Tag Archives: Renaissance Literature

#FineArtFriday: Landscape with a Watermill – Le Tresor des Histoires (15th C) The Cotton Library

Description: Landscape with a Watermill

Date: 15th century

Collection: British Library

Accession number: Cotton Augustus V, f.345v

Source/Photographer: Image taken from Le Tresor des Histoires: a universal history from the Creation to the time of Pope Clement VI.

Originally published/produced in 15th century.

Held and digitised by the British Library

About the Cotton Library, via Wikipedia:

The Cottonian Library was the richest private collection of manuscripts ever amassed. Of secular libraries it outranked the Royal Library, the collections of the Inns of Court and the College of Arms. Cotton’s collection even included the original codex bound manuscript of Beowulf, written around the year 1000. Cotton’s house near the Palace of Westminster became the meeting-place of the Society of Antiquaries of London and of all the eminent scholars of England. the Library was eventually donated to the nation by Cotton’s grandson and is now housed in the British Library.

Robert Bruce Cotton organized his library in a room 26 feet (7.9 m) long by six feet wide filled with bookpresses, each with the bust of a figure from classical antiquity on top. Counterclockwise, these were:

This is an incomplete list of some of the manuscripts from the Cotton library that today form the Cotton collection of the British Library. Some manuscripts were destroyed or damaged in a fire at Ashburnham House in 1731, and a few are kept in other libraries and collections.

In each press, each shelf was assigned a letter; manuscripts were identified by the bust over the press, the shelf letter, and the position of the manuscript (in Roman numerals) counting from the left side of the shelf. Thus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Nero B.iv, was the fourth manuscript from the left on the second shelf (shelf B) of the press under the bust of Nero. For Domitian and Augustus, which had only one shelf each, the shelf letter was left out of the press-mark.

The British Museum retained Cotton’s press-marks when the Cotton collection became one of the foundational collections of its library, so manuscripts are still designated by library, bookpress, shelf, and number (even though they are no longer stored in that fashion). For example, the manuscript of Beowulf is designated Cotton MS Vitellius A.xv, and the manuscript of Pearl is Cotton MS Nero A.x.

Today’s image is a gorgeous, highly detailed illustration from the 15th century book,  Le Tresor des Histoires. Universal history, from the Creation to Pope Clement VI (died 1342). 15th century copy. Lavishly illuminated, the beautiful art was most likely done by an unknown artist in either a monastery or nunnery, as both priests and nuns were known to work at copying and illustrating books. In fact, nuns were as likely to be found working as scribes as monks, friars, and priests were.

About Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Baronet – via Wikipedia:

Sir Robert Cotton began developing the works and manuscripts into a collection for his Library shortly after the birth of his son in 1594. From the period 1609 to 1614 the deaths of various people (including Lord Lumley, Earl of Salisbury, Prince Henry, William Dethick and Northampton) all contributed to Sir Robert Cotton’s purchase of works for his library. Sir Robert Cotton resided in London, while his wife and son remained in the country. During his father’s absence Thomas Cotton studied to eventually receive his BA on 24 October 1616 from Broadgates Hall—the very same year that Sir Robert Cotton returned to his wife Elizabeth and family (a result of a hiccup with the law involving the death of earl of Somerset). At that point, Sir Thomas Cotton had taken the responsibilities of the home and the library into his own hands.

(c) Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In 1620, Thomas Cotton married Margaret Howard with whom he had his first son, Sir John Cotton, just one year later in 1621. Sir Thomas Cotton’s marriage with Margaret Howard ended in 1622, which had been the year that Thomas Cotton’s father, Sir Robert Cotton, permanently moved residence to The Cotton House, along with the library which remained in the Cotton House until Sir Robert Cotton’s death nine years later in 1631. The relocation of the library and residence to the Cotton House gave members of Parliament and government workers better access to the matter within the library to be used as resources for their work.

The Cotton Library offered important and valuable sources of reference and knowledge to many people, such as John Selden, “a frequent borrower from the library, and probably its protector during the civil wars” as stated in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Selden, in 1623 said of Cotton: “his kindness and willingness to make them [his collection of books and manuscripts] available to students of good literature and affairs of state”. In keeping with the notion that John Selden was a common presence in the Cotton library, The British Library holds a list of thirteen works, and the locations of those volumes today, that had been lent to Seldon by Sir Robert Cotton.

After another hiccup with the government, Sir Robert Cotton was forced to close the library by Charles I because the content within the library was believed to be harmful to the interests of the Royalists in 1629. In September 1630 Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Thomas Cotton, together, petitioned for renewed access to their library. One year later, in 1631, Sir Robert Cotton died without knowing what the future held for his library, but wrote in his will that the library be left to his son Thomas Cotton and that it be passed down accordingly. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas Cotton married his second wife, Alice Constable, in 1640 with whom they had their son Robert Cotton in 1644. Sir Thomas Cotton’s “ownership access to the Cotton library was more limited than under his father” according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Thomas Cotton maintained his ability to “protect,” “improve” and “maximize the profits” received during the civil war, as he had earlier on in his life as a result of his father’s absence. Upon the death of Sir Robert Cotton on 13 May 1662, Sir Thomas Cotton obeyed the will of his father and passed down the library to his eldest son from his first marriage, Sir John Cotton.

On 12 September 1702, Sir John Cotton died. Prior to his death, Sir John Cotton had arranged for the Cotton Library to be bought for the nation of England through acts of Parliament. If the library had not been sold to the nation, despite the wish of his grandfather Sir Robert Cotton, the library would have been taken over and inherited by John Cotton’s two grandsons, who, unlike the rest of the college-educated Cotton family, had been illiterate and put the Cotton Library at risk of potentially getting broken up and sold to different divisions within the family.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Landscape with a watermill – Le Tresor des Histoires (15th C), f.345v – BL Cotton MS Augustus V.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Landscape_with_a_watermill_-_Le_Tresor_des_Histoires_(15th_C),_f.345v_-_BL_Cotton_MS_Augustus_V.jpg&oldid=295714857 (accessed May 14, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “List of manuscripts in the Cotton library,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_manuscripts_in_the_Cotton_library&oldid=919448324 (accessed May 14, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Baronet, of Connington,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sir_Robert_Cotton,_1st_Baronet,_of_Connington&oldid=948522337 (accessed May 14, 2020).

Portrait of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, 1st Baronet, by Cornelis Janson van Ceulen Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Robert Cotton.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Robert_Cotton.jpg&oldid=369753711 (accessed May 14, 2020).


Filed under #FineArtFriday

What I’ve learned from Miguel Cervantes #amreading

In the book we know familiarly as Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes wrote a brilliant, enduring story, one that has survived intact since it was first published in 1605.

Cervantes himself had a fantastic history, a story which could have been written as a novel.

Born in 1547 to an impoverished Spanish doctor, Miguel was better educated than many of his time, although exactly where he was educated is not known. He joined the army at twenty-one.

In 1575, pirates kidnapped Cervantes and his brother and sold them as slaves to the Moors. Originally from Morocco, the Moors were Muslims and were the longtime adversaries of Catholic Spain, which they had once conquered.

History says Cervantes was taken to Algiers. His three or four attempts to escape his slavery were unsuccessful, but finally, he was ransomed in 1580 and returned to Spain.

Upon gaining his freedom, he worked in many clerical capacities, notably as a purchasing agent for the Spanish navy (i.e., the Spanish King). His unfortunate trust in an Andalucían banker with whom he had deposited Crown funds led to his imprisonment for a few months in Seville, after said banker went bankrupt.

It was during his stay in prison that the story of Don Quixote was born. All his life, Cervantes had to work a day job to support himself, writing at night and whenever he had the chance. Prison offered him the chance to spend his entire day writing.

In Don Quixote, Cervantes took many risks with vocabulary. He had as immense an effect on the Spanish language as William Shakespeare did English.

Sayings you might hear every day that were coined by Cervantes:

  • By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
  • Can we ever have too much of a good thing?
  • No limits but the sky.
  • Why do you lead me a wild-goose chase?
  • Thank you for nothing.
  • Let every man mind his own business.
  • The pot calls the kettle black.

Only in the final ten years of his life did Cervantes achieve literary success, and even then, he struggled to support himself.

Cervantes divided Don Quixote into three sections, each with a different perspective:

In the first section of the First Part, which covered Don Quixote’s first expedition, he wrote a parody of contemporary romance tales. Cervantes tells this section in a straightforward style.

The second section (comprising the rest of the First Part) is written as if it were a historical account. Here, Cervantes tells us he’s merely translating the manuscript of Cide Hamete Benengeli. He often breaks the fourth wall, interrupting the narrative to mention Benengeli. He remarks on the “internal inconsistencies” in Benengeli’s manuscript. It is broken into chapters at intervals, and Cervantes records the events of each of Don Quixote’s days.

The third section (which covers the Second Part of the novel) is different. It was written as a traditional novel might be. Emotions, large themes, and strong character development are features of this section. Here, Cervantes has gotten a grip on the story arc and the characters.

It is in this third section that Cervantes himself enters the novel as a character. He casts himself as a synthesis of the fictional Benengeli and Cervantes the author.

This is a morality tale. The character Don Quixote strives to be an example, becoming a knight-errant as a way to force his contemporaries to face their failures. In his eyes, they have abandoned the traditions of morality and the chivalric code.

This conflict between tradition and modern values becomes a stalemate. No one understands Don Quixote, and he understands no one.

Only Sancho, his good-hearted, loyal friend can intercede between Don Quixote and the rest of the world. Yet, Sancho, a modern man of the peasant class (and with his own agenda) has a basic understanding of morality. He alone is able to interpret for Don Quixote, acting as a mediator. Sancho quite often agrees with the morals of his day but then surprises us by supporting Don Quixote’s outdated ethics and chivalry.

Toward the end is where it gets a bit out of hand. The characters are aware of the books that have been written about them. They try to alter the content of subsequent editions. This complicates things mightily. At times, we readers feel as disoriented as the mad knight, unable to tell which plotlines are internal to the story and which are factual.

I believe that disorientation was intentional on the author’s part.

I’ve learned several things from Cervantes’s wonderful story of the mad knight, Don Quixote, but I will explore only two.

First, its clear that minor flaws will be ignored by the reader if the story is compelling enough. It was so wildly popular in its day that it inspired publication of an unauthorized continuation, a true fan fiction written by an unknown writer who masqueraded under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda.

It’s unclear if Cervantes knew the true identity of the superfan. But he wasn’t amused; indeed, he went to great lengths to write “the true continuation of the story,” mocking and poking fun at the fanfiction in many places in his work.

Second, my belief that charismatic characters and epic conflicts of morality make a great story was reinforced.

Cervantes challenged the notion that social class and worth were entwined. He shows that Nobility of Birth does not necessarily confer wisdom or kindness. In the Duke and Duchess, he gives us thoughtless cruelty, casually delivered purely for its entertainment value. In the peasant, Sancho, he shows us a wise, kind, and thoughtful man. In the shepherds, he gives us philosophers.

I’m not suggesting you have to read modern translations of classic Spanish literature. I do suggest you read something new every day, though. Reading a variety of genres opens our eyes to new ideas and widens our minds.

Reading makes us better writers.

It was this laying bare of the disparity between social class and human worth that made Don Quixote such a revolutionary work in its time. This is also why it endures today as one of the foundations of the Western Literary Canon.

I highly recommend Edith Grossman’s modern translation, which was published in 2003. For those of you who feel you’re too impatient to read literary fiction, this wonderful version is available as an audio book.


Filed under writing