I will be spending Thursday evening talking to the Society, Culture, and Belief seminar at the Institute of historical Research. My topic is Polydore Vergil and how a study of his reputation in the sixteenth-century helps us to understand the nature of xenophobia and anti-popery as something imposed from above. Here’s my abstract.
Polydore Vergil (c.1470-1555) was an Italian humanist scholar and historian active in the early part of the sixteenth-century. He spent much of his life in England during the early stages of the Reformation. His most important works were the De inventoribus rerum (a collection of thoughts about various questions ranging from origins to warm baths) and his English history the Anglica Historia. Vergil also published an edition of Gildas’ De excidio et conquest Brittaniae, which he had rediscovered during preparation of his own history.
Immediately upon writing that history Vergil caused outcry as he disclaimed Britain’s origin stories and claimed Arthur and Merlin as nothing more than the fantasies of Geoffrey of Monmouth. John Prise and John Leland angrily refuted his claims and later Protestant reformers characterised him as the last in a line of Italian scholars who had stolen from and distorted English ecclesiastical history for their own ends. They even accused him of destroying books. Yet, the Anglica Historia was also praised and used as a good and useful history. Even the staunch Protestant reformer John Bale admitted that Vergil was a good scholar, if misdirected.
In this paper I will be tracing references to Polydore Vergil and his publications in histories written after the 1520s to follow the ups and downs of his reputation in scholarly circles and, from there, into the wider public sphere. This is important as it tells us much about rising xenophobia against ‘the foreigner’ in Tudor England (specifically against Italians) and about the cultural perception of the English following the English reformation. It helps us to understand how those in charge attempted to use history as a tool of conversion partly by re-claiming their Christianity as non-Roman in origins, and by placing Italians as invaders and interlopers. The martyrologist John Foxe produced the clearest expression of this revised history and it is here where the clearest attack on Vergil’s character is made. When Polydore Vergil had first arrived in England he was welcomed as a celebrity partly because he was Italian. By the time he left, he was viewed with hostility as one amongst many foreigners no longer to be welcomed. Why did this happen and what role did histories, such as the one produced by Foxe, have in this change of perception?
If you would like to join us the Society, Culture, and Belief seminar will be held on Thursday 5 December 2013, 5.30pm in room G37, Senate House (University of London).