bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain — in one word

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2019


If you had to summarise your book in one word, what would it be? The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain has its official publication date on 2nd May 2019. I have, then, been giving some thought to what my response to the question would be and I think the answer is: cosmopolitanism.

I appreciate that some might me to justify my use of that word. I employ the term in its general sense of involving people from different countries but, the remit of my book, with its cast-list which ranges from St Andrews to Rome and from Majorca to Milan, is rather narrower than the word’s little sense. My use of the concept cannot have the worldwide reach that cosmopolitanism has in present-day philosophy. I could defend my profligate deployment of the term by noting that Diogenes the Cynic, the first person on record to claim he was a cosmopolite, envisaged a world that did not include the Americas or Australasia. I could also point out that The Renaissance Reform draws attention to how humanists saw the British Isles as at the very edge of the world — but I could not claim that those humanists’ vision was so myopic that it stopped at the Mediterranean or that it was oblivious to cultures beyond Western Christendom. Indeed, the interaction of ‘the West’ (as defined by obedience to the pope) with Eastern Christendom impinges on the book’s discussion. Moreover, a sense of the edges of a civilization is intentionally at the borders of its coverage. All that said, The Renaissance Reform cannot pretend to be a contribution to the global Middle Ages. Perhaps, if I had my time again, I might replace ‘cosmopolitan’ with ‘Europolitan’ — a citizen of Europe (with the inclarity of its definition being productive) — except that I see that term has already been appropriated by a Swedish mobile phone company, and I would not want to infringe their copyright.

The emphasis on cosmopolitan in the book is a challenge. The theme of the work is the re-design of the manuscript book, in script and layout, promoted by Florentine humanists at the very start of the fifteenth century and its success among the British. That statement in itself is a provocation, since it is usually assumed that humanism reached England, at its earliest, in the reign of Henry VII and only found glorious summer under the sun of York and Lancaster combined, Henry VIII. In contrast, I insist that there was a sustained tradition of interest from the 1430s which should qualify to be called ‘the English Quattrocento’. This is not to say that the tradition was the sole preserve of roast-beef-eating English-born, or that it grew solely in English soil. On the one hand, there were many immigrants who were central to the promotion of the humanist agenda in England — with the most significant being not Italians but Dutch scribes. On the other, there were Englishmen and Scots who were active in the humanist reforms in their heartland of Italy. These Britons were part of a wider pattern of engagement which, I claim, was integral to the success of the humanist aesthetic for the book. I would go further and say that some were significant not merely in its propagation but in its construction. That is to say, this Renaissance reform originated with a coterie of Florentines but it gained its popularity through international collaborators. The leitmotif was cosmopolitanism at not just the edges of Europe but what was to Italian eyes its epicentre.

Oxford: Balliol College, MS. 310 fol. 32v — Letters of Leonardi Bruni, written in England by the Dutch scribe, Theoderic Werken (1449).

This assertion, for which I give evidence in the monograph and other recent publications, raises a question: why would non-Florentines or non-Italians adopt a script designed to be a local reaction against ‘gothic’ (that is northern European) influence? We tend to see in the humanist bookhand as immersed in a particular set of cultural co-ordinates: the legacy of ancient Rome with its physical presence in Italy (though not much in Florence itself), the humanists’ attempts to revive eloquence both textually and visually. Yet this — I hypothesise — was not primarily what other Europeans saw on the page when viewing a book in the new ‘Roman’ hand. Here, I take cosmopolitan to mean ‘the world’ not in a simple synchronic sense of how it is now but also encompassing its shared inheritance. The humanists, in developing their reform they turned to prototypes of the eleventh and twelfth century — to late caroline minuscule or ‘protogothic’ bookhand. Such prototypes were not, of course, Italian patrimony alone: caroline minuscule, emanating from north-east France and beyond, had been successful across Europe, and ‘protogothic’ had thrived near the shores of the English Channel. That is to say, what non-Italians saw when they looked upon the ‘new’ script, created in its very particular local circumstances, was an acknowledgement of a tradition in which they could see themselves as full partners.

The humanist reform, however, was not a single moment. The bookhand itself developed — in part, thanks to the intervention of ultramontanes. Equally, there was also a ‘second wave’ when, in the north-east of Italy in the mid-quattrocento, what we know of ‘italic’ was invented. That very name, foisted on the script by French and English, suggests its Italian origins, and it worked on viewers in a very different way from the ‘Roman’ hand, since there was not for this any historic precedent to which it returned. While the humanist bookhand was archaising, italic was archaising by metaphor. The result was that this later script’s international success worked differently and was, in its first decades, more dominated by Italians. In The Renaissance Reform, this is presented as a shift in cosmopolitanism but it could be configured otherwise: as a move from Europolitan to Italophile.

Lot 951 - A rare letter to Da Vinci’s patron, with a full signature HENRY VII: (1457-1509) King of England

A royal letter of 1506, signed by Henry VII, written in italic by Pietro Carmeliano (private hands).

As will be clear from what all that I have said, the field of action for this cosmopolitanism is the page. In that sense, detecting it is akin to the sensitivity art historians show to the multiple cultural contacts that shape a Renaissance painting or miniature. In palaeographical terms, cosmopolitanism can stand as a conceit for digraphism or polygraphism. The Renaissance Reform discusses the movement between scripts, and the adoption of humanist elements in gothic scripts; it also muses on how far we can sense a conscious rejection of the reforms when a bookhand shows no humanist influence. I also invoke at one point the concepts of code-switching and code-mixing, but an implication of what I have just said is that, while these may be separate ‘codes’, they could announce, to some eyes, their shared origin, speaking of one graphic tradition that has ramified into many forms.

It could be legitimately said that the ‘some’ just mentioned are only ‘a few’. The Renaissance Reform is very clear that it is talking about a minority among a minority. Most of its characters stood out from the many who were born in the same village or town because these people were highly mobile across Europe. They also were the privileged because they were highly literate, in societies that were majority-illiterate. Cosmopolitanism — citizenship of this ‘world’ — was only for the select. At the same time, a theme that underlies this book is a sense that they themselves sensed their special status and that some were humbled by it. Some, I suggest, took it less as a badge of pride than as a spur to think on the poverty of their own literacy and, indeed, on the limits of their own cosmopolitanism.

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.