Intellectual history

Leonardo’s Leicester Codex at the Uffizi Galleries: a review of “Water as Microscope of Nature”

By contributing editor Luna Sarti

This year several events will take place across the world to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death. In Florence, where Leonardo lived and worked for several years, the Uffizi Galleries hosted the exhibition entitled “Water as Microscope of Nature”, which  focused on Leonardo’s multidisciplinary engagement with water. Organized by the Uffizi Galleries in collaboration with the Museo Galileo, this project was made possible thanks to the generosity of Bill and Melinda Gates, who loaned the Leicester Codex to the Uffizi Galleries, as well as to the financial support of the Fondazione CR Firenze and the Comitato Nazionale per le celebrazioni dei 500 anni dalla morte di Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo 1

Almost 400,000 people visited the exhibition and stared in amazement at Leonardo’s writings. Individual folios were displayed in vertical glass cases which allowed visitors to read the recto and verso sides of each page while moving through the dark, arched room.

Leonardo 2
The exhibition room and two of the codescopes.

The curatorial team, guided by the director of the Galileo Museum, decided in fact to group folios according to topics while several codescopes were installed in the space to allow visitors to virtually flip through the pages of the Leicester Codex, thus reproducing the order in which the folios were bound together. Thanks to the codescopes, it was also possible to browse the codex and eventually visualize transcriptions of the text while getting information on some of the most significant issues addressed by Leonardo, particularly the physics of water movements, the structure of the Moon, and the history of the Earth.

As the exhibition title suggests, water intrigued Leonardo perhaps more than anything else. In his writings, he discusses its nature, its movements, and the difference between springs, rivers, seas, and rain. Defining the mechanisms connecting all these different phenomena became almost an obsessive thought for him. In order to deal with this complex system of problems, Leonardo meticulously recorded observations from experience and compared them with existing sets of knowledge, drawing on a variety of sources and devising experiments to verify hypotheses.



Leonardo’s experiments on water. Video available on the exhibition website.

Although Leonardo’s myth in popular discourse undoubtedly plays a role in attracting visitors to events of this kind, it is remarkable that the curator managed to orient such a vast audience toward the manuscript pages and other forms of “row documents”. A variety of texts, such as other manuscripts, incunabola, and maps were, in fact, on display as Leonardo’s possible sources, thus fostering the interest of the public toward the historical processes that inform not only knowledge formation but also its circulation and legacy. The inclusion of such documents as Leonardo’s sources contributes to dismantle conceptions such as that of geniality or the irrelevance of history for scientific engagement, while stressing the role of education and tradition in any process leading to new knowledge.

Leonardo 3
Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (1458). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82,4. Folio available on the exhibition website .

Certainly, some of the items that were on display also have an incredible aesthetic quality that captivated the audience and thus amplified the call for the significance of history that informed the exhibition. For example, among the manuscripts that were likely consulted by Leonardo for their relevance on the questions of the nature and physics of water were a 13th-century manuscript edition of Ristoro d’Arezzo’s La compositione del Mondo (The composition of the world) now conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Pliny’s Natural History, which belonged to the Medici Family and is now part of the collection of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. Remarkably, almost to reiterate the importance of access to sources and of history in the making of knowledge, all the materials that were part of the exhibition, including the curatorial narrative, are now available for public consultation on the official website.

Leonardo 4
Ristoro d’Arezzo, La composizione del mondo con le sue cascioni (XIII century). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Ricc. 2164. Folio available on the Exhibition website.

Although some of the celebratory language and the Promethean tones informing the curatorial narrative might sound overwhelming for many science historians, this exhibition was particularly interesting for assessing the way in which the dualism art/science can still characterize public discourse around figures who would actually be functional to question such a divide. Leonardo is, in fact, a pivotal figure for any discussion on the relationship between artistic practice and scientific thought and can spark interesting considerations on the benefits of interdisciplinarity.

While walking through the exhibition and learning about Leonardo’s reflections, it becomes clear that much of the audience’s amazement stems from the variety of tools and languages on which Leonardo could draw to investigate problems of physics, mechanic engineering, and geology. Together with geometrical representations illustrating physical problems, the Codex also includes an “image bank” and several attempts to develop a lexicon for describing water.

Thus, much could be said on the curator’s decision to keep the two parts of Leonardo’s work separate, even if motivated by practical reasons, such as the absence of alarm systems in the space that was used for the temporary exhibition. Leonardo’s paintings, although referenced, were not in fact part of the exhibition which instead focused on documents, particularly manuscripts and maps, to position the viewer within that part of Leonardo’s work which is considered “scientific”. Unfortunately, the choice of material presented as well as the title seems to suggest the persistence of the dualism science/humanities when considering historical processes of knowledge making. On the contrary, Leonardo’s engagement with tradition, his open mindedness when combining historical research, field-work, and different languages for the investigation of problems, could have been easily presented as a model-story advocating for thinking across disciplines.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leicester Codex (1501-1508). Folio 7v and 30r. Available on the exhibition website.

Hopefully, this beautiful show will be of inspiration for more exhibitions that are able to work across the division between art and science when presenting historical process of knowledge formation to the public. With this in mind, we look forward to the upcoming exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: a Mind in Motion” in London at the British Library this summer.

Water as Microscope of Nature” was on view at the Gallerie degli Uffizi  in Florence, Italy from October 30, 2018 to January 20, 2019. The exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful catalogue (available in Italian or English).

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Greek to Me: The Hellenism of Early Print

by guest contributor Jane Raisch

The difficulties of printing Greek are something of a refrain amongst its earliest printers. “Anyone who criticizes me is quite unjust and ungrateful,” the acclaimed printer of the classics, Aldus Manutius, complained in the preface to his Herodotus, Hesiod, and Theognis (1496), “I would not wish them anything worse than that they too should one day print Greek texts.”[1] For Aldus and other printers in the incunabular period, printing Greek did indeed pose genuine, technical challenges. Unlike Latin, Greek is accented, not only above but also below the line, and determining the most efficient and cost-effective way to render its accents in movable-type was an ongoing problem. Additionally, the so-called “Greek humanist hand” popular in the late fifteenth century incorporated a number of complex ligatures, abbreviations, and flourishes which required cutting even more distinct pieces of type. And while Aldus’ Greek type design would ultimately become the standard, influencing the appearance of printed Greek for the next two centuries, exploring various experiments with Greek typography in the incunabular period (and the decades just after), especially the innovations of the Byzantine scholar, Janus Lascaris, reveals the dynamism and creativity that surrounded early attempts to reconstruct ancient Greek via print.

A few decades before Aldus and Janus Lascaris, the Cretan émigré and printer Demetrius

Sweynheym and Pannartz’s Lactantius (1470). Image provided courtesy of the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Damilas addressed the challenges of printing Greek in the dedication to his edition of the Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (1476), the first book to be printed entirely in Greek: “with difficulty I have found at last how Greek books might be printed too, not only in the composition of the letters which is sundry and complex in Greek, but especially in those places marked with accents, which is certainly a difficult business and it requires no little consideration.”[2] Before Damilas’ Erotemata, Greek text had been printed, but only as quotations or proper names within primarily Latin texts. The Lactantius of Sweynheym and Pannartz (1470) is perhaps the most famous example. These earliest attempts to print Greek, however, used noticeably reduced, sometimes non-existent, systems of Greek accents, making Damilas’ introduction of fully accented Greek type a crucial innovation. Nonetheless, printers after Damilas continued to experiment with and refine various strategies for typographically representing accented Greek on the printed page.

Lascaris Erotemata
Demetrius Damilas’ Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (1476). Image provided courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Printing, indeed even learning, Greek in this early period was further inflected by a certain amount of controversy. As Simon Goldhill has explored in Who Needs Greek?, learning Greek was initially met with resistance by certain clerics who perceived it as a threat to Christian Latinity. In the early sixteenth century, the monk Nicolaus Baecham went so far as to declare, in an attack on Erasmus’ new translation of the Greek New Testament, that Greek was “the font of all evil”[3] (Goldhill, 26). Erasmus himself was both a great champion of Greek studies and actively involved in the world of early Italian Greek print: a friend of Aldus, Erasmus spent many months at the Aldine Press in Venice perfecting his Greek and working on various scholarly Greek projects. According to Erasmus, the suspicion surrounding Greek (and even Hebrew) went beyond just reading the language or translating scripture. In his famous Letter to Martin Dorp, Erasmus mocks  “certain individuals who pass for serious scholars” who “hastened to implore the printer, in the name of everything sacred, not to allow the insertion of a single world of Greek or Hebrew: these languages were fraught with immense danger and offered no advantage, and served only to satisfy men’s curiosity.”[4]

This anxiety Erasmus describes links the visual potency of simply representing the Greek alphabet on the page to an almost perverse voyeurism; seeing, not even reading, Greek is a prelude to disaster. And indeed, since the number of literate individuals who could read Greek in this period was tiny, viewing rather than comprehending would have been the more common form of readerly engagement. The visual design of Greek letters on the page, then, carried a particular significance: implicitly shaping how both readers and non-readers of Greek encounter the newly recovered language via a kind of extra-textual legibility.

Aldine Hero and Leander
Aldus Manutius’ first edition of Hero and Leander (1494(?)). This offers an example of one of Aldus’ earliest Greek types in which a number of abbreviations, ligatures, and flourishes are visible. Image provided courtesy of the University of California, Los Angeles, Special Collections.

Aldus elected to base his type off of contemporary Greek handwriting, the “humanist hand” that the Byzantine scholars directly involved in the dissemination of Greek learning used themselves to copy Greek manuscripts. Accordingly, in his letter requesting a privilege to protect his new Greek type design (1495), Aldus specifically lauded the ability of his type to “print so well and so much better in Greek than can be written with a pen.”[5] In choosing handwriting as his model, however, Aldus ran into the problem of ligatures and abbreviations. As we can see in his earliest attempts to print Greek, such as his first stab at Hero and Leander (1494?), his type was replete with complicated conjoined letters and even more elaborate abbreviations that required (and still require) their own decipherment. While later Aldine Greek types reduced the number of these special characters, as we can see in his edition of Julius Pollux (1502), Aldine Greek texts needed an astonishing number of pieces of type in order to be printed.

Aldine Pollux
Aldus Manutius’ first edition of Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon (1502). This offers an example of one of Aldus’ later Greek types, in which fewer examples of abbreviations, ligatures, and flourishes are visible. Image provided courtesy of the University of California, Los Angeles, Special Collections.
Greek Anthology(1)
Janus Lascaris and Lorenzo de Alopa’s editio princeps of the Greek Anthology (1494). This was the first book to feature Lascaris’ striking Greek font, using both small and large uppercase letters. Image provided courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

An original alternative to Aldus’ design came from Lascaris, the prominent Byzantine scholar, who, in collaboration with the Florentine printer Lorenzo de Alopa, developed a Greek type that took not contemporary handwriting but rather ancient Greek inscriptions as its visual model. While this was not it and of itself so uncommon (Latin types had been using inscriptional letters for a few decades), what was exceptional was Lascaris’ choice to make the entire font uppercase inscriptional letters. In other words, Lascaris did not envision the lettering of ancient inscriptions as models primarily suited for titles or headings (as they were in Latin types), but rather as the most elegant and practical way to print entire works. Lascaris, therefore, designed his type to include both small and large uppercase letters and debuted this new type in the first edition of the Greek Anthology (1494). In the dedicatory epistle of his Greek Anthology, Lascaris justified his unorthodox choice by appealing to both the aesthetic dimensions of type design and the technical exigencies of cutting type:

Taking this new opportunity of printing, which will be so useful for students of literature, I set myself to rescue the elements of Greek letters from misshapen and really unbecoming corruption. When I thought of the letter-forms provided now for use in printing, which are not convenient for engraving and cannot be properly fitted to each other, I took all the more care to seek out the primary form of the letters [priscae literarum figurae], long out of use, and I provided a model for the printers adapted to the technical processes of printing by the engravers and craftsmen.[6]

While Aldus celebrated the ability of his press to present Greek on the printed page in a way that exceeded the writing of a pen, Lascaris shifts the emphasis away from the solely visual and from the end product alone. He imagines print’s intervention in Greek cultural recovery to involve every step in the printing process, beginning with the engraving and cutting of type. Seen from this perspective, where the appearance of the page is only one dimension of what print means, the ancient practice of carving stone for inscriptions and the Renaissance practice of carving metal pieces to make type do indeed seem to be analogous material procedures. The abbreviations Aldus dutifully reproduced were also the product of a scribal culture where rapidly transcribing and recording information was essential, something print makes essentially irrelevant.  Thus, while Lascaris’ typeface was unsurprisingly short-lived (he only printed six other texts in his all-capitals font), it reveals not merely the innovative energy that surrounded the early printing of Greek, but also the layers of legibility, of significatory possibility, understood to operate within the early Greek printed page.

Looking closely at the ways in which the earliest printers addressed these challenges, we can begin to understand how the material concerns of Greek print, from the sources used in the graphic design of the typefaces to the technical challenges of translating an alphabet from manuscript to moveable type, were themselves inflected by multiple material contexts, ones that stretched from the contemporary Hellenism of the fifteenth century back to Greek antiquity itself.

Jane Raisch is a doctoral student at Berkeley in the Department of Comparative Literature. She focuses on the reception of Greek in Early Modern English literature and the intersection between scholarship and poetics.

[1] Aldus Manutius, The Greek Classics, ed. and trans. Nigel Wilson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016), 25.

[2] Richard Breaden, “The First Book Printed in Greek,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library. 51 (1947): 3.

[3] Erica Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics I, 1515-1522 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989), 139. Also cited in: Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek?: Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 26.

[4] Erasmus, “Letter to Martin Dorp,” in Praise of Folly, trans. Betty Radice (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985), 242.

[5] Nicholas Barker, Aldus Manutius and the development of Greek script & type in the fifteenth century (New York : Fordham University Press, 1992), 92.

[6] Barker, 39n21.

Further Reading:
Robert Proctor, The Printing of Greek in the Fifteenth Century. Oxford: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Oxford University Press, 1900.

Barker, Nicholas. Aldus Manutius and the development of Greek script & type in the fifteenth century. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek?: Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).


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Conciliar Conversations

By Madeline McMahon

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Canones & Decreta sacrosancti…Concilij Tridentini (1564)

Canons and decrees are like the conference proceedings of church councils—polished, authoritative, and reflective of conversations, formal and informal, that nevertheless are often elided in the process of editing. As a meeting place for theologians, historians, and ecclesiastical authorities, the church council is an obvious site for intellectual history. Yet it can be tricky to chart that history, to disentangle the individual voices that contributed to the definitive, disembodied statements uttered by “the holy council” (mandat sancta synodus). After the Council of Trent ended in 1563, for instance, its decrees were published across the Catholic world. Revisions of liturgical texts—the missal and the breviary—soon followed in accordance with those decrees. So did a new catechism, a revised Vulgate, and the Index of prohibited books. These publications took on lives of their own as they were further revised, and, in some cases, revered or reviled. Yet what about the records from the council that did not get published? How can we recover the conversations that eventually became canons?

Sometimes we get a sense of the discussion from eavesdroppers. In 1416, the humanist Poggio Bracciolini attended the public hearing of the Hussite Jerome of Prague at the Council of Constance (1414 – 1418). In a letter to Leonardo Aretino, Poggio described how he listened, captivated, to “the eloquence and learning of the defendant.” Poggio quoted Jerome’s indignation at not being allowed to give a general defense speech rather than respond to each accusation one at a time. But it may be more accurate to say that the humanist, like a good classical historian, put words into his subject’s mouth. At one point, like a Cicero redivivus, Jerome exclaims to the ecclesiastics assembled, “O conscript fathers!” (patres conscripti). Compared with a quasi-official transcription from the council, Jerome incriminates himself far less in Poggio’s account (Renee Neu Watkins, “The Death of Jerome of Prague: Divergent Views,” 107). Yet Poggio also inserts specific readings of church fathers as well as the style of pagan orators into Jerome’s recorded speeches, suggesting, for example, that Jerome and Augustine had disagreed and that this was an argument for religious toleration (ibid., 108). Poggio’s depiction of Jerome’s stance thus differed substantially from the Hussite’s own. As Renee Neu Watkins put it, Jerome “believed…that he and Hus alone stood for the one just cause, the cause of the Church. Poggio suggests that eloquentia—that is, the classical moral tradition—offers another standard of justice” (120). This recorded conversation thus tells us as much about Poggio’s views as about Jerome’s.

Reading as well as speech feature in reports recording the 1529 Marburg Colloquy between Luther, Zwingli, and other Protestant reformers. Unlike the finished Articles, which stress the theologians’ agreement, an anonymous report begins with Luther acknowledging that in their “published pamphlets…they disagree” on important doctrinal issues and that he had even discovered by letter that “some Strassburgers” were saying that the fourth-century heretic Arius had taught more correctly on the Trinity than Augustine (“Anonymous Report,” trans. David Luebke 2). In addition to getting a sense of the earlier debate in print and rumors of theological contention on the street, these reports let us overhear an exegetical debate about the Eucharist at the colloquy itself. When arguing over the meaning of “this is my body,” Jesus’s words at the last supper, Zwingli demanded to know why Luther wants to understand the words literally. Oecolampadius, in support of Zwingli, cited Augustine’s exegesis of John’s gospel “that the body of Christ in which he rose must be in one place.” Luther, in turn, rejected the applicability of Oecolampadius’s reading to “this is my body”: “I say to this passage from Augustine…that it has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper” (Heinrich Utinger report, Luebke, 13). The reports show the work of reading and discussion being done, while the Marburg Articles merely reference the friendly state of aporia the group reached: “at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other” (ibid., 17).

Pasquale Cati, Council of Trent (1588 painting in Santa Maria in Trastevere). Behind the allegory with the Church personified are a number of smaller discussions.

Like Heinrich Utinger’s report at Marburg, Gabriele Paleotti’s diary of the last two years of the Council of Trent, the Acta concilii Tridentini, is a semi-official account. Paleotti, a forty-year old judge at the Roman Rota, was sent to the council without voting power (Hubert Jedin, Das Konzil von Trient, 37). Joining the ranks of a number of other recorders, he kept eight notebooks on the final eight sessions, from January 15, 1562 to December 4, 1563 (ibid.). His Acta are immense—they take up over five hundred folio pages in the modern edition (Concilium Tridentinum…Collectio, III.233 ff.). His entries provide a glimpse of heated arguments between intellectuals of various national and linguistic backgrounds and theological and political convictions. The French delegates, for example, arrived even later than Paleotti, in November 1562; Paleotti’s diary depicts the crucial intervention of Charles De Guise, cardinal of Lorraine, on issues such as images and relics.

Another issue that occupied the Tridentine reformers in the final months was the appointment of bishops. Even before De Guise’s arrival, the French cardinal was rumored to believe “crazy things” about bishops—that they should be elected to office (Sebastiano Gualterio, quoted in Robert Trisco, “The Debate on the Election of Bishops in the Council of Trent” 262). In France and in much of Catholic Europe, rulers had often been granted the right to nominate successors to vacant sees in their territories. De Guise himself had been royally named an archbishop at the tender age of thirteen when his uncle, the previous archbishop of Reims, resigned (Trisco, 261). Yet on May 13, 1563, he stood before the council and argued that “election by the clergy took place according to the most ancient law out of the traditions of the apostles, although the confirmation was done by archbishops” (Paleotti, III.612, my translation). It was “absurd that even women, as in England and Scotland, who can neither teach nor speak in a church, nominate as bishops whomever they want” (III.613, my translation). (It is worth pointing out that the regent of France at this point, the ruler who had sent De Guise and his fellow French bishops to Trent, was Catherine de’ Medici.) To protect the church from the decisions of incompetent monarchs—whether minors or women—De Guise advocated for a return “to the form of the ancient church” (ibid.). Others immediately balked: “when the emperor, kings, and every commonwealth submitted to the decrees of this holy council,” that would be safeguard enough—as well as their due reward for the political support that the council needed (III.617).

The ultimate decision, delayed until November 1563, was to maintain the status quo but to impose higher standards: “Without wishing to change any arrangements at the present time, the council exhorts and charges all who have any right under any title from the apostolic see in the appointment of prelates, or assist the process in any way, to have as their first consideration that they can do nothing more conducive to the glory of God and the salvation of the people than to have every concern to appoint good shepherds who are fitted to guide the church” (ed. Tanner II.760). The tentative language hints at the contested nature of the decree—and the way in which the conversation developed to articulate what an ideal bishop should be like. Years later, when Paleotti was a bishop, he worked to revise his Acta of the council for publication. Such a publication would have been a kind of contemporary church history. But the changing and contested reception of Trent made it difficult, even impossible, to publish notebooks like Paleotti’s (Jedin, 39). The fluidity behind the final decrees was obscured, left for us to reconstruct from the letters, notes, and other records for an intellectual history of church councils.

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

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.

Think Piece

‘Slimy rimes’: Donne’s Contagious London

By guest contributor Alison Bumke

John Donne, c. 1595. Anonymous painting, National Portrait Gallery London. (Wikimedia Commons)

While John Donne (1572-1631) was writing verse letters and elegies in the early 1590s, London was experiencing a major plague epidemic. His lyrics trace everyday life in a plague-stricken city, describing efforts to identify sources of contagion, disinfect living areas, avoid public spaces, and protect one’s body. They also express the shock of living in a transformed city, where bustling streets are suddenly ‘lancke & thin,’ as he writes in a verse letter, ‘To Mr E. G.’ (l. 9). Donne’s early verse conveys a familiarity with medical theories of contagion that would inform how, decades later, his sermons depicted sin passing through a population.

By the 1590s, the term ‘contagion’ had been used in an English medical context for nearly a century. The period’s medical theorists were undecided, however, on whether contagion had physical substance. Galen, the widely cited Greek physician, believed that it consisted of tiny ‘seeds’ of air, water, and organic matter: a precursor to modern germ theory. These seeds were thought to communicate sickness through the air and via direct contact. At least two English plague tracts, printed during London’s 1603-4 plague epidemic, refer likewise to a ‘corrupt and venemous seede’ of disease. In Italy, meanwhile, a physician and poet named Girolamo Fracastoro proposed the existence of airborne ‘seeds’ of disease in his De contagione (1546). But in early modern England, the prevailing theory of contagion was that miasmas—expanses of foul-smelling air—communicated illness.

Video from the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, reconstruction of where Donne would have preached. For more information on the sulfurous smoke and gloomy weather of Donne’s weather, see here.

A person inhales infectious air through her nose’s porous lining, Galen argues in his De instrumento odoratus (c. 170). This porous lining is like a sponge: its ‘hollownesse and holes … may take in the smoake that is resolued, and commeth from the thing that is smelled,’ Stephan Batman explains. After the person’s sponge-like nose inhales the ‘smoake,’ or vapour, that an object produces, the vapour proceeds to her brain. By the time her brain perceives its scent, the corrupt air has started to infect her body.

To avoid inhaling corrupt air, the person can fill her nose’s ‘hollownesse and holes’ with sweet scents. Spices and herbs produce pleasing, harmless vapours that fill the nasal passages, preventing putrid air from reaching the brain and infecting the body. The period’s medical tracts recommend carrying scented sachets and pomanders in public, as protection against disease. In Physicall directions in time of plague (Oxford, 1644), for example, an anonymous author urges readers to carry fragrant items when ‘going abroad, or talking with any’. A person should hold a perfumed object in her mouth or hand so she inhales its vapours, rather than putrid air. Medical tracts recommend also using spices to perfume rooms, indoor fires, and cleansing water. In A dialogue bothe pleasaunte and pietifull (London, 1564), William Bullein writes, ‘Forget not to kepe the chamber, and clothyng cleane, no priues at hande, a softe fire with perfumes in the mornyng.’ Perfuming homes with pleasing, innocuous scents reduces the inhabitants’ risk of inhaling corrupt air.

Donne’s early verse alludes to medical tracts’ guidelines for avoiding putrid vapours. His poem ‘The Anagram’ mentions two of the spices Physicall Directions lists: musk and amber. He writes,

In buying things perfum’d, we aske; if there

Be muske and amber in it, …                          (ll. 13-4)

Potential buyers ask if perfumed objects contain strongly scented spices, like musk and amber, to determine if the objects will block corrupt air’s scent. In addition to masking putrid odours, individuals could attempt to purify corrupt air. Bradwell’s A watch-man for the pest (London, 1625) advises firing cannons, so air is ‘first forcibly moved, shaken, divided and attenuated, and so prepared for purification; & then immediately (by the heat of the fire) purified.’ Alternatively, he recommends leading a ‘great drove’ of oxen through an infected city so ‘their sweet wholsome breath’ can ‘cleanse the impure Aire.’ Donne refers to the former method in his poem, ‘The progress of the soul, Metempsychosis.’ ‘Thinner than burnt air flies this soul,’ he writes (l. 173). Cannon fire burns away air’s impurities, so the resulting, ‘burnt’ air is thinner than average.

Attempts to purify or mask corrupt air had limited success, however. ‘In every street / Infections follow, overtake, and meet,’ Donne writes in 1592 in a verse letter, ‘To Mr T. W.’ (ll. 9-10). A major plague epidemic was starting in London, and it would ‘overtake’ tens of thousands by 1594. The concept of contagions having physical heft—enabling them to ‘follow’ an individual—appears often in contemporary medical tracts. Thomas Dekker, for example, writes in 1603 that ‘thick and contagious clowdes’ of infection have ‘driven’ some individuals out of their ‘earthlie dwellings,’ or bodies, while others have avoided the ‘arrowes’ of infection. Bradwell assigns contagion a similar physicality, observing that the plague ‘over-runneth … like a torrent, and few escape at least a scratching with it, if they be not deeply bitten by it.’ In each case, the contagion—whether in figurative clouds, arrows, or torrents—is an external aggressor, presenting a tangible threat to the human body. Individuals try to escape from it by masking putrid odours and purifying air, but they remain deeply vulnerable.

The prevalence of the plague made Donne consider his verse, or ‘rimes’, in cognate and related terms. In another verse letter from the 1592-4 epidemic, ‘To Mr. E. G.,’ Donne compares his ‘slimy rimes’ to standing water’s putrid vapours:

Euen as lame things thirst their perfection, so
The slimy rimes bred in our vale below,
Bearing with them much of my love & hart
Fly vnto that Parnassus, wher thou art.                     (ll. 1-4)

Donne humorously compares his addressee’s home on Highgate Hill, an elevated area next to London, to Greece’s Parnassus, a mountain bordering Delphi. Highgate and Parnassus have much purer, healthier air than their neighbouring cities. Meanwhile, Donne writes from ‘our vale below,’ London, which is situated in the Thames Valley. London is prone to disease, he suggests: its valley location enables standing water to accumulate, releasing disease-causing vapours. Donne sees the current plague epidemic’s effects everywhere. He observes ‘Theaters … fill’d with emptines,’ noting that ‘lancke & thin is euery street & way’ (ll. 8, 9). The city has closed its theatres and people are avoiding the streets, or abandoning the city altogether, to reduce their risk of infection.

Woodcut from Thomas Dekker, A Rod for Run-awayes (London, 1625), picturing the plague (Wikimedia Commons)

Until now, though, Donne has remained in the city, which inspires his verse. London’s ‘vale’ breeds his ‘slimy rimes,’ he contends: his poems acquire the slime of their source, London’s damp river valley. In a literal sense, his lyrics express his native city’s character as they ‘fly’ to Highgate. He does not claim that they will infect his addressee, but he does seek to move his friend with his vivid descriptions of plague-ridden London. His lyrics transmit another feature of their source, as well: Donne’s ‘love & hart.’ Donne flatters his friend, asserting that the latter’s physical elevation in Highgate signals elevated intellectual and moral status, or ‘perfection.’ Donne’s imperfect lyrics ‘thirst’ for an audience with such a person as they rise from a source—Donne and London—that is literally and figuratively lower. Donne asserts that his verse expresses ‘spleene’: laughter and mirth, inspired by his city’s absurdities (l. 11). But as the epidemic takes hold, his spleen finds ‘Nothing wherat to laugh’ in London (l. 11). He will flee the city, he decides, seeking alternative sources of inspiration and pleasure.

Donne returned soon after the epidemic, however, and—before his death in 1631—he experienced two more major outbreaks of plague in London, as well as frequent epidemics of typhoid, typhus, and smallpox. These outbreaks continued to influence his writing’s style and themes long after he first celebrated his ‘slimy rimes’.

Alison Bumke is a College Lecturer and Fellow in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, for the 2015-16 academic year.

Think Piece

Darkness Regained

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

CN10550 - Cicero - Opera omnia, vol. 2, ship drawing close up- RCP-Mike Fear 1000px (1)
Dee’s doodle of a ship from vol. 2 of Cicero’s Opera omnia (Paris: Estienne, 1539 – 40). [CN10550] © RCP
John Dee (1527-1609) dreaded the loss of his library decades before he died. In a diary entry from 24 November 1582 he recorded a nightmare in which his books were burned by a jealous rival. In 1589 later he had a similar dream, this time it was Edward Kelly who “wold by force bereave me of my bokes.” The dream was prophetic: a month later Dee returned to England to find that his library had been looted. Books and instruments had been stolen not by a superstitious rabble, but by men with the same pretensions to universal knowledge Dee himself had cultivated, as William Sherman emphasises in John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in England. When reading and writing are political, then the knowledge gained can’t help but be desirable. And occasionally, dangerous.

“Bereave” was understood in the 16th century as an active verb: to take by force. It has languished since then into the passive, desolate state of those who survive what they have lost. Bereaved of his books, and later his estate at Mortlake, and his livelihood after James I had ascended the throne, John Dee’s failures have mellowed him out over the years. He has become something of a loveable victim that deserves respect for the sheer breadth of his studies: mathematics, alchemy, medicine, astrology, astronomy, cryptography, theology, law.

That legacy has extended to the ways in which Dee’s emotional gaps are filled with literary sources. When Dee is linked to Shakespeare’s Prospero, he is Prospero the victim, Prospero as he appears to his daughter Miranda, who admits to “neglecting worldly ends” for love of books, Prospero as he was betrayed by those more at home in the court than the library. He has not been linked with the Prospero who forces Miranda to sleep when he doesn’t want her to know what he’s up to, who threatens the spirit Ariel with slavery, who torments Caliban, or uses his magic to forgo politics and regain his kingdom at any cost. Caliban alone offers an alternative perspective, and it all comes down to books. As Sherman points out, Caliban’s attempted to overthrow Prospero begins with attacking his library:


First to possess his books, for without them

He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not

One spirit to command — they all do hate him

As rootedly as I. Burn but his books. (Act 3, Scene ii)

This is not symbolic: burning Prospero’s books removes a threat of tyranny, depriving him of the means by which he has subjugated an island and conjured storms forceful enough to sink ships in its orbit. But to go further: Prospero’s quaint distinction between bookishness and worldliness collapses in Caliban’s description— the library becomes the throne-room.

To complete the circuit, consider applying Caliban’s description of that library to an understanding of the library of John Dee. Without a sense of the real stakes of possessing its contents, the story of Dee’s library makes no sense: not the nightmares, the pillaging, the bereavement, nor even the status of the library after his death. It was desired by statesmen and alchemists alike, from Robert Cotton (1570-1631) who even bought land around Dee’s house in 1609 in hopes of finding buried manuscripts there, to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) who obsessively sought Dee’s books half a century later. To think for a moment like Caliban requires us to consider the darkest extremities of what it means to reconstitute Dee’s library; and maybe even for a moment, to be thankful that it does not survive in its entirety.

The first exhibition to bring together so many books in one room salvaged from Dee’s library confirms that. Scholar, Courtier, Magician: the lost library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians shows through its bibliography of books owned, or thought to be owned, by Dee that when combined, the scholar, the courtier, and the magician are each facets of Dee, the Imperialist, the first recorded person to coin the term ‘British Empire’. To see these books and instruments together in one place offers a viewpoint that complicates studies of Dee, and indeed any Renaissance aspirant to “universal” knowledge. Francis Yates in Theatre of the World portrays Dee’s library as “the whole Renaissance” — both typical in its ambitions and exemplary of its time. Deborah Harkness’s wonderful John Dee’s Conversations with Angels reconstructs Dee’s synthesis of all he knew into the search for a “universal science” that would “extend a ladder from the deteriorating world to the heavens.” But Scholar, Courtier, Magician forces us to ask: why did men like Dee want to know everything? As Jeremy Millar’s film commissioned for the exhibit shows: beware the know-it-all, whose knowledge amounts to a need to control. An English emblem book from 1586, Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblemes, tells us “usus libri non lectio prudentes facit”; it is the use of books, not the reading, which makes us wise. To think seriously about the way John Dee used, and aspired to use, his books produces some sinister kind of wisdom.

No wonder Dee could argue so forcefully in General and rare memorials pertayning to the perfect arte of navigation (1577), and his other works, for a British Empire: there are books in his library to engineer such a feat. Alchemical works in theory provided instructions to make the gold to fund voyages to foreign lands. Books on astronomy, astrology, mathematics, cartography, and navigation make it possible for those ships to efficiently plan and complete the journey. Histories provide tough lessons and useful strategies about subjugating the locals: predominantly works about the Roman Empire, but also the Ottoman Empire (Francesco Sansovino’s Gl’annali turcheschi), and more recently works on trade with the East (João de Barros’s L’Asia) and the conquest of the New World (André Thevet’s La cosmographie universelle and Cosmographie de Levant). Cross-reference these with Matthew Paris’s Flores historiarum on King Arthur’s mythical dominion, and the justification for a particularly British Empire is given “historical” precedent. Finally, use magic to contact the angels and support human agency with divine right. As the angel Murifri told Dee, recorded in his diary:

The Earth laboreth as sick, yea sick unto death.

The Waters pour forth weepings, and have not moister sufficient to quench their own sorrows.

the Aire withereth, for her heat is infected.

The Fire consumeth and is scalded with his own heat…

Hell itself is weary of Earth: For why? The son of Darknesse cometh now to challenge his right: and seeing all things prepared and provided, desireth to establish himself a kingdom; saying, “We are not stronge enough, Let us now bulid a kingdom upon earth, and Now establish that which we could not confirm above.”

It should be taken seriously that Dee the magician justified his use of magic as an arm of the state and in that way distinguished it from mere witchcraft. Dee’s angelic conversations cast the earth as an apocalyptic wasteland in need of saving. They were the final justification that in the face of decay, of Satan, of apocalypse, a unifying force, a godly empire, was necessary to put the world to rights. He was not alone: a miscellaneous manuscript in the British Library (Add MS 36674) shows the explorers John Davis and Sir Humphrey Gilbert contacting angels and visiting the otherworldly library of King Solomon to aid in their own voyages.

L0057559 Claude Lorrain mirror in shark skin case, believed at one ti
Claude Lorrain mirror in shark skin case, believed at one time to be John Dee’s scrying mirror. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 Credit: Science Museum, London.


Dee’s library, angels and all, amounts to a plan for that, with a full realisation about what would happen to those that may resist— hence his advocacy for a strong navy, his readings of military histories, his familiarity with Spanish and Portuguese expeditions. Look into the obsidian mirror that was allegedly Dee’s, originally taken from Mexico in the wake of Hernán Cortés, and the bloodshed involved in such a plan becomes not imagined but proved. At what cost did such a mirror cross the seas all the way to Dee’s house at Mortlake? A new spectral analysis of a 19th century portrait featured in the exhibition of Dee “performing an experiment” for Queen Elizabeth, painted by Glindoni, speaks to that mirror. Underneath the painting’s layer of red and green, grey and black, making up an unassuming flooring of court, Glindoni had originally placed Dee within a circle of skulls.

John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I by Henry Gillard Glindoni 1852-1913 copyright Wellcome  Library, Wellcome Collection Large Version
John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni.Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 Credit: Wellcome Library, London.


Poster for Jubilee.

The impression left by Scholar, Courtier, Magician is perfectly (if not horrifically) complemented by Derek Jarman’s portrayal of Dee in Jubilee, who in a conflation with Prospero, conjures the spirit Ariel in order to time travel with Elizabeth I into London in 1978. “I will reveal to thee the shadow of this time,” Ariel promises; Dee and Elizabeth call it entertainment. They are transported into a violent and anarchic England that would have squared with the angel Murifri’s desolate depiction, with one crucial difference. It is a Britain run and driven to ruin by a central figure who controls the global market through his control of media and finance. In other words, a British Empire that spans the globe, of consolidated wealth and knowledge taken to exactly the extremity Dee himself hoped to engineer in his own time. 

Scholar, Courtier, Magician: the lost library of John Dee is on view at the Royal College of Physicians in London until July 26, 2016.