group of scholars who, in the past century, have discovered a manuscript once owned by ‘Good Duke Humfrey’. The roll-call includes Berthold Ullman, Roberto Weiss, Christopher de Hamel, Tilly de la Mare, Ian Doyle and, most recently, the young Dutch scholar, Hanno Wijsman. I hope Rod considers himself in worthy company.

The Italian Renaissance and the British Isles

Posted in Renaissance Studies, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 13 September, 2008

I have a busy few months ahead of me. I’m hardly going on a world-tour but I have been invited to give lectures in a variety of locations, and I have listed them on a new page.

The first of these is at an event in the elegant surroundings of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, home to the Istituto Nazionale di studi sul Rinascimento. I anticipate a stimulating event, with several speakers who are always worth hearing, including Jonathan Woolfson (he of Padua and the Tudors fame, which I reviewed in Renaissance Studies), Alessandra Petrina (who shares with me an interest in Humfrey, duke of Gloucester; I reviewd her book for English Historical Review) and Michael Wyatt (author of The Italian Encounter with Tudor England, which I wish I’d had chance to review).

As these scholars and their publications suggests, the conference’s theme is the Italian Renaissance and the British Isles — a subject that appears to becoming newly fashionable. There has, of course, been a tradition of English interest in our forefathers’ engagement with Renaissance Italy, exemplified early in the twentieth century by Paget Toynbee and Mandell Creighton, and carried further in the second half of the century by scholars like Denys Hay, Sydney Anglo, Joe Trapp and David Chambers. I cite them in particular because their work is concerned directly with the interaction between Italian culture and Englishmen, rather than providing studies of northern humanism or the so-called English Renaissance — with, that is, the transmission of ideas as much as with the reception of ideas.

What has been less strong in the past, perhaps, has been Italian interest in the cultural dialogue. I exclude Roberto Weiss who wrote the seminal work on my specific area of interest, Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, since he was a cosmopolitan character: an Italian count whose career was in England, and who lived in Henley-on-Thames. I remember Nicolai Rubinstein saying that Weiss always signed himself ‘Roberto’ when in England and ‘Robert’ when in Italy — he wanted always to be an exotic outsider. He was also a capable cartoonist, but this is to take us away from the point. If Weiss can not stand as an example of Italian interest in the interaction between England and Italy, I am hard-pressed to think of enough names to demonstrate a tradition of interest in Italy in the topic — until, that is, recent years. Alessandra Petrina, whom I have mentioned, stands as one talented example, as does the young scholar Diego Pirillo, who is involved in organising the conference in at the Istituto. Perhaps it is significant that these are scholars in English faculties. The present flourishing is not confined to those departments — I find especially interesting the work on the English market for Italian art by Cinzia Maria Sicca — but there may well be a link between the post-War development of English as an international language, and the renaissance of Italian interest in the encounters of their countrymen with England in the quattrocento and cinquecento.

The result includes a series of volumes recently announced by Ashgate in Anglo-Italian Renaissance studies, edited by Michele Marrapodi of Palermo University. That is only one of several ventures that could be mentioned. It appears to be a good time to working in this field.