Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

How Francis Thynne Read His Chaucer

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

How Francis Thynne Read His Chaucer

Article excerpt

The ambitions of Francis Thynne (c.1545-1608), antiquarian and herald, far outstripped his accomplishments. What we know of his personal life, marred by persistent financial problems, an unhappy marriage, and "that cruel tyrant the unmerciful gout," suggests it was not a pleasant one. In his professional life he was marginally more successful, but despite the zeal with which he pursued his studies in the fields of alchemy, arms, and British antiquities, he produced no major works of his own, and it would be possible to write a history of any of these fields in early-modern England without special reference to his contributions. Nevertheless, if not an innovator like his friends William Camden and Sir Robert Cotton, Thynne was a solid, contributing citizen of his milieu, whom an admiring Frederick Furnivall described as "at least high in the second rank of antiquaries of his day." (1) He was a member of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries, contributed work on Scotland to the revised edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, and in 1602 was created Lancaster Herald, achieving his long-standing goal of admission to the College of Arms.

Like his better-known contemporary Camden, he counted William Cecil, Lord Burghley, among his patrons; he also found favor with luminaries such as William Brooke, Lord Cobham; Thomas Egerton, Lord Chancellor; and Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton. Also like Camden, who became Clarenceaux King at Arms in 1597, Thynne's antiquarian studies complemented and at times overlapped with his duties as herald. At his death in late 1608, Thynne left writings in manuscript on historical, genealogical, and alchemical topics, in addition to his contributions to various printed volumes. Many of Thynne's manuscripts found their way into Cotton's famous library, and today more than fifty survive. (2) These manuscripts suggest a scholar whose interests, though diverse, centered around an ardent desire to understand the past in all its dimensions. In the words of Thynne's bibliographer, David Carlson:

   no single contemporary figure better than Francis
   Thynne, both by the nature of his various interests
   and by the ways in which he combined the kinds of
   knowledge he acquired, confirms that all the forms
   of Elizabethan science, in the broad sense of the
   term, embodied a single, unified way of thinking
   about things. (3)

In important ways, Francis charted his own path in Tudor society, but he was also the son of William Thynne, chief clerk in the kitchens of Henry VIII. In 1532, the elder Thynne, working in conjunction with Brian Tuke, another courtier-cum-antiquarian, produced the first single-volume edition of Chaucer's Works. In a letter dedicating the volume to Henry, Thynne explains that as "divers imprints" came into his hands, he "easily and without great study might and have deprehended in them many errours, falsities, and depravation." (4) With "cost and pain," he writes, he obtained for his edition "very true" copies of those works of Chaucer's that had already been printed, as well as those that were "never till now imprinted, but [were] remaining almost unknowne, and in oblivion." (5) With additions and some alterations, the 1532 text remained the basis for all printings of Chaucer's Works until the eighteenth century. (6)

Although William Thynne died in 1546, when Francis was just a year or two old, Francis claimed to have inherited from his father a singularly impressive collection of Chaucer manuscripts, including one bearing numerous inscriptions reading "examinatur Chaucer." (7) Unfortunately, Francis was unable to hold onto this remarkable collection, selling some manuscripts in the 1570s during a period of acute financial distress that culminated in two years' imprisonment in the White Lion in Southwark. The remaining manuscripts, he says, were later stolen from his house in Poplar.

Despite the loss of this collection, Thynne apparently planned his own edition of Chaucer, one that would "set out Chaucer with a Coment in our tongue, as the Italians haue Petrarke and others in their language. …

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