Sunday, January 22, 2012

Ahistoricism makes me very angry

Sandi Toksvig is a lady both interesting and entertaining but she is (for all practical purposes) an Oxbridge educated English journalist and shares all the allergy to a well-rounded grasp of history of that class & nationality. She tells us in today's Sunday Telegraph that 1395, Lady Alice West left her daughter Johane all her books in Latin, English and French. The latter sounds a nice bequest until you recall that this will was made five years before the death of Chaucer and nearly 80 years before the first book was printed in England. It cannot have been a thrilling collection.
How does one even begin to correct the errors in such a silly statement? The notion that there were no books or at least no books worth having before Caxton is simply nonsensical. Copying of books by hand was a well-established and very widespread practice over the whole of Europe. Indeed it is an oft repeated trope among paleographers that there are far more un-transcribed manuscripts in Europe's research libraries that there are printed editions of them. Among Europe's Ancient and Medieval bibliography Latin texts tended to predominate. This is unsurprising given that liturgical texts were almost exclusively in Latin, and so were philosophical & theological works, Sacred Scripture, classical literature, Medical texts, legal works and so on. However, translation into English began at least as early as the 9th Century with Alfred the Great - he produced a version of the Consolatio Philosophiae of Boethius.

Now the invention of printing in Europe or at any rate its development in England to adopt Toksvig's quaint insular perspective, undoubtedly did massively expand the range of available literature and pushed the price to a level substantially lower than at any time since the end of the Western Empire. This does not count in favour of her idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes a "thrilling collection", however. Hand written books, manuscripts were rare and valuable. The investment of time, skill & resources required to produce one was so extensive that only very wealthy people or institutions could afford them. So even if Johane West were an illiterate simpleton she had nevertheless received a gift of some considerable monetary value. If she was as intellectually curious & acquisitive as her mother, she must have been delighted to be the recipient of such a rich trove of intellectual treasure.

As an exercise in anachronism, Toksvig's performance can hardly be surpassed; as an intelligent or well-supported judgment, it falls at the first fence. That's not to say that wills, the subject of her column, are not a fascinating subject in their own right. To pick just one example, the sharp contrast between those of Good Queen Mary on the one hand and the Harlot Queen on the other. The principal distinction is that Mary knowing that she had to die (as do we all) actually wrote one. Bloody Bess having abandoned the Catholic Faith for political expediency, fell in her dotage into one superstition after another in a vain attempt to quell her fear of Azrael's approach. Mary's serene confidence in God's mercy provides quite a contrast, as does her careful provision for her servants and household.