Humanism in the Archives: The Case of Ellesmere MS EL 34 B 6

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by guest contributor Elizabeth Biggs

I’m sorry not to have been at the Renaissance Society of America Conference in Boston this last weekend. In the spirit of that conference, I want to introduce you to a wonderful renaissance manuscript currently on the other side of the country. The Italian mid-fifteenth century Ellesmere MS EL 34 B 6 at the Huntington Library contains the satires of Persius and Juvenal copied in a particularly lovely early humanist hand on paper and parchment with at least three hands’ annotations from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. I want to use it, and its (possible) successive owners to examine possible networks of intellectual culture in the early Tudor period among those in royal service. There are also studies of the men who worked in royal administration under Henry VII and Henry VIII, but little appreciation of how connections made by those working for the king might feed into the larger networks of intellectual culture around them (Watts, “New Men,” 201-3). In this micro-study of one manuscript and its hints at possible connections of ideas and reading between individuals, I want to speculate about how one particular book traveled and was taken up in the intellectual world of administration.

EL 34 B 6 f. 9r showing John Gunthorpe’s dense annotations on the start of Persius’ Satire 5.
EL 34 B 6 f. 9r showing John Gunthorpe’s dense annotations on the start of Persius’ Satire 5.
The Juvenal manuscript and the biography of the man who first owned it emphasize the importance of administrative connections for early humanists, as many of them were also priests working for the king who knew and helped each other. John Gunthorpe was many things including dean of the Chapel Royal, canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster, and finally in retirement dean of Wells Cathedral until his death in 1498 (Reeves, 311-17). These church posts came in part from his distinguished career in royal service, as an ambassador under Henry VII, as a theologian and a lawyer who served on the Privy Council in the 1490s, and earlier as Keeper of the Privy Seal under Richard III. He can also be appreciated as a humanist who studied Latin rhetoric under Guarino da Verona in Ferrara in 1460, was a papal chaplain in Rome until 1465 and received his baccalaureate in theology at Cambridge. More generally, he helped to bring the Italian humanism of the mid fifteenth century to England. It was probably at Ferrara that he acquired the Juvenal manuscript and started to add his own dense notes to it, usually commenting on allusions and mythology in Latin, English, and occasionally in Greek, just as he is known in 1460 to have been copying and annotating Seneca (Reeves, 311).

Gunthorpe was just one of the highly educated priests whose humanist education, often abroad, allowed him to be used by the English kings Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII for their own needs as a councillor, ambassador, administrator, and senior churchman. Contemporaries at St Stephen’s, for example, included Christopher Urswick, and Henry VII’s Italian secretaries, Pietro Carmeliano and Andreas Ammonias, as well as the doctor Thomas Linacre later in his life. While Gunthorpe didn’t leave books to individuals in his 1498 will, he did use fellow royal servants and canons, including Richard Hatton, also a canon at Westminster and Wells who worked in Chancery, as his executors (Early Somerset Wills, 361). Hatton in his own will of 1509 called Gunthorpe his benefactor and endowed masses for Gunthorpe as well as himself. We need to see Gunthorpe not just on his own as a talented scholar, but also as part of friendship and patronage networks at the intersection of the church and royal service.

EL 34 B 6 f. 100v with the sixteenth century ownership inscription.
EL 34 B 6 f. 100v with the sixteenth century ownership inscription.

We know for certain that Gunthorpe owned this book because the handwriting of the first layer of annotations seems to match his handwriting in the surviving Bodleian manuscripts he owned, and also because a later sixteenth-century hand wrote on the back flyleaf “iuvenalis oli(m) gu(n)thorpi, welli quo(n)da(m) decani, nu(n)c a(u)te(m) heroni” (Juvenal once [the possession] of Gunthorpe, at one time dean of Wells, now that of Heron). Heron was interested in humanist works and clearly respected Gunthorpe as a humanist; the same hand also wrote in a book list on an earlier folio that includes several of Erasmus’ works including Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1503) and De Conscribendis (1522). In addition, the book list includes eminently humanist classical texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the letters and works of Cicero. Finally, Heron added a few annotations to Persius and Juvenal about the meanings of particular words, usually on folios that Gunthorpe had not commented on. Perhaps most interestingly, he copied on the first folio of the manuscript the short summary piece that appears on the title page of a 1505 Parisian Persius. As far as I can tell, the printed edition and commentary was not reprinted in England, and is not included in Early English Books Online, although the Bodleian owns a copy of the 1507 printing (Bodleian MS Douce 81 (3)). Heron had access to specialist commentaries and thought this brief introduction to the arguments of the satires was worth copying into his own manuscript copy, an intriguing interplay of print and manuscript in the sixteenth century.

EL 34 B 6 f. 15r Booklist on bottom third of page, and at the top, the third major hand in this manuscript, perhaps early sixteenth century.
EL 34 B 6 f. 15r Booklist on bottom third of page, and at the top, the third major hand in this manuscript, perhaps early sixteenth century.
It’s not obvious who this Heron is. No one with that surname appears in Erasmus’ letters, so he doesn’t seem to have been active in scholarship himself during the early sixteenth century. There are a couple of Herons who were writing classically inspired verse under Elizabeth I, and previous readers at the Huntington have suggested that either of them might be our Heron. I’m skeptical of this suggestion because around seventy years would then separate Gunthorpe’s death and the writing of the book list and the inscription. The assumption that Heron must be someone who wrote in a humanist style, even if much later, is problematic given that Erasmus was a popular author. In addition the book list seems earlier to me, given the mix of titles and the presence of material from the 1505 Persius edition. Certainly, the presence of De Conscribendis provides the absolute earliest possible date that the list could have been written, although it could also be much later in the sixteenth century. By that point Gunthorpe himself had been dead for well over twenty years and many of his colleagues at Wells, at Westminster and as humanists would also have died. Yet there was enough memory of his status as a scholar that Heron wanted to commemorate his ownership of this manuscript. The question we really should be asking is how was a book owned by one humanist remembered as having been connected with Gunthorpe for at least a generation? I want to suggest that it wasn’t the sorts of humanist networks or patronage ties that have been the focus of study that maintained the manuscript’s remembered connection with John Gunthorpe but quite possibly the institutional ties of royal service and the church patronage that royal service still opened up under the early Tudors.

EL 34 B 6 f. 1r with the summary from the 1505 edition of Persius on the right-hand side.
EL 34 B 6 f. 1r with the summary from the 1505 edition of Persius on the right-hand side.
As mentioned above, Gunthorpe’s will did not mention his books, save one bequest to his old Cambridge college. Unless he had already disposed of his books, it would have been the executors’ task. We know that both Wells (where he died and was buried), and St Stephen’s had libraries of their own, including some classical works alongside the working liturgical books and law books. St Stephen’s certainly received a variety of books from canons and former canons, and was careful to identify them as associated with the relevant benefactor. It’s not completely out of the question that this Juvenal remained associated with Gunthorpe because it remained in the library of one of his former homes until it was acquired by someone with an interest in its contents. This is by no means anything more than a very tentative identification, but in 1535 a Dr. John Heryng was appointed as a canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster by Henry VIII, possibly as a reward for his work on Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon or his work on the theology of the new Church of England. We really don’t know much about him and his interests, nor do we know what books he owned. Yet like Gunthorpe, he was a canon of both Wells (from 1543) and St Stephen’s, and in royal service. It may be pure coincidence that Heron, whoever he was, wanted to memorialize Gunthorpe as dean of Wells at least a generation after his death. Yet, I think it is worth at least considering that, in this manuscript, we are looking at continued humanist thought and humanist interests among the traditionally-trained priests who worked for the early Tudor kings. If John Heryng were the man who wrote the inscription and the book list in the 1530s or later, then a man that we would not otherwise have encountered as a humanist was using the networks of royal service to advance his literary interests.

Elizabeth Biggs is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of York. She is researching Stephen’s College, Westminster, from 1348 to 1548, as part of a larger AHRC-funded project on St Stephen’s Chapel from 1292 to the Blitz in 1941. Her work focuses on the people who worked at the college, donated money and lands to the college, or who knew it through its presence at the heart of the medieval Palace of Westminster. She can be reached on Twitter and via email.

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