This post summarises some of the arguments I made at this Decembers’ Society, Culture, and Belief 1500-1800 seminar. By tracing the reputation of an historian and his history through other works of history produced in the same century it’s possible to see what effect a historian had on the historical literature of his own time. In the case of Polydore Vergil, an Italian priest, we gain something more as well; a glimpse into how the elite of Tudor England sought to use xenophobic attacks as a means to promote anti-papery amongst the English people.
I haven’t given many talks over the last few years on my own research. In fact this is the only one this year. On this occasion, I decided to focus my attention on Polydore Vergil because he and his history (the Anglica Historia) tells us something interesting about how scholars wrote about other scholars in the sixteenth-century, and how in some cases a reputation can be subverted for polemical gain.
In essence my talk was about the nature of truth-claims in histories of the sixteenth-century, although that topic was not quite where I placed my emphasis in the seminar itself. I looked more towards how xenophobic remarks against the ‘Italian’ were placed in histories on a regular basis as a means of claiming the Papal Church as a foreign intervention: foreign, in this case, meaning only bad things; a danger or threat to English life.
Truth was and remains a commodity that scholars claim for their works. In the sixteenth-century that truth was specific but very much divorced from the kind of neutrality that we would expect from our historians today. The truth was located within a framework of binary oppositions in which (at least as far as English histories were concerned) tended to focus on the reformer putting history right, after the Roman Catholic had altered and even fabricated a false version.
This is where Polydore Vergil comes in. I examined the transmission of his reputation in three parts but as I formed that argument I realised just how interconnected those parts were in gaining an understanding of ‘Polydore Vergil’ as a persona used by later historians.
A humanist historian and Tudor propagandist
In his account of the Wars of the Roses, Edward Hall copied and translated large portions of Vergil’s fifteenth-century history. He did so with few amendments and by doing so allowed Vergil’s version of events to feed into the generally accepted literature about that period. It was a version that generally looked to the fifteenth century as a time when government failed. It was a version that authorised the Tudor dynasty as setting things right again. Richard Grafton did much the same thing in his continuation of Hardyng’s Chronicle. From those accounts Holinshed borrowed heavily, and eventually William Shakespeare would use the same rendition of fifteenth-century history in his plays.
What is interesting about all of this is the fact that Vergil’s actual history was never published in England. Instead English scholars took wholesale the parts they agreed with and transferred them into their own histories – in essence giving those English rather than Italian credentials. I don’t want to make too much of a point about this – many histories regardless of the nationality of their authors were similarly transferred in similar ways – but considering the other aspects of how Vergil’s reputation transmitted it would seem plausible to me that a reluctance emerged amongst English scholars to give Vergil too much credit. It is interesting that most references to Vergil in later histories refer only to areas of contention and claims of his inaccuracy and yet it is obvious that many historians saw in Vergil’s history something very useful in terms of his rendition of recent history.
The controversy over origin stories
Polydore Vergil offended many English scholars as he claimed that Geoffrey of Monmouth had lied about the founding of Britain by Brutus and about King Arthur and Merlin. John Leland and John Price were the first to attack him – attempting to show, through evidence, that Vergil was mistaken. One of the principal arguments they used, focused on the fact that Vergil was a foreigner and therefore had no idea of the local evidence, preferring and relying upon continental histories that, they claimed, couldn’t possibly have known enough details about English affairs. In essence their argument claimed the foreign scholar as a poor candidate for writing a history; it should be left to natives with the right knowledge and background.
Therefore, the persona of an ‘Italian’ was used as a means to reduce Vergil’s authority in matters of English history. He was claimed as a foreigner who could not know or fully understand the English past.
The burner of books
As the reformation progressed in England scholars began to build upon Vergil’s negative reputation as a foreigner. John Foxe gives us the most vivid example, by claiming that Vergil had burnt books that revealed evidence that Britain’s church had been founded independently of Rome. In truth he was trying to hide the fact that there were many gaps in the histories which did not support the revised past he was trying to build, and that the reformers themselves were responsible for many of the lost ancient books when they carelessly threw them out of the monasteries during the dissolution of the 1530s and 40s.
Foxe constantly referred to Vergil as an Italian – he was in essence using the formers foreignness against him; using the perceived underlying xenophobia of the English people as a catalyst for proclaiming against the Roman Catholic Church. By using Vergil in those terms Foxe was able to argue that the Roman Church was a foreign interposition on English affairs that needed eradication and removal.
Over all the evidence suggests to me not so much xenophobia on the part of the scholars writing their histories, but certainly an attempt to use xenophobia as a means to assert their own credentials over that of Vergil and indeed, over that of traditional authorities of English history. Monks too were claimed as a foreign invasion, instantly setting most medieval chronicles into a category of suspicion. It is a shame for Vergil. Denis Hays has claimed him as one of the most important historians of his time, and in many ways that is true. But his reputation at the time was severely hit by politics and religious controversy. Perhaps that is why he is so important – Vergil caused controversy – forcing English scholars to reassess their sources, debate and attack his arguments. Progress was made in historical methodology and knowledge by such means.