A bookish tour of England among friends
ur vacation to Great Britain in May was even more enjoyable than anticipated, in part because of our Caxton Club connections. On May 4, we were met in London by our old friends, Sam and Susan Crowl, who are spending their sabbatical year from Ohio University in London working and playing around the theaters, museums, libraries, restaurants, and pubs of that great city. Sam, as many Caxtonians will remember, spoke to the club about “Shakespeare on Film” on May 19, 1999, and followed it up with an article in the Caxtonian. He has written one book on the subject, Shakespeare Observed, and has published numerous articles on performances and films of Shakespeare’s plays. He is finishing a sequel to his first book, which will critique the torrent of Shakespeare films that have been produced in the past decade. His avid interest in the London theater in general and Shakespeare in particular has put him in personal contact with some of the notable actors and directors in England, including Kenneth Branaugh and Adrian Noble.
In advance of our trip, therefore, Sam was well prepared to plan our theater schedule in London as well as in Stratford.The first play on our agenda, “God Only Knows,” is a clever, philosophical melodrama, with a bibliographical twist. The protagonist bibliophile, played energetically by Derek Jacobi, is an expert on medieval manuscripts who has discovered a heretofore unknown text that gives evidence that the resurrection of Jesus was a conspiracy. The wacky plot raises the question of the existence of God and the authenticity of the Gospels’ account of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The play is set in a remote Italian villa, where two English couples are having a disillusioned vacation. The agitated bibliophile/scholar crashes his car on the road outside and bursts into the room in flight from an asylum, where he had been kept incarcerated, he believes, by authorities in the Vatican. After a couple of hours of increasingly drunken confabulation among the five middle-aged yuppies, the protagonist pulls out a gun and takes off with the couples’ car, while a helicopter hovers noisily over the villa shining a spotlight in the window. The audience is presumably confronted with the conundrum that God only knows whether Jesus was an imposter. My brief summary of the plot does not give full credit to the entertaining mode in which the philosophical question of God’s existence was raised. But it provided ample material afterwards for conversation over refreshments at the Crowls’ flat.
Coincidentally, we were joined at the theater with other former friends from Ohio University, Charles Ping and his wife Clare and Will Connecker and his wife Anna Lee, whom the Crowls had hosted the week before our arrival. Charlie Ping and Sam Crowl are good friends from their days of running Ohio University. Sam served under Ping as Dean of University College until he resigned and returned to the English Department as a Trustee Professor of Literature. A couple of years ago, Charlie retired as president of the university and returned to teaching philosophy on a part-time basis. As a philosopher and an ordained Presbyterian minister, Charlie’s faith in the existence of God did not seem shaken by the agnostic message of the play, although I am not sure how he felt about the credibility of the Vatican conspiracy.
Early Caxton text in Windsor Castle
On Monday we stopped for a day at Windsor Castle, staying at the Christopher Wren Hotel. We visited the royal castle and had lunch in the pub where Prince Philip is reputed to frequent, with his spats unbuckled, when he is hanging out at the castle. The historic house of the English royalty is truly overwhelming, with its incredible collections of art, icons, and historic mementos, too much to see in a day. But I was especially pleased to notice on display in the Chapel of St. George a copy of a 1472 edition of William Caxton’s A Game of Chess.
New College Library’s Rare Books
Among the many other book-related events on our vacation, perhaps the highlight occurred the next day at New College at Oxford University. In planning our vacation, I particularly wanted to visit the New College library, for I knew it to have the four-volume vellum set of Aristotle’s Works, published by Aldus Manutius between 1495-98. I wrote to David Vaisey, Librarian Emeritus of the Bodleian library, with whom I had had lunch when he visited Chicago in 1999. Many Caxtonians will remember the stimulating and informative slide presentation that David gave at The Caxton Club on September 15, 1999, about the history of the Bodleian Library.
Unfortunately he was planning a visit to the United States for the opening of a new library at Vasser College when we were planning to visit Oxford. But he made known my interest to Naomi van Loo, librarian at New College, before our arrival, and she responded with a kind invitation to visit the library. Carolyn and I arrived about 11:00 a.m. on a bright, sunny Tuesday. We were welcomed with gracious hospitality on the most beautiful day that Naomi and our cab driver had experienced in several months.
I had informed her in advance of my interest in seeing the Aristotle edition. After giving us a tour of the main library, she introduced us to Catherine Wise, a most knowledgeable conservator and entertaining docent. Catherine escorted us to her workplace in the bell tower where over 70,000 rare books are stored. She took time to answer our many questions and to fetch books from the shelves that arrested my attention. She explained to us with great care and detail her art as a restorer and conservator, and her enthusiasm added interest to the books she presented for our review.
Entering the monastic confines of the bell tower, she took us immediately to inspect the rare Aldine Aristotle. I could hardly believe that Catherine was the only worker in the whole rare book repository, and that we were the only visitors. She explained that the main undergraduate library was in constant use, as we could see for ourselves, but apparently few scholars venture into the bell tower where the rare books are held. At least none made his presence known while we were there.
The New College edition of Aristotle is the only extant copy printed on vellum. She encouraged us to inspect it in detail and to feel the vellum pages with the smooth and rough sides of the sheepskin on opposing pages. She explained that human handling aids the preservation of the vellum and leather. I knew from my study of Thomas More and his Utopia that Thomas Linacre had given the set to the New College Library upon his return to England after his studies in Italy and his work in the shop of Aldus Manutius at the turn of the 16th Century. In my presentation to The Caxton Club last October, I showed a slide of the three-volume set in the Newberry Library, which is a fine copy in the original binding. But it is printed on paper, not vellum. Unfortunately the New College vellum copy has been rebound by an inferior binder, who even misdated one of the volumes.
Nonetheless the New College copy of the Works is significant for other reasons, mainly its association with Thomas Linacre. Linacre studied in Florence around 1490 and moved to Padua, where he took a medical degree in 1496. He was also working around this time with Aldus on the Aristotle edition. That Aldus highly esteemed Linacre’s work is evident from the mention of Linacre’s name in the preface to the third volume, in a letter written by Aldus Manutius to Alberto Pio. Pio was the patron of Aldus and the nephew of the famous Italian humanist, Pico della Mirandola. In the margin of the page in which the allusion to Linacre is printed, “Thomas Anglicushomo & graece & I.atine peritiffimus,” the name “Linacre” is penned in the margin. Linacre’s name is also penned in several other margins in the text, clearly indicating that “Thomas Anglicushomo” in the text is Thomas Linacre.
When Linacre returned to England in 1498, his reputation had grown prodigiously. He was appointed tutor to Prince Arthur, older brother of Henry VIII and immediate heir to the throne; he introduced Greek studies at Oxford and was Thomas More’s tutor. Not only was he a great humanist scholar, but he also became the first president of the Royal Academy of Medicine and is known as the Father of English Medicine.
Linacre also brought back to New College other Greek texts, among them works of Aristophanes, Lucian, and Theophrastus’ On plants, titles included in the cache of books Hythlodaeus took to Utopia. The Newberry has copies of the Lucian and the Aristophanes but not Theophrastus’ On Plants, which I was extremely pleased to see and touch at New College. That is one of the books that Hythlodaeus reported a monkey to have eaten on Vespucci’s ship on the voyage to Utopia.
I was amazed to see the prized four-volume Aristotle edition sitting on a shelf in an obscure cranny in a cramped isle of the bell tower alongside several other books mentioned in the Utopia of almost similar rarity. The unexpected inauspicious shelving of these books brought to my mind the story told about Alexander the Great and the casket of Darius, Alexander always carried with him in battle an edition of Homer, corrected by Aristotle, and laid it under his pillow at night with his sword. After the battle of Arbe’la a golden casket richly studded with gems was found in the tent of Darius; and Alexander, being asked to what purpose it should be assigned, replied, “There is but one thing in the world worthy of so costly a depository,” saying which, he placed therein his edition of Homer.
Unfortunately our time at the library was limited, because we had already planned our visit to Stratford the next day. But we were pleased to invite Naomi and Catherine to an excellent lunch at the Parsonage, a fine restaurant in the vicinity. We talked of books, libraries, politics, and sundry other topics, which once again reminded me that librarians are engaging and kind people, informed about the ways of the world. Afterwards they gave us a tour of the campus of New College on an idyllic spring day, surely a day we will remember among our souvenirs.
Serendipitous Caxton meeting
The next day in Stratford was the occasion of another delightfully serendipitous surprise, when we attended a matinee performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Stratford. At the Interval of the play, as the English call the intermission, we happened to meet, quite by accident, Caxtonians Truman Metzel and Dorothy Anderson. They were on a theater tour conducted by the Court Theater of the University of Chicago. Also in the group was Caxtonian Jane Rosenthal and her daughter Emily. After the performance we were invited to a seminar with the actor, Guy Henry, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, arranged by the Court Theater director. Henry is an engaging and highly intelligent professional actor whose portrayal of Malvolio was one of the best we had ever seen. He opened up for us many facets of Malvolio’s comic/tragic character, and he explained with great lucidity the difficulty for him as an actor to strike the right balance between buffoonery and prudery in the part. That was a pleasant interlude with our Caxton Club friends, at which we took photos to be memorialized in the Caxtonian. It was, as well, a fitting climax of our stay in England. v
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