Encountering the unexpected is the thrill and the curse of research. A thrill because it provides the frisson — no, that is too coy: it provides (as I have said before) a hit and a high as strong as any hallucinogen which keeps up going through the dull days when the sources turn up the same old material again and again. It is a curse because it reminds us that our work cannot be done and our conclusions only ever provisional. And if we imagine that we have conquered the archive and have panoramic knowledge of what is there, then the unexpected appears to remind us that the archive itself is always incomplete.
In my case, what offers up the unexpected is often an auction house. Perhaps, like the character in The History Man, I should be able to predict the unpredictable because, looking over my notes, I see the unexpected comes up for sale with some frequency. There have been four instances of previously unknown codices relevant to my research turning up for sale during the lifetime of this blog, so that it is an average of just under once every two years. But they do bunch together: the year 2010 was a bumper one (and not just because it was when I married — nobody thought of buying one of these as our wedding present): a previously unknown manuscript by the one-eyed Dutch scribe Pieter Meghen, and another by an earlier compatriot of his, Petrus Lomer. The following year Sotheby’s revealed to the world a volume associated with the English humanist, John Shirwood, protégé of George Neville, bishop of Exeter and subsequently archbishop of York. The latest addition to the list of manuscripts that have lurked in private hands unknown to scholars also has a connexion with George Neville, brother of the Warwick the kingmaker who fell into disfavour and into prison after Edward IV returned to the throne after Warwick’s failed coup against him. It is a pocket-sized codex, in its original binding of velvet over boards, by an itinerant Greek scholar, George Hermonymos, who was sent to England to secure the release from prison of Neville, only to end up in gaol himself. It is to be auctioned on Wednesday, 12 July, as lot 17 in the Christie’s sale. The asking price is beyond my meagre means but it is my birthday coming, so I can dream…
As the catalogue says, this volume is the twin of a known manuscript, London: British Library, MS. Harl. 3346, a set of gnomic sayings of ancient philosophers, compiled in Latin by Hermonymos. In that manuscript, the work opens with a dedication to Archbishop Neville, decorated with an English style of bianchi girari initial inhabited with grotesques, known from other manuscripts; preceding it on the opposite verso is an illumination of two angels holding Neville’s coat-of-arms (but with a glaring error that quarters them with the arms of the see of Canterbury). The new manuscript has the same layout, though here the dedicatee is, instead, William, abbot of St Albans – who precisely that was is unclear since, in the year that the Greek humanist came to England, the position changed hands from one William (Albon) to another (of Wallingford). The coat-of-arms in this manuscript (sable, three covered pitchers argent) does not help, either. The Christie’s catalogue considers them to be overpainted but when I inspected the manuscript, it struck me that there is absolutely no sign of a previous coat and that any removal has been very careful, leaving in place the angels’ fingers holding the shield. It is, then, more likely to be the only coat-of-arms painted but, as far as I have been able to find so far, we do not know the heraldry of either of these abbots.
If that sounds to be a dead end, there are ways in which the manuscript opens up new routes of research. It is a twin to that intended for Neville not just in its presentation but also in its text: the dedication to the work is nearly identical in wording, with only a few changes reflecting the lower status of the abbot (so ‘reverendissimus’ becomes ‘reverendus’). I have previous acquaintance with this text, because I edited it for the appendix I produced for the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England — a work available on-line and, I am assured, about to be printed (you can pre-order a copy). That, of course, has now become slightly outdated by the discovery of this new copy and so I have revised my own work which I offer to you (most learned reader) as an attachment.
As I note in the headnote to that appendix item, there is another codex, London: British Library, MS. Harl. 3348, which also has Hermonymos’s work, though it is damaged and so lost its opening. That means we cannot know for whom it was made and the assumption has been that it was an abortive attempt at a presentation copy for Neville, superseded by MS. Harl. 3346. Certainly, the preface addresses its recipient with the same superlatives (‘reverendissmus’ etc), while the script in this manuscript is a gothic bookhand rather than the humanist littera antiqua of MS. Harl. 3346. However, the fact that we know now that Hermonymos produced another version for another dedicatee raises the possibility that, in fact, he was having multiple copies made in a somewhat scatter-gun approach at seeking patronage. Famously, Erasmus was later chided for what was seen as a humanist habit of recycling one dedication for another recipient, and it is manifest that the visiting Greek was involved in this practice. It was not for that reason, we should stress, that he ended up in prison — that would have been a harsh penalty. We might wonder for whom MS. Harl. 3348 might have been intended: the form of address suggests that it was a high-ranking cleric, at least a bishop. Could the error in Neville’s copy, with the arms displaying those at the see of Canterbury, be a muddle with what was supposed to appear in this manuscript, making the other recipient Cardinal Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of England’s southern province?
I talked in the previous paragraph of Hermonymos having multiple copies made and this is where we can advance scholarship a little further because of the manuscript about to be sold at Christie’s. I have already mentioned that the two Harleian volumes are in different scripts but they are, I suspect, both by the same hand. I believe the work can probably be identified with a small group of three manuscripts (now in Corpus Christi College, Oxford) in which the style shifts between gothic and humanist — the identity of the copyist is elusive but we do know he produced those books for John Shirwood, Neville’s associate with whom we know Hermonymos had contact while in England. There is a further piece of evidence that needs to be added: while the main text of the presentation copy to Neville is all in one hand, the opening title is inserted by a different person, as can be seen in the image provided by the BL’s Illuminated Manuscripts Catalogue. The handwriting of that title is a match for the complete text of the ‘new’ codex.
This raises a possibility. It is common practice in humanist manuscripts that the person over-seeing the scribe adds the headings. If these volumes conform to that, it would suggest that the person who has control of the enterprise is the scribe of the copy made for the abbot of St Albans. This might seem counter-intuitive: would not the most care be taken for the volume planned to be given to the person of highest standing? Indeed, that is likely but that does not mean the overseer would take responsibility for the copying, particularly if they thought a more professional scribe was to hand. The tentative conclusion to which this thinking is reaching is probably already apparent: might not the overseer be the mastermind of the text itself, George Hermonymos?
Hermonymos has been well studied as a scribe in his native language of Greek; his Latin script is less known. The only certain examples are in a humanist cursive which is less formal than that in the manuscript up for sale. One of those is in the Bodleian, as MS. Grabe 30, Hermonymos’s own notebook, where he signs one entry in Latin.
We cannot make a direct match between that and the codex for the abbot of St Albans: not only are they in different styles of script but that in the Bodleian manuscript is less certain. We might hypothesise, of course, that Hermonymos would be in his private notebook more experimental and less confident than in a presentation manuscript. There are, moreover, some similarities of aspect — the similar slant of long letters — and of letter-forms, the pronounced foot of the r and the curve on the h, for instance. In short, the only firm conclusion must be that it cannot be ruled out that the small manuscript about to be sold at Christie’s is a rare example of its author’s Latin bookhand.
Oh dear, have I just increased the asking price? With that, another of my dreams recedes further from the realms of realisability.