The 'Opicius' Poems (British Library, Cotton Vespasian B. Iv) and the Humanist Anti-Literature in Early Tudor England

By Carlson, David R. | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The 'Opicius' Poems (British Library, Cotton Vespasian B. Iv) and the Humanist Anti-Literature in Early Tudor England


Carlson, David R., Renaissance Quarterly


The humanist Latin poetry surviving in deluxe presentation copies from the early Tudor period in England, especially the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509), when such poetry began to be written in some quantity has paradoxical social properties. On the one hand, great care was evidently lavished on these performances, involving considerable investment of material resources and labor, as well as ingenuity and antecedent training on the poets' parts. The poetry exhibits rare classical learning and innovation and the artifacts transmitting it were designed and decorated to match, after the current fashion of Italianate humanist products, likewise innovative for England. On the other hand, these same lavish, investment-intensive performances seem to have yielded little or no return beyond the immediate moment of the presentation itself or, in some instances, not even then. The poets were able to attract patronal emolument by their presentations in some cases, or to gain a measure of the esteem of their learned compee rs, but sometimes not. In any event, the poetry generally did not make its way into wider manuscript circulation nor into print, and the presentation copies themselves were not made publicly available for reuse in any regular way. The poetry went (and has largely remained) unread, rarely having direct or particular influence on subsequent writing. Great expense, little use: the evidentiary value of the surviving manuscript of the poems of 'Opicius' in the British Library -- five Latin poems, amounting to some seven hundred lines of verse, described as the work of "Johannes Opicius," in a careful copy, now shelf-marked Cotton Vespasian B.iv -- is that, in addition to the kinds of expenditure entailed, it shows that these properties of such a literary performance were complementary rather than conflicting. Purposeless inutility enhanced the worth of the performance in its immediate social setting. The poetry wanted to be useless, that the presentation might work the better to serve the interests of the potentat e for whom the performance was staged.

1. THE MANUSCRIPT: BRITISH LIBRARY, COTTON VESPASIAN B.IV

It is a slender object, now in the British Library, founded out of the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century collections of Robert Cotton, having come into Cotton's possession, in company of various other items, from an earlier English royal collection: (1) twenty-five vellum leaves, their original binding long since having been replaced, measuring 260 x 190 mm. each. In rebinding, possibly more than once, the leaves are likely to have been trimmed. Still, the ratio of page to written area (generally only seventeen lines per page, occupying approximately 136 x 115 mm., though there is not right justification) leaves generous margins.

The pages' decoration is slight, too. The book has only three historiated initials, none extended by penwork or colored decorative flourishing into the margins; nor does any page have a fully, formally decorated border. The three historiated initials -- "B" (fol. 3r), "Q" (fol. 14r), and "S" (fol. 19r)--enclose representations of English heraldic instruments: respectively, a Tudor rose, a Beaufort portcullis, and the dragon rouge of Tudor Wales; also, the foot of the opening recto displays an unframed heraldic device: the royal arms of England, crowned, supported left by a greyhound and right by the dragon rouge. This heraldic display is a mark of ownership, albeit proleptic, inasmuch as the heraldry must have been put into the book in advance of its coming into the possession of the English king. Still, the particular array of devices indicates that the book belonged to king Henry VII of England: the manuscript is a presentation copy, for donation to and for the ownership of this singular audience, and no ot her.

The other decoration in the manuscript is a painting, unframed, at the foot of the second recto to display an historiated initial (fol. …

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