Pre-Conquest manuscripts from Malmesbury Abbey and John Leland’s letter to Beatus Rhenanus concerning a lost copy of Tertullian’s works
James P. Carley and Pierre Petitmengin
Anglo-Saxon England / Volume33 / December 2004
According to the treatise which he presented as a New Year’s Gift to King Henry VIII in January 1546, the English antiquary John Leland (c. 1503-52) received ‘a moste gracyouse commyssion’ from the monarch in 1533 ‘to peruse and dylygentlye to searche all the lybraryes of Monasteryes and collegies of thys your noble realme’. As he travelled from monastery to monastery he compiled lists of books, some brief, some considerably more thorough. Leland had a strong interest in pre-Conquest writings and his lists testify both to lost exemplars of known texts and to otherwise unattested writings from the early period. His principles of selection were not always consistent, however, and on occasion he omitted manuscripts of historical or literary interest which he must have seen: in no sense was he setting out to be a cataloguer as such. Ultimately his enterprise was a bibliographical one and he envisaged a volume in four books, De uiris illustribus siue de scriptoribus Britannicis, of which ‘the seconde is from the tyme of Augustyne, unto the aduente of the Normanes’. The original draft of the De uiris illustribus was composed around 1535/6 – it was in part a response to Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia published in Basel by John Bebel in 1534 – but after this burst of activity there was a gap of almost ten years before Leland’s next major phase of composition.