We are now nearing the end of the ‘survey’ phase of the project. We have visited all the major collections and, of the smaller local collections, we have visited what we hope is a representative selection. This is not aiming to be a complete survey of neo-Latin verse in English manuscript holdings of the period: such an undertaking would take many years in its own right, since so many of the existing catalogues and indexes do not itemise Latin verse. The project is aiming to have made a ‘representative’ survey of this material. No such survey has been attempted before and we hope that future scholarship will be able to build on this foundation.
So how many poems have we found?
We have found about 15,000 neo-Latin poems in about 1000 individual manuscripts in thirty libraries or archives. Here ‘poems’ range from single lines of verse to a handful of hexameter poems which are hundreds of pages long. We have not counted Latin drama, even where it is in verse, though we have included excerpted Latin songs from plays and some marginal cases of apparently ‘dramatic poems’.
We have found so far 40 manuscripts with 100 or more neo-Latin poems in (this number will probably increase slightly as we are still working on the full descriptions of some of the richest sources), with one manuscript containing 712 individual Latin epigrams! At the other extreme 311 manuscripts contain just one neo-Latin poem (some of these will be one very long poem), and we have looked at about 250 manuscripts which proved to contain no material relevant to our survey (for instance, no Latin verse at all, or Latin verse which is either entirely classical, medieval or neo-Latin verse certainly dating from after the early 18th century). We are still working on the descriptions of around 50 particularly rich or complex manuscripts, and we have a handful of archive visits still to go.
What form are these poems?
The most common metre is elegiac couplets, and the most common form or genre is (almost certainly) the epigram – we can’t be completely sure of this yet as we have not yet assigned all the items we’ve found a generic category. But some manuscripts contain hundreds of individual epigrams, especially in the period between about 1610 and 1630 when these were particularly fashionable (the manuscript with over 700 poems is an epigram collection). Equally, in many of the instances where we found only a single Latin poem in a manuscript, the poem in question was an epigram. Hexameters are the second most common metrical form throughout most of our period, though in the earliest manuscripts (of the mid-16th century) they are in fact significantly more common than elegiacs, the trend for which seems to be a latter-16th century innovation, probably influenced by the rising fashion for the briefest kind of epigrams, which tend to be in elegiacs. In the latest material (from the early 18th century) Latin lyrics are found more commonly than hexameter verse, and displace hexameter as the second most frequent type of poem. Of course if we were counting numbers of lines rather than individual poems, the data would look different, since nearly all of the very long poems we have found are in hexameters.
A significant proportion of these sources are bilingual to varying degrees and I personally am particularly interested in the relationship between Latin and English literature throughout this period: it’s not just that many of our manuscripts include both Latin and English verse (though this is certainly true) – it’s also that a significant proportion of what we have found is as it were ‘actively’ bilingual – most commonly, paired poems in Latin and English versions but also including other related phenomena (such as a response or answer poem in another language, and translations into and out of Latin into other languages, most commonly Ancient Greek, Hebrew, French, Dutch and Italian).
In short, this is a very large and extremely varied corpus. In the course of this project we shall of course only be able to transcribe a small proportion of these poems (though we are hoping to be able to put together a first-line index for a relatively large proportion of them), and translate, annotate and analyse in detail only a still smaller fraction. But since there has been no previous scholarly attempt even to get an overview of this material, a significant aim of our project is precisely to offer such an overview, trying for the first time to give some sense of the ‘big picture’: the overall role of the reading, writing and circulation of post-medieval Latin verse in early modern England.