In the 16th and 17th centuries, the most influential works concerning social etiquette and conduct of life in Britain were Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier, first published in 1528 in Venice and subsequently reprinted several times in many translations) and Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman, first published in 1630 and 1631 respectively in London. Magdalene College Old Library has a Latin translation of Il Libro del Cortegiano, printed in London by Thomas Adams in 1612, and a 1631 copy of Brathwait’s The English Gentlewoman.
Castiglione (1483-1520) was an ambassador to Pope Leo X, poet, humanist and courtier. Throughout Il Libro del Cortegiano, Castiglione describes an ideal model of a courtier in the form of a series of fictionalised conversations between the Duke of Urbino and his court. The Duchy of Urbino was a highly influential and prosperous territory in Renaissance Italy. Through Castiglione’s description of courtly life there, of which he had first-hand experience, Urbino had a wider influence upon aristocratic conduct of life throughout Europe. Peter Burke, the author of ‘The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano’ argues that the Il Libro del Cortegiano was not only read by the nobility, but also those in the literate classes, such as merchants and university teachers, as an aspirational work. This is certainly demonstrated through copies making their way into libraries such as Magdalene’s. Throughout Il Libro del Cortegiano, the courtier is advised to display a combination of masculine yet genteel behaviour. For example, his voice should not be ‘del rustico’ (‘rustic’) nor should it be ‘troppo sottile o molle come di femina’ (‘too slender or soft, like a woman’s).
Magdalene’s translated copy of Il Libro del Cortegiano is particularly interesting due to the 16th century manuscript fragments found on the inside of the front and rear covers of the book, known as ‘pastedowns’. Old scraps of printed and manuscript material were often used in this way as part of the bookbinding process.
Turning to advice specifically for ladies, The English Gentlewoman by Richard Brathwait is particularly concerned with a woman’s outward appearance, perhaps not so surprising when considering gender roles throughout history. The subtitle to the book reads ‘expressing, what habilliments doe best attire her, what ornaments doe best adorne her, what complements doe best accomplish her’ whereas the subtitle for The English Gentleman is ‘containing sundry excellent rules or exquisite observations, tending to direction of every gentleman, of selecter ranke and qualitie; how to demeane or accommodate himselfe in the manage of publike or private affaires.’ Brathwait further challenges readers of The English Gentlewoman: ‘you are to be really, what you appear outwardly’, making reference to a common historic notion that women were intrinsically deceitful. In addition to his books on social conduct, Brathwait was a prolific poet. Although his poetry has not garnered much attention, his literary activities are of note in the context of ‘gentlemanly scholarship’ in the seventeenth century.
The frontispiece engraving by William Marshall for The English Gentlewoman is particularly fine and displays various mottos for women to follow such as ‘Grace my guide, glory my goale’. Marshall was the most prolific engraver during the reign of Charles I.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Brown, Meg Lota, and Kari Boyd McBride. Women’s Roles in the Renaissance. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.
Castiglione, Baldassarre, and George Bull. The Book of the Courtier. The Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
‘Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) | Louvre Museum | Paris’. Accessed 9 June 2015. http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/portrait-baldassare-castiglione-1478-1529.
Burke, Peter. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. Cambridge: Polity, 1995.
‘The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano, Peter Burke’. Accessed 5 June 2015. http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/0-271-01516-0.html.
‘National Portrait Gallery – Person – William Marshall’. Accessed 10 June 2015. http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person.php?LinkID=mp13298&role=art.
Hodgkin, Katharine. Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings of Dionys Fitzherbert. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2010.