In the survey phase of our project we are trying to get a sense of the range of types of neo-Latin poetry in English manuscript sources which survive from the early modern period (c. 1550-1700) and the sorts of context in which they are found. In practice, this means that we are looking at a huge range of types of manuscript: throughout this period you find neo-Latin poetry in all sorts of source, from large and beautiful, sometimes illustrated, scribal presentation manuscripts to the most personal and ephemeral material – sometimes literally scraps of paper on which someone has scrawled an epigram. In this series of posts I want to give a sense of the range of this material, starting today with presentation manuscripts. I am very grateful to the British Library (https://www.bl.uk/) for giving permission for us to use images of their collection to illustrate what we are doing.
Presentation volumes of Latin verse were often offered as gifts to noblemen, the monarch or visiting dignitaries. Some of these collections are the gift of an individual; many of them are presented by an institution (such as a school or college) and represent the work of many individuals, who are often (though not always) named.
This first image is of BL Royal MS Royal 12 A VII, f9r (this means the ‘recto’ or ‘right side’ of the ninth folio). This is the beginning of an interesting pastoral poem commemorating the death of Henry VIII and the accession of Edward VI. Henry VIII died in 1547 so this is technically just outside the boundaries of our survey, and is therefore one of the oldest precisely datable manuscripts that we have included. This particular volume is by a fairly well-known poet, the Frenchman Nicolas Denisot. Not many of the works we are studying are by authors with their own wikipedia entry, but Denisot has one in both English and French: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_Denisot
Here are some images from the opening of a similar volume, BL MS Royal 12 A XII, produced nearly 100 years later: poems written by boys at Westminster school to mark the birth of Charles I’s short-lived daughter Viola Martia in the spring of 1637 (she died in December 1640).
You can see in the first of these images that the school is described as ‘Chesvici exulibus’ – ‘exiles at Chiswick’. This was presumably due to the plague, as 1636-7 saw a serious outbreak of plague in London.
Not all presentation volumes are quite as polished as these examples. We are also finding instances of more modest volumes prepared for a named individual, often probably in the hope of securing patronage or favour. The two images below are of the corresponding pages in two very similar manuscripts, BL Harley 6932 f1v and BL Additional MS 19863 f2r.
Even if you are unused to looking at handwriting of this period, you can probably recognise that the inscription on the left and the one below are by the same person, and have much the same content, indicating that these collections of around twenty poems were put together in the mid-1640s.
Both these manuscripts are by (and in the hand of) Payne (or sometimes Fitzpayne) Fisher – of whom sadly no image survives; these manuscript volumes are markedly royalist in their politics, though Fisher went on to become Cromwell’s Latin laureate. There is a large overlap in the contents of both volumes, and both contain an early version of Fisher’s ‘breakthrough’ hit, Marston Moor (printed in 1650). Fisher had fought at the battle of Marston Moor on the losing royalist side and in 1647 he was probably fairly recently out of prison, casting around for support and patronage in the political climate. In this instance, the fact that two very similar volumes survive suggests that he may have made quite a large number of such collections as he tried his luck with various patrons. I have written more about these manuscript volumes in an article published in The Seventeenth Century in 2016 (link to journal article).
The most formal types of presentation volume are, with only a few exceptions, found only in the first 90 years or so of our period (up to around 1640); perhaps because in the aftermath of the civil war printed volumes began to take over some of the functions of this kind of literary gift. For instance, surviving copies of Fisher’s own printed work from the 1650s are often customised for individual dedicatees, with handwritten prefatory leaves, and in that sense show this development from scribal production to bespoke-print.
We are finding more personal and less professional instances of ‘presentation manuscripts’, however, throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, demonstrating that Latin poetry of this kind continued to play an important role in the creation and maintenance of social networks. It is hard today to imagine poetry of any kind – let alone in Latin – playing such an important cultural and political role. Perhaps it is a bit easier to understand the place of works of this kind if we think in terms of other ‘high status’ forms of cultural production and entertainment – such as tickets to the opera, some kinds of fine art or sculpture, or even a season ticket for a premier league football club.