In Defence of Cataloguing Details

Even small inscriptions sometimes tell important tales.  One example of this is seen in the copy of Lucio Domizio Brusoni’s Facetiarum exemplorum’que libri VII (Lath. B.6.13) found in Brasenose College, Oxford.  This work is a collection of anecdotes drawn from classical and Christian authors and organised somewhat alphabetically by topic (de avaritia, de amore, de adultario, de aulicorum    officiis, etc) into seven books.  While its dedicatory epistle claims that these examples were chosen for moral edification, the resulting text is primarily a repository of humanist witticisms on various subjects.  It is, thus, a scholarly resource typical of the Italian Renaissance.  First printed in Rome in 1516, it was dedicated to Cardinal Pompeo Colonna and it contained endorsing epigrams from three members of the Roman Academy.

            Brusoni’s work was republished at least eight times during the next century.  The Brasenose copy is a revised version edited by the Alsatian humanist Conrad Lycosthenes, the nephew of the Protestant theologian Conrad Pellican, which was printed in Basel by Nicolaus Brylinger in 1559.  Though the text itself is of interest, the short, hitherto unknown, ownership inscription on the title-page is worthy of special attention.  It reads ‘Tho. Beconus pr[etium] iij s iiij d.’  This minute line of text reveals that this book was once owned by the English clergyman and bestselling devotional author Thomas Becon (1512-1567).  Moreover, it illuminates a largely overlooked aspect of his life and literary output.


            To make sense of the value of this inscription, we need some background.  Becon first rose to prominence as a bestselling author during the final decade of Henry VIII’s reign.  Between 1541 and 1543, he composed eleven original works and an extended preface, which circulated in twenty-five known editions.  The explosive popularity of these books–produced in cheap, octavo editions–made him a prime target for religious conservatives during the Prebendaries’ Plot of 1543.  He was made to recant his writing publicly at Paul’s Cross in London and to seek shelter in remote regions of the Midlands and East Anglia for the remainder of the reign.  His fortunes, however, radically changed on Edward VI’s accession to the throne.  Becon was made a chaplain to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector of England.  In these two roles, he made crucial contributions to official statements of doctrine, such as the Book of Homilies (1547), the Catechism (1548), the Primer (1553), and the cornerstone of ensuing English liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer (1549).  He also continued to produce bestselling writing of his own and began to publish exclusively with John Day, the most significant printer in England during the second half of the sixteenth-century.

            The death of Edward and the accession of his Catholic sister Mary Tudor brought an abrupt end to this period of Becon’s career.  He was arrested in August 1553 and imprisoned in the Tower of London.  When he was released the following year (by accident, John Foxe would later claim!), Becon fled to the continent.  He first resided in Strasbourg, where he produced tracts of anti-Marian propaganda, designed to be smuggled into England.  He then relocated to Frankfurt, where he took part in the liturgical controversy that erupted there between two factions of English exiles.  These phases of Becon’s Marian exile are well-known and they largely run parallel to the careers of other English reformers.

            However, more obscure is Becon’s time in Marburg from 1556 to 1559.  During this phase of his exile, he was associated with the university and appears to have been a client of Philip I, the Landgrave of Hesse.  Such academic and political connections had a profound effect on his writing.  Instead of producing further polemical resources, Becon began to compile scholarly compendiums of quotations from biblical, patristic, and philosophical authors, including Solomon, Ben Sira, and Xenophon.  These loci communes were published in Basel by the famed printer and scholar Johann Oporinus.  Becon’s connection to Oporinus almost certainly came via his fellow exiles John Bale and John Foxe, who, after leaving Frankfurt, moved to Basel and found employment as correctors in his workshop.  The works that Becon published with Oporinus (with one exception, printed after the accession of Elizabeth) stand out from the popular devotional material for which he was known in England.  They were academic resources, which were owned by both Protestants and Catholics.  Thus, for Becon, there is an upside to exile: in Marburg he wrote learned, Latin works shaped by the intellectual environment in which he found himself.  For a brief moment, he was a humanist scholar, rather than a popular preacher and devotional writer.

            This brings us to Brusoni’s Facetiarum exemplorum’que libri VII.  The Brasenose copy of this text must have been sent to Becon or purchased by him after his return to England.  The preface by Lycosthenes is dated September 1559 and clear evidence of Becon’s role in the visitation of the Province of Canterbury dates from August.  However, the fact that Becon used the Latinate form of his name (‘Beconus’) in this inscription (which can be matched with samples of his handwriting found in the Parker Library, Canterbury Cathedral Archives, and Chetham’s Library) suggests that this text was likely obtained shortly after his homecoming.  Moreover, the relatively high inscribed cost (‘pro iij s iiij d’) probably indicates that this volume was given to him since in the immediate wake of his return to England Becon complained of poverty.  This raises the question of who might have given him this book.  As it was printed in Basel, the idea that Oporinus or someone connected to his workshop might have sent it is plausible.  Further credence is given to this theory in light of the fact that Lycosthenes, who revised and edited this edition, was married to Oporinus’ sister and Brylinger, who printed it, regularly collaborated with him.

            No matter how this work came into Becon’s hand, it stands out as a relic of his brief career as a continental humanist.  As a collection of scholarly wit and historical and literary examples, it illuminates Becon the Marburg academic, rather than the English devotional writer.  It supplies a reminder that exile, with all its attendant hardships, could sometimes provide early modern émigrés with possibilities that were not available to them in their native lands.  These key insights are only available because the inscription in this book was catalogued by Sophie Floate.  When I wrote my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Cambridge on Thomas Becon, this fascinating piece of evidence eluded me.  However, as an early career academic working in Canada, I was able to discover this finding online and to arrange to examine this text shortly after it was initially catalogued.  All this points to the indispensable need to catalogue details, no matter how small.  The digital possibilities of our age furnish novel opportunities to unearth the past collaboratively.  It is crucial that we seize hold of these opportunities!

Jonathan Reimer

St Mark’s College

Vancouver, B.C., Canada









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1 Response to In Defence of Cataloguing Details

  1. Pingback: A quondam alumnus and his gift | Brasenose College Library & Archives

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