In preparation for my presentation on 5 December 2013 for the Society, Culture, and Belief seminar at the Institute of Historical Research I thought I would post up a brief summary of who Polydore Vergil was and why he is important as a focus of study. My paper is entitled Tracing the reputation of Polydore Vergil: scholarly debates and cultural change during the English Reformation and will take place in room G37, Senate House (London) at 5.30pm.
Polydore Vergil (c.1470-1555) was ordained a priest some time before 20 December 1496 in Italy and studied at the University of Padua. Coming from a family with a tradition of scholarship Vergil soon began publishing scholarly works including his De inventoribus rerum (first edition published in 1499). This work was anthropological in scope and was devoted to various questions about origins. Vergil looked at stories of gods and of the creation of man; he also looked at linguistic roots, the origins of livelihoods including amongst them prostitution, and into numerous other subjects such as weights and measures, painting, magic, medicine and much else besides. To the second edition, Vergil added various questions regarding religion. The De inventoribus rerum showed that Vergil was able to and willing to test his sources and work out truths from their muddles and biases based upon the new humanist approaches. This, and the fact that Vergil later became an envoy in London (to collect the Peter’s Pence), made him the perfect candidate for writing up a history of England, supported by Henry VII himself.
The king probably expected that Vergil would support the origin stories of his nation but more so, the origins and justification to the throne of the Tudor dynasty itself. The latter Vergil did well, the former not so much. Research into the Anglica historia probably began in earnest around 1506-7 and finished around 1513. Vergil adopted a critical approach to his sources and favoured continental reports over British ones, which he believed were more fabricated in later times. His sources included Gildas, Caesar, Tacitus, Piny and Strabo, but he rejected the twelfth century account of Geoffrey of Monmouth believing the tales about Arthur to be nothing more than legend. Vergil exclaims his view very clearly in the first chapter of the Anglica historia:
‘in our times a writer has come forth to excuse these faults in the Britons, manufacturing many silly fictions about them, and with his impudent vanity extolling them for their virtue far above the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is named Geoffrey, having the surname of Arthur because he writes much about Arthur taken from the fables of the ancient Britons and embroidered by himself, and passing it off as honest history by giving it the coloration of the Latin language. Indeed with a greater boldness he has published very spurious prophecies of Merlin, supplying additions of his own invention when translating them into Latin, and passing them off as genuine and guaranteed by unshakable truth.’
Vergil continues in his attack of Geoffrey of Monmouth by claiming that foreign sources proved no indigenous evidence remained from this period and that, furthermore, the English have been duped by their own desire to seek origins for their country that lead back to biblical times. Primarily amongst the sources that he quoted was Gildas, whom Vergil claims proved his argument:
‘as Gildas attests: “I will attempt to relate those evils which Britan suffered and inflicted on others in Roman
times, insofar as I can, but not out of my nation’s writings or the remains of its writters, since if any such existed, they have disappeared, either burned by the fires of our enemies or transported far away when our countrymen sailed into exile, but rather by foreign testimony, which too, being interrupted by many gaps, is not clear enough,” and so on. But this licence has been given this liberty, since many peoples have dared to trace their ancestry even to the gods, as Roman authors took the lead in doing, so that the beginnings of their nation and its cities would be more dignified and blesset, and those things, though they were taken from poetic fictions rather than incorrupt records of things done, have nonetheless been taken for the truth.’
English scholars disagreed and presented arguments and ‘proof’ to support their claims. Chief among them were John Leland and John Price both of whom I will be looking at for my presentation, but also in a future blog post.