Christine de Pisan

THE PEPYS LIBRARIAN, Dr M E J Hughes, discusses the Feat of Arms and of Chivalry by Christine de Pisan, and Samuel Pepys’s copy, as the final blog of Magdalene Libraries’ ‘Incunabula Season’.

A seventeenth-century binding might well embrace within its boards a compilation of varied literary materials: Samuel Pepys, whose library is housed here at Magdalene College, was especially fond of collecting together pamphlets and quartos on subjects which were broadly related under general headings such as ‘Trials’ or ‘Vulgaria’. The recent catalogue of the ‘Collections’, edited by C S Knighton, has done much to reveal Pepys’s habits of creating co-ordinated groupings of shorter works by theme or genre.    So while PL 1938 is, even by Pepys’s standards, a strange marriage, it too reveals its owner’s privileging of theme over other criteria in his compilations.

In this remarkable volume, a parchment manuscript preserving a French translation by Jean de Vigny of ‘De re militari’ by Vegetius [the late fourth-century military writer], is bound up with an early printed book —  an English translation from the French [by Caxton] of the ‘Feats of Arms’ of Christine de Pisan.

Let us review the key dramatis personae of this story.

First, chronologically, comes Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus.   He wrote what became a central textbook for military strategy, translated and copied numerous times in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. In the ‘De re militari’, Vegetius engages with practical issues: how to design a camp, the organisation of an army, and the response to military situations.  One can imagine the appeal of such a text to Pepys; and furthermore,  the tone of Vegetius’s tract (as the author laments the parlous state of the army in comparison with earlier times, suggests improvements and especially expansions, and argues for the importance of military resources to the state) is highly reminiscent of Pepys’s own, famous parliamentary plea for the replenishment and enhancement of the Restoration navy.

Our next actor is Christine de Pisan (1364 – c. 1430).  Christine has attracted a good deal of critical attention as rare example of a  female writer who earned money by her work.  Unlike many other female writers who have been admitted into the pantheon, she was not a mystic or visionary.  She was a courtly writer, with a strong political and ethical voice.  Often seen as a proto-feminist, her works have been routinely trawled for statements about female experience, and in particular for critiques of misogyny against, and stereotyping  of, women.

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An example of Caxton’s initial letters.

Caxton, our third figure, is often and justifiably praised for including Christine’s name as the author of the book, running against other writers on Christine’s work who routinely omitted to mention her authorship.  His folio translation of her ‘Book of the Feat of Arms and of Chivalry’, was published in Westminster on 14th July 1489, more than a decade after the Chaucer editions which were looked at by Professor Helen Cooper in an earlier blog post in this series on the Magdalene incunabula.  A translator, a scribe and, of course, a ground-breaking printer, Caxton’s influence over taste is crucial to the early modern period:  Malory, Chaucer, Christine… these courtly writers printed by Caxton formed the bedrock of early libraries and influenced generations of writers and thinkers from Henry VIII to Samuel Pepys.   As is well-known, Caxton’s initial letters (oversized and decorative) as well as his type face gesture towards the handwritten texts from which he translated.  Another conceptual juxtaposition of very different technologies.

And it was Pepys, our final actor, who took a manuscript of Vegetius and a printed copy of Caxton’s Christine and had them bound together. The binding of PL 1938 itself is rather fragile: it is not easy to sew together parchment and paper; and the volume seems to want to divide itself into two again, making handling it problematic.


Spine of the volume

The binding is in the style identified by Nixon (in his catalogue of the bindings in the Pepys library) as F, which is typically favoured by Pepys in the 1680s.  It is the style used for many volumes, including some early printed books (incunabula) which had come into Pepys’s hands.

To bind the manuscript with the printed book required some neatening of edges: as often with the binding of medieval manuscripts for Pepys, the binder had to create a straight edge, but achieved this without grievous loss to the text.

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The join between the end of the printed work and the beginning of the manuscript work.

The first page of the Vegetius treatise is markedly less clean than the rest, suggesting that in its pre-Pepysian life it had not been bound, or not for a while.  But it does preserve its opening image: a fascinating representation, familiar as a medieval trope, of a book being handed to a ruler by a kneeling author.

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Illustration at the opening of the Vegetius treatise.

Various heraldic emblems are present, with an example of political iconoclasm, where the arms of France (impaled with those of England) have been scratched out.

So there are many questions and points of interest in this volume.  Here I want to focus on one: the conjunction of Vegetius with Christine; of a Classical, male author with a medieval, female one.  This is a sign of the careful, bibliographic interests shown by Pepys: Christine was often thought to have produced not an original work of her own, but a faulty translation of the earlier Classical treatise.  This view has been exploded by much recent work, such as a trenchant essay of the 1990s by Charity Cannon Willard which convincingly explains the unique political context for Christine’s writing  —  but it might well have been Pepys’s view.  This would suggest that the two ‘translations’ of Vegetius’s  treatise are conjoined  in just the same way as two copies of Roger Bacon’s ‘Perspectiva’, one in manuscript and one in an early printed edition, are shelved next to each other, as PL 1207 and 1208.  Two versions, with very different technologies.

Another context for Pepys’s interest in Christine is related more to his own historical background.  Caxton’s translation of Christine’s treatise was a politically motivated commission, made to Caxton by Henry VII.  Henry’s aims were multiply, including crucially, the legitimising of his rule after Civil War in which claims for legitimacy were key, and, equally crucially, the appropriation to the Tudor project of the new technology of printing as well as the promotion of the English language to provide direct routes of access to the people.


The beginning of the Christine de Pisan.

It is something of a truism, when talking of Pepys’s habits of arranging his books, to say that he was wedded to respecting the sizes of the volumes and the aesthetics of his book cases ‘at all costs’; and it is certainly true that books of very different topics sit next to each other on the shelves.   But some conjunctions in the Library display  in miniature other nuanced criteria which Pepys favours; and PL 1938 offers an insight into an intriguing component in his conception of the inter-relations of texts – the art of the translator.

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