29 June, 2007

Kitap Mitap: a shaggy dog story

For the last month, I've set up camp in the Rare Books room of the British Library, where between reams of Sotheby's catalogues I entertain myself with the perusal of unusual volumes—Maupertuis's 1745 Vénus Physique, for instance, or Cato's De Re Rustica (aka. 101 Uses For Amurca), which, in the 1934 Loeb edition bound with Varro, reveals behind its spine a column of paper pasted in from another little Loeb, so tantalising in its final words:
in other languag
ly. The variety
Sotheby's turns up a Vulgate on uterine (foetal) vellum; a manuscript ascribed to 'Anicius, Manlius, Severinus et Boethius'; Abu Ishak's Pole Star of Pleasure from Wines; and Rules for Roman Catholic Criminals, whose contents are described by the auctioneer as 'ludicrous and amusing'. It also turns up a Wycliffe Bible from the 15th century, sold on July 28, 1863, for the sum of 850 350 pounds—an enormous amount of money. To put this in perspective, your average Vulgate manuscript was going for around 6-20 quid. Update: Arnold Hunt, Curator of Historical Manuscripts at the BL, has been so kind as to send me (unsolicited) the July 28 entry from the diary of Sir Frederic Madden (1801-73, palaeographer and BL keeper of manuscripts). Madden notes the £350 sale of the Wycliffe with three exclamation marks, and comments:
The first three lots were purchased by Parker & Stevens for America! It is remarkable, what madness exists at present in regard to the MSS of the Wycliffite Versions of the Bible. Yet the man who would give the absurd price of £350 for a MS of the New Testament, of no particular value in regard to the text, would grudge £4 to buy a copy of my edition of both Wycliffite versions of the entire Bible with the various readings of all the best MSS extant!
Many thanks to Dr. Hunt for this additional contemporary insight into the sale. Perhaps Mr. Stevens had been swayed by the rhetoric of the catalogue note:
The extraordinary rarity of Manuscripts containing Translations of any portion of the Holy Scriptures into English is too well known to require comment, but is not to be wondered at when we consider that the mere possession of such an article, if it became known to the Priests, would have probably brought its owner to the stake. The followers of Wyclif were persecuted to the utmost as heretics, and the Transcripts of his Version seized and rigidly destroyed. Hence the difficulty to Bible-Collectors of finding any specimen to enrich their collections.
The persecution of Wycliffe is still a totem of mediaeval Church evil. But as David Daniell remarks, in his already-classic 2003 The Bible in English, nobody had ever been persecuted for reading a vernacular Bible before 1401. That year was when Henry IV passed his law De haeretico comburendo. And in 1408 Thomas Arundel, recently voted 'Worst Briton of the 15th Century', established his quasi-legal Constitutions of Oxford, the 6th and 7th items of which attacked Wycliffe and his vernacular Bible:
VII. CONSTITUTION. That the text of the Holy Scriptures must not be translated into the English language.

It is a dangerous thing, as Saint Jerome attests [Letter 57 to Pammachius, written in 395], to translate the text of the Holy Scriptures from one idiom into another, for in translation it is not easy to retain the original in all its senses, just as Saint Jerome, even though he had been inspired, still acknowledges frequent error; therefore we state and ordain that henceforth, nobody may by his own authority translate the text of the Holy Scriptures into the English language or any other, whether into a book, a booklet or a treatise, nor may anyone read any book, booklet or treatise recently written by John Wycliff or his associates, or any about to be written, either in part or whole, in public or in secret, under threat of major excommunication, until the translation has been approved by the local bishop, or if necessary the provincial council; whoso acts against this will be punished as a promoter of heresy and like errors.
Strange, then, that according to Daniell, and contrary to the Sotheby's writer, 'About twenty surviving [Wycliffe] manuscripts of the 1380s are of the whole Bible, almost ninety of the whole New Testament. Over 250 manuscripts survive, a larger number of copies than for any other medieval English text.' The Canterbury Tales, by comparison, exists in 64 copies. I can only imagine that by 1863 the majority of Wycliffe texts were already in official collections—there are dozens in the British Library, and in the Bodleian. The next part of the Sotheby's description allowed me to trace the manuscript:
The present copy, written in the old orthography, appears to have been purchased in May, 1576, by "Robert Ardern of Barwicke" from "Mr. Englatt the Mr of the singyng chyldren in Chryste Churche in Norwich" for "twentye shillings."
Robert Ardern here should not be confused with Shakespeare's grandfather, Robert Ardern (or Arden) of Park Hall, who died in 1556. Englatt of Norwich, however, is the lead we want, and points us to this manuscript in the New York Public Library. Among the ownership notes are some verses:
By chaunce this Holy Booke came to my view,
It's worth the keeping, for it's very true.
I haue not seene it's fellow, and believe
Nor any man, that is this day aliue.
Giue God the praise for this his auncient Work
Who hath preseru'd it both from Pope & Turk
Both wch if they might haue had their desire
Would haue exposed it vnto the fire.
But God will alwaies keep from such bad men
His holy Writt: Giue glory to him then.

12 Nouembris 1661.

The aforesaid Mr John Booker casually seeing this booke as it came from the binding forthwith composed & writ the above verses being affected with this Antient Manuscript.
Sotheby's, in fact, quotes these last lines, but not the verses, and finally remarks that 'John Booker was one of the antagonists of Taylor the Water-Poet'. We can do better than that. Booker (1601-67) was a professional astrologer, and a successful one. In the mid-century, English astrologers were divided into Royalist and Parliamentarian factions; Booker, and the more famous William Lilly, were on the latter side. (Booker's anti-Royalism was also an anti-Catholicism, as he accuses Charles of popery—associated in the above verses with the suppression of Wycliffe.) Principal on the Royalist side was George Wharton, who published almanacs and prognostications from 1641 under the anagram 'Naworth'. Booker attacked Wharton—'No worth'—in his 1644 Mercurius Coelius (The Heavenly Herald), and Wharton immediately replied with Mercurio-Coelico-Mastix (Scourge of the Heavenly Herald). Booker's next salvo was A Rope for a Parret, published on March 6th, two days after the appearance of Mercurius Vapulans, also against Wharton, by the pseudonymous 'Timotheus Philo-Bookerus'.

It was at this point that the aforementioned John Taylor, the 'Water Poet', famous Royalist satirist and pamphleteer, stepped in on Wharton's behalf. Taylor's No Mercurius Aulicus, subtitled 'the breaking of BOOKER, the Asse-tronomical London Figure-flinger, his perfidious Prediction failing, and his great Conjunction of Saturne and Iupiter dislocated', was published on July 10th. (Mercurius Aulicus, incidentally, being an important proto-newspaper produced by the Royalist John Birkenhead.) Taylor accuses Booker of slander and disloyalty to the King, and concludes:
Thus (Master Bookerus) I have anatomized and skellitonized your railing Pamphlet and ridiculous Prediction: it is known too well, that the expectation of some mischievous events was the ladder on which your meditations mounted. You were believed amonst a company of catacoxcombrian Plebeians, as amongst the Heathen the Delphian Oracle;
Readily apparent is the stylistic imprint of that great pamphleteer Thomas Nashe, whose work Taylor so admired ('Tom Nash a witty pamphlet did endite / In praise of Herrings, both the red and write', from In Praise of Hempseed). The same fantastical coinages—especially 'catacoxcombrian'—are fully in evidence in Taylor's pamphlet.

But what of Booker? The astrologer ups the ante in his own reply, published on July 19th—No Mercurius Aquaticus, 'but a CABLE-ROPE Double-twisted for IOHN TAYLER, the Water-Poet, who escaping drowning in a Paper-Wherry-Voyage, is reserved for another day, as followeth'. (The reference is to Taylor's penchant for taking wacky trips on the Thames in a paper boat.)
And now thou Thames Otter, thou Malignant Dive-dapper, thou Jack Tayler, thou Motley, Sea-green, Ditch-water villain, that hast more Malignant flowings and ebbings in thy Waterish Brains, then the Thames hath Tides. . . I perceive that your language is as foggy and fulsome as your Ale, your conceits smell too much of the Malignant Onions and Garlick of Egypt, you have so much Irish and Spanish, that I cannot understand you with my Wits.
It gets even better!
I shall goe no father than Mahomet and his Alcoran, and there I finde the word, Thorny Ailo, the wise Anagram of thy Name, to be thus Anatomized and Skellumatized. Thorny in the Arabicke, signifies a villaine, and Ailo in the Syriack a Rook, otherwise called in the Greek Abaddon, which being Englished, is a destructive Villaine; or an Antichristian Prick louse, which tacks together all sorts of Fustian, as impudent lies, Slanders, and far-fetch'd Bumbast, in the behalfe of Popery. . .
Notice that 'skellitonized' has become 'Skellumatized', after 'skellum', meaning a villain or scoundrel (compare Pepys). Booker goes on to suggest another anagram for Taylor—'Joyn Halter is a most compleat Anagram, than which none could ever have framed a better to speak thy deservings'. Also of interest to language geeks is Booker's mockery of Taylor's spelling of his own name (with 'or' rather than 'er')—a very unusual sort of criticism at the time:
What is the reason Sir, that you spell false? Is it because your Skellumship would not have the world to thinke, that your Pedegree was derived from such a Lowsy, Snip snap Originall, as to have thy Ancestors thought to be Taylers?
True enough, John Taylor did not stay silent. His reply, still in 1644 but undated, was Iohn Taylor being yet unhanged sends greeting. It is more of the same relentless raillery and invective, and seems to have been the last of the exhange. Taylor scoffs at Booker's silly wordplay, while suggesting his own anagram ('O Harty Lion'), and insists that his rival has only the wits to go where he leads:
As when Christopher Columbus (an Italian) first discovered some small part of the (then unknown) America, Vespusius (a Spaniard) sailing the year after, with the Chart or Card, Compasse, Mappes, and Mariners, that formerly Columbus had used, the said Vespusius discovered more Land, as the golden Peru, and other vast Continents, and at his returne (being at dinner with Columbus and others) Vespusius bragged that he had onely found that new and rich World, at which words the Italian took an Egge in his hand, asking Vespusius, if he could make the Egge stand on one end upon the Table, to which he answered, he could not do it, then the other said that he could do it, and presently he put the Egges end into the Salt, and it stood upright; then the Spaniard said, that he could do that tricke as well as he, to which the Italian replied, so you could finde America when I have shewn you the way.

It is a much-repeated story, known as Columbus' Egg, and has its own Wiki page. Taylor's telling is unusual on two accounts—first, it involves Vespucci by name, and secondly, Columbus stands up the egg by putting it in salt, rather than by breaking the bottom on the table, as is commonly recounted. The story comes from Girolamo Benzoni's 1565 History of the New World, and was itself lifted from a tale told by Vasari of Brunelleschi; it was probably known to Taylor via the 1613 Pilgrimes of Samuel Purchas—
Euen the Spaniards themselues, not only by the tale of the Pilot before mentioned [ie. Columbus], but by light esteeme of his worth haue shewed a contemptible contempt of him: some of whom obiecting to himselfe the easinesse of this Discouerie, as he sate at Table, he prayed to make an Egge, which then he gaue them, to stand on end; which when they could not, hee bruising the shell, and making the end flat, made it to stand thereon: thereby insinuating, how easie it was for them to doe that which they had seene and learned of him.
Why the addition of Vespucci to Taylor's telling? Men in the 1640s—Peter Heylin, for instance—were still suggesting that America had been misnamed, and should rather be Columba, or Cabotia. Thus the name of Vespucci gave the anecdote a particular sapor, although I do not know why Taylor thought him Spanish. The sand, again, I cannot account for. Perhaps Taylor wanted to show that, unlike Vespucci, he did not need to follow others; his solution is, if anything, more elegant than that of his predecessors.

11 comments:

Simon Holloway said...

"Catacoxcombrian"? "Antichristian Prick louse"? Brilliant! Just when you think that contemporary academic antagonism was good...

Raminagrobis said...

I often wonder just how you end up finding all these fantastic texts, so it’s intriguing to follow the line of your literary detective work, and to discover just how you move from one text to another. It’s fascinating to trace a narrative of the ways we read ‘backwards’ into texts and simulataneously ‘forward’ into the material nachleben of books.

Pedro Eduardo said...

Manuscript by Boethius? Which work?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Simon: you did?

Rami: Yes! Thanks.

Pedro: 'De Geometria'.

Language said...

"Antichristian Prick louse...

...climbing up the Eiffel tower;
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna,
Man, you should have seen them kicking
Edgar Allan Poe..."

Conrad H. Roth said...

Now that you put it that way...

Language said...

The question is, who is to be Walrus; that's all.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I told you about the walrus and me, man,
You know that we're as close as can be, man.
Well here's another clue for you all:
The walrus was Paul."

I think that would be Shakespeare, then.

Language said...

Paul Shakespeare? Bloody fool he was. Couldn't organize a piss-up in a graveyard.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Goo goo ga joob.

John Cowan said...

Or as Paul (Simon) had it, koo koo ka choo. I once asked a linguist friend of mine about the connection between these two utterances: he replied tersely "Same brand of dope, I guess."