Month: September 2016

In memoriam C. S. L. Davies

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It has been announced that this morning Cliff Davies, for forty years Fellow in History at Wadham College, Oxford, has died. He has been so much a presence in my life since I arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate that it has hard to imagine the place without him. It seems to me that today the city has lost part of itself — or that its map has become curtailed, and its intellectual geography reduced. He is no longer here to guide us through its memories.

Cliff, I recall, was an obituary-spotter, commenting on not just where a notice was published but how long after the deceased’s death. He himself deserves the full treatment, with the trajectory of his life outlined, from Wales to London, to Oxford, to Glasgow and back to Oxford, and with his many seminal articles noted in such a way that creates a profile of his impact as an historian. Perhaps that will be done in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography — I suspect that he would be honoured to be included. But I am not going to attempt this here: the news is too raw and my reaction too personal for that. All I can provide today are a few vignettes, through which might come a sense of how much we have lost.

First meeting Cliff

I knew of C. S. L. Davies before I came up to university: his Peace, Print and Protestantism was required reading at school. I vaguely remember thinking when seeing him that he was rather different from the image I had conjured up for him from his writing: different and, I was to find, rather more. It was, in my first year, at a meeting of the undergraduate history group, the Stubbs Society, that he introduced himself to me. He and Kathleen — that is something else about Cliff, the quiet warmth of his married life — were regular attenders. At perhaps the second or third evening seminar that I attended, he came up to me and said ‘well, you must be coming up to Finals soon’. I said he could not get rid of my quite yet; neither of us could have realised then how long I would hang around this place and around him.

Cliff as a teacher

I have in front of me the Festschrift dedicated to Cliff in 2002. An opening section describes him as a teacher by three of his former students, all now successful historians. What they write captures vividly what I also experienced in that room, at the top of the narrow staircase, overlooking Wadham’s back quad: the silences, followed by a sudden flow of incisive words, often accompanied by emphatic gestures which were all the more memorable for being less than graceful. Cliff, it is fair to say, did not attempt to effect physical poise; if you want your dons debonair, then he was not for you — and that would be your great loss. Being in his presence was a lesson in not being distracted by appearance and learning to concentrate, for what he had to say was both rich and fresh, a product of that moment.

I cannot claim to have had tutorials with Cliff: he took me in my third year of then undergraduate degree for Special Subject classes, run by him and by Jenny Wormald (who too is no longer with us: they have both departed within a year). I remember the awkward pauses and how I felt I needed to do something to break them, torn between thinking that saying something, however asinine, was better than nothing, and realising that, if I did, I would sink even lower in these tutors’ estimation. More than that, though, I recall the sense of challenge, the need to question and to re-think — and, by having both Jenny and Cliff in the room, the realisation that challenge did not take a single form but was incorrigibly plural: we should not just change perspective, we must multiply them.

How I became Cliff’s doctoral student

That Cliff was the long-suffering supervisor of my doctoral thesis was an act of supreme kindness. When I began to think about my research, I wanted to focus on the concept of tyranny in the late Middle Ages. I visited the Professor of Medieval History at the time, George Holmes (he too is gone: this blog sometimes has the feel of a necrology). It was his task to seek a supervisor for me. I remember one response: ‘of course I am happy to supervise Mr Rundle, but does he really want to study tyranny? After all, as Fortescue tells us, there could be no tyranny in England. Would Mr Rundle not prefer to study local government?’ Mr Rundle did not prefer and Cliff offered himself to be my supervisor, on the understanding that there would be a second, who was George Garnett. As my research developed, it transmogrified: tyranny led me to an interest in civic humanism at a time when I was also discovering the delights (thanks to Malcolm Parkes and Richard Sharpe) of manuscripts. The result was that my studies moved yet further away from Cliff’s own specialism — I should say, specialisms, they were so varied — but he persevered and continued to have telling comments at every stage. He was a devoted supervisor, attending each paper I gave as a graduate student, and reading over the 150,000-word draft in a weekend. I hope he realised how eternally grateful I am to him.

In the process, our relationship changed: he encouraged me to think of myself as becoming a colleague. His article, ‘Tournai and Tyranny’, was the first one he sent me in draft, soliciting my comments. He taught me the collegiality of scholarship.

Indeed, possibly collegiality is a key word for him, for he was dedicated to Wadham and to his students. He encapsulated the virtues of a college life which put the fellowship and the teaching before one’s own ambitions — or, rather, they were his ambition. How old-fashioned that now sounds. If he does stand for another era, he himself would be the first to warn against any nostalgia. Every age has it warts and worse. Perhaps, though, that is what I sense Oxford is losing with his passing: not so much part of its map as a stage in its own life.

Conversations with Cliff

After his retirement, Cliff continued to be a visible presence, researching in the Bodleian and breaking for lunch when he would meet with a friend. I was sometimes his companion on those occasions and, as always, the conversation would range widely, across centuries of history and a sweep of Europe, but with the centrepoint always being Oxford’s past and present. In the last year, those conversations moved to his home. What has proven to be the final time I saw him there was just under a fortnight ago: though he was physically weaker, his mind was fearsomely alert and precise in its recollections. I enjoyed my visits and learnt from them as I had always done in my encounters with Cliff. I was expecting those occasions to continue in the coming months and years. It is difficult to come to terms with the realisation that the opportunity has died.

Re-reading what I have just written, I appreciate how much of it is about the momentary: the pattern of speech or the style of gestures. That, of course, is the bulk of life and it is what history can capture only rarely. But that is, fundamentally, what I believe I learnt from Cliff: to construct history from life, not from abstractions or from theories. He instilled that by his writings and his teaching but also by how he lived. How much we and Oxford have lost.


Tagged: C. S. L. Davies, George Holmes, Jenny Wormald

History in Fragments

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Today deserves a little fanfare: the latest instalment of Lost Manuscripts has been made available this morning. There are only 32 new fragments, coming from 19 host volumes, so not a full drum-roll and brass band, please — but some piano trumpetting will not go amiss.

This is the third batch drawn from the collection of Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), a Colchester boy who rose to be Archbishop of York. We must be grateful that he left his library to his hometown, and perhaps equally grateful that the authorities did not look after his books too well: that is, they refrained from hyperactive campaigns of ‘restoration’ and so most of the books are in their early modern bindings, with some usually sensitive repair work done in the 1970s. With those early bindings often come flyleaves and pastedowns from manuscripts. The procedure on the Lost Manuscripts’ website has been the same as before: to give brief descriptions of the bindings, to catalogue the fragments and also, where possible, to bring together separate fragments from the same manuscript and to record that. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, the imaginary location where those physically divorced fragments share an existence as a partially reconstructed manuscript is the city of Babel. The Babel numbers now run up to forty, with twelve new inhabitants appearing today. They include some elegant arrivals — my personal favourite is a full leaf from a fine copy of Moerbeke’s translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics — but others, it must be admitted, turn up looking rather shabbier.

The intention of this project has never been simply to make freely available, in virtual format, information and images of these books, though that is a benefit in itself: if the result of the website is that someone appreciates more fully what can be found in an early modern book, then it has done a service. My aspiration, however, is that over time we can ask much larger historical questions about the death of manuscript culture. We are far away from being able to do that, but I do have a couple of tentative comments which I think deserve investigating further.

1. The long life of tearing up manuscripts

It is already known that, while the heyday of book destruction was the Reformation period, it began long before that and did not end in the mid-sixteenth century. The Harsnett collection itself has examples of this and it goes back much further: it was an element inherent in manuscript culture, new codices sometimes cannibalising older ones, not just through the re-use of parchment, creating palimpsests, but also through the recycling of discarded pages in bindings. The sixteenth century inherited this practice, which was certainly most widespread in the first three quarters of the century. It did, though, continue and not just in Oxford (as is sometimes said). The material used did, in some cases, change, with an increase in recent paper waste, including booksellers’ accounts, being taken out of the rubbish (or the privy) and employed to serve the purpose that parchment manuscript leaves had previously provided. There are, however, other occasions, at the very end of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, when medieval codices were available and were deployed in bindings. In some cases, these were from what must have been quite impressive volumes, being used in known a book-collector’s library: the books of Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) provide notable evidence of this from his time as archbishop of Canterbury (1604 until his death); I will discuss this in more detail another day. Perhaps the manuscripts involved were already too damaged to consider preserving them, but it remains striking that, in this generation of the early antiquaries, destruction could be thought an appropriate process.

2. Not one process but many

What also has intrigued me from the findings we have made so far is the variety of practice. It is obvious that there are differences in use which define the types of fragment that survive: some binders included pastedowns, others had large strips as flyleaves, yet others small reinforcing pieces. There were differences as well in the quality of manuscript, and the parts of it they would employ. In some cases, this must have been governed by issues of availability, a dynamic that must lie behind the increasing use of recent documentary material which I have just mentioned. That, though, would not explain, for instance, the habits of some binders who cut up the manuscript and kept only those pieces with no or minimal text. As some clearly did this consciously, it raises questions about others’ practices: did the provision of an elegant leaf as a pastedown, replete with text and sometimes illumination, say something about the interests or even the loyalties of the binder or of their client? There is a basic opposition in the practices between those which were intended to hide the origin of the material used and those that celebrated it, but even here these describe two extremes of a range of practices. Our intention here must be to get into the mind of the binder when they had the manuscript before them and set about re-using it: we want to recover the impulses that moved their hand as the knife came down upon the parchment.

There are, of course, further issues raised by the increasing amount of evidence that is being gathered, and any comments at this stage must be provisional. But at least we are beginning to know what questions we can ask – and I am confident they will be thought-provoking questions.

Tagged: Aristotle, Babel, bindings, fragments, Richard Bancroft, Samuel Harsnett

Same, similar and suggestive

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There are, I am finding, advantages to a retirement which is ludicrously precocious and — let us be pessimistic for a moment — temporary. In the nine days since it began, I have been on a lecture trip to Cork (with thanks to Caitríona for the invitation, and Jason and Emma for the best-of-Irish hospitality); I have enjoyed a decadently convivial tea (with thanks to Judith); I have settled down to work on completing my monograph, and…

When I first sat down to write this, I was hoping to continue with fanfare and the words ‘I have made a new discovery’. But I have not and what I have instead is in some ways more interesting. For, it is a cautionary tale which may help remind us of the limits of what we can do with our evidence and may suggest what is changing (and what not) about those limits in the digital age.

I am spending time with John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, who is the focus of one of the chapters of my book. Considering his reputation for sadism, some might consider that I am keeping bad company, even in my solitude. It is not, though, with his bloodthirstiness that I am currently concerned; instead, it is with his book collecting while he was in Italy from the autumn of 1458 until the summer of 1461. I have been drafting a brief paragraph on the humanists who sought his patronage, who included Ognibene Bonisoli da Lonigo, often described as a quiet-living schoolmaster in Vicenza who avoided the bustle of the larger cities. Ognibene presented to Tiptoft a manuscript of his commentary on Juvenal, and that is now in the Bodleian (where it is MS. Arch. Selden B. 50). He also dedicated to the earl a translation of a minor text he claimed was by Xenophon on hunting. I was about to write a footnote reading ‘the dedication copy is not known to survive’ when I decided that was a statement that required a further check.

The transmission of Ognibene’s text has been discussed by my one-time colleague, the enviably polyglot David Marsh. While the work is available in an incunable edition, in manuscript, David lists only five copies. A dedication copy is likely to have been produced as a stand-alone item, and that reduces the list further to two cases where the translation is totus codex. One, in San Daniele, is an unlikely candidate given the history of the Biblioteca Guarneriana. The other is in Yale University’s Beinecke and I had previously excluded from enquiries because the catalogue dates it to the very end of the fifteenth century, so at least two decades after Tiptoft’s execution in 1470, let alone his departure from Italy nine years earlier. Investigating this again, I wondered about the rationale for that dating; it is not made explicit but I suspect it was on the basis of the paper. It is said to have a watermark similar to one the grand master of such studies, Charles-Moïse Briquet, found occurring in stock produced in Verona in 1467, with variants datable to between 1476 and 1492. As the watermark is similar rather than identical to the image he provided, the assumption would naturally be made that it was one of the later variants being used. There is here, however, a helpful reminder of limitations of research even as exhaustive as Briquet’s. More often and not, when one finds a watermark, it is not exactly as is described in his listing (or in Piccard), and then, as the saying goes, all bets are off: no conclusion can be drawn definitely identifying a date on the basis of a similarity. At the most, the likeness might be suggestive of a place of origin since motifs circulated locally — unless, that is, the motif is simple or popular. Even then, however, place of production of paper is no guarantee of the place of its use as a writing surface.

The paper, then, can not be sufficient evidence for dating the manuscript but, if we had only the catalogue, we would have to take the statement on trust. Nowadays, however, we do not have to trust it. The Beinecke is one of those laudable institutions which has made not only its descriptions available on-line but, for many of its manuscripts, uploaded high-resolution digital images. This places the catalogue’s scholarship and the primary source which it describes in dialogue, one which can at times be revealingly discordant. I have described before, in the context of the discovery of a manuscript from Tiptoft’s circle, how this subtly shifts the method of research, in ways which are not entirely unproblematic; more fundamentally, it also alters our sense of the authority of scholarship. We do — and here is a second general note of caution — need to be wary not to replace trust of others with trust in ourselves: our eyes can be deceived by what we think we see on the screen.

Tiptoft was not one of those owners (like Humfrey, duke of Gloucester was) who had a pathological need to announce his possession of a book. Some manuscripts presented to him or written for him do have his coat-of-arms but he himself never provides an ex libris. How, instead, we can identify a book as his is usually by its marginalia, for he added to many of his manuscripts notes in a large littera antiqua, or (and this was more frequent) provided a distinctive diagonal manicula with long forefinger and cuff marked, sometimes surmounting a line in the margin, its straight vertical interrupted by small sets of curves. The images the Beinecke provides reveal an unadorned manuscript written in an elegant humanist cursive bookhand, with ample borders rarely interrupted by annotations, but there are three interventions. The first, at fol. 6v, is cropped but is clearly in the hand of the scribe (note, in particular, the style of st ligature, with the first letter joining the second just below the top of its ascender). This contrasts with the next note, ‘Superstitio venatoria’, at fol. 11v, where the script seems not to be that of the scribe (contrast the form of st ligature, for instance, or the shape of the v). It may be this reader who appears again at fol. 26, adding not a word in the margin but a long straight line, interrupted by small sets of curves, topped by a diagonal manicula with long forefinger and simple cuff marked. That sounds very much like my description of the interventions we can firmly identified as Tiptoft’s, and there are some similarities. If this were simply connoisseurship, we might make a triumphant declaration, but it is not and we would be wrong to do so.

‘Similar’ is not ‘the same’, and the similarities you see have to be balanced against the dissimilarities you want to ignore. So, in this case, the description I have just given overlooks two basic differences. First, Tiptoft usually draws a rather dapper frilly cuff, not the simple curves that appear in this case. True, he does not always use that, as can be seen on some of the openings from another manuscript I have been able to identify as his, Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. lat. 7966. But what is invariably the case — and I have gone through several manuscripts checking this is so — is that he always uses a single line to make the forefinger, rather than drawing it with two strokes as happens here. Likewise, if we turn to the words written in the Beinecke manuscript at fol. 16v, there are some similarities with Tiptoft’s hand but the aspect of the script is more flowing, more relaxed in itself than Tiptoft’s rather deliberate serifed strokes.

So, any identification of this reader with the dedicatee of the work the manuscript contains should not be asserted. I think I was sensible to pursue the possibility but more sensible not to force the evidence to prove something it cannot. The principle must be to err on the side of caution: only through firm, incontrovertible identifications can scholarship progress.

And, yet, this is not quite all. The more I look at the Beinecke manuscript, the more I am struck with the similarity of its script with other manuscripts made for Tiptoft or by artisans who worked for him. There is, in particular, a manuscript (for which there are no images available on-line) at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, their MS. 389, an imposing volume of Cicero’s Orations in which several copyists shared responsibility. None provides a direct parallel to the Beinecke’s script, with its slanted ascenders and tendency to some extravagant letter-forms, but the similarities of aspect and of detail (as in the curious ampersand) are suggestive:  these probably did not come from the same pen but it would seem likely that they were from the same milieu. Likewise, there is a codicological detail of the Beinecke manuscript that cannot be checked on-line but may be significant: it is said to be not just on paper but on paper that is ‘highly polished’. This style of finish is also known from other manuscripts produced for Tiptoft (for instance, Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 1. 13) and might again suggest a common context of production.

That is to say, Tiptoft may not have touched these pages but among those whom he knew may have been one or more who did. We cannot make a firm identification but I think, at least, we can draw the conclusion that the codex now in Yale was made in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, on the terra firma of the Veneto, perhaps in or around Padua, the city where the earl was longest present while he was in Italy.

‘Is that it?’, you might ask, ‘can you say nothing more certain than that?’ My response would be that we have a duty not to pretend to certainty when it does not exist, however much others (like you, the reader in my head) or we ourselves put pressure to provide that definitive assertion. This takes will-power in a culture where the expectation is of quick publication. I have already owned up to my membership of the Slow Study Movement and I will insist that there are some types of research that cannot be squeezed into the straitjacket of a finite project started and finished within a REF cycle: manuscript studies demands a longer commitment than that. But, you might also point out, there is an added intellectual difficulty. I said that we should err on the side of caution and I must, therefore, admit that I have condoned error. You could legitimately note that I have shown that Tiptoft’s association with the Beinecke is ‘unproven’, rather than definitely to be rejected. I accept that. You might draw out from that a more general point: is it not our role to speculate? Yes, I respond, we must have speculation and hypotheses, but we must also be ready to set them aside them. What is more, if a hypothesis remains just that, a possibility which is not fully proven, then we might want to share it with colleagues in discussion or in a seminar, but we really should not waste the printed page on it. We should keep such speculation to the spoken word — or to a blog.



Tagged: Beinecke Library, David Marsh, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Ognibene Bonisoli da Lonigo, Padua, Xenophon

Vita nova (iterum)

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My garden and this blog are uniting in a complaint against me: I have failed, they say, to attend to them. I have left them unloved. The garden points to the bindweed and the brambles which are competing for dominance and harangues me with how I have let it become unkempt and overgrown. ‘Overgrown?’ interjects the site, ‘if only anything had grown here, apart for the number of days when he has ignored me’. This site is like a ghost-town, its posts delapidated tenements lining abandoned streets.

They are right: I plead guilty on both counts. My mitigating circumstances may not impress them but for the past few weeks I have been preparing for this, the first day of my new life.

Three years ago today I started a fixed-term contract as Lecturer in History at the University of Essex. That contract ended last night. The Department had talked of their good will towards me and their hope there would be a way for me to stay but, as it turned out, my research — too many books — does not fit their strategic needs. ‘Too many books’ is perhaps also what my long-suffering wife thinks as she sees the piles of spines return from my office (plus interest, in the form of those I was sent in the interim and, yes, some I bought) to overcrowd our house, overflowing nearly into the garden. Perhaps, there is a solution: cut down the weeds and build a labyrinthine library in its place.

My association with Essex is not completely at an end — they have given me the honour of being an Honorary Lecturer — but I will not be making the weekly commute from Oxford to Colchester. That I will not miss, even though I found it useful time to prepare lectures and keep on top of administration. What I will miss is the friendly department, with its excellent administrative team, as well as warm-hearted colleagues elsewhere on campus, both in academic and support sections, and, perhaps most of all (though it is unfashionable to say this), the teaching. All that and, I suppose, the pay-cheques and the pension contributions — but if I had been travelling to work simply to ensure the money came in, it would have been time to leave anyway.

And Essex has changed me. First of all, it has made me more theoretically conversant. Before I started in a department which can be proud of its radical tradition, the one theoretical writer I truly respected was Michel de Certeau. That has not diminishted; I still have not learnt to love Foucault (though reading him in the original, I now realise, helps) and I am not persuaded by much of what I have read by Bourdieu. I do welcome the challenge of Bruno LaTour but, like many, finding a way to apply it coherently to my work remains problematic. With several of these, however, I would not have engaged as fully if teaching had not demanded it and if I had not been in an environment which respected the tradition with which they engage. I now realise that my empirical Oxford training had made me underestimate the continuing Marxist legacy. It has not made me more sympathetic to it — it remains too reductive to me — but the richness of the world of marxisant thinking is something I can no longer avoid, or would want to avoid.

More than that, what Essex did to me as a person — and for this I am grateful — is that it released my  inner workaholic. Soon after I started, I ended my double life; that is, I stood down as a city councillor. I do not think I had appreciated how many hours it took, even when I was a backbencher. ‘What will you do with all that spare time?’ my constituents said to me — as if there were to be any. Instead, those hours were sucked into my life of teaching and research and I begin a new double life. I would spend half the week in Colchester and work twelve-hour days to ensure I was on top of the requirements of teaching and administration. I would return home and expect to do an equal amount in preparation and my own research. It was, I admit, a recipe for schizophrenia and debilitating exhaustion but, I also admit, I relished it.

What has also happened is that the demands of a university concerned about league tables and thus about ranking in exercises like the REF has affected how I work. It has made me more strategic, which perhaps is a euphemism for more brutal, prioritising and thus dispensing with other commitments. This is a skill which, in my experience, many academics, as decent human beings who do not want to say ‘no’ to colleagues, find difficult to master. A skill it is, though I cannot help thinking that it is often misdirected. For many in post in universities, it has to be used in service of the REF, or of an assumption of how the REF will be that is yet more draconian and intellectually bankrupt than the system itself — and a system which defines research only as research when it has been disseminated as the written word, and expects that research to be churned out on a five-year cycle is one which a future generation will look back upon and wonder: how could they do so damage to their intellectual credibility? How could they commit themselves to such ill-advised and over-hasty publication? It was, then, with some sense of liberation that I spent some of this summer writing a 9,000 article for a collection of essays to be published by OUP – something which I would have been told, because it was too short and not for a journal,  would not be valid to be considered for ‘research excellence’.

Yet, the workaholism and the prioritising have left their trace, most evident in the decrease of posts I have placed on this site. I have found it difficult to justify to myself, let alone anyone else, what I am achieving by sharing thoughts in this format. This post, then, is my apology to this website.

What happens now? My new life begins but it is also a return to an old life, pre-Essex, in which I balanced research, often travelling abroad, with some teaching in Oxford (not as much as I would like) and some administrative duties. I actually enjoyed that existence, even if it did not provide for my retirement (who wants to retire?). I return to it a little older, a little balder (but not so bold, perhaps) and hopefully a little wiser. And next? The only promise I will make is that you will read about it here first.