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.

That EU Referendum: the limits of history

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However far one goes to try to escape the febrile atmosphere of Britain at the moment, it is impossible to run from the referendum. I was in Padua the other week, to speak at a conference entitled ‘Shakespeare and Padova’ organised by the exhaustingly energetic and molto simpatica Alessandra Petrina. Most conversations while I was there turned at some point to the possibility of Brexit. The Italians I spoke to were worried but, all the more, bemused. In a café where I sheltered from a thunder-storm, the waiter recognised I was English (I wonder how) and expressed himself a lover of all things British but, he added, ‘does Britain think it can stand up to China and to States on its own? I’m sorry…’. In the conference hall, it felt as if we are talking about the referendum even when, ostensibly, we were discussing events four or five centuries older.

You may, gentle reader, have already stumbled and wondered what on earth I could have had to offer to an event devoted to Shakespeare. I was not – you will be relieved to learn – attempting to extend my repertoire into what is called ‘the English Renaissance’ (erroneously so – but that is another story); rather I was providing a comparison with the fifteenth century. The theme of my opening lecture to the conference was to encourage the delegates to consider the possibility that the English perception of Padua had, in the plays of Shakespeare, lost the sharpness of focus that it had in the 1460s and 1470s: at that earlier point, English graduates of Padua were perceived as providing unwelcome imports which threatened the English ‘way of life’ but, I argued, by the 1590s, Padua had become less dangerous because it was, in effect, more distant. Closing the conference, the true expert on the English in Padua, Jonathan Woolfson, suggested something which appears diametrically opposed, emphasising an increase in contacts in the 1540s and 1550s as the backdrop to the sustained Elizabethan and Jacobean existence of a community of Englishmen passing through Padua for education and entertainment. What united our talks was the clear sense that there had been a significant shift – and I would suggest the contrasts over the nature of that shift are reconcilable. The question remains of the causes of that shift. The impression hung in the air that the destabilising effects of the Reformation were a prime source, though this surely needs to be linked with other economic and cultural factors. In Jonathan’s discourse, the very instability released new possibilities and new perspectives, where mine dwelt on the diapositiva of that: let us recall what was lost as much as what was gained.

You may already have sensed how we were liable to read our own interventions in the light of present events. I teased Jonathan after his paper that he had made the case for Brexit: short-term unrest and economic pain might create a period of isolation but one which could be the precursor of a rediscovery of ‘Europe’ on new terms. Jonathan certainly did not intend such a parallel and it has an obvious central flaw. Those in the reigns of Henry VIII, his son and his younger daughter who looked to continental innovations and urged a purging of the state and a break with tradition did so because they believed the losses were not just acceptable but essential for the salvation of themselves and their neighbours. What was at stake was nothing less than God. That is motivation indeed but where, in the Brexit campaign, is there anything similar? There is surely a duty on them to provide a commanding vision for a future Britain. What we hear instead is, on the economy, the counter-intuitive and unsubstantiated claim that it will be fine; what we hear asserted would be a gain is that there will be fewer foreign faces in the community – even though immigration would become more ‘in your face’ when the camps into which refugees are concentrated would be placed on our shores. If this is a vision, it is a nightmare. Is this the Britain we would want it to be?

That is the fundamental question and one which shows how high the stakes are. The interventions of historians in the debate has, on both sides, been too often ‘history teaches…’, suggesting that there is something elemental about a British identity. As has been pointed out, Britishness is itself a short-lived concept, masking a plurality of identities defined by country or region, by social status, by gender and by ethnic background. Yes, there are some factors we cannot undo, just as, in Padua, I could not avoid the identification as British and so be associated with the referendum that has been placed upon us. One of those factors is undeniably that, for at least the English (and, the polls suggest, most Eurosceptic) part of the United Kingdom, its traditions have been shaped by its time as a Roman colony, and by its continuing place within – and intermittent struggles to be without – the shared civilization of Europe. Even that, though, allows much room for manoeuvre: it is not history that will determine our next step, it is our free will.

What history also does not teach, as any academic knows, is that there is a grand march of progress. For some, in the nineteenth century, the nation state was the apogee of civilization, an achievement beyond what their ancestors could have dreamt of achieving (Charlemagne clearly not being thought of as an ancestor). In the later twentieth century, understandably disillusioned by the evils wrought by those same states, the natural evolution was seen to be supranational structures. We can believe that those structures, whether across Europe or embodied in the United Nations, are welcome, but we cannot assume they were inevitable. Progress does not march; improvements stumble forward, uncertain on their feet. They are piecemeal, hard-won and fragile. When we recreate ourselves, we can also make ourselves worse. This is where we surely stand now. This Thursday, our nation has the opportunity to stand up and shout ‘Britain first’ in the face of immigration; we could let loose humanity’s baser instinct. We need not hold on to the self-image of ourselves as a nation where decency rules and where we pride ourselves in standing up for the underdog. We can – but at what cost to our souls?

Tagged: Alessandra Petrina, English Reformation, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Jonathan Woolfson, Padua, William Shakespeare